David Saunders was born in 1936 in Essex. Between leaving school and being conscripted for military service, he worked briefly in the advertising industry. During this time he attended the evening life classes held by Vivian Pitchforth at St. Martin’s School of Art, then situated on Charing Cross Road, London. The area was a hive of avant-garde cultural activity.
Stationed on Salisbury plain, he had the opportunity to pursue his passion for painting while not on active service. The local landscape of chalk downs dotted with isolated clumps of woodland, inspired many of the paintings of Paul Nash. This landscape may also have played a part in the formation of Saunders’s early work.
Released from the army, Saunders studied painting under Frederick Gore at Saint Martin’s School of Art. From 1959 to 1962, his studies continued at the Royal Academy Schools, London, where he took his Master’s.
His first public showing was in the context of the Young Contemporaries, London, 1959. There, he exhibited a painting of imaginary landscape inspired by his first visit to Italy that same year. The following year, he took part in a mixed exhibition entitled “Tomorrow’s Artists” at the Grabowski Gallery, London.
His first solo exhibition was held in 1965 at the Artists’ International Gallery, London.
His work had begun to receive critical attention and, in 1967, he exhibited in ‘A Survey of Abstract Painting’ at the Camden Arts Centre. Among others, this exhibition featured several paintings by Peter Joseph. A close friendship between Joseph and Saunders, an intense and wide-ranging dialogue, conducted in both visual and verbal registers, has endured since that time.
It was from this show that the Arts Council purchased the first of the artist’s paintings to be included in a public collection. That same year, his work was included in the Edinburgh Festival exhibition ‘Hundred Best Paintings’, at the Richard Demarco Gallery.
In 1965 Saunders was appointed to a teaching post at Newport College of Art. There he met the painter Jeffrey Steele, six years his senior. At an open exhibition in Cardiff in 1968 the two artists shared the Arts Council Purchase Prize. This key event began a long collaboration between the two, the first manifestion of which, one year later, was the establishment of the Systems Group. The British artists who became members of this group adhered to the principles of international Constructivism, albeit with a non-utopian political edge. Steele, when he became Head of Fine Art at Portsmouth Polytechnic, invited Saunders to take a part-time lecturing position there. It was in this context that Saunders came into contact with members of the English school of experimental composers. Michael Parsons, one such member, has remained a close friend and collaborator.
The relatively short life of the ‘Systems’ group culminated in 1972 with the ‘Systems’ Exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery, London, in the context of which Saunders exhibited a large installation. Many of the artists identified with the group exhibited at the Lucy Milton Gallery, London.
In 1970 Saunders was artist in residence at The Gardner Centre for the Arts, University of Sussex. By 1972 he was working as a guest artist at the Stedelijk Museum studios in Amsterdam. There, he engaged in a far-reaching study of the work and environment of the painter Piet Mondrian.
Between 1970 and 1980 Saunders was a visiting lecturer at the Slade School of Fine Art, London University, which he combined with teaching painting and photography at Liverpool Polytechnic Art School. In 1988, aged 52, he stepped away from formal teaching.
For Saunders, 1980-1990 was a period of intense research into the function of colour in painting, of which one of the outcomes was the 1986 Arts Council exhibition ‘Colour Presentations’ which Saunders organised jointly with the painter Richard Bell. The introductory text in the catalogue contains an essay by the philosopher Bernard Harrison.
Having quit formal teaching, the artist returned to London, taking a studio in the city’s East End at the Bow Arts Trust. There, his work took an – apparently – radical turn that may not have been unconnected with significant events in his personal life. Whatever occasioned this change in heading, this period is marked by intense and fruitful activity.
In 2006, Saunders moved permanently to the French Pyrenees where the material and spiritual conditions match his manner of working.
Courtesy of the artist’s website.