Selected Writing

Cézanne and Matisse.
It is well beyond time that major art institutions such as the National Portrait Gallery stop hanging works in spaces inadequate for their number of visitors. For example, it is unacceptable to hang paintings in a corridor when, to look at them properly, one must act as an obstruction to others. It’s bad form all round, and an example of a general thoughtlessness of curation in the museums.
And unfortunate it is that one of the most impressive works in Cézanne Portraits at the NPG is right at the beginning, in the first section of a crowded corridor – the smaller and slightly later of the two portraits of Antony Valabrègue, c.1871. In this work, the palette-knifed strong-arm slabs of the earlier Uncle Dominique portraits (c.1866) make way for the more varied and wrist-y application of a loaded paintbrush, though the modelling still seemingly happens without resort to drawing or outline. It’s a convincing portrayal of character, and no doubt some will find a nobility of expression in the physiognomy of the sitter. I’m more than content to find a thrilling extemporaneity, with freestyle painting on the margins of ambiguity and liberty. The latter wins out, in a manner that will subsequently become the hallmark of Cézanne’s best landscapes and still-lives, both in oil and watercolour, wherein the concentration and close-focus will build to an organic wholeness across the entire canvas. Here are the beginnings of Cézanne’s individualistic and monumental contribution to the beautiful fiction of spontaneity, when the exactness of the artist conjures freedoms for the viewer.In large parts of the rest of the exhibition, it is drawing and ambiguity that are a touch too often to the fore, and the achievement of painterly freedom is checked. Without prejudice to the fact that I hold Cézanne to be the greatest of painters, he seems often to struggle badly with the figure. I wonder if it is something to do with that close-focus, so carefully proceeding in its task of feeling how one patch of paint works spatially with its neighbour(s), a method of organisation that performs so well on apples and landscapes, which have no need of a believable physical articulation, but which can render shoulders out of joint and pelvises severely compromised. Sometimes these things matter, and sometimes they don’t, and there are, of course, numerous great things on offer here. Cézanne being Cézanne, the exhibition is always interesting, gripping even, despite being frequently problematic. The paintings range from the palpably unfinished to the grossly overworked. Few are really portraits at all, and the long-suffering Hortense Fiquet changes countenance at virtually every appearance. What on earth did she actually look like? That, of course, was not Cézanne’s object.
Asymmetry in the sitters is often played to the maximum. There are moments of a sublime nature, where the focus has briefly held, next to passages of reckless ambiguity. Take, for example, the much-anticipated (on my part) Madame Cézanne in a Red Dress, 1888-90 (MET); the asymmetry of the head is lively, the impromptu sketchiness of the hands (which like many instances in this show, foretells of Matisse) does nothing to destroy the solidity of the arms; but the left-hand side of the skirt (her right) is hopelessly ambiguous, spatially unworkable, and awkwardly thrust into the corner of the painting. Such moments make me think that perhaps figurative painting (and the painting of the figure, particularly) had sometimes for Cézanne frustrations the equal of any abstract painter’s.
The two paintings of roses in a turquoise glass vase, shown in the first room of Matisse in the Studio at the Royal Academy are both a treat. I would have thought they were painted at the same time, but the deceptively simple, more orthogonal Vase of Flowers is dated as 1924, whereas the more complex Safrano Roses at the Window is 1925, though it looks like the same roses in a similar room, from a different viewpoint, a “pairing” of works very common in Matisse. In the latter painting, the build-up of spatial tension and warp is fantastic, as the room bends, the street outside presses, and the table edge and window-sill together pinch, nip and tip the back corner of the upturned table plane, where the vase sits, towards the viewer. I’d say it’s one of Matisse’s greatest paintings, and I’d take it in preference to most of his more feted examples from the “radical” years. Actually, I’m not so sure why I am so drawn to it, but I think it is down to the feel of the space, how it is constructed, which is far from naturalistic or volumetric… the spatiality is very particular and focussed, in a decidedly pictorial way. I’d strongly resist the idea that it is in any way ambiguous, but then nor does it feel locked down. I see this work as a big moment in painting.

The room of “odalisque” paintings is good too, with Odalisque with a Turkish Chair the best of them (and nothing like its reproduction), though I could happily lose the chessboard. Here, as elsewhere, the link to Cézanne is clear, and in my opinion, not at all to Matisse’s detriment. Overall, there are quite a few Matisses I don’t care much for, but it’s a very engaging exhibition, with some of the “extras” to the paintings – i.e. works from Matisse’s collection – holding their own. I liked the examples of Kuba raffia textiles, and a very honourable mention should go to the little Thai/Cambodian bronze sculpture of a woman holding her long plait of hair down one side, inducing a subtle and supple curve to her back, with her costume flicking out at intervals down her body and legs. Really brilliant.

published on Abcrit    November 2017

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Alexander Calder and Jed Perl’s new Biography

“Calder: The Conquest of Time”, The Early Years: 1898-1940, by Jed Perl.

http://whitney.org/Exhibitions/CalderHypermobility

The American sculptor Alexander Calder has two claims to fame: in the first half of his career he invented the “mobile”, so-named by his Parisian friend Marcel Duchamp in 1931, though the term originally referred to Calder’s motor-driven assemblages rather than the arrangement of hanging shapes now a familiar sight in every nursery; and in later career he pioneered the placement of large-scale abstract sculptures in the public arena, mostly “stabiles”, a term coined by another friend, Jean Arp, perhaps in rather ironic riposte. Jed Perl’s new book, the somewhat hubristically titled “Calder: The Conquest of Time”, deals with the former period, up to 1940. The second volume, we are led to believe, is out in a couple of years and is to be called “The Conquest of Space”. Onward and upward!

There is a big push on at the moment to heighten the reputation and profile of Calder, to move him up from blue-chip to gilt-edged status, and it’s all emanating from the artist’s Foundation in the US, headed up by the artist’s grandson and rather rakish President, Alexander S. C. Rower. Linked to this is the release of Jed Perl’s part 1 biography. The Tate showed his work last year, the Whitney this year. Rower and Perl, an odd couple, are out and about, talking at various venues, promoting the book. And Calder is, according to the PR, now “America’s Most Beloved Sculptor”. Wow; a sculptor, “beloved”! Maybe it has a different nuance in the states. Do we have a “beloved” UK sculptor? Certainly Caro wasn’t, nor even Henry Moore. Gormley? Yes, perhaps Gormley. But even he divides opinion, and I can’t imagine anyone ever hating the work of Calder in quite the same way that many – myself included – hate Gormley’s, whose Crosby Beach figures I’d be happy to stamp upon until ten feet below the tide. By contrast, Calder ticks the minimalist/modernist design boxes that people these days are hooked into (and that even I am occasionally partial to, design-wise if not art-wise), so it’s hard to imagine anything from this artist that would fail to please or amuse, never mind cause actual offence (perhaps some of the later, monster-sized plaza sculptures?). And it’s ever so easy to be charmed by some of the little mobiles and stabiles: https://twitter.com/calderfdn/status/911336348237406209.

I enjoyed last year’s Tate Modern show – http://www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-modern/exhibition/alexander-calder-performing-sculpture . The exhibition piqued my interest in Calder, who until then had not featured much in my thinking. But on a second visit, I did feel I’d rather “bottomed out”. I was disappointed by the restricted movement to almost all the mobiles, due to the way each element was joined to the next, which often meant the planar parts stayed pretty much in or about a single flat-ish configuration as the whole ensemble turned as one – hardly freedom of movement or the wholehearted conquest of three-dimensions (not to mention four).

Though the mobiles, and much of Calder’s other art, are to some degree made by prior conception and design, there is sometimes great mitigation, bordering on magic, in Calder’s spontaneous and considerable lifelong abilities as a hands-on improviser and manipulator of material. This is an aspect of the Calder story that Perl deals with well, because he really “gets” it; the development from boyhood toy-making in a basement workshop of his own; clever model-making and jewellery for his family; the famous Cirque Calder model circus performances that established him on the Paris scene; all the way to the Roxbury studio he eventually built for himself in the late thirties back in America. This conspicuous dexterity, bordering on legerdemain in the Cirque, is one of the things that distinguishes Calder from an artist like Caro, whose eye – for better or worse – was forever detached from his hands, and whose hands were in any case often replaced by those of his assistants. Calder was incapable of such distancing tactics until later in life, when the massive scale of his public commissions outstripped his capacities for fabrication. Up to 1940 at least, it all came very much out of the artist’s own hands.

The haptic physicality of Calder’s approach did occasionally look compelling in the Tate exhibition, in a rather lightweight manner. The ends of wires pressed against walls and floors in disconcertingly physical ways; things balanced unnervingly; materials were felt to be weighted and real; their manipulation felt inventive. One sculpture in particular, Tightrope from 1936, made me think very hard, as any sculptor might, about how literal gravitational forces might be subtly reconfigured as expressive sculptural ideas. This sculpture was a flash of brilliance.

https://twitter.com/whitneymuseum/status/919274613648977920

The detail in Perl’s book is amazing. You are pretty much a third of the way through before Calder even gets to art school. It’s a fascinating childhood, due in part to both his parents being practising artists (his father was the successful but peripatetic academic sculptor, Sterling Calder) who gave the young “Sandy” full reign to his imagination. But the telling of it gets a little bogged down in detailing all the incidents and circumstances that may – or may not – come to influence or hold significance in the artist’s later life. Calder, starting out with a certain laid-back happy-go-lucky charm and a penchant for flash dressing, grows up to be a bit of an all-round fine fellow who could make friends with just about everyone who was anyone, so long as they didn’t want to dragoon him into some cause or movement or other. He was independent minded, an attractive virtue, but it does seem to have made him in the end, and despite all his close friendships with Surrealists, Dadaists and sundry modernists, something of a one-off, an odd-ball, even. Perl works hard to make that independence count as significance. So Calder’s reputation in some quarters for triviality is something that Perl tries to counter. He eruditely establishes that the story of the man himself is of great human interest, and further, that his work had, and still has, great appeal. But I think Perl is engaged in trying to institute recognition of achievement far beyond that particular low-hanging fruit. His claim is nothing less than “The Conquest of Time”, as the book announces but doesn’t quite explain, positioning Calder as a true radical in the history of sculpture and one of modernism’s most important innovators. Neither by Calder’s historical context, nor by the content of the work, am I much convinced by that assertion, and such an argument only adds a little more to the general deflation I feel about the achievements of late modernism. Perl is not known for bowing to the popular gods of modern art, but he goes all the way with Calder.

Normally when I read about an artist, I prefer a critique – not necessarily negative, but certainly disinterested. I suppose it is unlikely anyone would want to expend the time and the mammoth effort on compiling a biography as detailed and well-researched as Jed Perl’s “Calder” without being a little besotted with their subject, though I don’t recall Hilary Spurling’s magnificent two-volume “Matisse” biography being unduly reverent; and I’ve just read a neat little old volume on Louis Sullivan by Hugh Morrison which is both fulsome and delightfully critical by turns. Some will find it charming, but Jed Perl loves Calder and it shows. Is it just that with Matisse, or even Sullivan, one can be more certain when one talks in superlatives; whereas with Calder, the less proven assertions of quality and substance mean the pudding is a little over-egged? Perl does quite a lot of second-guessing of the reader, or what actually might be better termed “over-prompting”, sometimes to distraction. He does exceptionally well in evoking the turbulent artistic milieu of between-the-wars New York and (especially) Left-bank Paris, in all its artistic bonhomie and verve, in which the charismatic Calder flourishes (socially and artistically, if not financially) from the start. When Perl seeks to project into the future – Calder’s future – the myriad possible influences engendered by this extended formative moment in Calder’s life, he rather overstates his case:

“The gaiety, the parties, the drink, the love of theatrical events high and low and any and all forms of experimentation in the arts – for Calder all this began in Greenwich Village in the 1920s and lasted a lifetime. Calder’s League friend Clay Spohn later spoke of the books he was reading in that period: Havelock Ellis’s The Dance of Life, Clive Bell’s essays about ‘significant form’, and Lewis Mumford’s book about the arrival of the modern spirit in America, Sticks and Stones. Spohn also recalled seeing Picasso in New York, perhaps at the Knoedler Gallery. Within a decade, Calder would begin a lifelong involvement with the art of the dance, create abstract sculpture that radically expanded the possibilities of significant form, find none other than Picasso visiting two of his exhibitions in Paris, and read a searching review of his work by Lewis Mumford in The New Yorker.”

Would he indeed! What a coincidence!

The really big event in Calder’s early career was a visit to Mondrian’s Paris studio, in October of 1930, which stopped him in his tracks and converted him pretty much overnight into an abstract artist. Mondrian was 58 years old, about half way through his nineteen or so years in Paris, and heavily into his most austere phase of geometric “Compositions”, with a studio decorated accordingly. Prior to this, we are told, Calder had little interest or “feel” for abstract art. But, with this encounter, he picked up on it straight away, and by the very next year was showing sculptures with simple wire-formed spatial geometry and black, white and primary-coloured solids, in an exhibition at Galerie Percier, Paris – his first “abstract” works.

Writing on the Galerie Percier show, Perl asks: “…wasn’t Calder’s work in the early 1930’s becoming among the greatest of all artistic studies of the hidden secrets of space?” Put like that, the answer is certainly “no”. Not only can I think of a hundred artists who are more spatial in a variety of ways, but we are never told of what these “hidden secrets of space” might comprise. The early abstract sculptures are attractive and novel, clever even, but they don’t get to grips with three-dimensionality and spatiality to any great degree beyond the elucidation of poetic metaphors for the movements of the planets. Calder was, in this early work (and remained so, in my opinion), a Formalist, in the sense of its original derivation from Parisian Symbolism in the 1890s. The focus is on associated meanings and supposedly profound interpretations of simple shapes. These sculptures might move through space, but they have no intrinsic spatiality built in to how they articulate their materials. They remain for the most part diagrammatic and symbolic. Sure, this is early days for abstract sculpture, if that’s what these things are. I’m not so sure, about their abstractness or their engagement with space. Like a lot of the early constructivists, Calder seems mesmerised by pseudo-scientific theory and junk philosophy.  Perl does little to dispel the fog:

Ouspensky [a Russian mathematician, esotericist and Gurdjieff apologist], in A New Model of the Universe, explained, “If we represent time by line, then the only line that will satisfy all the demands of time will be a spiral. A spiral is a ‘three-dimensional line’, so to speak.” It was the spiral that carried Ouspensky ever deeper into his spatial researches, indeed from the fifth dimension into the sixth, which “is the way out of the circle. If we imagine that one end of the curve rises from the surface, we visualise the third dimension of time – the sixth dimension of space. The line of time becomes a spiral.” That might very well be the endless spiral in Calder’s Movement in Space. Later on, Ouspensky spoke of the “emptiness” of “celestial space” – not unlike the emptiness of Calder’s white paper – which becomes filled with “luminous points [that] have that have turned into worlds moving in space. The universe of flying globes has come into being.” He added, “If we wish to represent graphically the paths of this motion, we shall represent the path of the sun as a line, the path of the earth as a spiral winding round this line, and the path of the moon as a spiral winding round the spiral of the earth.” Whether or not Calder was aware of these passages – Ouspensky’s book was published in English in 1931 – they certainly suggest the kind of thinking that animated his art. (p.414)

More over-egging there, and far from the required debunking, Perl is inclined to use this nonsense as evidence of Calder’s precocious grasp of modern and progressive thinking. But literal movement doesn’t make sculpture either three-dimensional or abstract, and these early works are too close for comfort to the mechanisms of the orrery. I reckon Perl should call this out, but he ploughs on:

“Small Sphere and Heavy Sphere [which clanked around a bit] was Calder’s first hanging mobile… The three dimensions of space are united not only with the fourth dimension of time but what might be thought of as the fifth dimension of sound. Was Calder thinking not only about the movement of the spheres but also the music of the spheres – which was the sort of thing that interested Ouspensky?”

Unfortunately it’s not the sort of thing that interests me much, other than as a whacky anecdote. This is to be unduly negative about Perl’s book, which is in many ways an exemplary piece of story-telling. The thing is, I’m really more critical of Calder than Perl, because sculptural critique is the place where I’m coming from, and I do rather suspect Perl is not absolutely on the case about abstract sculpture. Perhaps he should be, to make such big claims for Calder’s work, though most people won’t worry about it.

As it is now, so it was back then: art of the highest order acts (often inadvertently, but no less pointedly) in part as an analytical critique of the accepted norms of contemporary taste, and not as a co-opter of them. In the first half of the 20th century (but continuing even now, when modern design has become almost insufferably smug about its own ubiquitous achievements) art needed to convey something altogether coarser and truer than Calder’s vision encompassed, with a better balance of intellectual, emotional and aesthetic punch. This was delivered, to some degree, by the early workings of the Abstract Expressionists, whose quest for an abstract art of significance drove their work to genuinely new painterly intentions – until it went in some cases too far down the road of top-heavy subject-matter. By contrast, Calder’s vision remained profoundly superficial, and even his friendships with Duchamp and Miro failed to give it an intellectual edge. It is, from first to last, very much of an exercise in fun aesthetics, and remains firmly within the limits of popular taste, even as it explored the fringes of the avant garde – if that’s not an historical contradiction. It certainly isn’t any longer.

The root difficulty, it seems to me, is Calder’s love of, and immersion in, drawing. Perl doesn’t even try to extricate him, because Perl loves the drawing too. It is, after all, good drawing! The early wire portraits are clever. But the ever-present limitations of flatness in the non-figurative work are not addressed by Calder, or for that matter, by Perl. Those typical Calder mobile shapes might well be moving around, spiralling, doing whatever they do, but they remain resolutely shapes in isolation, and could only hope to gain a semblance of coherence by remaining in the two-dimensional world of “designed” ideas. A synthesis of three-dimensionality per se is not approachable this way. Calder the abstract artist deals almost exclusively with flat shape, the occasional sphere, and the linearity of wire. If your main tools in developing sculptures are shape and line, then you are inevitably going to err towards flatness, even with the refined physicality in material handling that Calder had at his disposal. And when Calder has to bring spatiality into the equation, it comprises of the movement of flat planes in an orbit (when they are hanging), or the intersection of flat planes as a means to make flat shapes stand up (when they are not hanging). He is far from alone in respect of this failing – you can level a similar kind of criticism at a lot of work by David Smith and Anthony Caro, including some of the latter’s best sixties stuff, which has either a frontal or an architectural nature to the space(s) it proposes. And of course you could apply that criticism to a thousand and one other designers of supposedly “abstract” sculpture, wherein the literalness of actual space is never transcended. Therein would be a true conquest of space, and, to a degree, time. The latter is always a factor in a non-passive and responsive way of looking at any sculpture that is properly three-dimensional.

Designed abstract sculpture is something of a contradiction; and flat abstract sculpture is an abnegation of potential. If taste changes, Calder might be caught out of favour, with only the slenderest of reasons for retaining our engagement: on a “tightrope”, perhaps. If he’s as important as Perl makes out, where is the follow-on to his mobiles, aside from in the playroom? Where is the “Calderist” school of moving sculpture?

published on Abcrit    October 2016

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Victor Pasmore

Victor Pasmore: Towards a New Reality is at Pallant House Gallery, Chichester, until 11 June 2017 (and previously shown at the Djangoly Gallery, Nottingham Lakeside Arts).

http://pallant.org.uk/exhibitions/current-exhibitions/main-galleries/victor-pasmore/victor-pasmore

In 1861, the 80m tall spire and tower of Chichester Cathedral calamitously collapsed under its own weight from a structural failure of the piers, depositing as it did 6,000 tons of rubble into the nave below (6,000 tons! The Eiffel Tower, well over three times the height, weighs in at only 7,300 tons. You get a lot more height for your heft with steel – but I digress). You would think, to read the account of Victor Pasmore’s controversial conversion in 1948/9 from lyrical landscapist and Euston Road “Objective Realist” to abstract painter, collager and relief-builder, that the scale of disaster for the reactionary English art establishment who had thus far supported him was equally cataclysmic. Pasmore, prior to his apostasy, seems to have been the apple of many a well-connected eye, leading a rather charmed existence: working alongside William Coldstream and Claude Rogers to set up the Euston Road School in 1937; being supported and patronised by the then director of the National Gallery, Kenneth Clark from 1935 up to 1948. Then, having gone abstract, gaining the support and encouragement of Ben Nicholson; showing regularly at the Redfern Gallery, through all phases of work, until taken up by Marlborough in 1960; and being appointed Master of Painting at King’s College, Durham/Newcastle , in 1954, where he taught alongside Lawrence Gowing. Throughout his life, he seems to have been well in with everyone that mattered.

In retrospect, the transition from figurative to abstract looks rather harmless and parochial. In this exemplary show at Pallant House Gallery, excellently and unobtrusively curated by Anne Goodchild of the Djangoly Gallery, Nottingham, Pasmore’s evolution is set out chronologically (I love chronology! How different from the Vanessa Bell show now at Dulwich, which destroys all semblance of developmental logic by its intrusive theming), from his first talented efforts as a gifted young painter, taking us coherently through all his wildly different phases, up until the late sixties and his excellent design for the ApolloPavilion in Peterlee, 1967, which is where the show ends. After which, Pasmore retreated to his house in Malta for thirty or so years, producing the ubiquitous and rather repetitive biomorphic paintings and prints that you now see all over galleries and art fairs. He died in Malta in 1998, aged 90.

So, what to make of this man who is described by Anne Goodchild in her catalogue essay as possibly “the patron saint of the committed Sunday painter”? Not a very flattering description, to say the least, but I think I know what she means. The exhibition moves very fast between the phases of his work, and as I walked around I jotted down the most visible and, to me, obvious of his influences, as follows: Cézanne; Vuillard; Degas; Manet; Corot; Matthew Smith; Morandi; de Staël; Klee; Schwitters; Seurat; Bruegel; Turner; Whistler; Mondrian; Gottlieb; van Gogh; Rodchenko/Tatlin constructivism; Nicholson; Le Corbusier; Miro; Arp. Bonnard and Kandinsky are also cited, but I couldn’t see them.

I repeat, these are just the obvious ones that I could point to. I have never been to Pallant House Gallery before; I have never been to Chichester before; and I’ve never known an artist to have such a long list of clear and present influences. Was the man really such a dilettante?

There is quite a lot to enjoy in the early figurative works between the mid-1930s and 40s, when Pasmore was deeply involved with, first of all, studying and continuing late Parisian Impressionism and Post-Impressionism; and then creating his own perhaps less successful brand of homespun “Objective Realism”. The figurative work becomes more wistful and supposedly lyrical as the forties progress, culminating in the “Hammersmith” paintings of semi-abstracted atmospheric river and outdoor scenes, such as The Gardens of Hammersmith No.2, made at about the same time as his first forays into abstract painting and collage. The London exhibition of work by Paul Klee in 1945 seems to have had a big impact, with Pasmore’s first 1948/9 abstract works of small coloured triangles and squares looking very similar to Klee’s painting from two decades before. Pasmore’s stock as a collectible artist crashed about this time, though the Redfern stuck with him.

If there is one aspect of Pasmore that I can relate to, it’s his struggle to work out what constitutes being properly “abstract”. In 1947/8, according to his own account, he goes from being an artist who “abstracts”… to an “abstract artist”. It’s a distinction I’ve made a few times (but which hasn’t stuck) and Pasmore was an early proponent of it (it didn’t stick for him either):

“…pure form refers to no other object. It is a reality, logical and sufficient in itself”

“…the transition from visual abstraction to visual development, and from visual representation to visual autonomy, is not a continuous one. A point is reached when one ends and the other begins.”

A couple of years on from his change to “abstract”, Pasmore was still getting flak from most critics, but In 1949 Patrick Heron praised his Redfern show of that year as a “…vital communication; air, light, space…”, pointing out “[t]he exquisite colour… the intricate, thoughtful balance of design… the extremely sensitive touch.”

And again, in 1950, Heron came to his support, describing Spiral Motif in Green, Violet, Blue and Gold now in Tate as a masterpiece of strong colour, the spiral motifs of which “…invent and define space without committing the painter to any subject-matter whatsoever.” I’m not so sure about the strong colour; Pasmore is essentially a tonal painter. That sensibility was to transfer directly into the whites, blacks, greys and browns of his later relief works.

Despite Heron’s encouragement, Pasmore had a somewhat fractious relationship to the artists of St. Ives, where a slightly different brand of abstraction was taking place. He argued for the distinction between pure abstract art, for which he strove, and the more relaxed positions of Nicholson, Hepworth and Lanyon, who embraced more easily the path of abstracting from figure and landscape. The gap between them now looks less clear-cut, since they were united in wanting a particular degree of distinctively simplified modernism; but Pasmore fought his corner:

“…there has grown an emanation of painting which has broken entirely with the visual tradition and has now nothing to do with the process of abstraction which visual painting involves. It is to this emanation that the term “abstract” correctly applies and it is towards this that I have attempted to lean. What I have done, therefore, is not the result of a process of abstraction in front of nature, but a method of construction emanating from within.”

He continued, rather more ambiguously:

“I have tried to compose as music is composed, with formal elements which, in themselves, have no descriptive qualities at all. The spiral movement which can be discerned throughout nature, in many different forms, is reduced to its single common denomination – the simple spiral.”

Critic Robert Melville muddied the water still further:

“These pictures, composed entirely of spirals, evoke the seas and the heavens, restless movement and a vast stillness, the mortal coil and a profoundly stirring sense of the ascent of the human spirit.”

By the beginning of the fifties, Pasmore had worked out for himself the contradictions of this position, wanting to leave behind the metaphors and the metaphysics, and find a more down-to earth approach to “real” abstract art, rooted in modern materials and techniques. He looked for a solution in the abandonment of painting in favour of constructed reliefs:

“Today… abstract art enters a phase of construction… It is this transformation…which places the artists at the beginning, and not the end, of an era of subjective art… In this new phase of art, the object is invested in the material with which the artist works…”

So began this new phase: a decade and a half or so of constructions.

A new association too began in the early fifties with the group of British constructivists centred around Kenneth Martin and the younger Anthony Hill. The Pallant House Gallery is currently showing, as a complement to the Pasmore exhibition in an adjacent room, the Catherine Petitgas Collection of British Constructivism. This small exhibition contains work by Norman Dilworth, John Ernest, Jeffrey Steel, Peter Lowe, Gillian Wise, Hill, both Kenneth and Mary Martin, and indeed, a late-ish relief from Pasmore himself, “Abstract in Natural Wood, with Black and White” of 1965-66. I don’t personally care at all for this kind of deadpan systems art (though Gillian Wise in more recent times continues still to produce quirky but intelligent work with a very individual colour sense), but the conjunction does serve to illustrate how intuitive and visual Pasmore was by comparison – not at all slave to the mathematics or any set of systematic rules. But then, these small-time mathematical doodles of the British constructivists don’t set the bar nearly high enough to make the comparison particularly important.

