© The Artist


Bob and Roberta Smith (1958 – )


162.5 X 122.5 CM
Accession number


Bob and Roberta Smith’s brand of art activism takes many forms. Gaffs are the bane of political campaigns, but Smith employs them as a campaigning tool. Among his many ‘I believe in’ texts, this proclamation of faith in JMW Turner owes its charm to a kink in the spelling. Usually referred to by his initials, the misplacement of ‘o’ from Turner’s middle name (Mallord) constructs a malapropism, confusing the great British landscape painter with a common duck. Both laudatory and levelling, Smith plays the fool, as if to provoke a response in the viewer. To present a painted text is to cut through issues about ‘reading’ a picture; the misspelling is an immediate hook for the eye. Smith cocks a snook at anxieties about the relevance of the medium, where painting is something of a sitting duck. In his hands, painting is a direct and cheery mouthpiece. He painted the signs, he says, ‘because I believe in People and their creativity and not in God.’( )

His signs draw on sculpture and performance (having started as a painter, cash-strapped and anti-establishment, he moved between media with a punky attitude). I BELIEVE IN JOSEPH MALLARD WILLIAM TURNER is a single panel resting informally on the floor – hinting at a past life as a sandwich board or shop sign, but also at its possible use as a placard, ready to be winched out of the gallery. An enthusiast for rubbish and everyday things, begging a reaction and shunning the pretentious, Smith paints on boards scavenged from skips or the streets. This piece has a makeshift quality. A panel has been sanded down and given a white ground, upon which the lettering stands out, a spectrum of kitsch colours. The joggled placement lends them a gimcrack jauntiness, while the drop shadow of the block capital typeface is a simple graphic technique that pushes the letters forward, redolent of fairgrounds, comic strips and homemade protest banners.

Speaking in 1997, he said ‘In England we define ourselves by our jobs far too much and I think we ought to define ourselves by the reality we want to construct around ourselves – define ourselves by the things we enjoy rather than the things that earn us money.’( ) Other giant texts of his explore the heroes, memories, likes and dislikes that count for personal experience. They might be guileless or insulting (see I BELIEVE IN DÜRER or I BELIEVE IN THE CLASH, ARTISTS RUIN IT FOR EVERYONE, MAKE YOUR OWN DAMN ART, or, as Tate Trustee, TATE MODERN HAS BEEN AS IMPORTANT TO BRITISH LIFE AS THE National Health Service). This is the personal writ large, or art writ democratic.

Brehm, M., Urban Legends (Staatliche Kunsthalle, Baden-Baden, Germany 1997) Button, Virginia and Charles Esche, Intelligence: New British Art 2000 (Tate Publishing, London 2000) Bob and Roberta Smith, Make Your Own Damn Art (Black Dog, London 2004) Bob and Roberta Smith, Art U Need (Black Dog, London 2007) Bob and Roberta Smith, I should be in charge (Black Dog, London 2011)