A FOUNDING father of conceptual art, Bruce McLean has gained considerable international recognition for his work in many different media and has mingled with the great, good and not so good of the art world.

He has also taken jobs as a sewage worker, chef and barman to make ends meet, yet for a time he didn’t consider his life to be particularly out of the ordinary.

It was only when he started writing down anecdotes about his parents, who were as colourful as he is, that he started to realise he’d not only had an unusual upbringing but an altogether extraordinary life.

Now he is sharing his stories in a new book to be launched tomorrow at the Tate Modern in London where, in typical McLean style, he will stage a special performance which, he told the National, will involve him interviewing himself.

Asked what questions he would be asking himself, he said he wasn’t quite sure yet but they would be “difficult”.

They may still be simmering in his very active brain but there is no doubt they will be as entertaining as his book A Lawnmower in the Loft, a collection of biographical stories which echo the satirical tone of his art-making practice.


THE book takes its title from the fact that his 18 stone architect father, Peter, really did keep his lawnmower in the loft, heaving it down each time he wanted to cut the grass at their house in Glasgow.

“Eventually I bought him a garden shed to keep it in but when he saw it he just said that if he’d wanted one he would have bought one years ago,” says McLean. His 4ft 11ins mother, Betty, made up for her smaller stature with peerie heels, a bouffant hairstyle and strong opinions which included never eating a banana before having a bath.

“They both liked to be a bit different. I wouldn’t say they were exactly bonkers but they were definitely eccentric,” McLean remembers.

Fortunately for the art world this meant that instead of going to play ball games on a Saturday morning like other little boys his age, he was sent by his mother at the age of six to Glasgow School of Art to do painting and latterly sculpture.

“She didn’t expound much on architecture but she did say a lot about painting and sculpture which she was surprisingly — to me anyway — interested in.”

It was when he started writing down stories about his parents that stories from his own life came to mind and resulted in this autobiographical book, published now he is 73-years-old.


IT’S a hilarious read at times and pulls no punches, as you would expect from a straight-talking Glaswegian. Interspersed with warm and funny portraits of his parents, there are anecdotes about the famous names of the art world like Andy Warhol and Joseph Beuys.

One of his favourite stories, he says, concerns the latter pair at an exhibition in the International Pavilion at the great Venice Biennale in 1981.

McLean was slightly disconcerted when he arrived to find that he was being asked to show his four very large works on paper in a room without a suitable wall on which to hang them.

Even more put out was Beuys who was being uncharacteristically grumpy because of his positioning in the exhibition. It turned out that the positions had been allocated on the previous year’s listings of the top 100 artists in the world. In this Beuys was second to Warhol at No.1 with McLean placed at No.44 but in the new chart, which had just been released, Beuys and Warhol’s positions were reversed.

The day wore on, McLean found a wall for his work and finally Warhol’s five paintings were hung under the supervision of Bianca Jagger as Warhol had apparently flown back to New York because his dog, Archie, had the sniffles. “Bianca opens the crate and two men bring out the first painting (of the five most important men in the world) which they hang high on the wall,” says McLean. “They then unwrap it. It’s a portrait of Joseph Beuys, a beautiful work covered in diamond dust. Much clapping and smiling and cheering, especially from Professor Beuys, who is now in best position in room one and room two.”


DESPITE a long list of achievements, including winning the John Moores painting prize in 1985 and becoming Professor of Fine Art at Slade School in 1989, McLean doesn’t think in terms of success. “All I want to do is make stuff that interests me. I never think about being successful when I make a piece.”

He is hoping the best is yet to come and, as well as planning to write a book on sculpture, is currently working on an exhibition at Temple, Midlothian, which opens on December 17.

That will be in between publicising A Lawnmower in the Loft which is not organised in chronological order but is designed as a book to dip into.

“The important thing to remember when reading it is that every single story is true,” says McLean.

It’s a helpful reminder considering that one anecdote recounts a Turner prize ceremony during which the author contemplated stealing the prize from Sir Nicholas Serota and another relates Beuys filling a hat with butter and sticking his elbow in it as a “signed” prize for The Audio Arts Awards.

In typically surreal and humorous McLeanian mode, a giant stuffed parrot, a cat with a hair lip and a coal bunker also make an appearance along with the alleged footprints of Rudolph Hess.

A Lawnmower in the Loft is published by 21 Publishing and is available from tomorrow online and in stores.