And the problem with Pasmore is for me flagged up by that earlier Heron comment: “…the intricate, thoughtful balance of design…”. Because, as with a lot of what I think of as “primitive” abstract painting and sculpture, such as that produced by the constructivists and systems artists and many others besides, Pasmore’s art from this period is very difficult to separate out from design. Pasmore undoubtedly had a very refined aesthetic sense, a “good eye” for the correctly positioned shape, line and dot; a natural talent for the compositional nuance. The relief works are entirely of a piece with applied design from the sixties, and even engage with the same materials – plastics, natural wood, aluminium etc. Some of the reliefs look inseparable from a utilitarian kitchen aesthetic. And of course, with his architectural involvement at Peterlee and his various mural commissions in factory and office foyers, Pasmore himself directly and willingly conflated his art and design.

And what of the Americans? In 1956, the Tate showed Modern Art in the United States: A Selection from the Collections of The Museum of Modern Art, New York; and Meyer Schapiro came to Britain to give a talk at Tate, entitled ‘The Younger American Painters of Today’, which was broadcast on BBC Radio and published in The Listener Magazine. It’s hardly likely Pasmore missed out on that. And it was followed by The New American Painting, also at Tate, in 1959.

Pasmore made a few paintings, such as Abstract in Black, White and Ochre, 1958, that looked like there was some influence from the Ab-Exes, but I don’t think he fully engaged. Or else he was deliberately resistant. Others were less so, more willing to soak up the lessons of the Americans on scale, colour, ambition, as well as some of the Pop Art influences coming through too. And so along came a new wave of younger British abstract artists – Robyn Denny and Richard Smith, Caro and then in 1965, the New Generation. That’s where I came in. By the time I got to art school in 1966, Pasmore was old hat, not to be considered worth a look, beyond the pale, though I can see now that he had strongly influenced the people who were then teaching me. The Pasmore aesthetic, and that of Moore and Nicholson, was the presiding modality of the preceding generation to mine, and as such, something to rebel against. I’d hardly started life-drawing classes, taught by a “Euston Road” style realist, before I was up and running with large scale hard-edge shaped canvases and coloured plywood boxes, à la Richard Smith and Bill Tucker.

So Pasmore’s crowning glory, the Peterlee Apollo Pavilion of 1967, passed me by completely. There’s a lovely model of it in this show (first illustration at the top) which looks like it was improvised from bits of wood and stuff lying around the studio, made on the hoof, so to speak, and really not “designed” at all.

Perhaps it’s odd, then, that Pasmore never attempted sculpture. The nearest he seems to have got was his 1957 collaboration with Richard Hamilton on the rather uninspiring installation “an Exhibit”, made from suspended Perspex sheets, which was reprised for the Royal Academy’s Modern British Sculpture show in 2011. But right from the off, his paintings show an interest in spatiality and volume, starting with the Cézanne-esque Bradman Still Life of 1929, which emphasises rounded three-dimensionality over planar flatness; and continuing right through to his late reliefs, which appear to want to disown the picture-plane altogether. In the end, there seems to be something of a compromise between two- and three-dimensions in Pasmore’s work, which never becomes fully resolved or worked through. Nor, taken as a whole, does it ever become truly expansive, or sufficiently challenging or ambitious enough to put him near to being on a par with the French and English masters he revered.

Postscript

The Grade 1 listed Queen Anne town house that forms the original part of Pallant House Gallery was enlarged in 2006 by the addition of a modern extension (with a somewhat uncharacteristically garish frontage) by the architect Colin St. John Wilson (notable for the British Library and various buildings in and around Cambridge), who then donated his art collection from his former home in Grantchester Road, Cambridge (one of his best buildings) of mainly sixties British painting and sculpture, adding to the permanent collection which consists of other small collections and donations, mostly modern.

I cannot in all honesty wholeheartedly recommend the Pallant House permanent collection, though the “reserves” appeared more interesting. There were also a handful of other small exhibitions on at the same time as the Pasmore, including the execrable Sidney Nolan, forerunner in “scrotty” painting techniques of the equally spiteful Anselm Kiefer, I’ve since realised (I’ll back up that claim another time!). But Pallant House Gallery is well worth a visit, and if you are interested by Pasmore, it’s a good chance to see how his career pans out.

published on Abcrit   March 2017

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Considered as an analogue for a structure…” There’s the rub. (Long comment in reply to Alan Gouk’s essay on Katherine Gili sculpture)

“Each element is clearly defined in character and in its structural role.” There’s another one.

“…sculpture whose aim is to engage one immediately in a spatial way rather than having a predominant viewing point, does not need to do so equally from all points on the compass.”

Needless to say, you can’t legitimately apply any of these phrases to abstract sculpture, in my opinion. OK, so here they are applied to the overtly figurative “Leonide”, a sculpture I like a good deal – in fact it was my favourite work in the show by Gili at Poussin Gallery in 2011. It’s one of the most spatial figurative sculptures by anyone, but the problems of making figurative sculpture even more spatial are one of the contributing factors in my desire, and that of others, to make sculpture more abstract, because it’s so difficult to get out of the continuous return to the torso/pelvis centre, and escape the symmetry/frontality of the body, no matter how far you stretch out. “Leonide” certainly does get out a long way for a figure, but in the end not far enough, not spatial enough, not free enough of constraints, which are, by the way, far, far more confining in figurative sculpture than they are in figurative painting.

And also by the way, “…sculpture whose aim is to engage one immediately in a spatial way” is very similar to my Madrid show (with Gili, Persey and Smart) catalogue commentary, 1988, writing of Degas’ “Dancer looking at the sole of her right foot”, (Rewald XLV): “This object engages you immediately in a spacial [sic] way, it is intrinsically interesting because of the spaces it generates.” As I’ve stated before on Abcrit, Degas best sculpture seems to me to be really striving for and achieving not only physicality, but also a significant degree of spatiality, as in proper three-dimensional articulation, NOT totally obsessed with HOW it stands, but getting away from the ground in order to engage with some other sculptural content in space – albeit with very little room to manoeuvre within and around the figure/body. Degas contribution to this is greater than any previous figurative sculpture, Rodin very much included. I think that’s why, for me, Degas still counts in a way Rodin does not. But even Degas is really peripheral now to ways of advancing abstract sculpture. It’s a whole other thing from his thing. But at least he had the wherewithal to see that sculpture must be as fully three-dimensional as it can be, unlike Smith.

The constraints which Degas was compelled to work within because of the subject of the figure are absolutely on a continuum with the constraints of working three-dimensionally “from all points of the compass”. If you are going to move from body-based sculpture towards genuinely abstract sculpture, as a number of sculptors who were involved with “Sculpture from the Body” in the eighties now have (and continue on that path, without end in sight), then I don’t think you can countenance a part-measure of either spatiality, physicality, or full-on, all-points, top-to-bottom three-dimensionality. Any compromise or falling away on any of those three counts, such as the thing only being three-dimensional in one orientation (which, if you think about it, makes no sense anyway), or being physical without being spatial (if that is possible), or vice-versa, will likely be the result of some kind of figurative idea, or alternatively, will result in such an outcome. The question, as it has been for a while with Gili’s work, is: is it figurative? If so, does Gili then accept the limitations of sculptural figuration? “Leonide” is undoubtedly figurative. I personally think all the sculpture illustrated in this essay, with the possible exception of “Naiant”, but including the work by David Smith (not sure about the Tim Scotts), are, by degrees, figurative, though they differ in the way in which they are figurative.

At the risk of getting my wrist slapped, and indeed to risk this comment being seen as an attack on one particular individual, Gili’s sculptures seem to fall into two kinds of figuration, both of which have their particular limitations. I’d better get out of the way here that, yes, of course, my own work has limitations too, etc. etc… But that’s for another day. The first kind of figuration of Gili’s work reminds me a lot of the “feet” sculptures that students of “Sculpture from the Body” did in the early eighties:

https://pbs.twimg.com/media/C1HtQVPWEAADauu.jpg

“Mulled”, “Quicksap”, Turnsole”, “Episodes” and “Vervent III” all fall into this category of small works that have three contacts with the ground, each of which behaves slightly differently, in a manner analogous to how the three (somewhat diagrammatic) points of contact of a foot assume different roles as they absorb different movements of the body they support, and so demonstrate different physical tensions or other properties. All well and good. And then there is an upward-moving part that approximates to the lower leg. So within that “set-up” you can have all the differing expressive variations, and how those four or so parts interact with each other as they stand together on a surface; but what you can never do is actually address very much else, in terms of the content of the work. Therein is the limitation – the sculpture can only really speak of its very own particular and very limited responses to being an object under the influence of gravity, albeit a reactive or organic object. As I have written extensively before on Abcrit in an argument with Alan about Tim’s “Song for Chile” about why I think structural determinism in sculpture is in itself a completely figurative idea, and therefore limiting and intolerable in the pursuit of abstract sculpture, I don’t propose to set it all out again unless I have to. Obviously, comments like “Each element is clearly defined in character and in its structural role” and “Considered as an analogue for a structure…” apply to “Leonide” without question, but if they still apply to this further group of works, Alan is outside his rights to describe them as abstract. That may or may not matter to Gili, I don’t know. It matters to me.

The second category of work is also reminiscent of early work from “Sculpture from the Body”, but this time reminding me of works which dealt with the “core” of the body rather than an extremity.

https://pbs.twimg.com/media/C1HtR6aW8AAXvEz.jpg

Into this category I would put “Quinary”, “Meril” and “Quarternary” and others. This group of works has more scope – there are more things going on, with a little more room for them to happen. At the same time, it seems much less clear what they are up to. Less clear, even, than these early torsos and pelvises, where the parts more directly followed the comings and goings of muscular and skeletal organisations. So we are left with a kind of musing or mulling around or riffing on semi-bodily structures, using the very physical language of forging, a speculative creativity that at least appears to have a degree of freedom to come and go in different ways, over and above the first group of work. It’s not without its pleasures, and Gili does it well, but it never goes far out of its own orbit. These sculptures are not, and perhaps don’t aspire to be, spatial. And paradoxically, compared to the other group, they have something of a problem with how they stand, or rather “sit”, on the ground – as indeed did the early torsos/pelvises. The interrelated but fragmentary nature of their content, characterised by a singular “knot” of activity, a “roundalay”, to use Alan’s word, from which parts attempt to escape, but then return (as per figurative sculpture), means that they do not easily “address” the space around them, or the floor… or the viewer.

“…these problems are not hers alone, but are raised with varying degrees of success by all the sculptors who may be in pursuit of three-dimensional and spatial richness.” Yes indeed, but the title of the show is “Looking for the Physical”. That to me is a particular but partial answer, just as the sculptures themselves seem to be particular but partial – on the one hand you have work that deals, almost to the exclusion of anything else, with how it stands – and indeed, without putting that “stance” under any great stress or tension by extension, cantilever, off-balance elements, etc., so that in effect the variations on this theme are somewhat aesthetic. On the other hand is work that engages in some internal comings and goings, but really struggles to stand in the world, and to my way of seeing, certainly does not “engage one immediately in a spatial way”.

The other thing to say about my comparisons is that the “Body” stuff is 35 years old. Things have to move on. Things have moved on. I think Alan acknowledges the problems in the work to some degree, particularly with Gili’s larger works. Fair enough, but I have to say I never thought I’d see Alan write this kind of thing:

“Llobregat, in this exhibition, for me, distils the essence of sculpture. Its forged, hammered and torch-cut steel elements have assumed the permanence, the durability one meets in ancient artefacts in bronze or wrought iron.” … “The modesty of scale in these small sculptures brings the steel factor even more fully to the fore. It is as if the steel has become hardened through use and acquired the patina of long serving functional objects.”

All of which is to be resisted by abstract sculptors now, I would have thought. And nobody, not even Alan Gouk, knows what the hell the “essence of sculpture” is.

Forging has its own problems for abstract sculpture-making. It’s all very well to imbue steel with plasticity, but if you are assembling a sculpture out of forged parts, that plasticity does not necessarily or easily transfer to the sculpture itself and how it is organised. If you are then going to slot into a configuration of some sort (there we go again, back to figuration) a string or group of heavily forged parts, already loaded with very specific but small-scale pushes and pulls, then it becomes very difficult to manage the plastic properties of the whole sculpture and be able to freely and spontaneously push and pull the whole thing around. It is, I would suggest, well nigh impossible to make such a construction properly spatial or three-dimensional. Such is my contention, though I would be the first to admit that simply stopping forging (as I did in the late eighties) solves these problems of getting to grips with the totality of the work as a plastic, spatial, three-dimensional, fully abstract sculpture.

And then we have: “After all, to eliminate all reference to things or structures in the world of the senses, even if it were possible, would leave one with something very arid indeed from a sculptural point of view, like a model of some scientific postulate (behind appearances), or a systems diagram.” No way is that true. And then, bizarrely, Alan has the temerity to postulate that a very boring and feeble diagrammatic symbolic figurative piece by Smith (Tower Eight) is “a possible resolution of the issues faced by the ambitious among today’s sculptors”. This is a bit fatuous, to say the least. How would Alan feel, I wonder, if I suggested that the problems he and other abstract painters have (and yes, even Alan has problems, like we all do) might be solved by paying attention to (let’s say, for example, plucked from the air) how “The Seer”, 1950, by Adolph Gottlieb, is organised: (http://www.phillipscollection.org/research/american_art/artwork/Gottlieb-The_Seer+.htm).

After all, “…its structure is transparent, lucid, if crazy, fully available to sight…”. Why not go down that route, Alan, and stop all this crashing about with big paint-laden gestures, getting yourself all in a mess?

Apart from the detail in some of his early work, this is possibly Smith’s best effort at full-scale three-dimensionality:

https://pbs.twimg.com/media/C1Hssw1WQAAfb5i.jpg

And it’s a shocker. There is nothing in Smith to be taken forward.

Gili is quite within her rights to pursue figurative or semi-figurative sculpture. Alan is not within his rights to claim it is abstract, or that it has bearing upon the sculptural pursuits of those attempting to make such work, or that it makes any kind of new contribution to those issues. It doesn’t. There is the suggestion sneaked into this essay, perhaps with a view to justifying Gili’s disguised figuration, that “illusionism” is inherently, happily and unavoidably figurative:

“However, this does not mean that they are totally non-representational. Plasticity implies that the “movement” represented through the matter of the sculpture as it turns through literal space is more than its literal movement. It implies greater movement, greater “force and counterforce” than is physically, and literally presented. There is therefore an element of illusionism present in all sculpture that is not just a technical demonstration or a mute object.”

Illusion is in fact the meat and drink of completely abstract sculpture.

comment on the abstractcritical sculpture debate, January 5th, 2017

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Ab-Ex at the RA

“In Sober Ecstasy”…  I was, I was.

Not drunk, but pretty high. But not until the very last room of the show, having been bored and annoyed, as usual, by the uninteresting posturings of Still, Rothko and especially Newman; and somewhat underwhelmed by David Anfam’s selection of de Kooning and Pollock. Finally, here was a so-called Abstract Expressionist painting, “In Sombre Ecstasy” by (to quote Matt Dennis from his comment on the Motherwell post) “the criminally under-represented” Hans Hofmann (1965, from the Audrey and David Mirvish collection, Toronto) that was not only properly abstract, but also truly expressive. I think this is a really good painting, possible a great one. I think it might hold its own against a decent Cezanne or Matisse; I’d love to see it in the company of a good Tintoretto or Constable. I’d love to see it in good company, full stop.

I’ve seen it before, at the Hofmann show that Hoyland put together at Tate in 1988. I don’t recall being quite so taken with it then, but there was a lot to digest in that show – the whole oeuvre of Hofmann’s later works, and it was all new to me.

It’s the best Hofmann that I can now recall seeing, which must also make it one of the best abstract paintings I’ve seen. In my opinion it is a very integrated work, including the big rectangles, my frequent stumbling blocks (pun intended) with Hofmann, especially when they take over most or all of the painting. In this instance they are much more fully integrated with all of the other content – the powerful but unspecified movements which course both diagonally across, and back and forth through depth. The other general factor in this particular painting’s favour, compared with much other abstract painting, including far too many Hofmanns, is its completeness; it has been carried right through to a resolution, rather than left off at an early stage in a half-painted, half-bare-canvas state. Hofmanns are on the whole all the better for being fully worked up, and this one certainly is.

Unlike much of the painting in this show, this Hofmann has something of the quality of resolved tensions of duality between two and three-dimensions which is a frequent contributor to the successful spatial content of many great figurative paintings, but not often achieved in abstract work. The space is fluid and coherent, the colour is resonant (someone called the colour “faecal”, but I love all those varied orange and reddish-browns), and you can move without impediment right across and through the whole work. It’s a great deal more than just “push and pull”. It has variety and scale, works from far or near, and I can’t really fault it, though its orthogonal set-up and echoing yellows may possibly in the end count against it just a little. But compare it with any of the brutish Clyfford Stills, which are so singularly and monolithically tensionless (apart from the one – the best one, but can’t remember the title – that has a meandering diagonal line on a dark background, which does at least start to have a physical sense of unease in its “tipping” quality), to see how fluid, varied and limber the Hofmann is. It would probably be no good to try NOW to imitate it or follow too closely in its footsteps; it’s too much of a culmination of Hofmann’s long-fought-for style to enable imitation to succeed. But my high opinion of it ignores the context of Hofmann’s career or any other context, and I judge it as a one-off. Try that approach out on most of the other work in this show and see how little of it stands up when separated from the bolstering effect of the artist’s repetitive signature style. Imagine being stuck on a desert island with a single Barnett Newman… the boredom of it!

[The picture (above) of this painting is from the RA merchandising website, and not a good reproduction, but all I could find. It is reasonably well reproduced in books and catalogues. It’s in the catalogue for this show and in the RA magazine, where Mali Morris writes about it; also in the Tate catalogue from 1988; and there is a rather good reproduction in the German catalogue from a few years back, “Hans Hofmann: Magnum Opus”.]

Other works in this show worth a proper look are Joan Mitchell’s “Mandres”, 1961-2; Jack Tworkov’s “Transverse”, 1957-8; and de Kooning’s big “Composition”, 1955 (from the Guggenheim). Though I would have liked to have seen more by these artists, none of these particular examples hold up for long under serious consideration, for various reasons; the Mitchell is initially exciting, but in the end too gratuitously gestural, to the extent that the point of the painting is lost in the recklessness of the rather savage (and tonal) processes (maybe that is the point of the painting, in which case it’s not for me). It’s also become, like many of her works, too much of an isolated image in the middle of a bare canvas ground. She’s a bit formulaic, and those strident, slashing gestures are a little clichéd – too unvaried and too literal.

The Tworkov is a brave and more subtle attempt to invigorate the content by getting physically stuck in, but it ends up vague and sketchy. And the de Kooning doesn’t bear looking at for too long before the drawing in paint becomes intrusive and destructive of the very space it tries to construct; plus the colour is not really at all sensitive or interactive in the way it is in the Hofmann.

Pity then, that Anfam has hung the best painting in the show by a mile (the Hofmann, I mean) in a constricted corner of the last room, whilst giving his favourite, the unimaginative Still, a whole room with acres of wall-space. Why is Hofmann so frequently marginalised, when he is undoubtedly the best of all these painters?

I thought in general the selection and the curation was poor. Regarding the latter, for example, you can’t hang a couple of big, minimal Rothkos within eighteen inches of one another and expect the Rothko fan club (not me)to be able to look at either one in isolation. And the Hofmann is imposed upon by a gigantic Mitchell, too close by on the adjacent wall. If you can get beyond this imposition, it does demonstrate just how brilliantly Hofmann had transcended the literalness of Mitchell’s sloppy and supposedly “expressive” brushwork. His painting had integrated all of that into real abstract content, which pretty much completely fills the canvas. Mitchell doesn’t have half enough content in the first place to sustain a picture this big, so a great deal of it is left blank. Blank is blank is blank, and there’s a lot of it about in abstract art.

As a general criticism of the show, I would have liked to have seen a much broader range of names, instead of such a focus on the big boys (and poor examples of token girls). I’d like to have seen more from the fringe players and people who contributed but didn’t become iconic. I’d like to have seen more stuff that I’ve never seen before. The first room is decidedly underwhelming in its introductory assembly of early works. There are surely better early examples.

The narrow predictability of Anfam’s narrative is particularly telling in his selection of the sculpture, where (ignoring Newman’s idiotic verticals and the boring black Nevelson wardrobe – pity Caro couldn’t ignore this idea of presenting stuff in boxes!) we get only Smith, Smith and yet more Smith. I would love to have seen some other American sculptors from this period, ones that we NEVER see. How about Seymour Lipton, Richard Stankiewicz, Ibram Lassaw, Theodore Roszak, Herbert Ferber or even Frederick Kiesler, most of whom are declared, or considered to be, Ab-Ex sculptors? It could have been a really interesting show had we got lots of different stuff we’ve never seen here, instead of so many familiar Smiths.

I can see why people, and particularly painters, like the Smiths, because being flat and 2-dimensional makes it completely undemanding as sculpture; you can get it all at once, like a painting; one view of it suffices, job done, and no hard work necessary. Plus, the earlier works here have all the trickery and beauty of Smith’s seductive metalworking techniques, clear and simple pleasures that are to be found in how they are made as objects, carefully and cleverly, by Smith the craftsman – that’s something that anyone can appreciate, without having to wrestle with issues of three-dimensionality or spatiality. Smith was very proficient with manipulating, shaping and joining metal, particularly early on. He does rather nifty little things like including delightful little 3-D “vignettes” in amongst all the flatness, as in “The Letter”. They serve to show that he could have made the whole work much more three-dimensional, had he wanted. On the whole, he didn’t want, and I suspect he was encouraged by certain critics to stay in the world of 2-D.That was maybe Smith’s route out of the tweeness and model-making aspects of some of the early work. Flatness may have been seen by Smith and others as a radical and modernist move away from conventional 3-D “organic” modelling etc., but the work ends up overwhelmingly and persistently disappointing because of the flatness, culminating in the really dreadful late stainless steel work. I think all the work in the courtyard, and most inside, is poor. “Blackburn” and “Star Cage” are probably the best of them indoors, as they do at least attempt to pull themselves about a bit spatially, and so manage to get out of the “picture plane”. Crazy idea, to have a picture plane in sculpture. It makes some of them into objects that are not really sculpture at all – pictographic “openwork screens” perhaps? The fact that you see through them does NOT make them spatial!

My guess is that a lot of the flatness is down to Smith making things laid out flat on the floor (as he is shown doing in some photos), tack-welding them together and then standing them up – perhaps then adding a few more 3-D flourishes (though sometimes not even this). But this methodology does not make sense in the world of real sculpture, and its relative ease of working has proved a poor example to many sculptors, notably including Caro, who I’m sure took Smith’s example as the green light to make lots of equally flat, or frontal, or pictorial works. Smith’s oeuvre, because of its superficial attractions, set a bad precedent for abstract sculpture, which persists even now, the flatness being seen by some as positively liberating for sculpture. That’s the opposite of the truth; it’s a very restrictive practice, and his work is a precedent that ought to be rejected as deeply flawed. We could have really benefitted from this show if a much broader range of early abstract sculpture had been included, of a kind that did not follow the Gonzalez/Smith/Caro flat/frontal/pictorial linear historical narrative that is so relentlessly pushed by most commentators on abstract sculpture, and is so unthinkingly repeated here.

It would have been good to see examples of work by some of those sculptors I have listed above (all of whom you can Google, with a few examples below), work that at the very least shows fewer signs in reproduction of compromising its three-dimensionality. Whether in the end any of it would stand up to a real sculptural critique better than the Smiths do is hard to say, but we could at least have had some enjoyment seeing something different and making our own minds up, rather than being fed the usual dumb presumptions about Smith’s supremacy. He so plainly has severe shortcomings as a sculptor.

published on Abcrit    October 2016

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Flatness at Pace and Plastic Space

Hoyland, Caro, Noland at Pace Gallery, London.

In the mid-20th Century shared unreality that was ‘Caroland’ it was somehow viable, with intentions that were quite probably on the right side of honest, to make a sculpture – in this case, Stainless Piece C, 1974/5 – that sat flat on the floor and rose up no more than a couple of inches, so you looked down upon it like a relief laid horizontally (I made a few like this myself); and to make it out of a few scattered (or were they artfully composed?) pieces of stainless steel plate and other bits and pieces (David Smith’s steel?) that had been scoured with an angle-grinder to give an optical illusion of depth to its surface when it had none at all to its structure (again, like Smith?). In the Pace Gallery, London, this work is shown on a plinth that is a good three inches taller than the sculpture itself (didn’t Caro do away with plinths? Did the gallery decide the work’s lack of status required one?), making a combined height, sculpture and plinth, of oh… all of eight inches or so. And because it’s by Caro, and because he’s now dead (R.I.P.), and because it’s a piece of art history merchandising already, and because it’s the prestigious Pace Gallery; because of all this and more, and for no reason due to its inherent value, since it transparently has none, unless you view it through a thick haze of sentimental regret for simpler and more certain times in abstract art; this pathetic little piece of twaddle has become a luxury commodity, imbued with all the myths of modernism, reflecting back at us our own ‘good-housekeeping-modern-but-weren’t-we-ever-so-radical-back-in-the-sixties’ taste.

All the Caros in this show are poor; I would happily concede that he made quite a number of much better works than the ones here, thank goodness. Some of those better works were very positively and excitingly spatial, albeit perhaps in a rather architectural kind of way. However, pace (!) Kandutsch and Fried, here all the space and excitement has gone and we are left with the characteristics of a rather dull category of objecthood. Caro is riffing on tables, coffee and boardroom, and not very much else is occurring. Talk about ‘affective formalism’! Well, any little thing can affect a degree of something-or-other in the observer, can’t it? A thing that looks a bit like a table, because it’s a flat sheet laid out horizontally, a couple of feet off the floor, can generate feelings of, well… ‘tableness’, good heavens, and off we go. Think of all the associations with tables… and if that table-thing has what look like chairs-backs round it, and a sort of drawer, and is called Survey…; or if that table-thing has some curvy edges, and it’s called Bare…; well, the feelings just keep on coming, don’t they…? And then there is the feeling of how ‘right’ it all feels… if you own the taste! It gets to the point where you wonder what the purpose of all this ‘feeling’ in abstract art is for. I’m sure Caro wasn’t trying to con us, he was never that kind of bloke, and he really believed in the economy of these works as a step forward in modernism; but he shouldn’t have listened so attentively to his painter-friends, if, as seems likely, it was they who encouraged him to abandon what little remained by the seventies of his slender hold on three-dimensionality.

One of those painter-friends was Noland, and though it takes some doing to pull it off, the Nolands in this show are worse than the Caros. Of the three artists, Hoyland comes off by far the best. I don’t mean that his works here are, any of them, great paintings; but some of them are fair to middling good, at least for the period, if we are willing to go down that road of contextualising, albeit ever such a little way, with just a tad of that sentimental regret for those goddamn simpler and more certain times in abstract art. I’m certainly not willing or able to go too far down that way. Hoyland shows deftness and sensitivity to his materials and colours, and an ability to wring out from very simple means a little more than the sum of his parts; he has a bit of zip and aplomb. That still doesn’t add up to very much, even when it’s fifteen foot long, but at least it’s clever, and has some ambition, and makes Noland (on this showing) look a right klutz. Wow, are these Nolands boring – mechanically painted, dumb colour, pointless shapes; they have a sterility of surface that seems more akin to Pop than anything else. Nothing abstract happening here! Noland and Caro have both made much better works, but somehow the context at Pace means that’s not the point any more. From start to finish, artist to gallery, the whole thing is something of a conceit, based upon very little of substance.

I recall walking to the opening at Pace questioning why I was going there at all; why was I supporting an occasion all but consanguineous with the excesses of super-class consumerist wealth and taste displayed in the ignoble designer-palaces that line Bond Street? And the reason, of course, is that despite shortcomings in the work, I persist in believing in a glimmer of something real and adventurous in painting and sculpture from this supposedly seminal period of abstract art, something that even now I feel linked to, tenuously. Am I perhaps deluded? The thing is, despite all I have said, I still think the Hoylands are far better than most contemporary painting. That’s no great achievement, so I’m not even going to bother discussing more recent stuff that, rather than attempt to go somewhere new and more challenging, just bastardises these simplistic forms from fifty years ago.

I think at the heart of this is a paradox. At its most basic, abstract art (as opposed to ‘abstraction’) is about getting together some materials and working with them inventively until something emerges that makes some kind of visual sense. After that, it’s all about vision and ambition – how far are you going to go? So, on the one hand, the simplistic ‘going round in circles’ of a standard formalist approach leads to less and less being done with the material: yet at the same time, the processes to which the material becomes subjected to are brought more to the fore. As an example, we might easily imagine (if it’s not been done already) a modernist painter partially priming his/her canvas, only to decide that the ‘white-on-white’ was already looking good and was ‘enough’. So goes the stupidity (as I see it) of the Caro floor-based piece I originally described, where virtually nothing is done to the material other than to casually arrange it. There is nothing wrong with casually arranging things, but it’s just first base (if that). Such an abbreviation of methodology was intentional on the part of the artist, and was seen by commentators at the time (but perhaps no longer) as a radical and authentic visual statement which responded to the quiddity of making abstract steel sculpture; just as the hypothetical half-primed canvas too might be seen as a truth about painting.

Not so hypothetical, perhaps: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/12/11/arts/design/in-robert-ryman-one-color-with-the-power-of-many.html?_r=0 ).

Is this the democratisation of culture often referred to, such that everybody and anybody can get it, or even DIY-it? Or is it the exact opposite, the instant writing of art history in shallow gestures and big dollars, without the need to check on intrinsic value? Either way, are we anywhere near the endgame yet, please. I improbably found myself agreeing with director of Tate Modern Chris Dercon when, on the occasion of justifying the Turner Prize being given to worthy community architects Assemble, he was quoted as criticising the vulgarities of the contemporary art market thus: ‘The exponential increase in the financial importance of works of art has not been accompanied by a similar increase in their cultural significance. These are no longer cultural objects but fragments of a luxury-production.’ Quite so, Chris, quite so; and do you think perhaps that Tate Modern and the Turner Prize itself have done just a teensy-weensy little bit to further that particular financial model?

We hopefully no longer labour under the misconception (though some still do) that the kind of ‘less’ on show here at Pace is any kind of ‘more’, or have the conviction that that tired old maxim gives us leave as modern artists to do pretty much bugger-all with our materials before quitting on them, in the belief that they have gained some transcendent significance by our token interventions – à la Caro. But, if we have got past that blindness, we haven’t yet gone quite so far as to discover or invent sufficiently robust abstract content such that it will again and again absolutely compel us to take things a lot further. The means to gain such ends as we can now envision for abstract painting and sculpture will be simultaneously more exacting, and yet less to-the-fore, and at the service of the content of the work – if not indivisible from it. And please, let’s not hear it that spontaneity and impulsive expression (which are meaninglessly present in almost all of the work in this show, cool though it appears) are any kind of substitute for a discovered abstract content of substance – which, indeed, may or may not include both, alongside conscious intentionality and much else.

In other words, the hackneyed processes evident in the Pace Gallery work – all of it, from the laying-out horizontally of plates of unmanipulated steel, to the painting of stripes and rectangles in thin stains – need to be strongly interrogated by anyone who wants to move abstract art forward. The beguiling simplicity of this work does not bear scrutiny, and quickly turns on itself, becoming a presentational act of banality. This becomes particularly apparent when one considers works singly and separately from the context of the exhibition or series, when the incompleteness of the content of the individual works is exposed. This exhibition suggests that a wholeness based upon aesthetics, especially minimalist aesthetics, is unlikely to provide a fulfilling wholeness of content. The excitement of those initial breakthrough moments – of taking sculpture across the floor or staining colour into raw canvas – so very quickly become restrictive mannerisms, which in the end were the undoing of all three artists, who all got worse as their careers progressed. Who could find continuing interest in this work beyond a couple of minutes of looking (or a sustaining career, beyond a couple of years of making), other than someone who wants repeated confirmation of their own good taste? Those are, needless to say, just the people (the ones with money, anyhow) that Pace Gallery is targeting.

The paradox plays itself out as a truism: we know that all great art has lucidity. It seems spontaneous, effortless and direct, and therefore the way to make great abstract art must also be spontaneous, effortless and direct. Alas, that confuses the outcome with the process; combining an overarching simplicity with a depth of character in the content turns out to involve complexity, and entails far more than is offered by either a minimalist conceptual rigor mortis or an expressionist heart-on-sleeve outpouring. It involves engagement across a whole range of human capabilities; it probably involves making a mess of things from time to time too, when the complexity goes askew and refuses to be resolved. So what! – that risk is now a requirement. Placing plates horizontally, parallel to, or on the floor, like a table or a pavement, is not inherently risky or radical at all; painting parallel stripes or grids is not inherently risky or radical at all; these are sure-fire hits on low-level minimalist taste. That sort of thing is overrated, over-analysed, over-subscribed and… just over. We have passed beyond the cultural context that gave these token actions and forms any surprise or purchase. Yet much of the art world clings to this minimalist aesthetic in various guises, from bicycle chandeliers to cuboid standing figures to white on white squares – or it’s obverse, the equally visually ignorant brocante installation – as if without them modernism has no meaning. Well, it probably hasn’t; farewell to that idea, then.

Perhaps we (I mean “I”, of course) should just stop being so damnably, self-consciously clever about art. Maybe we (I) should stop thinking about lucidity and simplicity and wholeness and all those kinds of vaguely clever things that we think we know all about; and forget about trying to predict how the work will impact upon or affect the observer; and admit we cannot control what sort of context the work will be viewed in. Maybe instead we should just try to work out and focus on what is truly within our compass – what our ambition is for the content of our work. Maybe we should start to believe more in abstract content in the first place, that it is a thing of substance, real enough to think that it will be as meaningful as the best of figurative content, if we put our minds to it, and stop altogether thinking of it as being defined by a pathetic vocabulary of rectangles and flatness. How about some extravagant (but not excessive!) abstract content, and why not?

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I’ve been looking at Flemish art recently, mainly from the 15th/16th centuries and mainly in collections in northern Belgium; painters such as Rogier van der Weyden, Quentin Massys, Gerard David, Hans Memling and others. These guys were focussed, fanatical, and fabulous, eager to move painting forward by investing it with more and yet more particular and specific content – stronger colour, more detail, more variety, more real space, more expressive humanity, more emotional display; more everything! But especially, more ‘real’. They maybe didn’t exactly know (like us) what that meant – did it mean painting every hair on the head of the Madonna, or did it mean making the space in a room around her ‘truer’ to life in some measure; or did it mean both? (It meant both!)

They really wanted to fully explore this new stronger reality that was opening up for painting, a much more three-dimensional and plastic spatiality than previously achieved, a much more expanded, varied, integrated space. But they didn’t have all the answers to hand, they had to try things out as they went. They found they could accommodate intense, ‘realistic’ detail into these invented spaces; they could change scale, going from the close-up still-life of an internal scene, out through a window to a road winding up a distant landscape, and keep it all within their grasp (well, they could if they were Rogier van der Weyden). They could reconcile huge great new amounts of complex three-dimensionality within two dimensions. To help them achieve this they stuck at the content and didn’t get too carried away with the artiness.

I’ve looked a lot at German renaissance art over the past few years too. One of my favourite paintings is Durer’s Paumgartner Altarpiece, c.1503 (boy, was painting happening around 1500!), in which the ostensible subject matter of the work is subsumed to the invention of a very particular and plasticised spatiality, which at the time was something radical, and still looks it. I don’t mean to imply that the Nativity itself, or indeed the portraits of the donor’s family, were unimportant to Durer; but the real content of the work as a painting is a direct result of Durer’s intense commitment to inventing and organising the specific space(s) within. There is a marked emphasis on the particular eccentricities of the space – on the architectural ins-and-outs, on the bizarre centrally-placed wooden roof-support dividing the picture, on the angled alcoves and roof appendages – rather than on a frontal display of the characters (how different from the beautiful frieze-like procession in Bellini’s Feast of the Gods – predicting Poussin – as cited in the recent Gouk essay). However, the figures are still crucial to the resultant spatiality – important, for example, in their emphatic orientation and the sight-lines thus created between them, such as the steep receeding diagonal between Joseph and Mary. Indeed, the clinching feature of this work is the two shepherds stepping up and into the space from out of the back-end of the picture. One of them gestures invitingly, the other strides up and in; brilliant. They, and the stanchion, are between Mary and Joseph in our sight, central to the painting. They, in relation to the stanchion, manipulate the back of the painting’s space, which is detailed with a landscape, but which is really articulated, spatially and psychologically, by these two characters. They usher us in as they themselves enter the space, which is both complex and plastic, a physical and inter-dependent entity in itself. So, is this a ’whole’ painting, is it a thing of beauty, is it a lucid and clear artistic statement? Don’t know, don’t care; it’s been made to be about something real, at all points of the compass.

When it comes to the depiction of three-dimensional space in painting, I could, of course, go back another hundred years to Giotto, but that would not really be where my interest lies at the moment. The innovations of perspective, though linked to painting’s ability to operate spatially, are only contributory factors in its plastic spatiality. The real business begins for me in northern Europe, where the focus is on the psychology and meaning of invented, constructed, complex spaces, like in the Durer, or the Gerard David above, which in the flesh is as sumptuously integrated a picture-space as you might wish for. In Italy (Tintoretto aside – he’s a very special case when it comes to spatiality), they were perhaps inclined a little more to thinking about composition, drawing, line, colour, and the sophisticated analysis of the processes of two-dimensionality. You know, all those things that abstract painters think far, far too much about…

published on Abcrit   December 2015

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Contemporaneity: William Gear/ Stockwell Depot / Hans Hofmann

William Gear: the Painter that Time Forgot is at the Towner Gallery Eastbourne, 17 July – 27 September 2015; at City Art Centre, Edinburgh, 24 October 2015 – 14 February 2016.

A Radical View: William Gear as Curator 1958 -1964 is also at the Towner, 9 May – 31 August 2015.

William Gear: A Centenary Exhibition is at the Redfern Gallery, London, 16 July -5 September.

Stockwell Depot 1967 – 1979 is at the University of Greenwich Galleries, 24 July – 12 September 2015.

Hans Hofmann Catalogue Raisonné is recently published in the UK by Lund Humphries.

 

At the Same Time as Now.

The Towner and the Redfern are both presenting the work of ‘forgotten’ artist William Gear, an associate of CoBrA in the 1940s and a controversial painter in his heyday of the 1950s. Also showing is an exhibition of the works acquired by Gear during his tenure as the Towner’s curator (1958-64), including paintings by Sandra Blow, Alan Davie, Roger Hilton and Ceri Richards. Gear fought battles with Eastbourne Town Council to get modern art, and in particular, new abstract painting, into the Towner collection, the outcome of which was to make it one of the leading contemporary collections in municipal gallery/museums at that time.

Gear’s very own version of a public outcry over contemporary art had happened a decade earlier in 1951, when his painting Autumn Landscape was awarded the Festival of Britain Purchase Prize, paid for out of the public purse, and attracting the ridicule and faux-outrage of the press. It’s hard to see why, since it looks now to be the most good-mannered of abstractions, and by our experiences of contemporaneity, unconfrontational. A lot has changed in the last 65 years of art; the position of always equating ‘now-ness’ with newness is well established (they are, to be fair, often difficult to differentiate), as one novelty project succeeds and eclipses another. If there is any value left in contemporaneity, it has to be more than just the next new thing, and certainly more than a rehash of what has gone before but is now forgotten.

I make that last comment because I was brought up short recently on seeing a reproduction of Gear’s Composition , painted in1949, which looks exactly like a lot of ‘Contemporary’ abstract painting. This kind of work is usually a loose scaffold of painted lines (triangles are favoured) or planes, in a few earthy colours, that may or may not represent some kind of three-dimensional object – maybe even an abstract sculpture, or something vaguely architectural – in a scant landscape, with vestigial references to three-dimensional space. There are a number of paintings like this in the Towner’s Gear show, but his were painted around 65 years ago, and have the excuse that it hadn’t been tried much before (though an origin in the Cubism of Picasso and Braque seems likely). On Gear’s part, it was a rather timid excursion into, and retreat from, the somewhat fuller – though I would argue still partial – involvement with abstract painting and process that his American peers were getting into (Gear showed with Pollock in New York in 1949, but was scornful of his drip technique). This kind of painting by Gear, and the work that unconsciously mimics it today, is more of a representation of something (like a sculpture) that is non-figurative (because it is not a figure), rather than being fully abstract (starting out from nothing, without a subject-matter). Whatever the reasons behind its recent re-emergence, it has a similar timidity to Gear’s, and is even more regressive now than it was then.

In the flesh, Gear’s paintings are much more worked, much less ‘provisional’, much less archly slapdash, than our present-day practitioners. But then the latter have had the benefit, or more likely its opposite, of the years of deconstruction of the processes of painting, from Pollock through to Oehlen and beyond. Gear knew little of that, and would, you feel, have loathed it. Gear does not do ‘casual’ or ‘provisional’ or even gestural. In fact, it is hard to find in all of his oeuvre a genuinely relaxed-looking moment, when the assumed dignities and diligences of being a fine-art easel painter are abandoned in favour of something more loose and instinctive. Even the more contingent of his images look pondered and preened, fully worked-up and over-worked. So deliberate and relentless is this designing-out of spontaneity from the picture, with never a moment’s relaxation, that I almost started to warm to him out of a perverse admiration for the cussedness of it all – almost. And whilst we would do well to be wary of attributing the expressive qualities of a work directly to the state of mind of the artist, in this case Gear’s unbending self-possession does seem to have brought about paintings that are hard to warm to, unless one is of a wholly uptight intellectual persuasion. His bearing may serve as an interesting corrective to the lax cod-amateurism of many contemporary painters, but it nevertheless remains that all his concentration and hard work end up taking his own abstract painting into a kind of cul-de-sac. Thus, his late paintings are concocted beyond endurance, a kind of garish and aggressive wallpaper, without space or life. Quite ‘Contemporary’, then.

Andrew Lambirth writes enthusiastically in the Redfern Gallery catalogue that Gear, along with William Scott, Peter Lanyon, and Roger Hilton, was ‘part of a generation involved with painting as painting’. Ha! Where have I read that before? Does every generation have its cohort of painters painting about painting? Bloody hell, it’s meaningless! I wonder if Titian, Tintoretto and Veronese were doing it? None of Lambirth’s list are really abstract artists (though they all, to varying degrees, abstract [the verb] from figurative sources); yet Lambirth continues: ‘Gear spent formative years in Paris, and there he experimented with the abstract properties of paint.’ Well, just what are these oft-cited ‘abstract properties of paint’? Is it abstract when it comes out of the tube? Is it differentiated in some profound way from toothpaste or salad cream? Surely ‘abstract’ can only be applied to paint when it is engaged purposefully within the visual activity of a painting; and then you are no longer talking about the literal materiality of paint, but about the active content of the art. It’s a nice confusion; a conflation; a complete reversal even, of what is literal with what is abstract. Isn’t this a very similar confusion to the one about real abstract art not representing anything, so therefore it doesn’t mean anything, it just kind of ‘is’? And then this supposed quiddity, which you somehow empathise with by means of all the senses and some very iffy French philosophy, can have all manner of subjective significance, allusion and metaphor attached to it by the viewer, without fear of contradiction, in order to relate to it in some non-visual (and invariably sentimental) manner. In which case, the more simplistic the art, the more easily it lends itself to such doubtful paradigms.

That particular standpoint makes Gear’s rigour seem positively intelligent. I get the sense that he strongly aspired to get his paintings to summon some kind of particularised feeling – a sense of a landscape, perhaps, which he himself had felt and experienced, and which he desired to capture, and which would be built into the work by him, rather than casually attributed at a later date by the viewer. I admire the specificness and determination of that vision, but I think the results fall short, for reasons both of his inflexible sensibility, and for the crude state of development in abstract painting at that time, to which he was wedded and past which he was ultimately unable to travel. Contra Lambirth, Gear was unhappy to take the road of ‘painting as painting’, but could not see past it to a point where properly articulated abstract content might carry real meaning of its own accord; and consequently he opted to back off into a figuration of ‘abstract things’. It’s too much of a compromise to be great art, and it’s symptomatic of a significant moment in abstract art’s development, and one that has been revisited more than once over the last hundred years, as if it’s a place that’s difficult to get beyond. The symptoms are disquiet about the possible lack of meaning when subject-matter of any kind is abandoned, a failure of belief in the power and purpose of abstract content on its own terms; a feeling that ‘painting about painting’, and paint as paint is not enough.

Of course it’s not enough, but that’s no reason to back off. The Abstract Expressionists were notoriously loath to abandon subject-matter and metaphor; and looking at Pollock’s late painting and his return to figuration, recently reviewed here by John Bunker on Abcrit, you get the strong impression that, very different from Gear though he was, he too fretted about abstraction’s detachment from human content. Pushing on beyond this point, keeping faith with the abstract, believing in its power, remains to this day a radical and tough thing to do… as we continue to see.

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Tucked away in the nether regions of Greenwich, in three separated spaces, is Greenwich University’s Stockwell Depot 1967 – 1979, a well researched, catalogued and curated exhibition by the former editor of abstractcritical, Sam Cornish. He has collected together works by some of the artists who occupied the eponymous studios and organised and participated in exhibitions there during the late sixties and seventies. This covers a period when abstract painting and sculpture had slipped from pole position at the cutting-edge of art practice, and were being increasingly eclipsed by all manner of anti-object and performance art. Indeed, Stockwell itself, one of the first artist-organised studio complexes, was begun more as an outpost to the experimental wing of St. Martin’s School of Art sculpture department than the focus for welded steel sculpture that came to later define it. Cornish’s recreation of Deep Space Installation, 1970, by Roland Brenner, reflects the adoption by some of the artists who founded Stockwell of the conceptualisation and dematerialisation of sculpture which had by then come to monopolize the discourse in the art magazines and the commercial and public galleries of the time (Harald Szeemann’s When Attitudes Become Form was the seminal ICA show in 1969). In its turn, that particular line of work had disappeared from Stockwell Depot by the early seventies, by way of the departure of some of the founder members, and the building was taken over mainly by abstract steel sculptors: Peter Hide, John Foster, Katherine Gili, Anthony Smart, David Evison. Also in the building, or taking part in exhibitions there, were a number of abstract painters following in the wake of, and reacting to, American Abstract Expressionism and Post-Painterly Abstraction: John McLean, Fred Pollock, Jennifer Durrant, Geoff Rigden, Douglas Abercrombie, Alan Gouk, Stephanie Bergman, Geoff Hollow amongst them. These artists form the main focus of the Greenwich exhibition. (The full story of Stockwell is well told in the exhibition catalogue.)

What is interesting is to note the unconventionality of the best of the later seventies works from Stockwell, and how, through a clear sense of physicality and spatiality, they put themselves beyond the aesthetic structuring of much other abstract work of that time, which though striving for novelty was visually more predictable and passive. This contradicts the perception, then and now – for it persists – that the Stockwell Depot work was orthodox. The sculpture in particular was viewed by the artworld as an academic follow-on to St. Martin’s, in the shadow of Caro, and it became marginalised as such. A more perceptive view reveals it to be no such thing; the Stockwell sculptors were breaking free from Caro’s influence and developing ways to reinvent sculptural structures, free of Caro’s predilection for pictorial solutions to sculptural propositions. The sculptures of Anthony Smart and John Foster in particular had by the late seventies completely broken from anything remotely allied to Caro’s frontality, or from the New Generation’s often glib sculpture-by-design, or from any trace of American minimalism. This was a real and measured progress in sculpture, towards a fuller three-dimensionality, confident in the strength of its articulated abstract-ness. Even now, in the midst of a resurgence of interest in abstract painting, it is unlikely the work in this exhibition will get the attention it deserves, yet any direct comparison with the Contemporary abstract art that today receives plaudits will confirm that the bold and lucid organizations of, for example, Gouk’s Sea Horse Tenacity 1, Foster’s Three Cornered, or Smart’s Tamarind 5, are superior still.1 And whilst I’m in this territory, just look at how much more active, three-dimensional and downright sculptural Foster’s use of I-beams in Three Cornered is, compared to anything Caro ever did with them. We are in the midst of a Caro-fest at the moment, and I have no wish to denigrate him, but we have yet to get to grips, even here on Abcrit, with just how far abstract sculpture has moved on from his approach – and, for that matter, from Foster too. It is a topic we must return to soon.

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Hans Hofmann: Catalogue Raisonné of Paintings is just recently published in the UK by Lund Humphries. These three volumes surprisingly reveal that, starting as early as 1949, Hofmann was engaged in making spontaneous and unformatted small abstract paintings running concurrently with his larger, more familiar canvasses. The latter were often based upon drawn images up until about 1950, and then came the rectangular slabs over loose brushwork with which we are accustomed. By contrast, these smaller works have very little drawing or orthogonal compositional devices, and range far and wide in an uninhibited manner, mixing splurged and freely brushed or splattered colour in a startling number of ways and with a multiplying range of results. This exciting experimentation had started to happen before the signature inclusion of rectangles in Hofmann’s work had begun in earnest, and it continued right up to the end of his career. Indeed, included at the end of the Catalogue Raisonné are almost a hundred works described as ‘palette paintings’, which differ from the small spontaneous paintings to which I refer only by being unsigned or un-annotated variations of them. These experimental works seem to me suddenly of more interest than the Hofmanns with which we are familiar.2

The totality of all of these unformatted works, signed or otherwise, and now fifty or sixty years old, amounts to a huge range of new content previously unseen, which is very ‘live’, very fresh, very ‘now’. Hofmann in the fifties and sixties was exploring options for abstract painting in an unrestrained manner that went far beyond anything Gear could ever imagine or participate in. It would be good to see an exhibition of this other side to Hofmann, (most of these works appear to still reside in the estate of the artist’s executors) so that we can better judge its value. It may well have something relevant to offer in the quest to get beyond what feels to me, still, like unnecessary restrictions on abstract art, a lack of faith in its ability to tap into what John Bunker has described as ‘a deeper sense of “us”’. Even with Hofmann, I sense there is a little holding back, a playing safe with familiar compositional arrangements, a reliance on allusiveness to figurative suggestions, sometimes a semi-figuration. Even he, one feels, could not quite go all the way in making meaningful abstract content blaze out of the work, without hindrance. There is still work to be done to liberate the ‘now’ in contemporaneity.

Notes: The latter two sculptures are not in this show, but there are other works by these artists. Gouk’s Sea Horse Tenacity 1 and Foster’s Three Cornered are reproduced in the catalogue.

I cannot find any available reproductions of these Hofmann works, other than in the book itself.

published on Abcrit   August 2015

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Diebenkorn at the RA

Richard Diebenkorn at the Royal Academy, London, 14 March – 7 June, 2015

If I’ve read one 5-star review of the RA’s Diebenkorn show by now, I’ve read at least ten, most of them little more than P.R. exercises repeating the same blandishments to the gallery-going public, to recognise and acknowledge a masterly evocation of the lambent light and open spaces of his native Californian west coast. Spoiler alert: this will not be another piece of positive flannel. OK, Diebenkorn was by all accounts a fine fellow and a much-respected artist, and his reputation has grown considerably over the past two decades as he has entered the collective art-school consciousness of recent generations as the straight-up kind of painter’s painter in an age of conceptual art. More and more young abstract and semi-abstract painters have become familiar with the three phases of his work, and it now chimes in with something that has recently happened in abstract painting, whereby it has become the acceptable, non-scary version of modern art in general; safe to feature in sofa catalogues, a safe occupation for the younger amateur painter, decidedly unthreatening; in fact, not too radically abstract. And Diebenkorn is a kind of flagship painter for the confident employment and enjoyment of these ubiquitous modern aesthetic tropes. He now, reputedly, has clout and charisma, where he once seemed a peripheral and minor contributor. He undoubtedly had a degree of talent, and his paintings have the sniff of sincerity and ‘authenticity’; they look superficially like the ‘real deal’. But, as some clever wag pointed out recently, authenticity is a content-free zone. If you think Diebenkorn’s art has anything to do with, say, a continuation of Matisse’s lifelong core project, you’re wrong; if you think Diebenkorn is anything of a colourist, you’re wrong; and if you think Diebenkorn is exciting, you are living a very sheltered life. He raises the mediocre to fantastic levels of significance. More on all this later.

So how’s the show? It’s OK; decently hung, clearly staked out into the three phases in three rooms, so it’s a shoe-in. And on entry, I thought for a minute the opposite of all the above – I thought he had something exciting going on. This mistaken belief was really down to one painting, Berkeley No.57, 1955, which is in the first room, and is the best painting in the show. It’s a difficult work, complex, demanding, having something of a wrestling-match with itself over exactly what it wants to do, perhaps not entirely resolved; and for those reasons and others, rather engaging. There are coloured forms in movement, rolling, turning against one another, receding and advancing, competing with and contradicting Diebenkorn’s predisposition towards drawing. Here, in this one work, that tendency is temporarily suppressed in favour of a more open, painterly-structured spatiality. Unfortunately, Diebenkorn insists upon drawing controlling the organisation of almost all of the other paintings in the show, the application of paint being relegated often to filling in between the lines.

Berkeley No.57. comes at the end of his first phase of abstract work, and surpasses all previous paintings. So what’s going on here? Why, I wondered, when he had just got to a really challenging place with his work, just got to something with a bit more muscle to it than the frankly rather commonplace works that precede it; why, then, does he stop what he’s doing and start on some out-of-the-way figurative thing? Now, I must admit that the only figurative works I’ve seen by Diebenkorn are the ones at this show (having contrived to miss the Whitechapel exhibition some 25 years ago), and I was genuinely looking forward to the prospect. Some of you will know that I have often expressed doubts about the potential of abstract painting and its ability to ever compete with the very best of figurative painting from the past. You might also know that I see no benefit from any kind of return to figuration in painting at the moment. It is in the light of this contradiction in my own mind that I do actually have some empathy with Diebenkorn’s dilemma and his switch away from abstraction for a decade. But, and this is a big ‘but’, I was thrown off sympathising thus by two things: firstly, that Diebenkorn changed tack just when things were getting interesting/challenging in terms of how three-dimensional space in his abstract painting might be tackled anew; and secondly, that the figurative paintings on show here seem to offer no furtherance to, or deliverance from, those issues. Berkeley No.57. is more spatial than any of the figurative paintings, so why not hang in there? In the light of that question, the reasons for the switch begin to look suspect. The figurative paintings are, like most of the abstract work that preceded Berkeley No.57., relentlessly flat, unspatial. They are also, I think, somewhat anecdotal. They tell a story, and they do it with lots of the sort of stuff painters hanker after nowadays – facture, washy brushmarks, pentimenti, painterly quiddity, etc., all wrapped up in a bold and semi-abstract style. What’s not to like? Well, the story they tell is not spatial, it’s illustrative; it’s pre-occupied by two-dimensional compositional decisions. To say that they are spatially ambiguous would in fact be beside the point. They are, like the Ocean Park series yet to come (and how!), based upon drawn shapes, filled in with colour, borderline ‘graphic’. They would look the part as magazine illustrations to a story (this is close to why I call them ‘anecdotal’), where the clumsiness would be acceptably clever, stylistically.

We know Diebenkorn felt himself influenced by Matisse, and just about every review repeats the truism; but I see no link. I happened to have seen a handful of really great Matisses over the past year or so; one or two have come up in Christie’s and Sotheby’s in London recently. In a good Matisse the space has something of a plastic nature all of its own, a fully-felt three-dimensional reality resolved in two, but heightened by that resolution, not compromised. The space is the thing, newly created; a new veracity – and incidentally, not just by means of great colour, but by the nature of Matisse’s painterly architectures too. Whereas in Diebenkorn, the space, far from evincing some Californian plenitude, is squeezed and crushed by the jostling tightly together of over-engineered shape-upon-shape. It’s not so much that Diebenkorn wants to go down the literal route of making painting a ‘thing’; but he seems to want the painted shapes themselves to be ‘things’, and to stay two-dimensional, and stay nailed upon the flat surface of the painting, interlocked in a tightly controlled design. Some will see this as a good thing, but there is no great truth to painting in this for me. And also for me, that is a false reading of Matisse.

Diebenkorn has stated, perhaps overstated, a desire for ‘just-so’ wholeness and balance. There is more than one way in which you can have too much of that. You can have too much at the outset, if, for example, you think that you have a formula by which you will inevitably end up answering your own question – in the case of the Ocean Park series, answering it 145 times. Or you can have too much at the end, when the work puts itself forward as an exercise in content-free aesthetics. Some will say, and have said, these are works of limpid beauty, whole and self-contained, in need of no crude and rough thing such as ‘content’. Well, maybe; but that way lies a lifeless conventionality, an imposed and academic completeness; a concept, a conceit. In order to maintain his precious balance, Diebenkorn will water down his colour to pastel shades, then pick up hues in smaller, more intense highlights, and then even these get watered down; and all within the bounds of orthogonal divisions, echo upon echo, rectangle echoing rectangle, all repeating the shape of the canvas; all feasible, all do-able, no problem; no content. This is, in fact, just another manifestation of minimalism.

And this shallow aesthetic is currently running through a great deal of contemporary abstract painting, becoming more and more widespread. There are lots of abstract painters around at the moment who love this stuff, and who are milking it, and bit by bit, unambitiously hollowing out abstract painting until it is borderline meaningless. Paint as paint, canvas as canvas; do a little ‘free’ design, suggest a bit of this or that, mute the colours, don’t frighten the neighbours. Hint at a ‘subject’ just a little; paint ‘cages’ of triangles; suggest that it could be a bit ‘landscapey’; show lots of layers, wipe some of them off; change your mind; fiddle about; whatever…

I digress… The best of the Ocean Park series in this show is No.43, because up the right-hand side are strong, active colour-forms that start to make something spatial happen in relation to the modulated off-white open centre of the work… Oh god, something’s happening! Can’t have that, let’s balance it all off with some more uprights up the other side, and let’s make those beige. Well, if Diebenkorn’s your master, it’s the bland leading the bland.

published on Abcrit   March 2015

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Thoughts on Abstract Sculpture

A Reply to Alan Gouk’s “Steel Sculpture, Parts 1 & 2” published on abstractcritical.

“What kind of object-non-object is a sculpture to be? If it is not to be like a kind of crazy irrational non-functional piece of furniture standing implacably, grounded and aligned axially in planar echo of the architectural space it occupies, encouraging one to perceive it “optically”, rather than through organising intelligence, at least in emphasis, prioritising eye over mind, and dividing and subdividing that given space which its perimeters enclose – if not that, then what is it to be?” Alan Gouk, Steel Sculpture; Part 2.

Great question. What is it to be…?

It’s great too that the painter Alan Gouk should take the time and effort (again) to write with all his erudition and insight about abstract sculpture, a subject that leaves many abstract painters brimming with a less-than-charming mixture of incoherence and indifference. So, a big thank you to Alan, who has a long history of involvement, having run the advanced sculpture course at St. Martin’s in the seventies and been instrumental in progressing sculptural thinking through a direct participation with teaching and writing. Especially important was his lecture/article “Proper to Sculpture” (published later in Artscribe) in 1980, which was of more significance, in my opinion, than Tucker’s book.

I think Alan’s new two-part essay on steel sculpture is also good in parts (the analysis of Caro’s work in Part 1 was pretty much on the button), and If I’m now seen to disagree with aspects, it’s because there would be little point in reiterating areas of mutual thinking. I’m also going to leave others to pick up on disputed facts of history, if they so wish, because I’m pretty lazy on that. I’d rather use this opportunity to open up a debate about the principle of three-dimensionality, which is so central to what is happening in abstract sculpture at the moment.

My main divergence with Alan is this: he writes early on in Part 2 (having gone along with Gabo quotes on a similar theme in Part 1) about the importance of the properties of material to sculpture (and Tim Scott makes similar points several times in his own recent essays on abstract sculpture on this site). For example, in discussing Tucker’s sculpture from the seventies, Tunnel, Alan writes of allowing “the structural capabilities of laminating plywood to generate the forming of sculpture.”

I don’t think this is right. If real sculptural form flowed so directly from the structural capabilities of the material, then according to theory Tucker’s Tunnel should be well on the way to being a good sculpture. It is no such thing; it is another dead-end. All that the capabilities of any material can do is generate types of structural objects – and that is not sculpture! This categorical error is one of the reasons why we got into such a deep hole with object-sculpture in the sixties, and why (with Alan’s help) we had to dig our way out with “Sculpture from the Body” in the eighties (where were the material properties then?). So likewise, when it now comes to Alan’s favourite capability of steel, and the one that he sees as projecting forward into the future, he selects “tensility” as the very thing, and goes so far as to imply that three sculptures – Smith’s Australia, Gili’s Bitter Joy, and Scott’s Song for Chile II – are masterpieces of the genre of steel sculpture because they use this inherent property of steely tension so aptly. (OK, I’m not sure he uses that horrid word “genre”, but he might as well have.) Like Tunnel, those examples give the lie to the misplaced thinking. They may well do what Alan proposes, in terms of suggesting “drawn-out” feelings of stretching tension; and they may have lots of other fine aspects for which they should receive high praise; but they are all manifestly deficient in their sculptural three-dimensionality (OK, I’ve not seen the Chile one, but I’m guessing neither has Alan), as too is the sculpture of mine, B3, he cited in part 1; and if we don’t come clean about these things, we will not make progress (which is why I get annoyed when people are upset by my criticism of the revered Australia).

My point is this: sculpture calls the shots, not material. It happens, just happens, that (in my opinion and as far as I know) most of the best and most advanced sculptural work being done at the moment is in steel, and has been for a while. But it could be otherwise, were sculpture to so dictate. To even talk about “steel sculpture” is in some ways to put the cart before the horse. We might rather talk of “abstract sculpture made of steel”, which better puts it in its place. What abstract sculpture is, could be, will be, determines everything, including the material, and will not be bound by the history of a “genre”. For an object to become a sculpture it may or may not need to embody the physicality of tensility; but also perhaps compression; and inert mass; and volume; and movement; and lots of other un-nameable stuff. Anything and everything; sculpture needs to range far and wide, to leave nothing out. But the clear imperative is for it to embody all of this content in as fully a three-dimensional manner as possible, because that will encompass and make viable all other characteristics. Nothing can exist in an uncompromised state in abstract sculpture without this three-dimensionality. Not only is Alan’s bias toward tensility a needless limitation to sculpture, but were it true that the best of steel sculpture was circumscribed by such a vocabulary, then steel perhaps ought to be abandoned in favour of a more versatile material. As it is, I believe steel is that versatile material, and it is perfectly clear to me that an individual steel sculptor’s personal take on three-dimensionality need in no way privilege the qualities of tensility over anything else. Alan points to the“…quality of acute sensitivity to the expressive potential in working metal so evident in Gonzalez and Gili…”; to which I can only think “So what!”. We only have to look at the recent work of Mark Skilton, who knows a thing or two about steel, but doesn’t work at all with tensile structures, whose sculpture for my money knocks every single piece of work Alan cites into a cocked hat. It’s a pity, Alan, that although you now acknowledge his advances, you didn’t get along to see Mark’s work last year, as it may have undone this theory of steel (and by implication, other materials) that I know you have held for some time. I think it has been disproved.

So the real issue for sculptors in any material is this: how do you truly liberate three-dimensionality? If you need to work in steel to do this better, so be it, but there can be no historical or linear-baton-passing reason to do so that is not phony. Nor should there be any fundamentally different considerations and criteria for making value-judgements about “steel sculpture”, as opposed to, say, “wooden sculpture”, or “plaster sculpture”, or “sculpture-made-of-fag-ends-sculpture” (Damien would be master of those if we had to bend the criteria to suit the material).

When I recently dismantled into their bolted weldment sections the two sculptures I showed in last year’s Brancaster Chronicles (Gothic Blud and Tree of Ornans), I noticed yet again (because it has happened with previous work) that the three-dimensionality of the separated parts came to life to a greater degree when apart than when assembled into their sculptural configurations. This is a big thing – the realisation that configuration suppresses three-dimensionality. I’ve known it for some time, but have only recently begun to understand how to overcome it. So this is the important challenge of the moment for me, and I think for others too: how do we escape from configuration in all its numerous and insidious aspects and let three-dimensionality – and in my case I want a particularly spatial kind of three-dimensionality, but there will be all sorts for all-comers out there – freely and spontaneously open out, live and breathe? How do we truly express all of that and forgo all other conceits, which would include all the literal ideas (like material capabilities etc.) used in the past to justify sculpture-as-object, and would most certainly encompass tensile structures of the sort made by Alan’s particular favourite, “the great Chilean sculptor Francisco Gazitua”, most of whose work is little more than “sensitive” two-dimensional diagrams of such literal structures. There is no way forward in that.

Abstract sculpture is becoming really very exciting as it turns itself inside-out to face the challenges of overcoming its obdurate object-ness. Even Alan senses it, in his final paragraph. But I’m afraid to say that, as abstract sculpture takes on this quest for greater and greater three-dimensionality (and yes, it is exactly a matter of slowly and patiently accruing more and more of it, bizarre though that sounds) in a manner that I would insist has never been dreamt of or attempted before, it distances itself from the origins of sculpture in steel. It breaks apart the linear history of Alan’s story, and leaves the pieces of that story without a genuine rationale. Abstract sculpture is rising up as something completely new, something with only a scant connection to the history of figurative sculpture, or the early abstractions of sixties object-based work, or even the over-willed machinations of “Sculpture from the Body”. It has nothing to do with Picasso and Gonzalez, or even David Smith. It sets itself against the works of those artists who “drew” in space, or made flattened or pictorial steelwork. Australia and works of its ilk, I’ll say again, are three-dimensionally compromised and ambiguous. It is an ambiguity that has been passed off as sensitive abstracted simplification, but the truth is we don’t any longer need or want that. What we want is complexity, the ability do many things at the same time, a kind of sculptural multi-tasking; a capacity to flex, but also to straighten; to push and then to pull; to rotate and to unwind; to resist and to yield. Those are actually just some of the capacities of, for example, one’s own arm or leg or whole body; but owning such “contrapuntal” properties implies no uncertainty. Like the living body, but unlike the more singular mechanical properties of materials, the principle of three-dimensional complexity in abstract sculpture can embrace manifold and opposing capabilities without compromise or ambiguity.

This new, complex abstract sculpture is the first artform of any description to fully explore three-dimensionality in all its diversity. It is a truly liberated discipline, apart and to itself; I’ve no doubt Alan will be amongst the first of painters to recognise it.

May 2014

On re-reading this, it occurs to me that I have not said quite enough about physicality. Alan and I probably agree in large part about its necessity for sculpture, and it was one of the touchstones of “Sculpture from the Body” that we both participated in. But like anything else, there are ways of using it that range from the literal through to the three-dimensionally re-imagined. I suspect that most of the “interpretations” of physicality that have happened to date in any of the work Alan cites, including my own, will in a few short years hence (if not already) look pedestrian (which is not to denigrate their achievements) as we unlock more and more diverse and inventive ways to make abstract sculpture more particular in just how it activates space. One might already see the overt allusions to a “physicality-of-the-body” in some of the work to date beginning to be subsumed into something of far greater subtlety and breadth of imagination. After all, the achievement of physicality, of itself, is surely not the central purpose of abstract sculpture, any more than opticality or weightlessness. Here I agree that ”illumination, lucidity, clarity”, are of higher value – though it must be re-stated that such high-minded ambitions should be grounded in real achievement in three-dimensions, and not get short-circuited by simplistic conceptualisations. Above all, though, abstract sculpture’s aspirations are not to be limited by any particular property, as I argue above.

published on the abstractcritical website   May 2014

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Alan Davie: Space and Spontaneity

Alan Davie, who died on 5th April, is by coincidence having something of a moment in the London galleries. Of the four displays of his work, all organised prior to his death, the Portland Gallery (until 5th June) and Alan Wheatley Art (until 23rd May) have the best paintings. Over at Davie’s primary dealer, Gimpel Fils, is a selection of very recent miniature paintings on paper and drawings in biro, showing his natural talents to the last, but I’m not sure they amount to much. The Tate display is not greatly flattering either, and I don’t particularly warm to any of the major Davies they own. “Sacrifice” of 1956 is the best of them, but is suppressed and flattened by its blue-sky background and its horizontal symmetry; “Birth of Venus”, 1955, doesn’t quite get going in the way it promises, being rather overwhelmed by drawing and composition; and “Entrance to the Red Temple No.1”, 1960, supposedly the star of the collection, has too much of the graphic patterning and pseudo-symbolism that takes over completely in later work. None of these paintings match in quality a handful of works at Wheatley’s and the Portland. At least Davie is now recognised again, as he was in the sixties, as an important painter, though a catalogue raisonné and major retrospective at Tate are, as far as I know, not yet on the cards. The decade 1950-60 (and maybe occasionally ’60-‘65) throws up new surprises all the time (how about” Insignias of the Gannet People”, 1958 at Portland?) and it would be really good to get a more complete picture. I’d really like to see a full chronology of all the work from 1948-68, at the least.

Works to look out for at Wheatley’s are: “Altar of the Moon”, 1955; “Priest of the Red Temple”, 1956 (which may not be on show); “Philosopher’s Stone”, 1957; “Monk’s Vision”, 1958. At the Portland Gallery are: “Bull God No.5”, 1955; “The White Magician”, undated; “Snail Elements”, 1956; “Game for Girls”, 1957; “Divination”, 1957; “Discovery of the Chariot”, 1958; “Insignias of the Gannet People”, 1958. Both galleries have quite a few other paintings of lesser quality, but those are just the main ones that might look good in reproduction. It’s a chance not to be missed (a few at Portland are on loan from their collectors), because there are some wonderful paintings here. In the flesh, in front of the work itself, is when you can and should make your own mind up, but there are five paintings in this bunch that I think are, as near as damn it, modern masterpieces. “Philosopher’s Stone” and  “Altar of the Moon” at Wheatley’s are both excellent. “The White Magician” is a good place to start at the Portland. It’s as fluid and as embedded in the stuff of paint as a Tintoretto; it shows how to work freely and without restraint, without rules and conceits; it shows how the actuality of art defeats any theory; it shows how to make spaces in painting by changing your mind (more of this later), with large areas of pentimenti painted out by a looming rich ochre soup of great depth. Having arrived at this, you don’t want to change a thing.

“Snail Elements” is amongst the most dazzling of paintings to stand in front of, continuously riveting to look at, larger-than-life, bold as brass, very different from its reproduction. Perhaps greatest of all is “Insignias of the Gannet People”, a rather atypical work of great virtuosity, inexplicable in the way it holds itself together in utmost depth and diversity. Lines that appear as drawing in reproduction do not so much separate as connect; spaces open out within other spaces without ever becoming holes in the fabric; the whole hangs in together with no resort to compositional devices or formats. The surface buzzes with activity, but none of it feels the least bit gratuitous – or even gestural. Wonderful painting (it’s a particularly good work to look at after the Gary Wraggs), painted in 1958, bloody hell.

Is any of this work abstract? Between 1950 and 1960, when Davie was making some of the very best paintings by anyone anywhere, including his more celebrated American peers, the question presents itself, because of certain contradictions, as moot. Maybe it’s a question of no consequence – paintings either work or not – but it continues to intrigue me. There are two issues: the first is about the space in a painting, and whether it is possible to make “abstract” space (I think it is not); and the second is the business of a spontaneous reworking of a painting by the partial or full obliteration of one impulsive plastic expression by a succeeding and conflicting one (or more), which is a wholly abstract methodology. These two contradictory conditions are bound inextricably together in early Davie.

Space is space; we can surely only read space in a painting as representational. How else do we know it as spatial, other than through our physical/visual knowledge of the three-dimensional world, its proximities and its distances? Can a spatial painting ever be wholly abstract? The natural interest and specificity of painting’s figurative spatiality can be substituted for by a more ambiguous materiality of paint and canvas (as in, say, the works in “Enantiodromia”, in extreme example, and especially the often rather handsome Simon Callerys, which tend to be non-spatial and rely upon the appeal to minimal-object aesthetics of their carefully deconstructed materiality), and/or the interest of complex and subtle-but-powerful colour relations (painters like Alan Gouk and Fred Pollock, who make spatial works through coloured planes in parallel before and behind the picture plane. And since colour requires some sort of form to carry it, yet the desire here is not to dominate it, there is a tendency with this work to revert to a known and simple compositional format). But not to create significant and complex spaces in painting seems to me a loss that has yet to be fully compensated for by privileging either materiality or colour, or any other newer concerns. In Davie’s work both materiality and colour are amply utilised, but they frequently remain secondary to his search for a viable spatiality, which is where his invention and discovery is in greatest abundance and diversity. For example, “Philosopher’s Stone”, 1957, can be read as a picture-space of a pair of fabulous and complex paint-falls (they really are wonderful!) cascading out of billowing net curtains in front of and through a blue pond/box which has a red sail-boat/kite in the middle; all set in a green landscape with a horizon-line. There is a giant’s hand coming in from the right… whatever! It all works. And it is not really any of those things. Davie loads his pictures from this period, especially after 1955, with things that look a bit like parts of the real world – amoebas and plant-life, writhing bodies and dragons, pseudo-organic life-forms with and without shading, often set in orthogonal architectures that may or may not be conventionally modelled. His range of invention is dazzling, unmatched. How does he get away with it all, I’d like to know! Sheer talent and judgement? On the whole he falls on the right side of reconciling all these crazy things in space with the two-dimensionality of surface, and that takes some doing. Sometimes they fail; they become too flattened on the picture-plane and lose the space. Such weaker paintings are often much less worked, born of far fewer gestural impulses, being somewhat “thrown-off”, and are often the most non-representational – for example, “Rabbit Moves”, 1964. By contrast, the later symbolist works, after about 1965, like “Fairy Tree No.5”, 1971, go the opposite way. They too represent imaginary things in made-up representational architectures, but by then the surreal symbolic imagery has all but taken over and all reconciliation between imagery and painting is forgone. Not to put too fine a point on it, I think, like many people, that by 1965 Davie has lost the true knack.

Such a reconciliation of two and three-dimensions is a delicate balance in painting. We’ve had some discussion on abcrit lately about layering (in Gary Wragg’s work, particularly); painting is literally composed of it, one layer of paint over another. But it can be more; paint’s greatest potency and appeal to me is its ability to wrest three-dimensional form from two-dimensions without compromise to the latter. It is not just one layer behind another, it is one complex “thing” behind another, seen from a viewpoint (despite the claims of Cubism). The resounding force of the layered patch of paint that makes the light that defines the thumb of the right hand of Rembrandt’s “Saskia in Arcadian Costume” (National Gallery) breaks open and elaborates the three-dimensionality of the whole figure, and so demolishes but then simultaneously re-establishes and re-defines the two-dimensionality of the canvas on which it is painted. Behind the pressure of the thumb is the tip of the forefinger; behind the forefinger is the gnarled wooden staff; beyond which is the straightened little finger; next to the staff, but a little set back, is the material of Saskia’s sleeve. And between and behind the staff and the sleeve is space. We know and believe in the continuity of these things, even when we can see only a fraction of their total. And we know it as a far richer, more complex thing than just layering. That knowledge seems crucial, and enables us often to read even the least-modelled of Matisses as much more than a picture plane. We believe in the dual reality of both the three-dimensional space and the two-dimensional painting. Abstract painting struggles to derive value from this dual property of paint that figurative painting takes easily in its stride, and sometimes to the highest levels.

There is a painting by Alan Davie called “Look in 2”, 1955, which I saw at the London Art Fair a couple of years ago, which comprises some sort of rounded opening hanging between heavy billowing curtains (velvet this time, not net!), and in the opening are slashings and scrawlings of all sorts in black, red, blue and yellow. This immensely lively and spontaneous onslaught of insect-head scratchings quite obviously continues behind the black outline and under the grey surround, suggesting space behind and beyond or through something. There remains a vestige of this continuation of spatter in the undefined small circle that pins the hole/head /stitched-baseball-thing to the curtain on its left-hand side. Then you begin to notice that the spatterings are both under and over the black outline; particularly the yellow on the right, which disappears behind at the top and overlaps at the bottom. So too the orange on the left seems both behind and in front. This is a little more complex than just layering. Or, if it’s a layer, it’s three-dimensionally warped, no longer just in parallel to the picture plane. Warped, spatial, yet it remains in touch with its two-dimensionality. But figurative..?

Well, the space might be figurative, but the methodology is all abstract. This is testified to by the massive amount of underpainting visible in a lot of the best paintings. Go see the amount of it in “Altar of the Moon” or “The White Magician”. It’s also demonstrated by the film of him at work, now showing in the display at Tate Britain, where you can watch him re-invent a picture, layer after layer, time after time, working fast in one burst after another, totally immersed (the film veers towards self-parody at times, but we are in 1961, a little past his very best). Such destruction and rebuilding, such complex layering of changing intentions, are a true part of the anti-programmatical methodology of real abstract art, and antithetical to not only figurative art (yes, even including Matisse, the great re-configurer), but also to the more conventional (I’m tempted to say “academic”) processes of “abstraction”, which tends to stick to and develop, often through simplification, the more fixed and singular compositional arrangement or format that they began with. Davie’s best paintings don’t simplify, they gain complexity as they go; they mutate significantly; they don’t start with their “figuration”, or the “image”, if that’s what it is; no, it’s where they end up, having started from nothing, with random splurges and splashes, dabs and spatters to get things going. True, they do go into a final phase of consolidation, wherein forms are picked out with lines, sometimes solidified and surrounded by backgrounds, but to varying degrees the original complexities remain to inform the final vision, and to make it supple and resonant. And it’s important to remember that when the first scramblings of paint were put onto works like “Philosopher’s Stone” or “Look In 2”, no conception of the finished form of the work was in place. These paintings remain to the last deeply spontaneous works; the action, the reaction, the resolution, all grasped in a moment, yet the result of many, many moments. Maybe this complexity is why I relate to the best early paintings, despite their figuration, as if they matched in some quite precise way my own anticipation of a fully abstract art.

Published on the abstractcritical website     May 2014

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Objectivity and Art

The science correspondent of the Guardian, Alok Jha, writing of the merits of the ‘scientific method’ of evidential and experimental assessment in scientific discovery in an article entitled ‘Acknowledging mistakes is key to advancement – and not just in science’ (18th November 2011), wrote this:

‘Uncertainty, error and doubt are all confounding factors in whatever method you use to get at the truth. Acknowledging it and developing methods against it has been absorbed into scientific thinking – the most consistently successful method humans have developed to discover truth – and it seems churlish not to learn that lesson for the rest of life too.’

And so what about art? By what methods does the artworld uphold claims of integrity, and counter the undermining of value by falsity and error, or even outright fraud? I don’t refer to the copying of artworks by forgers, which is but a small crime of a pecuniary nature, but allude to the production of paintings and sculptures that have only a negative contribution to those disciplines; works that undermine the coherence and confound the recognition, particularly for young people just beginning to look at art, of what is truly and properly visual; works that are gratuitous additions to the increasing excesses of conceptual and counterfeit art with overweening pretentions to significance. Who can still think that there is none of this going on in contemporary art? Who can still believe in the truthfulness of the artworld and its concomitant art-market? The winners at the moment are the most superficial of wheeler-dealers, who see contemporary art as a means to buck the laws on money-laundering and insider-trading. Well, it’s probably no more corrupt than late 19th century Paris, but its ubiquity and unaccountability makes for a virtual world-wide monoculture, an unchallengeable monopoly propagating poor values based upon downgraded and superficial subjectivity.

Where is our correspondingly objective ‘artistic method’? The irony here is that subjectivity – that is, the evaluation of deeply-held ‘feelings’ about our responses to art – is central to the objective appraisal of art’s real achievements. What is more, it is likely true to say that the same human emotional responses govern the supposedly more objective approach to science too; the scientific method perhaps depends equally upon feelings and hunches and leaps of imagination for its progression. This is not a contradiction; subjectivity and objectivity are in their proper form complementary. But in our refusal to acknowledge the objective side of looking at art, and our insistence upon the imperatives of feeling in each of us individually, we have no forum in which those feelings can be evaluated. All well and good, but some feelings about the world outside of ourselves – which includes both art and science – are deeper and truer than others; some individuals can access and articulate those deeper feelings more easily and effectively than others, and such people should be counted upon to provide insight. But we are now in the realms of pandering to everyone’s most puerile ability to interpret art – everyone from a five year-old to Alain de Botton can have their (equal) say in what art ‘means’ to them, without in the least paying attention to what is in front of their eyes; and most importantly, without having to test those feeling for authenticity in the spotlight of some sort of public scrutiny. There is no artistic equivalent of the peer review that takes place in the scientific world.

We need the means to discuss art as openly and as objectively as possible, and we need to discuss only the things about art that rightly belong in the public realm – what are the ‘facts’ of its appearance, what do they do, and how do they work together (if they do). The problem is that the kind of ‘logic’ we need to use to feed our argumentative discussions is a visual logic, based upon what we see, what the artwork actively ‘does’ and, yes, how it ‘feels’ – an example might be the perfect logic of a Cézanne passage of form, a ‘sequence-in-depth’, the achievement of unity from diversity, and the value of which is, as far as it is possible to be certain, an objective ‘fact’. The ‘testability’ required must have some such degree of objectivity, yet it needs to be nevertheless receptive to illusionistic qualities rather than literal truths, a ‘reality of illusion’, subject as this is to the vagaries of individual sensibility and proclivity. This makes for some difficulty; it is in truth a task for really good writers and critics, but in their wretched absence abstract artists must themselves make the best job they can of it. The truth about painting and sculpture is a moving target, and that is part and parcel of its value. This does not mean that we should give up on it. In science, they perhaps have a better accommodation of the ambiguity inherent in the ‘pursuit of truth’ than us artists do, in as much as any postulated theory cannot be considered properly scientific unless you can think of an experiment that could falsify it. Science is not a set of fixed facts, but a group of things that are considered ‘the least wrong’ at any moment in time; and thus always subject to revision and/or progression. Would that art were a little more like this, for in art we are forever resurrecting ideas that would be laughed out-of-court by a more objective artistic discourse. In abstract art, many bad ideas come back around again that have been played out at least once before. I don’t need to enumerate them; you can pick your own. Openly discussing the objective shortcomings of bad art should be seen as a necessity and a liberation, rather than the personal affront and embarrassment it usually gives rise to.

The hundred-year history of abstract art has promoted the worst excesses of subjective interpretation, in most cases wilfully encouraged or initiated by the artists themselves. That most seminal if protean movement of abstract art, Abstract Expressionism, was suffused with interpretive intimations of grandiosity and complexity quite beyond its rather modest achievements. As the degree of originality and form in the work deteriorated through the sixties and into the seventies (there are exceptions, of course), so the conceptual content increased – Conceptual Art is a direct consequence of Minimalism, and, bizarrely, it could be said that Minimalism is a direct consequence of the Abstract Expressionist desire for simplistic abstract art to embrace profound concepts way beyond its means (to the point of artistic Nihilism). If a few stripes can encompass profundity, why strive for anything more demanding or complex?

The rump of abstract art now, particularly contemporary abstract painting, seems for the most part (again, there are exceptions) content to acknowledge just how banal it really is, and in Provisionalism and Casualism has actively begun to revel in it (though these pseudo-movements secretly, one feels, still yearn to be acknowledged as profound manifestations of truths-to-something-or-other). It remains to be seen whether abstract art can really deliver profundity and sublimity, like the best of figurative painting, by becoming truly and profoundly original in the new complex form(s) that it invents for itself, the new unifications and reconciliations of extremes it can achieve, and the new meanings it can embody in so doing.

January 2014

As an adjunct to this essay I would add that if the right attempts at objectivity were to be regularly and consistently applied to the critique of new painting and sculpture, it would assist greatly towards a focus by artists upon exactly the visual values that are required by abstract art for it to progress: i.e., the invention of newer, greater and more coherent forms embodying explicit visual/physical activity. Though not all the participants might agree with me, I see this as the chief raison d’être of the ‘Brancaster Chronicles’, which have the makings of a system of peer review which attempts to advise the artist objectively of their achievements to date.

Such deliberations upon the ‘thing that is being looked at’ and ‘what can be seen’, as opposed to suppositions about the artist’s concepts or intentions, are direct descendants of the ‘crits’ held at St. Martin’s School of Art instigated in the sixties by Anthony Caro and others. This empirical viewpoint, which may yet come to be viewed as Caro’s greatest legacy to abstract art, is a clear example of how ‘feelings’ about art were put forward into a ‘public realm’ (of sorts) in order to be tried and tested and properly ‘aired’. They may well have been, in retrospect, rather crude, unwieldy and often unwittingly destructive attempts at gaining an objective viewpoint derived from subjective feeling; but we are hardly as yet in such an advanced position even now as to enable us to look askance at what was, and still is, a radical and energizing attitude to art school teaching or art criticism generally.

Published on the abstractcritical website     January 2014

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Anthony Caro at Gagosian: some problems of sculpture

‘One of the most important things about sculpture is the way in which the viewer is invited to look at it. Whether s/he looks up, walks around it, whether it corkscrews like a Michelangelo or moves around like a Brâncuşi—the way in which it would be seen was governing how I approached the sculpture for Park Avenue.’
Anthony Caro, Gagosian press release 2013.

‘Caro’s early breakthrough was in taking his sculpture off the plinth and putting the work directly on the ground, often with as many as half a dozen resting points. There is no frontal side or back view: all views are valid, and there is no “right” way to look at the work. This is why photographs are peculiarly misleading…’

Marina Vaizey, The Arts Desk, Tuesday, 11 June 2013

Three-dimensionality is the elephant in the room marked “abstract” in the house of sculpture. It’s a difficult subject for discussion, and a difficult condition for sculptors to address. So why bother with it? Caro doesn’t worry; sometimes he uses it sparingly, sometimes not at all. I think it is the biggest issue in sculpture right now (and possibly in painting too), because in directly addressing it the abstract artist is forced to abandon the narrow and dated (and admittedly often languidly beautiful) two-dimensional planar aesthetics of high modernism, whilst simultaneously rejecting the pratfalls of post-modernist subjective clap-trap. It provides potential and impetus for a new and true way forward. So important do I regard this issue that I frankly think there is no alternative other than to directly confront it – a notion for which I may well be considered narrow-minded. Yet, could we even begin to crack open this particular nut, I’m disposed to think that abstract art would broaden out considerably from its currently unambitious and unoriginal ruts and furrows. Almost anything that one can do that addresses this issue seems to point inexorably toward exciting uncharted waters.

I’m pretty sure that there is no sculptor working now (myself most definitely included) who can honestly claim a sophisticated and advanced understanding of how three-dimensionality, physicality and spatial configuration can properly come together in abstract sculpture. I’m pretty sure there never has been, to date (in the short history of abstract sculpture, I mean). Nor, for that matter, would there appear to be any writers or critics who can provide insight here. It seems to pass everyone by, and the second quote above is an example of a largely innocent yet complete reversal of the truth – Caro is now, even more than before, a pictorial artist who works from very restricted viewpoints, and whose work is consequently photogenic in a way that better sculpture is often not. Vaizey’s unconsidered review, based upon commonplace observations of objecthood rather than specialist acuity about sculpture (and these commonplaces are precisely what many artists, painters and sculptors alike, think of as belonging to the world of abstract sculpture), refers to Caro’s massive “Park Lane” series of works, the results of his abandoned mega-project for NYC which we caught a filmic glimpse of in construction eighteen months ago. These sculptures are now exhibiting in the vast canyons of Gagosian Gallery, King Cross. Caro’s new work has superficial elegance and decoration on a level of endeavour that continues to outstrip his peers and protégés, and to casual observers (and critics) may well appear to demonstrate the height of sculptural sophistication; whereas in reality it comprises a combination of clever technical nous (more commonplaces) and a kind of sculptural naivety practised with absolute confidence, and on an industrial scale.

The architecture of spreading horizontals, familiar from Caro’s celebrated works of the sixties, is to some small degree reprised in this show. The paced-out linear structures of “Early One Morning” and “Prairie” have echoes in the long horizontal pipe-work of the new sculptures. In “Horizon”, 2012, there is even a reiteration of the partial enclosure with a focus of detail in its midst seen first in “Cherry Fair”, 1971. And though these new works are by no means as spatially unencumbered as those early sculptures, being often boxed in or “tail-ended” by heavy-duty plates or window-frame type structures that close off their linear compositions, they do retain a measure of Caro’s seemingly effortless ability to clarify and keep out the clutter. Again, such clarification is far more easily achieved if you are only dealing with one or two limited viewpoints and this work is not by any measure striving for full sculptural three-dimensionality. Look from the end view at some of these works, and, in common with many earlier Caros, the whole thing, clutter or no clutter, disappears.

“Torrents”, the work chosen by the gallery to publicize the show, is perhaps the nearest of Caro’s works of late to a graceful, open arrangement of forms, “out there” in space, fluent, fluid and ornamental, in the grand manner of Matisse-ian and early Caro-esque modernism. Yet, would the Caro of the sixties and seventies have boxed in the huge musical notes of the floating curves and buffers with such a framework as that which the new work relies upon? Think of “Deep North”, 1969-70, or even right back to “Sculpture Two”, 1962, and their comparative lack of restraining or supportive elements. If that degree of spatial freedom was a figment of our collective imaginations, it was a convincing one at the time. “Torrents” is a work of apparently free and easy formalism, the elements disporting themselves with all the flightiness of an angel’s wing in some medieval fancy; yet ever so quickly do these elements succumb to their own literal, lumbering, massive weight and perfunctory assembly, supported as they are by the structural framing elements. No doubt some observers (like Vaizey) find this contradiction enchanting; for myself, I find this collaging of found elements without recourse to any kind of reciprocation or relation other than an optical one (achieved by the commonplace technical proficiency of Caro’s assistants) makes for extreme physical detachment bordering on – nay, embracing – sculptural implausibility. Once I see the trick (usually a mere matter of welding) I lose the illusion, and the work falls into banality. Most of all, what I miss is any kind of personal engagement with material and space above and beyond the tired siren-calls of modernist eye-candy. In this show, the space is beautiful, the sculptures are beautiful (as soon as you walk through the door), and, if you are into this sort of thing, it must look a treat of modernist abstraction. But, as even Caro’s most ardent admirers must surely admit, they don’t repay long scrutiny. This is what I crave most in new abstract art – works that will look better and better the second, third, fourth time around. This is why I have lost faith in the course Caro and his admirers persist in.

It’s not that I can’t see what he’s doing. The best work in the show, “Laughter and Crying”, which is the first work you address as you enter the main gallery, has as the main event of its occupation of space some rather exciting-looking diagonal activity making its way up and back down again, with these climbing forms set against some perhaps rather clichéd but nevertheless actively looping pipework, flicking up and flicking down. The diagonals, at first sight, have some curving and turning activity integral to them; it looks like some real action, like some real content is taking shape; you can imagine a coherence of sorts; things look like they belong, look like they interact, look like they move in concert. So far so good, and it’s a measure of Caro’s craft that he still makes such things happen. These are to some small degree real (illusionistic) things in real (illusionistic) sculpture, and it puts him ahead of the Gormleys and the Whitereads and the Kapoors (or even the Stellas or Serras). That’s not saying much, and it’s enough praise, because now you’ve entered the room, there is no more substance to be added, no discovery yet to be made by further investigation; not even a consolidation of your first view, let alone an interesting counter-argument or complexity; no development or extended dialogue. That’s it! By walking around it you will only undermine what you thought you first saw. Those long horizontal poles go nowhere, have no part to play beyond their literal horizontality, are tethered in space by welding and not by sculptural intent; they end and that’s that, perhaps with a disk/buffer to cap them, but with no move to make them speak of or to one another. They are parallel in space – that’s the only capacity in which they relate; so they occupy space as architecture or as furniture, but not as parts of any larger or more coherently whole sculptural form. That’s just not good enough. And you will find that the interesting stuff that climbs along the diagonal that attracted you to begin with is just by the merest, lightest touch (reinforced by the biggest weld) laid upon – just placed on, not built into – a slender channel section that forms the structure of that initially exciting diagonal. Where is that structure generated? It pretends to so much largesse, and it would be such a joy to walk around a sculpture with such a big, spatial, ambitious promise as this and discover that, yes, there is more to it than first meets the eye, and the space continues/is developed/is amplified. But oh yes! – to walk around the sculpture and discover for yourself some place, somewhere, where two bits of material do more than just get welded to each other, where they become conjoined in some kind of sculptural wedded bliss; somewhere where two bits of stuff together form a new “thing” that suddenly gives you insight into the rest of the work, that somehow unlocks a spatial vision much bigger than any aesthetic cliché. Ha! – but that would not be Caro’s way.

In the opening room of the Royal Academy Summer Show this year, the first thing to see is another big steel sculpture by Caro, and it’s perhaps the worst of the current batch; “Shadows” is a tableau of large-scale side-by-side elements arranged in a row upon a continuous plinth. It’s a configuration Caro has often used before (“After Olympia”, 1986-7; “Promenade”, 1996; etc.), but this time curved around into a semi-circular array. The normal approach to abstract sculpture, wherein the spectator walks around the work, does not apply here; the viewer is asked to remain in one spot whilst the sculpture presents itself as accommodatingly as possible to the static gaze, as a curved frieze; a grand-scale piece of brutalist decoration. The reverse view is a blank. Towards the centre of the work, as addressed from the front, is a tubular element leaning into and against a large buckled steel sheet, as if to suggest it had fallen under gravity and impressed itself conclusively on its yielding neighbour. Nothing remotely so real has happened, of course. The faux physicality of this action is sheer theatre – a “pose” adopted by steel sections, a frozen moment of ersatz sculptural content. It might even have been humorous, had the subject of contemporary sculpture’s reduction to jokedom-all-round not become so sombre a crisis for the discipline. Two key elements of sculpture’s core three-dimensionality, configuration and physicality, are here together parodied and divorced from meaning; the result is a dissolution of sculpture’s true content; a sham.

It is a commonly held view amongst abstract sculptors that the “subject” of sculpture in the early twentieth century went from being the figure to the object, which change thus made it abstract. I don’t really see how this argument stands up. If you are making a sculpture about an object, be it a chair or a bridge or a guitar (even a cubist guitar), or even about an idea of “sculpture as object”, that remains for me some kind of (depleted) figuration or representation. The abstract sculptor cannot rely upon the commonplaces of objects to provide the full and illusionistic three-dimensional qualities sculpture requires. The need is therefore to find three-dimensional content independent of both objecthood and the figure, in which both configuration and physicality take a natural and balanced role. Such content can only be made by spontaneous discovery in the course of working the material; it cannot be pre-determined, and both the organisation of the configuration and the particular nature of each sculpture’s physicality have to be established in this way too. Such discovery is (as it should be) of protracted difficulty, an ongoing but nevertheless properly engaging and all-consuming project. The fact that Caro does not in any way acknowledge this process is entirely his prerogative; but it puts him rather on the outside of any further debate about the future of abstract sculpture.

Published on the abstractcritical website     July 2013

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William Scott and other stuff

I’ve just been to see the Garth Evans exhibition (now ended) at the Longside Gallery, Yorkshire Sculpture Park, setting out his work from the sixties and seventies in a wide-ranging display. Aside from any considerations of the work, it is worth mentioning as an increasingly rare instance of exemplary curation, for which the selector, sculptor Richard Deacon, deserves full credit. All works were given ample space, interesting correspondences were made without being forced, and generally the curation was commendable for its complete invisibility, allowing the work to be seen to its best advantage without commentary.

The rest of my brief Yorkshire sojourn was not to follow suit. A weekend of intense irritation with the vagaries of contemporary curation began at Leeds Art Gallery, in the regular displays, attempting to look at paintings by Courbet and Corot that were hung two feet from the floor (honest!). This seemed to be inadvertent or at least done out of sheer ignorance. Much worse was to follow. There is upstairs in the same museum a new display with a whole jumbled wall of landscape paintings taken from the collection, hung seemingly at random, with a puzzle of a leaflet giving clues as to what was what; and again, with some works at ten feet high and some at two feet; but this time it is deliberate. This display is curated by the 2012 recipient of the Contemporary Art Society’s annual Starting Point Curatorial Fellowship for graduate curators, no less, and is part of some concept “exploring the revision of the landscape tradition in British art”. The fact that you couldn’t actually see some of the work properly didn’t seem to be a bar to their co-opting it for the purposes of furthering some dubious curatorial conceit, without, of course, the consent of the artists involved, since they were mostly dead.

Of course we do this all the time, put on shows of dead artists’ work, arranged in ways they would have neither understood nor proposed. Well, that’s true; but those artists would probably go along with the conceit so long as their art was well shown and in conducive company. If you are to press upon these works your curatorial self-importance at their expense, the least you can do is make sure they can be seen properly. Anything else is the height of discourtesy.

A fuss about nothing? Maybe; but things didn’t improve. Over at the Hepworth, Wakefield, the object of my visit, the William Scott retrospective, which I will get to shortly, is paired with an exhibition by Haroon Mirza. I’ll let the Hepworth explain:

“The first gallery space will feature bright auras of light that will illuminate a display featuring key works from The Hepworth Wakefield’s collection. Operating in sequence, the light will accentuate the sculptures and paintings, and the ways in which they are displayed.”

So basically this artist has appropriated the works of other artists from the Hepworth collection, presumably with the full connivance of Hepworth’s directors and curators, bunched a few together in anomalous and badly set-out groups on the floor, and surrounded them with flashing neon lights and mind-fucking noises, so you can’t really see them any more. OK, I admit this kind of thing is not my kind of thing, but I could have walked past without bothering, because you see this sort of unfocussed installation all the time (see Armleder elsewhere on this site); but the sheer wretched cheek of taking some other artist’s hard-worked piece and using them to make your own statement about something or other – probably about curation itself, I suppose – when in fact they might have had something far more important than you to say, had you given them the chance, is just beyond any redemption. I don’t really recall what the works were that Mirza had purloined (a blue funk having set in by this stage; but there was definitely a big Henry Moore wood-carving in there somewhere), but even if I absolutely hated someone’s artwork (like the Henry Moore) I would never ever, ever even consider dissing them to this extent. You just should not do this to another artist’s work.

And so we come to the William Scott – a little rankled by this time, and with curation itself in the forefront of my mind, which is exactly where it shouldn’t be; and attempting to turn a deaf ear to the horrid noises emanating from the Mirza display (which in itself is an offense in a visual art gallery). Happily, the Scott is well-curated. I might have asked for a few less works or an extra room or two (those occupied by Mirza would have done nicely), and perhaps a lessening in the label department. Oh, and a little more coherence in chronology would have helped, since the show started with a room of early work, then got a bit mixed between themes and timelines after that, so you had to jump around, guessing at development. But on the whole, reasonably well hung; though I’m not sure why they purposely excluded daylight. I think that’s all my quibbles…

So, what about the art? Well, for me, Scott is, and remains even after this show, disappointing. Such limited colour, such a dependency upon monochromatic tonal variation, and such a reliance on drawing – this almost in contradiction of the materiality of the paint, which is sometimes exquisite, sometimes unpleasant – does not make for great painting in my canon. It’s all too careful and too contrived, a slightly perverse variety of consciously brought-about inadvertency. The constant paring down of the image from complexity to simplicity seems wed to an overshadowing desire by the artist for everything to most definitely and irreversibly become art, a desire which not only jumps the gun, but is too generalised an ambition to make the construct of the space in any of the paintings specific enough. The paint’s materiality serves sometimes to squeeze the space out of the painting, flattening everything to line, the opposite of its potential. Three-dimensional space becomes two-dimensional interval. In Scott’s own words: “All kinds of pictures that I like in the world seem to be flat”. So that was his thing, to flatten everything. Unfortunately, it’s not my thing.

This flatness surely means that these works are perilously close at times to tasteful design, particularly the later paintings. When they are not, when they are at their best for me, they are at their most figurative, and displaying the influence, not of Bonnard (though he is certainly present in the net-like all-over structures of the table-top still-lives), certainly not of Matisse, not even of de Staël, who supposedly impressed him greatly in a London show in 1952, but mainly of Picasso. They are nowhere near as good, nowhere near as inventive, nowhere near as spatially manipulative as Picasso, but the best painting in the show I thought was Winter Still Life from 1956, which along with a few other works has a Picasso-esque strength to the awkwardness of the drawing. On the whole, I rather dislike Scott’s conflation of the human figure and the still-life or landscape, the suggestion that a saucepan handle can stretch like an arm, that a table top looks like a squared-off figure with legs, or that a harbour jetty is a thrusting phallic symbol; all of which are a conscious anthropomorphizing on his part. It’s an ambiguity or two too far for me, a gratuitous metaphor which in reverse is a slightly distasteful objectification of the female body.

I have begun to be cagey (just cagey, not dismissive) about shows of modern art where a group of similar or related works are shown together – installed – in such a way as to add up to more than the sum of their parts. I’m sure this attitude has developed out of my suspicion and dislike of the kind of overblown curatorial exercises that I’ve detailed above. But I couldn’t help but notice that a quick walk through the Scott to begin with made it look quite interesting and varied. A more thoughtful and lengthy appraisal of the paintings as individual artworks pretty much put paid to that view. I think the latter is a truer picture of the achievement on offer.

I felt even a little bit of this worry about the Garth Evans – that the show as a whole, so beautifully curated by Deacon, was interesting and varied, almost vivid, but the discrete pieces, for all their rigour and thoughtfulness, were a little too minimal to be individually forthcoming. This seems to me an ongoing dilemma of modernist art. And how many shows do we now see of abstract paintings set out as an array, rather than singularly (I can think of several recently; Mary Heilmann springs to mind); and I really do mistrust that. I have experienced firsthand many times my own desire to put together an exhibition that in and of itself looks good, regardless of the merits of individual pictures or sculptures and how those specific characteristics might best be brought out. This seems to me to be the acceptable thin end of a wedge that has now been driven a long way in. Somehow, the rise and rise of curation has played back into the art, a point made before on this site. Installation art is, after all, essentially curation. Perhaps we need to ask why exactly we are showing works together at all. If it is to reinforce and consolidate weaknesses in individual works (which is, in extremis, what happens in the Armleder Dairy show, for example) rather than to elicit, perhaps by contrast, the strengths and inherent qualities of individual works, then perhaps in viewing such exhibitions we should exercise some caution and take extra time to separate what it is the artist has constructed from what it is the curator has devised. Of course, seeing works side by side can have huge benefits, and many a comparison is beneficial to both works. But we should resist seeing the show as the artwork.

I must just mention the redeeming and abiding feature of my West Yorkshire weekend. In amongst those randomly hung landscape paintings at Leeds was a small Constable I had never seen before; in fact I’d never even taken notice of it in reproduction. “Stour Valley and Dedham Vale” pictures a couple of guys digging out a dunghill in the foreground, with a field sweeping down to a fair old distance on the right, a glimpse through trees of a road; then beyond the trees to the Suffolk landscape. It’s a really great example of what Patrick Heron here describes:

“Constable’s eye proved over and over again to be the most accurate eye in the history of painting for recording recession. Yet always the deep distances and horizons are perfectly accommodated to the picture surface. Never in Constable was profound spatial accuracy disruptive of the most delectably organised surface-design.”

Interesting to compare that to the previous statement about flatness by Heron’s mate, Scott. This Constable sung out from twenty meters, continued to convince from two meters, was accurate to the last two millimeters, held me captivated by the sheer particularity and physicality of the space the artist had brought into being, the deep recession of the land held and reinforced by the matching recession of the sky in a manner seemingly unknown to other landscape artists (for which insight I have to thank my wife), putting the rest of the thirty-odd paintings on the same wall to flight as “mere flat pictures of landscape” (wife again) rather than art with a telling sense of purpose; it also shamed the conceit of the curator, who had attempted to use it for their own ends, but whose game it would not play; and it left me buzzing throughout the weekend, able in spite of the worst excesses of curation encountered to keep in mind the intense individual reality of great art.

Published on the abstractcritical website     May 2013

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Alan Davie and Albert Irvin at Gimpel Fils

It must have seemed like a wonderful idea to put these two old boys of abstract art together; both now over ninety and both still working; would that we should all be as lucky, to last so long. It would have been most pleasant to be able to report on an interesting conjunction of these two painterly sensibilities, but their work is in fact so jarringly at odds that this show adds up to less than the sum of its parts; which comprise three early Davies, three very small recent Davies and half a dozen or so recent-ish Irvins. On the one hand you have Davie, able to conjure at will endlessly inventive and varied assemblages of marks, forms, splashes and drips, spatial motifs and recessions, in and out of the picture plane; on the other is Irvin, with a relentless repetition of flat motifs, flat paint, flat colour. The only parallels I can draw between the two of them rests upon a consideration of their respective careers, since in both their cases their early work is by far their best. As to their particular achievements, they are not remotely comparable; Davie is by far and away the greater figure, a painter who, in the fifties, possessed an immense talent for improvised abstract painting, the traces of which talent are even now still perhaps just discernible, though without the concomitant ambition.

The two paintings in the current show at Gimpel Fils that are to be taken with some seriousness are both by Davie, both early. ‘Bubble Figure No1’ from 1954 is not a great painting, but it is good, and not least remarkable for the scant amount of paint used in the achievement of a whole and plausible space-image. Like most Davies, it is much better in the flesh than in reproduction, and not until you see it thus do you realise that most of the surface is just bare hardboard, with the whole picture scraped on with about threepence-worth of paint. Yet it still convinces. That in itself is quite exhilarating.

The other good work here is ‘Trio for Bones’ from 1960, a large-scale triptych that bears a close relationship to a work previously discussed on this site, ‘Patrick’s Delight’, from the same year. Despite sharing a number of elements, these two paintings are really quite different in result, and if I were to say ‘Trio for Bones’ is nowhere near as good, that would still allow for it to be a very good painting, well worth seeing. It has lots of really interesting and complex stuff happening, and any analysis on one viewing would probably fall down on a second.

‘Trio for Bones’ and ‘Patrick’s Delight’ both come at the end of an extraordinary decade for Davie, which saw a succession of really great paintings (when I say ‘great’ I don’t mean ‘super’, I mean ‘magnificent’), beginning with paintings like ‘Jingling Space’ and ‘Altar of the Blue Diamond’ of 1950. Thus began a period when Davie could do little wrong. His inventiveness seemed to run on endlessly, with a method of ‘drawing-up’ a painting into existence with swirling medleys of biomorphic forms and spattered gestures, set off in semi-architectural structures; ambiguous as to subject matter, but uncompromised in their pictorial endeavour. This direction of travel was of course derived from Pollock and works such as ‘Guardians of the Secret’, 1943; no matter, it was a good place to start from, and perhaps even Pollock didn’t possess such unstinting and uncompromised natural abilities.

Davie’s creativity flowed without check. The list of first-rate paintings from the fifties would be rather long, but I’d like to recommend a few: ‘Fetish with a Yellow Background’, 1954; Bull God No1’, 1955: ‘Fate of the Lovely Dragon’, 1955; ‘Sacrifice’, 1956; ‘Priest of the Red Temple’, 1056; ‘Woman Bewitched by the Moon No1’, 1956; ‘Martyrdom of St. Catherine’, 1956; ‘Game for Girls’, 1957 (Davie is one of the few artists who could occasionally incorporate writing successfully into his pictures – unlike, say, Twombly); ‘Blue Bubble’, 1957; ‘Red Parrot Joy’, 1960; any and all of which, with many more, you could justifiably call ‘great’. And so to 1960, and ‘Patrick’s Delight’, which is an undoubted masterpiece that could hold its own in just about any company. It is the culmination of a decade when Davie was without equal as a painter in the UK, possibly in the world.

But then again, also from 1960, is the work in the present show, ‘Trio for Bones’; using many similar devices and strategies for picture-making as ‘Patrick’s Delight’, but not really coming together in such a breathtaking and stately manner, not really pulling all the parts together and working them on into an endlessly compelling whole. More of a puzzle, less of a lucid expression of physicality, ‘Trio for Bones’ begins to show the drift into graphic iconography and cartoon metaphorical imagery that characterises Davie’s work from then on. How he thus far had avoided such difficulties, considering the ‘drawn-up’ character of most of the work, is one of the extraordinary delights of that period. Sheer bloody-minded improvised talent seemed to have kept him blazing through the traps. Maybe using Pollock’s thinking was the key, because as soon as Davie’s own thinking kicked in, as soon as the philosophising and mythologizing and storytelling started, the game was up, pictorially.

And so what about Mr. Irvin? I confess I don’t have much to say. He’s a very nice chap, and it is fantastic that he still carries on; and he did some good work in the seventies, as a recent showing at Canary Wharf demonstrated. Bold, if somewhat limited (but then what wasn’t limited in the seventies?), his paintings then had a real physical touch and a gestural explicitness. Even through the eighties there were some robust moves and quite inventive build-ups. But in the late eighties and early nineties the two motifs which have come to characterise his work for over two decades now, the loosely-painted ‘noughts-and-crosses’ checks and the circular ‘flower-heads’ were developed, and a little later the pale, close-toned colours began to appear. Since then the work has become deeply formulaic (coinciding, of course, with his dramatic commercial success! Good luck to him), and seems to get flatter and flatter (in all senses); it’s become wallpaper. Seeing these recent Irvins next to a couple of good Davies does them no favours. Irvin’s stripes, splotches and splashes seem stylised and mechanical alongside the real thing; which is what the Davies undoubtedly are.

Published on the abstractcritical website     May 2013

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Gillian Ayres: Paintings from the 50’s

Jerwood Gallery, Hastings.

In an article written in 1957 and recently re-published by Artnews Irving Sandler discusses the early abstract paintings of Joan Mitchell and the relationship between her ‘muse’ for the work, provided by landscape or event, and its synthesis as a non-representational image. In particular, he suggests how “…a recollected landscape provides the initial impulse… transformed in the artist’s imagination by feelings inspired by…” very specific places and/or incidents in those places. He continues: “Those feelings which she strives to express she defines as ‘the qualities which differentiate a line of poetry from a line of prose’. However, emotion must have an outside reference [my italics], and nature furnishes the external substance of her work.”

The relationship between subject matter and abstract art continues to confound. Are we discussing a process of abstracting, from figurative subject to abstract object? Or is real abstract art only a process in and of the material? Is all art, including abstract art, necessarily and unavoidably a metaphor; and perhaps most critically of all, is “emotion must have an outside reference” a true statement for abstract art; can we not just emote about ‘stuff’? And do we, in any case, want this sort of emotional entanglement whilst we are looking?

I have just recently been to see the wonderful and first rate show of early paintings by Gillian Ayres (from the late fifties, the exact same period Sandler was writing about Mitchell) at the Jerwood Gallery, Hastings. Writing in the exhibition catalogue, the Director of the Jerwood Foundation, Lara Wardle, seems to me to rather hedge her bets:

“Ayres technique of working straight onto the board…without pre-planning gives her work a directness, which is communicated to the viewer through the paint surface. The splashes and drips can be followed across the surface and the history of the painting’s creation can be uncovered by the deciphering of the layers applied. In this way the paintings encourage the viewer to contemplate the event of their creation; the enjoyment that Ayres had in working on them becomes an enjoyment that the viewer can share in looking at the works and following this process.”

OK, so far so good, as far as abstract painting as process goes, though I don’t personally want to interrogate the surface of a painting in quite this way, at least not any more than is necessary to get at the painterly intent of it.  I’m also not sure that we can really have any knowledge of whether Ayres enjoyed making these works at the time, or that we can knowingly share in that experience, even if it were so. Is this yet another fallacy of the emotive content of abstract art, this vicariously felt experience of the act of making?

Wardle continues:

“The paintings are pure abstract works, which do not require interpretation; instead the areas of bold colour and history of mark-making become the subject of the works.”

Well, that’s pretty unequivocal; process has become subject, a familiar and tired post-modern idea. But hang on; Wardle carries on without break:

“Although Ayres has used ‘Untitled’ to caption some of the works, many others from this period have a title which suggests a subject, place or in some cases a sense of movement, for example: Cumuli, 1959; Unstill Centre, 1959; and Muster, 1960.

Cwm Bran, 1959, and Cwm, 1959, refer to a town in Wales and Ayres… visited Wales on a number of occasions to walk and climb the wild, mountainous landscape. Mel Gooding, in his comprehensive monograph on Ayres, notes that they climbed the mountain, Cader Idris at least seventeen times and he writes, ‘Climbing to the top of Cader Idris it is exhilarating to pass through smoky clouds, mist-blinded, to emerge then into bright sunlight and the rediscovery of colour and look up to see the high cumulus rising into clear blue skies, piling billow upon billow, and down to see the lower mists now disguising ridge and gully, erasing the view of Llyn-y-Cau.’ This translation of an experience of landscape into a painting relates Ayres’s work to artists, such as Turner, Constable and James Ward whose paintings she has admired on visits to the National Gallery and Tate.”

No, no, no. Maybe I have a shortfall in the imagination department, though I suspect not, but I spent three hours with these works and not once was a billowing cloud or towering Welsh mountain evoked for me. I didn’t think of any such thing for even a moment; until, that is, I later came to read the catalogue. Ayres, I’m convinced, in these early paintings, is not creating metaphors or signs; only (I say only!) creating relational entities in a marvellous and comprehensive variety of invention. To see the elements of these works as anything else; to read them as existing as separate translatable items in a catalogue of metaphoric prompts; to see singular parts in literal isolation as being apart from the relational conversation to which they contribute; is to diminish their considerable power as real, abstract, spatial participants in real, abstract, spatial paintings. The remarkable thing about this set of works is how well they avoid both metaphor and depiction, positioning themselves almost perfectly in the realm of the genuinely abstract.

Would our appreciation and comprehension of these paintings in any way be advanced by the evocation of landscape, or Mel Gooding’s ‘billow upon billow’? My resolute view is that if we should immediately see clouds and mists and mountain-tops and valleys etc. when we look at these paintings, we would be immensely misled. But then too, the alternative interpretation of Wardle is just as inappropriate; we would be equally misled to consider this work as being focussed upon process, showcasing the materials and the activities of the act of painting; for indeed, this is just another kind of illegitimate metaphor.

Far from concentrating upon their own materiality, I very much like the fact that these works are really quite modest and meagre in their use of paint, judicious in the means of manufacture, and refreshingly sparing in their use of colour. The varied thinness of the paint is one very keen factor in their spaciousness; it is undoubtedly this quality of spaciousness which is the key attribute of these works. It is a spaciousness which at its best is not born of depiction or descriptiveness, but of an intentional and progressive abstract-ness. What makes this not only a very good show, but also a very interesting show, is the fact that you can follow the nurturing of this quality, and the subtle but distinct shift of Ayres accomplishments as a painter which over a two or three year period brings it about; from the Hampstead Mural of 1957 through to perhaps the best two works in the show, untitled and Muster, both of 1960.

And it is not that I would particularly want to disparage the earlier work here; the ‘Hampstead Mural’ is not perhaps her finest Tachiste painting from the fifties, but it really is still very good (for absolute confirmation, compare it with the dreadful  Katie Pratt from the Jerwood permanent collection intruding into the show from the next room). But it perhaps suffers just a little from the commonplace, in as far as it is hard not to read the large dark areas of blue, black and purple in the larger panels as figurative ‘voids’, in front of which hover, rather too insistently and optically, the white and coloured blobs, splurges and whorls of a slightly overstressed ‘foreground’. The white in particular seems to jump about a little too ambiguously. I’m probably saying here that they are too tonal, yet I’m conscious of the fact that the highest colour in the whole show is in these works. No doubt some painter can straighten me out on this point.

(I am reminded that extremes of this rather dubious spatial descriptiveness in abstract painting exist in the late work of, for example, John Hoyland and Jules Olitski, both of whom at the end of their careers turned from making good, if limited, abstract paintings, to making rather awful pictures resembling planets, galaxies, nebulas and such like – attempting the spaces of ‘the abstract sublime’ by way of Star Trek. Dennis Bowen was another prime example of this tendency. Ayres avoids these fancies altogether.)

The biggest painting in the show, the double vertical panel of ‘Cumuli’, 1959, shares just a touch of the Hampstead Mural’s overwrought spatial deliberations; its vertical lift, for example, is for me a little too insistent. In the rest of the show the elements of the paintings start to sit into the spaces they create much more easily and naturally (and no, I don’t mean they were easier to paint). In ‘Cwm’ and ‘Cwm Bran’ the colour/paint is so integrated into the spaces of the work that one is hardly aware of it; variety is everywhere, nothing repeats, somehow a complex unity is wrought out of a great diversity. ‘Untitled’ and ‘Muster’, take this even further, with areas of wonderfully modulated and varied spatial blacks and dark greens being used as far more than open backgrounds against which other elements disport; they are fully active participants themselves within the spatial structure as a whole. One of the things that struck me looking at these paintings is how little they make one aware of a picture plane; how very unflat they are; how very un-graphic in every sense; and yet, how true to the integrity of the painted surface. The spaces herein are not wrought out of illusionistic ambiguities, but from plastic certainties.

So how good are these works? For me, they are the best of Ayres’s career. It would have been interesting to directly compare them with slightly later works from 1961 to 1965, such as Scott and Lure, both 1965, where perhaps the influence of William Scott and Patrick Heron is noticeable (and which clearly develop out of works like Muster) and where the elements become more separated and dispersed upon and across what is more decidedly a (usually white or canvas) background, perhaps more of an overt picture plane. The best works in this present show I think make both Scott and Heron (even in his best late-fifties phase) look flat-ish and over-careful, almost over-designed, a little static. That is to exaggerate for the sake of the comparison, but I do want to stress how good these works are. Look, for example at the almost-modelled, roundish-pinkish-thing with ochre and black surround which kind of revolves in from the left of the picture in Muster. Heron never made anything so visual/physical as that. I’d be confident the best of these works would hold their own against any Pollock or Mitchell, though Ayres achievement over her full career comes nowhere near to matching theirs. It is in fact a shame that this zenith is so brief. Nevertheless, she did them, and you can’t take that away from her. They present to me as fine examples of the potential of abstract painting to provide a genuine spatial and plastic experience.

So what about the emoting over our landscape muse? I suspect we will argue endlessly about this, but speaking for myself, I can well do without it. Does an emotional response to art require an outside reference? Perhaps, yes; except to say that the outside reference, for me, is the abstract painting itself. It is outside of me, it is not me, just as a landscape or a life-event is not me. Why can we not look at abstract art, or any art, freely and without the imposition of our own false emotions? In any case, when we look at a mountain or cloud or ocean, do not these things evoke great feelings in themselves? And why do we feel these feelings? Are we seeing mountains as metaphors too? For those who see everything as representing something else, where does that ridiculous chain of association end, or rather, begin?

I think not. I think the opposite. I think that if we are visual people, we can get a big emotional hit out of what is in fact the abstract-ness of a mountain or cloud; and that those mountains and clouds are not personal to me or anyone, they have for the most part no special associations for me or anyone; and yet for all that they are still meaningful to us. Similarly, with art, you can get the real emotional stuff out of the abstract-ness, not the literalness; with the added bonus that art has over nature that it is wrought out of material by a human hand under the sway of a human imagination. The humanity of it communicates naturally, if it is good; you don’t need to load it up with any other baggage.

And by the way, you won’t get this experience from reproductions. I haven’t seen a reproduction of these works anywhere, and especially not in the catalogue, that gets near to properly ‘reproducing’ their genuine achievements. Get to Hastings!

Published on the abstractcritical website     November 2012

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What’s abstract about art?

I have begun recently to think that the terms ‘abstract’ and ‘visual’ are often transposable. This rather makes one or the other of either ‘abstract art’ or ‘visual art’ redundant. All other kinds of art, of which there is aplenty, I consider of a ‘literal’ nature, neither visual nor abstract; visible, but not visual. Personally, I support ‘abstract-ness’ as a requirement of all visual art. I will try to explain this, but first I want to distinguish my viewpoint from that which quite commonly suggests that ‘all art is abstract’; and worse, that all art, figurative or abstract, can be analysed and comprehended as consisting of ‘abstract’ constituents, which we are given to understand as being comprised of, for example: geometric divisions, orthogonal grids, pyramidal structures and suchlike compositional devices; or simple vertical, horizontal or diagonal partitions of colour, in some kind of scheme or pattern. The latter are often given as the structures of abstract art; the former are more often applied to, or superimposed upon, figurative art. They are often bunched together and blithely united as ‘colour, line and form’; if ever there was a meaningless trio, and not the least abstract in any element! But to justify that, I will need to explain my notion of ‘abstract-ness’ through some specific examples. Let’s face it, ‘abstract’ is a very big mess of a word; I may well make things worse.

The Columba Triptych by Rogier Van der Weyden, in the Pinakothek Museum, Munich, is a work of unambiguous expressive naturalism. It is a painting quite resistant to any kind of dry formal analysis, as exampled above. Nor has it an affinity with the flattened picture-plane or the two-dimensional design of much modern painting, particularly modern abstract painting, an aesthetic which has come to be such an integral and unconscious part of our contemporary acceptance and enjoyment of visual art.

This painting by Van der Weyden is something very different, and takes a little more effort to get to grips with. The revelation on offer in this work is that painting might be about something other than – more than! – aesthetics, and that a content-led painting such as this might have something to offer a truly post-modern and post-Post-modern take on abstract art. At the centre of the main panel of the triptych is a passage of interrelated figures or parts of figures. The child, supported but somehow alert and erect of its own volition, is cradled by an array of three hands, one of the mother and two from the first adoring King, all of which are varied and articulated, especially in terms of fingers coming in from different directions and angles. The child has its own hands pronated and its feet supinated, and all these separate elements combine to form a little lucid cluster of three-dimensional interaction. After which comes the attentive head of the King, then his shoulders, arms, and especially his eccentrically draped sleeves, which fall toward the strange pointed hat resting on the floor. This is a very specific and particular, not to say peculiar, ‘baby-hands-head-sleeves-hat-thing’; and prior to Van der Weyden’s imaginative invention of it, it had never ever before or elsewhere existed; certainly not in the real world. As an entity – which I believe it to be, in the sense of a linked visual passage of forms – it is entirely the most extraordinary creation of this artist alone. What’s more, It seems to me to be, in essence, an unnameable, abstract thing.

So this grouping in space of the ‘baby-hands-head-sleeves-hat-thing’ is not a construct of composition, design or geometry. Nor does it stand (in my consciousness) as any kind of metaphor, allegory or semiotic representation. Outside of the painting, this particular ‘thing’ has absolutely no actuality, no meaning; it is indeed completely unavailable for any kind of interpretation – what a relief! Existing as it does within the painting, however, it is not only a coherent and fluid article, but also, of itself, both significant and meaningful, independently of the subject-matter of the painting. It holds your attention, it gathers your gaze. It is just truly wonderful to look at. And whilst I concede that it is certainly a part of a picture of a Nativity scene, with a storyline and all that literary stuff – of course – then so what; there are many, many Nativity paintings, and more than a few that are very similar in lots of ways to the Colombo work; but only this one painting has this one particular passage of form with this very specific meaning.

This is to say nothing yet of this sequence of form being in full correspondence, spatially and plastically, with the poise of the Madonna’s left hand and head; and further, with the cow and the ass behind the Madonna, as they turn their heads for a look, in passing, right to left; and beyond, into the other parts of the painting; the queue of worshippers stacking up to the right, back through the architecture to the landscape seen through windows and doors. My point is this: what is consequential about this work is not to be gained from perusal of the generalities of either the formal composition or the subject matter, but only in the consideration of the particularities of the visual content.

Let’s try a harder one! The Arnolfini Portrait by Jan Van Eyck, in the National Gallery, London, is a work beloved of those seeking out symbols and metaphors as signifiers of extrinsic meaning in visual art, and comes loaded with a whole host of allegorical extras (many of them down to historian Erwin Panofsky, seemingly), every detail having a literary interpretation. The dog is construed as a representation of faithfulness and love (who knew?); the fruits on the window ledge stand for fertility; the discarded shoes signify the sanctity of marriage, and so on. This is charmingly interesting, but not anywhere remotely near to the real meaning of this work. What about the tender humanity of the loving couple (it is often said to be a wedding portrait)? Well, we are a little nearer, but even this subject matter is too generalised to pass as the meaningful content of a great painting. We are being asked to see things of far greater particularity than this in order to extract full measure from our freely-made act of looking. We’d be better off, for example, examining how the cornflower-blue patterned sleeve of the woman’s left arm slides out of from the fur-lined slit of the fabulously ruched, gathered and ornamentally moulded lush green dress. How does that feel? (And no, I don’t mean it necessarily as a sexual thing – look at the look of it, what it does, without reading anything in to it!) Or, more broadly but still specifically related, how about the association between this slight young woman’s innocent laced-bedecked head, as she glances up, and the sallow, cunning face-shape of the man, under that big furry hat? What about the relationship of those forms? If we start to look at these carefully and specifically, as we are invited to do by direction of the whole painting, we can begin to get in touch with Van Eyck’s unstinting act of communication. The meaningful interface here turns entirely upon the ‘look’ of the thing, and how it all very particularly fits together and feels and works. What Van Eyck has done, part by part, passage by passage, is create a whole rationale of feeling, a compelling and total visual argument. OK, those shoes might well be an allegory of ‘the bed chamber being holy ground’ (no, I don’t get that one!), but they are such specific shoes, of such specific form, in such a specific orientation. Don’t we have a feeling straight away for even the relational orientation of these shoes to Arnolfini’s feet, or to the dog, or to the whole space of the room, maybe even to just about everything else in the picture? (The allegory works on any old pair of shoes; the meaning comes just from this pair alone) How can we fail but to have some particular feelings towards them just by looking and taking in and wondering at their very particular shape and form and position? This again gets us closer still to the real meaning of the painting, but you see the problem; this is only one detail! A painting of this quality is both amazingly complex and astoundingly precise about what it means. Not only do we begin here to get a glimpse of what real intrinsic meaning in painting comprises of (and this nameless thing I will call ‘abstract-ness’), but we also begin to see the very particular greatness of great painting. Because the next time you look at it, it will have reinvented itself. The ability to reinvent its own meaning has much to do with its complexity and particularity, and gains nothing at all either from generalised subject-matter or from the ambiguity of geometry. To clarify that; the complexity here is not to be confused with ambiguity.

The human content and meaning in visual art, that which is always present in great art, regardless of the context of how and when it was made and how and when we might see it (though, of course, context can have a huge impact on our own ability to see it properly, through no fault of the painting), is in the woven minutiae of specific feelings that build into a complex web of significance; from the feel of that sleeve through the fur, to the angle of the pointed shoes; even to such things as the ‘verticality’ of the man’s costume, which again has such a particular/peculiar visual character. I’m not for one minute suggesting we look at this work, or any other figurative painting, as if it were abstract. But I am insisting that it’s meaning as a painting is fully embodied in this indescribable, and, from the point of view of trying to pin it down in words, frustratingly mutable, ‘abstract-ness’. This ‘visual art’ thing just will not stand still and take a hit!

And why should it? The truth about good painting and sculpture is that it is a moving target, and that is part and parcel of its value; a great freedom for ‘abstract-ness’, a freedom from interpretation and literalness. What’s more, to continue that centuries-long tradition of the genuinely visual in visual art, I would dare to suggest that we should now be inventing new abstract art that is absolutely on the limits and beyond of what we can currently talk about. Can we find a new abstract content for our new art?

Published on the abstractcritical website     October 2012

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The Snail: Late Matisse in Context.

Matisse’s large gouache découpée work from 1953, The Snail, introduces Tate Modern’s latest themed display of abstract painting and sculpture, self-fulfillingly entitled Structure and Clarity (in contradistinction perhaps to Collapse and Obfuscation, disconsolately showing in some dim lower gallery somewhere?).

The Snail is the second work in the display, but the first to be encountered. What I mean by this is that it is hung, as has often been the case, to give sightlines from a distance, out in the corridor. This is a fair idea, but on this occasion it makes for an unfortunate and irresponsible hang; firstly, all the strip lighting in the corridor is reflected in the glazing, an effect disastrous to the contemplation of the work. I ought at this point to say something along the lines of ‘I can’t believe the curators have let this pass’, but unfortunately I’ve seen similar slackness on more than a few occasions at Tate. Worse has been perpetrated on The Snail itself before now; the hang-before-last had the work within loud earshot of Flanagan & Allen’s musical accompaniment to an early piece of G&G twitishness, making it difficult not to run screaming from the building.

The second problem with the hang is that the very first work in the display, encountered as one enters the first room to approach The Snail and then turns to one’s left, is a painting by the venerable Bridget Riley, Deny II, 1967, an almost-monochrome not-very-optical, rather dull greyish work, with ellipses scattering across the surface in varying shades of discomposure. I have thought about this quite a lot, and can’t yet see any remote kind of connection, correspondence or useful comparison between Deny II and The Snail. I realise that it must be difficult to find partners for The Snail from the Tate’s modern collection (more of this later), but this particular combo leaves me completely non-plussed. I dislike the Riley a lot.

But what of The Snail; what to make of this piece of giant-size paper-cutting, an endgame not only to Matisse’s cut-out period, but to his whole career? Is it any good? In the context of the Riley, it’s tremendous. In the context of the first parts of the Structure and Clarity display – what follows in the next adjoining room is made to look insipid and feeble by the Matisse – it’s tremendous again. It’s big, it’s bold, it’s fabulous colour, it’s simple bold design… what! Design? And yet it is and it isn’t.

Here’s a quote I recently noticed from Rowan Moore in the Observer, talking about B of the Bang by Thomas Heatherwick:

‘It looked like a sculpture, but you searched in vain for signs of introspection or reflection and intimations of complexity or revelation, such as you might hope for in a real work of art. It was just an exclamation of upbeatness, a logo in 3D.’

Actually, it never did look like a sculpture, not for one second; and that it might ever have been considered as such goes to show how degraded the notion of abstract art has become in the eyes of even an intelligent commentator such as Moore. It seems to me an important and relevant question to ask (time and again) about abstract art: what does distinguish it from design? Am I comparing B of the Bang with The Snail? No, but Matisse’s late work does contribute quite prominently, if not iconically, to a certain strand in the conjunction of modernism and abstraction which blurs the distinction between art and design, and more specifically between abstract painting and the decorative and applied arts. A rather large percentage of abstract painting over the last fifty years and more has put itself directly into the visual territory of textiles, quilts and other kinds of decoration. For my money, there is a quite considerable body of the latter which is of greater visual interest and quality than the former. Calling a thing a painting rather than a quilt confers no special status; but the impasse which is currently experienced in abstract art (there is one!) is at least in part due to the downgrading of expectation and ambition for what visual art can really deliver, which is well summarised by Moore’s phrase ‘complexity and revelation’; to the point where a man like Heatherwick can ever be considered to be capable of delivering a large-scale ‘abstract’ public sculpture of any substance.

The Snail is a revered work of modernism, one that takes its subject matter – if it has one – lightly, as modernism supposedly should, and appears to move into areas of spontaneous action, free and clear of ‘introspection or reflection’. It has nothing ostensibly to do with snails, not in a symbolic or realistic way; it has a kind of child-like or poetic approximation to a recognisable image, I suppose, but I find it slips away pretty quickly; and I don’t believe the story of Matisse drawing snails directly has any great bearing on the work. I’m very tempted to ignore ‘snail-ness’ and go with the alternative title Matisse himself gave it – La Composition Chromatique. This certainly implies abstraction, more so than anything else in Matisse’s oeuvre, though it also feels strangely deflating.

I’ve always considered Matisse’s greatest contribution to art not his colour, which is undoubtedly exceptional, but his inventive painterly architectures (in contradistinction to ‘compositions’, I think of ‘architectures’ in painting as spatial constructs not subject to a too-limiting two-dimensionality, and thus perhaps better able to steer clear of ‘design’, though this distinction is simplistic). Of course, those inventive architectures utilise inventive colour, but to a purpose and not for its own sake (is this part of its distinction from design?). On a recent Paris sortie I by chance encountered a handful of Matisses – in different locations, different collections, from different periods – all positioning themselves in different ways at the very focussed centre of what painting means; reasserting what it does (what, in a way, it has always done), what it delivers, by the act of continual reinvention; finding yet more new ways to keep it alive – and of course, keep it keenly separate from design and the applied arts even when in the act of using elements of those very disciplines to elaborate and enrich the spatial structures of his painting. What I mean by ‘the focussed centre of painting’ of course I couldn’t possibly identify with precision, and I have no wish to be prescriptive about it. Would it pass to say that never did Matisse in my view once fall away from the most direct of paths in painting, experimenting, coaxing and consolidating, under the sway of his grand ambitions for art, detectable from the start of his career? All about him his contemporaries came and went, fell about or fell away, as was apparent on our Paris trip as we made comparisons; his fellow-painters who had started strongly fell into all sorts of cul-de-sac varieties of art (Derain perhaps falling the furthest) as their aspirations shrank. Not once, or if so then not for long, did Matisse deviate, even in the extended sojourn that was Nice. Here is an oft-quoted paragraph from Maurice Denis (from the symbolist journal L’Hermitage, 1905) that better makes my point for me, though it was intended as criticism:

‘What one finds above all, particularly in Matisse, is artificiality; not literary artificiality, which follows from the search to give expression to ideas; nor decorative artificiality, as the makers of Turkish and Persian carpets conceived it; no, something more abstract still; painting beyond every contingency, painting in itself, the pure act of painting …  [B]y abstraction and generalisation, you [he means Matisse] arrive at ideas, at pure forms of paintings. You are only happy when all the elements of your work are intelligible to you. Nothing must remain of the conditional and accidental in your universe: you strip it of everything that does not correspond to the possibilities of expression provided by reason.’

I love that ‘possibilities of expression provided by reason’; what a big, contradictory, all-consuming idea for painting that is. So much for subjectivity.

I have immense admiration for Matisse the painter, but the cut-outs I blow hot and cold about, and end up roundabout luke-warm. Well, some are simply just decorative, are they not? Nothing wrong with that, they decorate the pages of books or make murals out of walls or windows – but are they as good as his best painting? Does it matter if they are not? Is the difference between a certain sort of abstract painting and a certain kind of design a continuum rather than a clear distinction? Certainly I can think of one or two abstract painters who have to a greater or lesser extent built their careers upon the foundations of Matisse’s cut-outs, if not on the very Snail itself.

Let’s get back to context. Or at least, and more interestingly, comparison. I once was lucky enough to see the ‘sister’ work to The Snail, Memory of Oceania, also 1953, in MOMA New York, cheek by jowl with Hans Hofmann’s Cathedral. The latter artist I consistently think of as my favourite abstract painter; and Cathedral is rated as a major work by him. It was made to look very pedestrian next to the Matisse. This is what I wrote at the time:

‘… I’m persuaded to ‘let go’ of the Hofmann, and give myself up to the influence of the more pro-active forms of the Matisse. It just … seems much more engaging, less confrontational. All the parts are different sizes and shapes and orientations, but are in some special kind of coordination of activity. There is a lot of ‘uplift’ and openness about it, and a great deal of what one might lazily describe as movement, but that is not really a correct description of what is going on. It is not the case that the elements of this work are in movement, and certainly not that they are describing movement, as in, say, some Constructivist or Futurist illustration of process. What these elements seem to be doing is allowing us the space to move, in amongst them, allowing us imaginatively to negotiate a route from one place to another, by different ways and different means, sometimes traversing open spaces, sometimes travelling through the forms themselves. The arrangement of forms not only invites us to participate, but carries us around and about without obstacle. Importantly, we move in something rather more stimulating than a two-dimensional space.’

Memory of Oceania is more varied and more spatial, I think, than The Snail. There is far more open irregularity to the arrangement of elements, more variety of sizes, and what I think is an interesting tension between the drawn lines and the cut-out shapes. Most interestingly of all is the kind of imaginative spatial participation invited by the work, as I describe above, which made it a distinctly more physical experience than would seem possible with such a fragile and slender medium, particularly when seen next to Hofmann’s paving-slabs of paint. More physical, because somehow more rounded and three-dimensional, offering something more complex than Hofmann’s booming, backwards and forwards  ‘push-pull’ of colour; of which it had a little of itself, but was not restricted to.

The particularity and depth and variety of the spaces in Memory of Oceania are somehow not matched in The Snail. It is not without space and depth, delivered through colour and shape, but its flatness prevails, perhaps due to the broad orange border, perhaps the regularity in the size of the coloured elements, perhaps most of all the almost-pattern-like arrangement of these parts. And for some, this flatness would be a virtue, a confirmation of the reality of the picture-plane or the materiality of surface; for me it is something of a denial of painting’s full potential. If you think of accompanying this work with a really great painting, instead of its dreary current companions – say, Constable’s Opening of Waterloo Bridge c.1832, to think of an example out of the Tate’s own collection – its deficit of complexity and revelation might well be highlighted, as I imagine it would also be next to one of Matisse’s own painted masterpieces. Seeing it as one does at present, in distinction from some of the lesser lights of the Tate Modern collection – in the present case, firstly the Riley, then some lack-lustre Lipchitz, Hepworth, Brancusi, Gabo (it doesn’t come much worse than Gabo’s Two Cubes [Demonstrating the Stereometric Method]), etc., and trailing off into the further contemporary reaches of this display – it looks a beacon of boldness and genuine visual vigour.

But I am, in truth, unsure of it. I’m unsure what it is doing, I’m unsure of its structure, I’m unsure of it’s being either abstract or figurative; most tellingly, I’m unsure of the quality of its spatial proposal. Somehow, in Tate Modern, I’m always pleased to see it, though I often leave it somewhat perplexed. It often feels like the Tate curators are more than a little unsure of it too. They have got to show it, but it refuses to play their thematic games for them, and they have perhaps yet, at least in recent times, to find a truly constructive context for it; which might after all somehow better illuminate it. In the end, though, context will neither save nor sink an artwork; its intrinsic content is what counts. Can we unwind that content a little for The Snail?

Published on the abstractcritical website     August 2012

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What Paint Does

Some thoughts on abstract painting prompted by Alan Gouk: New Paintings at Poussin Gallery, and other recent abstract painting shows.

If… perish the thought… I were to offer advice to a young abstract painter today, I would suggest they copy the artist they most admired until they got somewhere near to competing with them, and then move on to someone better; and so on, until there was no-one left and they themselves were the best of all (I’m an idealist). Comparisons might be odious, but there is no better lesson than holding up what you do next to the work of someone better than you. This is probably the direct opposite of advice currently handed out in art schools (not that I would know or want to know; neither is it the sort of advice I myself would have followed as a student), which seems to be to go find a very small niche somewhere, make a career out of it, and wring it dry (five years, max). There are a lot of young and enthusiastic abstract artists around who seem well intentioned but are re-inventing wheels that have not so very long ago been proved tread-bare. Because of a lack of comparison, all is forgotten: the moderate and minor successes, the serious inadequacies, and the outright failures of quite recent abstract art are all unremembered. We make very little progress, if any, this way.

One of those defective wheels to abstract painting, which keeps being taken out of the boot as a spare at least once a decade, when other things have deflated (I’m trying hard to keep this metaphor rolling), is truth to materials (and/or its close associates, truth to the object and truth to the process). This surfaced in sculpture in the Fifties (Henry Moore’s woodcarving!) and Sixties (minimal/process art), and gets taken out and driven once around the block rather too often in the history of modernism. In the discipline of sculpture, where it once had some traction, it has ironically become an impossibility, since there is no such truth to be found in sculpture’s current obsession with an appropriation of anything and everything. For painting, however, stuck as it is (in order to be called painting and not become sculpture) with a medium on a ground, it continues to reappear, right up to the present (What if it’s all true? What then? At Mummery and Schnelle; Matter at APT Deptford, both recent). It supposedly entails being honest about medium and ground, paint and canvas, and eschewing illusion. As spectators, we are (these days, perhaps rather more gently than previously) urged to acknowledge the ‘reality’, the quiddity and, often, the cod spirituality of these paintings-as-objects. Must we, yet again?

What’s missing from this, what makes it a defective raison-d’être of painting, is the recognition that paint can carry more potency and meaning through its use as a designator and articulator of form and space than it can by any literal demonstration of its real-world properties. To suggest that the literal ‘materiality’ of paint – or indeed the process of applying it as a performance – is truer to painting than the fullest, richest fulfilment of its potential as an illusionistic medium is to belittle and falsify it. Such a philosophy of painting (for such it is) exhibits a failure to recognise that the meaning in abstract art is not what it is, but what it does. Herein is both enigma and illusion, since what abstract art precisely does cannot be easily described verbally (if at all, and there would be little point to it if it were otherwise), and all painting contains illusion; all good painting contains a convincing matrix of illusion. Every mark on a two-dimensional surface creates an illusionistic (re)presentation of space. With figurative painting, no problem; but how do we reconcile illusion with being abstract? This conundrum is probably why the phenomenological aspects of medium and ground keep being obsessed over, as a desperate attempt to sidestep the problem and make painting ‘real’ again.

Abstract painters generally seem somewhat dulled to the possibilities of working through this dilemma (which is the only way out of it; theory won’t crack this nut on its own, it needs plenty of graft). Here’s a good example, from a recent exhibition statement by the London abstract painter Cuillin Bantock (who is by no means an unintelligent writer): ‘Sixty years ago the British painter Patrick Heron pointed out that non-figuration was an ideal impossible of achievement, commenting further that Ben Nicholson’s painting of four greyish circles in a greyish square eventually came to resemble the hob of an electric oven. The point being that the brain is hard-wired to make literal sense of what the eye sees.’ The brain might well be hard-wired in such a way, but that is surely all the more reason, if we want to make new abstract art, to be less complacent about the problem, not more. Art is, amongst many things, a way of expanding the wiring of our brains. Bantock continues: ‘It was the critic Tim Hilton who pointed out that any horizontal division of a canvas inevitably evokes a landscape’s horizon, tacit acknowledgement of Heron’s comment that a painted image is always going to look like something.’ To which I would say, for starters, stop making abstract paintings with obvious horizontal divisions in (see late Rothko). And, for that matter, hold off on any more circles in a pattern that resembles a cooker hob. Or circles at all. Or at least, having done it once, get over it. Why would we want to be stuck now with making more cooker-hob paintings, whether beautifully aesthetic or nay; or in Heron’s own case, for example, beautifully judged and proportioned and exquisitely varied and coloured cooker hobs. We really do have enough of these. So the problem for painting is this – how to move on into new abstract territory, whilst understanding that to paint any ‘thing’ is to risk a kind of representation. If we are seriously ambitious for abstract painting, we will want to work our way through and out of that dilemma.

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I have no wish to deny abstract painting (or indeed sculpture) its materiality. In fact, I think visual art needs a hearty dash of it. But for me this materiality needs to be in the service of something else, that something being meaning, and that meaning being wrought out of form. When the materiality becomes clunkingly literal, as in, say, the slump of paint in the work of Alexis Harding or the ‘icky’ technical obsessions of Katy Pratt; or when it is used perversely to give physicality to slightness of subject-matter, as in the macho-expressionist paint-slinging of Basil Beattie’s ever-so-slender pictographic drawing; or when it is simply imported as an extra ingredient to the appropriated mix, to give content-less art something – anything – to connect it to the real world, as in the paintings of Jonathan Lasker; then it only makes me feel like I’ve been poked in the eye.

Alan Gouk is an abstract painter not completely immune to the aforementioned cooker-hob syndrome (who is? Not many). He has some orthogonal formats that he drops into, as if by default, from time to time. Nor has he been averse to a good bit of lascivious materiality in his day. But in mitigation for the right-angles and circles and the trowelled-on (in the old days, even shovelled on) paint, there is an understanding deep within Gouk-the-painter that nothing can or will take precedence in his art over the architectures of visual form, and that those architectures will be put to work in the picture, orthogonal or not (and increasingly not), in the service of meaning. Thus, the problems of illusion ‘in the abstract’ are right here, being tackled, in his new work. Gouk might seek as much as anyone to make his art felt as a profound presence in the room with the spectator, but he does it, whether in thin paint or thick, through the controlled construct of making one passage of colour do something in relation with another, and on throughout the painting, end to end, top to bottom, spatially, structurally, significantly; to the extent that the painting begins to modify and give purpose back into our very own world of literal architecture – the space we exist in. To quote Gouk (from the book Principle, Appearance, Style): ‘The world of painting is the world of sensuous architectural spaces, to which the picture contributes, opening out the wall-space, reflecting and enhancing the proportional harmonies of the architectural spaces of rooms and galleries.’

The problem of how to do this is hinted at in his own recent catalogue essay:

‘I hesitate to use the word dialectic – let’s call it a mood swing; my work tends to veer between two extremes – the Cézanne/Hofmann derived overlapping painterliness, and the flatter planarity of Matisse/Heron. I test myself against the latter, since it is the high road of modernism, find it uncongenial – I can’t say everything I have to say that way – and so I veer back again to a more modelled painterliness. I tend to oscillate, some would say vacillate, between the two, though a fusion of the two modes seems to be reaping rewards. There is a tension there, a meeting of opposites which can be fruitful, and the natural world is always there somewhere in the background. After all, an immersion in nature is the reason why most of us became painters in the first place, although naturalism, or what is patronisingly called “lyrical pantheism”, is not enough to sustain innovation in painting. There has to be an “architecture”.’

Perhaps ‘the brain is hard-wired to make literal sense of what the eye sees’. Perhaps; so isn’t it all the more wonderful when art allows us a glimpse of a world beyond the literal. Is ‘non-figuration …an ideal impossible of achievement…’, as per Heron? Can one make a truly abstract painting (or picture)? This is my own vacillation at the moment, but I am absolutely sure that Gouk and others can make a lot of good stuff on the way to finding out.

Published on the abstractcritical website     January 2012

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What you see is… a mess, Frank

Frank Stella at Haunch of Venison.

As a certain London art dealer once said, ‘Frank Stella is the only artist who started out a genius and went on to become a student’. This is the accepted wisdom; that after the brilliance of his work from the Sixties it all went from bad to worse. Well, having seen the not-to-be-described-as-a-retrospective retrospective at Haunch of Venison, I don’t intend to buck that trend. It’s blindingly obvious that the early stuff is the best stuff. What this show does do – must do, now – is to question just how good he was in the first place. Genius? Mmm…

I would have liked to have seen a few variations on the multiple ‘protractor’ series, which I’ve always considered the high-point of his work; we have just one in this show, a big single concentric semi-circle, ‘Basra Gate’ I, 1968, which has none of the spatial interfolding and interlocking of the more complex works from this series, but is nevertheless a satisfying painting with good colour. So too is ‘Les Indes Gallants’ 1962, a sister-painting to the Tate’s ‘Hyena Stomp’, which has a wonderful little ‘winding-up’ to its centre which, in concert with the free-floating yellow stripe up the right-hand side, declares a certain spatial and almost painterly animation in defiance of the rigours of its geometry. A little bit of magic, then.

I always did like Stella’s sixties dictum “What you see is what you see”, and I always thought abstract art should be an “Art of the Real” (as per the 1969 Tate show he was in), whatever that might mean. I can also empathise with his post-sixties desire to re-complexify his art. But not this way, Frank, not this way.

There is an interesting work about halfway round this show, ‘Leblon II’, 1975, which I guess is one of the earliest reliefs painted on aluminium, where you sense it could all have been very different – if he’d only looked at what he was doing! If only he’d looked at the pictorial space he was creating a little harder; if only he’d not got carried away with the literalness of using three-dimensions (and all that ‘gubbins’ of aluminium honeycomb, which already here is intrusive). If only, because as the planes of this painting push in and pull out (literally), shadows are cast which modify the spatial relations of the colours (illusionistically). It starts to do something way more interesting than the shaped and interlocked reliefs in mixed media from a couple of years previous, which are shown next to it, and which exhibit the early signs of a brain-numbing indifference to any kind of sense of purpose, an almost total absorption in the superficial aesthetics of shape and texture. ‘What you see’ is already a lost cause, a resolve no longer acted upon.

It gets worse. Step next door, into a whole roomful of the ‘La penna di hu’ series, where a duplicated multi-image is put through a mindboggling array of different but equally tortuous treatments, and you really do wonder if the artist hasn’t lost his mind. The awfulness of this series is compounded by the fact that as they proceed, one to another, they get no better and no worse. They are all pretty much equally nasty to look at. Why do a whole big series when they don’t get better?

Er… then the penny drops. That’s what Stella always did; a whole goddam shed-load of variations on each series. Did he ever exercise discretion? When things were simple, he occasionally (perhaps one might say frequently) hit lucky: when things got complex, he just got into a mess, over and over. That’s being simplistic, and too irreverent of his undoubted talent for colour and innovation in the best of the sixties work.

And yet the mess of Stella’s art is now seemingly endless. His attempts to side-step pictorial decision-making (was that the reason for those endless variations on a ‘format’?) by commencing a dalliance and then an outright engagement with three-dimensions has led him into the super-difficult world of abstract sculpture. Here he has even less chance than in painting, collage or relief of ever sorting things out. You don’t escape the problems of abstract painting by becoming three-dimensional, oh no you don’t! If anything, you compound them; or rather, swap them for a whole load of even tougher ones.

Check out the two sculptures in the exhibition foyer, and you can almost smell Stella’s desperation to be conqueror of complex three-dimensionality, to throw everything including the veritable and literal stainless steel kitchen sink at the problem, to be the man who overturns his own dead-end minimalism with an art of maximum content. But the visual structure of these works is non-existent; the one on the floor does not engage physically or spatially; the one hanging off the wall is nothing more than a big flouncy kebab, skewered to the wall through its own hollow heart. There is next to nothing on offer here for the future of abstract art – and I’m sorry about that, Frank.

published on the abstractcritical website     September 2011

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The Abstract-ness of Poussin.

Some thoughts on ‘Twombly and Poussin: Arcadian Painters’ at the Dulwich Picture Gallery.

(This essay was mostly written just before the death of Twombly, and whilst I have no wish to speak ill of the recently deceased, it was going after something other than the artist himself; so let it stand.)

“Novelty in painting does not consist above all in choosing a subject that has never been seen before, but upon a good and novel arrangement and expression, thanks to which the subject, though in itself ordinary and worn, becomes new and singular.”  Nicholas Poussin, from ‘Della Novità’

Quite so, quite so. Why then does Nicholas Cullinan, the Tate curator seconded to Dulwich to hang ‘Twombly and Poussin: Arcadian Painters’, base his whole exposition upon the literary correspondences of the two artists’ subject matter and the incidental parallels of their life stories? Why, despite opening his catalogue essay with this very quote, does he so studiously ignore all manner of ‘good and novel arrangement and expression’?

In the second paragraph of his catalogue essay, Cullinan highlights ‘the most pressing questions raised by this exhibition, namely, what is the discursive relationship between a title, an image and an annotated inscription in the work of Twombly and, more broadly, how might meaning be conveyed through abstraction as opposed to figuration? In the fraught relationship between an abstract painting and its title, where might subject matter be located and fixed?’

Where to start? Well, I could suggest that abstract paintings, though often having titles, don’t have a subject matter. Or that an ‘annotated inscription’ on a canvas hardly constitutes an abstract painting by any definition that I can see: since when was writing (or even scribbling artistically and semi-illegibly) abstract? But more; there is something deeply complacent in the conceit of an exhibition which chooses to ignore what is plain to see – that Poussin is a very great painter, and that a comparison with Twombly rapidly exposes the latter to pictorial humiliation, whilst simultaneously doing the former no favours either. For example, I stood in the first room of this exhibition attempting to look at one of the best paintings in the country, Poussin’s ‘Roman Road’, a spatial structure so lucid it is rarely equalled, trying to blot out from my peripheral vision the gruesome Twombly panels either side (Bassano in Teverina, 1985). Their sheer blackened boorishness meant that I failed.

Where is the sense in this? It is not in the looking, since it is impossible to make proper comparisons between the pictorial form of Poussin (not that I think Poussin is a formalist) and the literal gestures of Twombly. In order to devise reasons for putting these two painters together, Cullinan has had to close his eyes to the visual for the sake of the literary. By contrast, the meaningful visual dialogues between paintings in the exhibition ‘Cézanne and Poussin: the Classical Vision of Landscape’ in Edinburgh, 1990, remain still vivid and significant twenty-one years later.

Like all great visual art, Poussin’s painting is founded upon what he modestly describes as ‘a good and novel arrangement and expression’, by which of course he means intelligent and inventive visual form, made ‘new and singular’. And like all such examples in art, there is a good degree of abstract-ness about this. Let’s take Poussin’s ‘Venus and Mercury’ in the present show. Now I don’t want to discount the human interest, or the story, or the allegory, or the eroticism even, as insisted upon by the catalogue, but there is so much more at work here than those things, so much more that is visual and revelatory, so much more to be gained from the visible fact of the painting, as opposed to interpretation or backstory. For starters, there is the shape of Venus’s body. I know ‘shape’ is not a good word here, but I mean it in a three-dimensional sense. Look at how her body turns in space, from the slant of her hips, the turn of her waist, the ‘address’ of Mercury with her breasts (OK, it is erotic), the turn of her head away from him, to us, then the glance away of her eyes. Then the attitude of her arm, the turn of his head to her, the space created by his leg, occupied by the arm and pointing hand. And all of that works on us, together at once, as a relational entity, as an intensely interlinked visual construct. There is no name for all this stuff, seen together in such a specific visual conjunction; it exists overwhelmingly as visual form; its outcome is first and foremost felt in its affecting ‘abstract-ness’.

But I want to straight away distance myself from the odious analytical impositions of some modern art theory which divide up figurative painting from the past into lines of force, sections, triangles and other geometries (see Bridget Riley at the National, for example), in the hope of establishing historic validity for the most boring kinds of flat, or designed, so-called ‘abstract’ composition. We should be wary of making such retrospective impediments to seeing the freely plastic and spatial achievements of figurative painting of the past for what they are. What we are seeing, in our example at hand, in the abstract-ness of Poussin, is altogether a fuller and more three-dimensional sense of imaginative plastic and spatial form. You can see the effort – physical, intellectual and emotional – that went into this inventive visual creation. This is what I love about Poussin, the striving always for a marriage of intellect and sensibility. Even when I don’t like the painting – which I admit is quite often – I love the ambition.

Let’s look at another Poussin, ‘Rinaldo and Armida’. OK, again, there is eroticism here too, the space is erotic. Look at those arms. The left arm covering his right hand, resting on his head, then right across the space to the withheld arm with the dagger. Awesome. Taken in by us in an instant, this space/time drama unfolds before we can start to think about titles, stories etc. We see it, it’s real. I definitely like these two paintings.

So what has Mr. Cullinan given us as companion to these two great works? Twombly’s ‘Hero and Leandro’. This is actually one of the better Twombly’s in the show – at least it is painted rather than written – but what possible comparison is there to be drawn when we stand and look between this work and the two Poussins? All the connections are literary, so why even have them in the same room? Even when Twombly is painting freely, his manner is so arch that the most physical gesture seems like a conceptual conceit. A brush stroke remains a brush stroke, a drip is a literal drip, anything else is romanticised wishful thinking. As I have written elsewhere, a smudge of paint is ‘a smudge of paint’ and no more abstract than a smudge of ketchup, until and unless it becomes part of a meaningful new form.

So Twombly for me is not really very abstract at all, my reasoning being that his literal-ness is the opposite of Poussin’s abstract-ness. It means I lose interest, because it means he is not really visual. As such, that doesn’t matter, he can be as figurative or as literal or as conceptual as he likes, and that’s his business. What rankles here is the demonstration yet again of a misunderstanding on the part of some of our foremost curators and art institutions of the real value and nature of the paintings in their care. How else would they be able to mount a show of such disingenuousness in its professed insights into painting? How else would they be able to show together works which have such a negative effect upon one another?

I know it is a bad moment to say so and very much against the grain of Twombly’s rising acclaim, but I don’t think he was very good. I also know that not many people get on too well with Poussin, and I would have to admit he is often difficult. But Twombly, to his credit, seems to have revered him, and is quoted as saying he would have liked ’to have been Poussin’. I suspect Poussin would have been horrified at the thought of being Twombly. My surmise is that beyond some shared literary interests and life-story coincidences they had little in common; I’m in no doubt at all they have absolutely nothing mutual as painters.

Published on the abstractcritical website     July 2011

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Not Painting, Not Sculpture, Not Abstract?

The semantics of contemporary art criticism allow for so many meanings of “abstract” that one can just about choose for oneself how it is defined. Everything from a shark in a tank to a smudged landscape, from a perfect cube to a pile of oranges, from a walk across the Andes to the lights going off and on; all have been described as abstract art. I guess what is meant here (mostly) is that it is not a depiction or a representation in paint etc. of some recognisable other thing; in which case anything and everything can be abstract art because anything and everything can be art.

Is there a more useful way of defining it, or is it a redundant term? I once showed a book of the work of the quintessentially abstract (post-painterly) Kenneth Noland to a painter friend, pointing at one of those early and simple and beautiful “target” works. “It’s not abstract”, she said, “It’s a circle”.

This was a new and original point of view to me – a definition of abstract as “something unnameable”. It made me laugh at the time – Kenneth Noland, not abstract! – but it does actually bear examination. If one says that only newly invented form (for example) might be meaningfully described as “abstract”, since we cannot put a name to it, and it most certainly does not represent anything (how could it, being newly invented), then we would have to rule outside of the term “abstract “all of the art that does not invent new form. This would apply immediately to the shark in a tank, of course (which is patently figurative anyway), and would include all geometric art (since squares and circles and stripes and spots are all “known” things – I do like the extremism of this view); but it would also apply to a smudge of paint (which is “a smudge of paint”, until proved otherwise), this being no more abstract than a smudge of ketchup, until and unless it becomes part of a meaningful new form.

“Meaning” in painting and sculpture, abstract or figurative, is very much dependent upon the unnameable revelatory effects of visual form and their independence from literal (or literary) interpretation. The question is whether other kinds of art outside of those two disciplines can escape from the literal and into the fully abstract realm of visual disclosure. Open a book of good painting – any painting, abstract or figurative – and the “abstract-ness” of it is immediate. But the photograph of the painting is not an abstract thing.

In this argument (there could be many others) either all art of every persuasion could be abstract except representational painting and sculpture; or only painting and sculpture have that possibility, whether they are figurative or not.

March 2011

published on abstract critical website

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High-abstract

‘I believed… that abstract art was an incomplete kind of art, that even at its best it did not achieve all that art could do, that figurative art could be more complex, more specific, richer in human content.’ David Sylvester, About Modern Art 1996.

At certain high points in the history of visual art, figurative paintings by great artists such as we might all agree upon – Tintoretto, Constable, Cézanne and Matisse being a few of my own favourites amongst very many – have embodied states of profound plastic and spatial three-dimensionality and fully-developed form such as are not to be found elsewhere in any other feasible human endeavour. This, for me, is as good as visual art gets. Throughout the last five hundred years and more of a remarkable history, the spatial architectures of figurative painting have been exceptionally inventive, particular and diverse. In the best works, complex form and meaning become united, indivisible and coherent. One only has to bring to mind Titian’s Diana and Actaeon, recently seen at the National Gallery, to recall that the greatest objective form in painting can be made to feel so very personal and vivid, so synonymous with the conditions of our own physical and emotional states. It makes a mockery of the conceit of many a modern artist who, by discarding or dismantling the principles of painting and sculpture, declares that they aim to bridge the gap between art and life. Great painting has for a long time been really good at that.

But painting over the last sixty years or so, viewed from our particular perspective of the story of abstract art, has gone from being at the forefront of visual culture – abstract painting was in the 1950’s and ‘60’s a radical and principal mode of modernist expression – to a backwater of lost confidence and ambition. Painting is no longer guaranteed centre-stage in many galleries and museums (by clear directive of the principals of these institutions), and whatever new painting does remain in play in contemporary art is almost entirely figurative and often gratuitously weird and fatuous. The little that there is in the public domain of new abstract painting, meanwhile, is often derivative, ironic and literal; in fact, a kind of disguised figuration. Genuine and progressive abstract painting has gone underground. Nevertheless, my proposition is that it is precisely this unfashionable and much misunderstood area of activity (as well, of course, as abstract sculpture, which is held in even more disregard) which holds the promise of an authentic and liberated future for visual art.

To be clear about this, most contemporary so-called “visual” art is not tied to the particular and the visual at all, but to the ambiguous and the literal. The content of such art is to be found not in the work itself, in intrinsic attributes equating to and comparable with the plastic and spatial values of painting from the past, but as bolt-on additions to the art-object, often as a result of a curatorial interpretation, to be found on a label or a website or even as a replacement for the object altogether. It is the triumph, I hope temporary, of the collective literalism of instant art history over the particularised visual imagination of the individual artist. Should we choose to follow only this path into the future, we risk losing our ability to create and to appreciate art that is founded in the transformative visual relationships peculiar to good painting (and some sculpture); and we must take care too, with galleries and museums preoccupied as they are with the wholesale delivery of such curatorial interpretations, not to lose our liberty to discover in our own time and in our own way our own meanings in art, freely and independently. Of course, “meaning” is indisputably our real purpose, but meaning is not the same as interpretation; such meaning, such “human content” as is to be found in visual art, is of some consequence to us all in its broad revelatory effects quite because of its independence from either literal or literary interpretation. The scope and variety and resonance of all such meanings are solely reliant upon the quality of the visual form, which is the singular responsibility of the visual artist; such meanings are discovered only by the simple expedient of looking, the responsibility for which rests with the observer, if they so freely choose.

Herein lies the paramount problem with the literalness of contemporary art; it has no visual form. Often described as sculpture but better described simply as “art-objects”, being any kind of object or assemblage of objects whatsoever, contemporary art in all manner of its manifestations does not operate purely and purposefully through visual structures; it does not possess the means to deal in plastic and spatial values; it cannot achieve profound states of plastic and spatial three-dimensionality. Not one of the many novel materializations of contemporary art provides the kind of non-verbal meaning that we can find in a good painting. In order to discover such meaning in visual art, the day-to-day literal meanings of objects and relationships must be dismantled, melted down and reconstituted in the real-world crucibles of painting and sculpture, recreated as transformative visual relationships, the “real illusions” of art. Literalist art, of course, seeks an altogether different effect – to merely collage together everyday meanings in surprising combinations; but the surprise is short-lived compared to true visual creativity.

Whilst I can confidently make claims for the meaningful forms of figurative painting from the past, similar claims for the achievements of abstract painting to date are perhaps more difficult. Abstract painting presently has two problems: on the one hand, it has lost momentum by being sidelined by the popularity and accessibility of contemporary non-visual art, largely because of the ease, as already noted, of interpretations of such art and the comparative difficulty, often extreme, of such explanations for itself. On the other hand, many of the literalist tendencies of contemporary art sprang in the first place out of abstract art’s own downgrading of ambition, in the 1960’s and ‘70’s, when the processes and materials of painting and sculpture heretofore in the service of the plastic and spatial values of vanguard visual art were deconstructed into literalism and “objecthood”, process and performance. A good deal of abstract art remains tainted by this disjunction of its means with its proper purpose and, much as I would like to make the distinction, there is no clear division between poor abstract painting and sculpture and any other sort of non-visual art around at the moment. In fact, it’s likely that the abstract art is more boring. There is not much worse in art than a dried up, barren formalism, especially abstract formalism. It is a distinction we need to make here – the pursuit of plastic and spatial “form” in visual art has only a passing linguistic relationship to “formalism” as such. Whilst the pursuit of new form is about being both inventive and creative, formalism relies upon academic compositions and formulas, and is yet another variety of literalism. The current weakness of the case for abstract art lies mostly in the ambiguity of many of these familiar mannerisms, such as geometry, compositional formatting, design devices, or those ubiquitous literal effects of process. And, dare I say it in the face of the wrath of the colourists, even the slender effects of structurally uncorroborated colour relations are not enough either. So Sylvester’s early-held view looks right. It depends upon what you are comparing with what, of course, but if you are going to compare the best figurative painting from history with the best of abstract art to date, then there is no contest. The structures of figurative art are massively more exciting, varied and imaginative. Whenever I doubt the wisdom of this, I imagine dropping a Constable “six-footer” into an exhibition of abstract art (or, indeed, any other kind of new art), and watching the subsequent collapse, like a house of cards, of most of our modern conceits. In truth, a so-called academic old painter like Constable could even now show us a thing or two about radicalism and invention in the plastic and spatial arts. His visual structures are more advanced, more sophisticated, “more complex, more specific, richer in human content” than ours are! Admit it! Only by admitting of the fact can we hope to match the ambition, the sheer visual audacity, of a great painter like Constable. This is, of course, a rod for our own backs as practising abstract artists; so be it.

Of course, looking back into history, figurative painters had all the advantages. They had everything-in-the-world as complex and specific subjects from which to start. Every possible spatial architecture that the world could provide to the eye was available to them with which to feed their imaginations (this is far more than the poor figurative sculptors had, but more of them later). They only had to open the door and step outside their studios to see a whole world of particular and varied possibilities – to say nothing of all the human stories and dramas with which to populate their worlds. What do abstract artists have? It looks dolefully meagre by comparison, and initially discouraging of any aspirations to match in abstract art the plastic and spatial achievements of the greatest figurative painting. Yet, though it may be difficult to see how such ambitious desires can be fulfilled, it is only in the deepest darkest mystery of such difficulty that one might find the freedom to invent something truly original. It is in that very void that the promise lies, the outrageous possibility of working towards an abstract painting without an idea or a conceit or any other kind of false agency, free from all constraining configuration. I know it invites ridicule in the current climate of literalism to suggest that the artist might work without ideas or concepts of what the work will be “about”, might shed all pre-conceived formats or images (even “abstract” ones) for the finished work – but I stand by it. This freedom, this openness, this desire for discovery, is the key to unlocking the big, wide-open spaces of new abstract art; it is the precise antithesis of conceptualism. Retaining only the ambition for strong visual form as a guiding principle, it becomes possible to work towards something embodying its own intrinsic sense of purpose and variety and interest. Such work might initially develop under the sway of several conflicting impulses and imperatives all at once, often in contradictory states. The work may proceed with give and take at all points, where nothing is sacrosanct, all elements can be either brought forward or disposed of, all expectations overrun, in a state of unique and daunting nonconformity, until finally, after many reversals and revisions, new form arrives. Or not! For nothing is guaranteed; it cannot be if this is to be for real. Strong new form will develop only from the artist being able, in the first part, to create perhaps unconsciously but nevertheless very precisely the meaning of one passage of material to another within a visual relationship; and then go further to find relationships and meanings with other passages in the work, and so on, to the point where the whole aspires to become, at the last, one complex relational entity, one form. This is, of course, making it sound straightforward when it is in fact immensely difficult and demanding. The strategies to achieve these ends will be tortuous and unheard of, and a far cry from the spontaneous ease of the abstract artist of legend. But it is only what the best figurative painters always did. Why should we think great modern art must be easy or simple? I suspect that on the contrary this new complex abstract art herein proposed will be of protracted difficulty, and require a considerable and sustained imaginative effort. Conclusions and resolutions will not be achieved swiftly, at least not until the whole project has momentum – until the forms start rolling out a little. The good artist will find all this an exquisite difficulty.

If abstract painting now has potential for the discovery of new visual form and meaning, then possibly abstract sculpture has even more. Abstract sculpture as it was originally established as a distinct entity by Anthony Caro and others in the early 1960’s had quickly eclipsed figurative sculpture, especially with regard to ambitious spatial values if nothing else. Equally quickly, following that initial dramatic breakthrough, most sculpture became inhibited again, this time by the beginnings of the pernicious literalism we have previously noted. The constraints of figuration were replaced by those of “objecthood”; so far, so disappointing. But it has become apparent of late that sculpture can take a very different direction from this, can become more wholly abstract than it was in the 1960’s. Unimpeded by boundary or configuration, image or “objecthood”, it can thence find ways to interweave real substances and real spaces in complex and transparent large-scale relational combinations which will be altogether new to art. Such exhilarating potential for the expansion of plastic and spatial values and the consequential delivery of new visual meanings is in marked contrast to the constraints put upon past sculpture by its almost singular subject of the isolated and often reposed human figure. Whilst it has undoubtedly had its moments of high activity and expression, from Michelangelo to Rodin and Degas, the history of figurative sculpture can bear no qualitative comparison to the complex and diverse spectacle of figurative painting as we have described it above, and looks to have little direct bearing upon the future of abstract sculpture, which might credibly be considered a new and only marginally related discipline. How optimistic for real visual art would that be?

Are these views subjective? Probably, but I do like those criteria of Sylvester: “more complex, more specific, richer in human content”. Unlike a lot of criteria by which we judge art, they seem plausible and modestly objective, at least in the first two of the three; and the third, the achievement of “human content” is such a great ambition for abstract art to have. Abstract art, it seems to me, has not yet taken upon itself anything like the formal and spatial complexities that the best figurative painting of the past has so potently transformed into “human content”. It has not yet become either complex or specific, instead boasting of the modernity of its simplifications, and citing its generalities and its ambiguities as proofs of a high-minded universality. If these had to be tried out and mined out, then so be it, but mined out they now are; they no longer serve. It’s time to be more ambitious.

Abstract sculpture and painting are now uniquely placed as disciplines to achieve the expansion of our imaginative visual universe in the real world; should we fail in this, we are going to lose something of consequence to the breadth of our humanity. Should we prosper, such success would be brilliant and famous; for it is surely good and wise to keep our imaginative lives coupled by these means to our physicality. Figurative painting, as I said at the beginning, has been at times dazzling and lucid at this fusion of physical form and intelligent meaning. Abstract sculpture and painting can extend those achievements into the future. The works in this current exhibition give us a glimpse of that future, a look at some lonesome but prescient examples of high-ambition, high-complexity abstract art from the past 50 years, some possible exemplars of the new “High-abstract”. Welcome to a world of post-literalism. It’s going to be extraordinarily exciting.

February 2011

published in High-abstract catalogue

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The Fourth Plinth – a Dissent.

A giant blue chicken, a cake made of bricks, and a pipe organ are three of the six shortlisted proposals for the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square. The other three are equally daft. Ekow Eshun, chairman of the Fourth Plinth Commissioning Group and artistic director of the freefalling ICA, describes the proposals, by a six-pack of artistic jokers, as “world class”. What do you mean, Ekow? Up there with Titian’s Diana and Actaeon? Matisse’s Bathers by a River?

Eshun is a recent addition to the pseudo-intellectual cultural mafia that have gained a grip upon what one has to laughingly describe as the “visual art” establishment. I say laughingly because such art is not the least “visual” in any meaningful way. We can see it, but for it to be meaningfully described as “visual” its meaning would have to be visual, which it isn’t, if you see what I mean. In fact, its meaning is so very non-visual, so very literal, like just about every other bit of contemporary art out there at the moment, that we can already partake of the meaning before they are even made. Wow, what a breakthrough.

Here are some examples of this sub-Duchampian meaning-in-advance; Katharina Fritsch, obviously another intellectual leviathan to rival Eshun, says of her giant blue cock: “It is playing with the double meaning of the word…It is dealing with the male presence in Trafalgar Square”. Really, I had no idea that Kenneth Williams and feminism could be squared away so neatly. But please explain, how, pray, is it exactly “dealing with” this issue? Could you write about this issue (if indeed there is an issue, not being personally aware of it as a pressing matter during my own visits to Trafalgar Square) perhaps to more effect? Could you explain better what you mean in writing, Katherina? I expect not, sadly. Making a sculpture about it is a slick way of avoiding the fact that it is a non-issue, isn’t it? And the issue is a way of avoiding the fact that the sculpture is in fact a non-sculpture. Will the full-sized version be a revelation?

Let’s move on to the cake made of bricks. This sculpture – and don’t forget it not been built yet – “transforms the Battenberg as a symbol of teatimes past into a contemporary comment on commodity, commemoration and collective identity”, according to Louise Jury, who has the satisfaction of being Chief Arts Correspondent to the Evening Standard. Well, this one’s got three issues, so I guess it must be better than the blue cock.

But hang on. The pipe organ, which will play music when you use the attached ATM machine, “addresses a range of themes and subjects such as personal banking, global financial systems, commerce, the sacred and profane, music making and personal and public space in a humorous manner” (Jury again, Evening Standard, 19.8.10). Well, that’s six issues, and humour to boot. Must be a winner!

According to this lot – artists, critics and curators alike – meaning can be just dolloped out like so much custard on a pudding. So, let’s recap. The artist has an idea, the commentators ascribe it meaning, the curators throw some money at it, the public gets to think they are a part of the wonderful, exciting, meaningful world of contemporary art. The communication of the “idea” of art is that simple, so we are lead to believe. We don’t really, as consumers of this pudding, have to do any work for ourselves. We don’t have to work at discovering meaning, it’s a given. We have the issues. We could even stay in bed and get the whole thing over the internet.

Well, maybe. The late, great Bryan Robertson had something to say (in meaningful words!) on some of the real issues surrounding both the use of visual art as a means of communicating a literal or literary message, and on the portrayal of art via media such as the internet: “Art is many things but it is not primarily a means of communication as we normally understand that utility. There are easier and certainly less laborious ways for one person to express an idea directly to another than by painting a picture or making a sculpture. In itself, the action would be unreliable. Conversely, no written or printed document, film or TV program, the proper media for communication in the usual sense, could ever convey with any compensatory degree of accuracy the true imaginative quality of Piero’s Baptism of Christ or The Moroccans of Matisse. For media is an intermediary device: concerned with visual art, it uses inaccurate or irrelevant language; finally it involves falsification.”

With regards to the selection of work for the fourth plinth, we have already been subjected to a gross falsification. Actually, there is another element in this crude little chain of events which pre-empts the public finding their own meaning in visual art. It is an insidious element, which has crept upon us without check. This is the rise and rise of the “creative” curator. Because let’s not forget, none of these pathetic and academic statues of silly things on a plinth would be conceived without the existence of the commissioning body. This sausage-factory of sculpture would not happen without Eshun providing the hole through which to extrude it. These artists would not make this nonsense left to themselves. Of course, Eshun and the Fourth Plinth Commissioning Group think they are doing us all a big cultural favour by promoting new art in such a high-profile public space. In fact, like the even-more-high-profile and big-money Turbine Hall commissions at Tate, their intervention is screwing any real appraisal of where sculpture actually is at the present time. It may seem to many people quite a normal and indeed enlightened thing to do, to commission ideas for sculpture in the full glare of all the publicity that this recurring charade engenders, but it is absurdly fallacious and is destructive of the most precious thing in art, the private vision of individual artists. Such commissions simply lend credibility to the conceit of thinking that art, and sculpture in particular, is about dreaming up dafter and dafter ideas.

Here are a couple more examples of our cultural elite’s take on the current art scene: Sir Nicholas Serota was quoted on the Guardian website as saying of Tate that “In the past, there has been an imperfect communication between visitors and curators. The possibility for a greater level of communication between curators and visitors is the challenge now.” If there is to be a “communication” involved in any interaction with Tate gallery, should it not be between the artist and the visitor? Is not the curator’s job surely and simply to facilitate that process, rather than be the source of it, or indeed even editorialise it? How about this from Hans Ulrich Obrist, co-director of exhibitions at the Serpentine Gallery, and a pro-active curator and instigator of numerous exhibitions of contemporary art, and Christian Boltanski, a French conceptual artist well in with this elite: “We’d be having a conversation in a cafe and I’d say, ‘It would be marvellous to paint the Eiffel Tower in pink’, and he’d (Obrist) say, ‘Oh yes, it’s possible, but I think in violet it would be better.’”

Yes, it’s that easy to make art! Have an idea, talk to a big-fish curator. That’s it. Don’t do anything until you have the go-ahead from the curator, and don’t forget to sort out with them what the issues will be! Obrist, by the way, is according to Art Review “the most powerful figure in the artworld”. Lucky us, to live in such a time!

To return to our plinth, what a sad fate for sculpture, to be publicly humiliated as a series of literal jokes. Such literalism is the destroyer of properly visual content in art. Yet literalist art has attained recent popularity because it so easily begets a superficial and popular explanation of itself, in the manner of an everyman’s interpretation. This is generally thought to be “what it means”, and we can all join in and get the punch line. Well, the potential of sculpture is a lot bigger than that.

We do need new art. We need it not least to keep alive and extend our understanding of visual form and meaning (so we don’t forget how to look at and find meaning in truly world class art, such as Titian and Matisse). For art to be real and free and meaningful, it needs to be experienced in a manner largely liberated of interpretation, whether intellectual or technological, and free from the interventionalism of modern curatorship. Properly visual art is not a language, and its meaning is not, therefore, translatable into words. It is created by visual artists, not intellectuals. It is not about ideas, no matter how clever, or how puerile. Its real meaning is not to be found on a label, or in a newspaper, or on the internet; its meaning is embodied in the work itself, and we have to find it for ourselves. Visual art is, as Robertson says, a revelation.

August  2010

Sent as email for Robin Greenwood: Abstract Sculpture and Painting

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Some notes on form, meaning and interpretation.

1.

The heads of two of London’s biggest art institutions, Nick Serota of Tate and Neil MacGregor of the British Museum, were reported last year to be in agreement on the future of our art galleries and museums: “Our future lies on the web, say museum heads”, published in the Guardian, 8.7.09. One can see the attraction; the on-line world-wide dissemination of information about the British Museum’s historic collection; and the ease of access to Tate’s interests in conceptual and contemporary art, which are on the whole compatible with new forms of media. When it comes to painting and sculpture, however, the value of the internet tumbles to almost zero, becoming mainly a source of information regarding background and times of physical access to such art, with some dubious backlit reproductions. No mention was made by either party of the shortcomings of not being in the physical presence of the work itself – disadvantages which make finding meaning in visual art close to impossible.

Serota was further quoted on the Guardian website as saying of Tate that “In the past, there has been an imperfect communication between visitors and curators. The possibility for a greater level of communication between curators and visitors is the challenge now.” If there is to be a “communication” involved in any interaction with Tate gallery, should it not be between the artist and the visitor? Is not the curator’s job surely and simply to facilitate that process, rather than be the source of it, or indeed even editorialise it? What’s more, in the case of painting and sculpture, the physical presence of the work itself is a primary requirement for the meaning of the work to be “communicated”, if that is the right word. What is certain is that the meaning of a work of visual art is not to be found on a label next to the work, or on a website, or indeed in any kind of contextualisation or mediation or interpretation. The meaning is in the work, which is the point of visual art.

To quote the late, great Bryan Robertson, “Art is many things but it is not primarily a means of communication as we normally understand that utility. There are easier and certainly less laborious ways for one person to express an idea directly to another than by painting a picture or making a sculpture. In itself, the action would be unreliable. Conversely, no written or printed document, film or TV program, the proper media for communication in the usual sense, could ever convey with any compensatory degree of accuracy the true imaginative quality of Piero’s Baptism of Christ or The Moroccans of Matisse. For media is an intermediary device: concerned with visual art, it uses inaccurate or irrelevant language; finally it involves falsification.”

 

2.

Modernism during and since the 1950’s, comprising of the reductivist formalism of Abstract Expressionism and post-painterly abstraction, and the post-modern anti-form conceptualism in all its many variations which eclipsed it in the 1970’s, can be seen as the two opposing sides of a single inevitable trend towards the literalism of our age. Even the eminent Clement Greenberg, great modernist critic though he was, advocated the literal condition of flatness as an ambition for advanced painting, though stopping short of endorsing Minimalism. He was perhaps correct in identifying flatness as painting’s default state, though it is hard to see how this supposed purity makes it better than the compelling condition of a fully integrated plastic and spatial complexity. Similarly, Anthony Caro, an artist highly favoured by Greenberg, and the creator of much of the best sculpture of the 1960’s, was an early champion of the notion that anything can be sculpture. On the anti-form side, Joseph Beuys, in similar fashion, declared everyone to be an artist (In direct contradiction to which it is interesting to note how his cult of personality is his biggest legacy). Whilst one might enjoy the sentiments of both views, neither of these truisms has benefitted visual art. Neither achieved real freedom for sculpture, which was presumably their worthy aim; on the contrary, they helped to drag sculpture down into the maelstrom of literalism where it now languishes. “Literal” being the antonym of “creative”, it is the destroyer of properly visual content in art. Yet literalist art, despite not really being properly visual, has attained recent popularity because it so easily begets a superficial and popular explanation of itself, in the manner of an everyman’s interpretation. This is generally thought to be “what it means”.

3.

Whilst some of the freedoms won for sculpture in the Sixties were real, they are easily confused and conflated with the literal state of “objecthood” which so many sculptors took on board at the time, often by simply calling anything they did “sculpture”. These freedoms can now be seen to be bound up with the much more difficult and complex task of finding a fuller, more imaginative three-dimensionality. The potential for such a truly liberated abstract sculpture is huge, and the possibilities for new and expanded plastic and spatial values so potent that weak form will not contain them; nor will illustration, nuance, mild sensibilities, good taste, literalism or conceptualism – or even, I might add, figuration. All these can be left behind. But complexity, uncertainty, and difficulty come with these freedoms.

As far as painting is concerned, I incline to the rather anti-Greenbergian notion that the convincing realisation of deep “plastic” space is painting’s greatest accomplishment. I’m thinking maybe of the best of Titian and Tintoretto, Rubens, Poussin, Constable and Pissarro (see especially the late series of the quays and bridges at Rouen); indeed, there are many painters of serious ambition who have, since the spatial gains of the early Renaissance, imaginatively assimilated the horizontal spaces of the real world as places where the structures of painting could rewardingly operate, and in ways which meant that the picture plane did not dominate. The best painting has often been an invitation to imaginatively “roam around”, albeit with the reality-check of the passage across and through the medium itself always held in close conjunction. (It is noticeable in some landscape painting how physically arresting a divergence from the norm of horizontality can be – see Pissarro again with The Climb, Rue de la Côte-du-Jalet, Pontoise, or Constable’s Deadham Vale, or the big Rubens View of Het Steen in the Early Morning, all of which establish horizontal spaces only to upset them with the physical jolt of a change of level or incline). It might be reasonably argued that figurative painting since the early Renaissance has rarely benefited from flattening of any description – think of Velazquez’s Las Meninas, full of vertical planes, yes, and yet primarily dependent upon the horizontal interaction and separation of its players and us for its structure and meaning. The same might be said of another masterpiece, Manet’s A Bar at the Folies-Bergère. Here, as in much other great figurative painting, our very looking is horizontal. Horizontal is more inclusive, more spatial, less confrontational than vertical. More three-dimensional, even. With abstract painting, we are often brought up short by comparison, stuck on or around the picture plane, in an altogether more meagre space. There is no doubt that the best figurative painting of the past is spatially more adventurous than the best abstract painting of the present (so far). We should take note of that, and not, therefore, make retrospective judgements on the plastic and spatial achievements of the figurative painting of the past using the rather feeble “formal” or compositional criteria often used to conventionally evaluate art (both abstract and figurative), which have more to do with good design, taste or second-rate art theory. These weak criteria cannot be asked to function as some sort of codebreaker for ambitious painting. Tintoretto, Constable et al were into something far more audacious.

4.

Now, at the beginning of the 21st century, if we turned our backs on all of the shallowly-entertaining sophistry of world art, we could try a more challenging experiment altogether. We could ditch all that literalist thinking and instead focus on the creation of new, robust, imaginative three-dimensional abstract form, ambitious and unfettered. Such a change would be fraught, not least for abstract painters who have clung to a two-dimensionality of ever-diminishing returns for the sake of – what? Purity, clarity, a complacency of thought about the potential of painting, at the expense of serious content? Difficult for abstract sculptors too, who cling to “the object” as their excuse for three-dimensionality. Difficult all round, but it would be an electrifying development.

So, how do we go about making new, more three-dimensional, more imaginative abstract form? How do we go about making abstract art as complex and particular as the best figurative painting of the past five hundred years? And indeed, how did we miss the fact that great painting was always very specific; the best figurative painting really does buttonhole physicality somehow, doesn’t it? How did we let abstract art drift into vagueness and generalisation? The business of making complex abstract painting or sculpture now, in 2010, is a long way removed from the spontaneous abandon and carefree self-expression which constituted the popular myth about being an abstract artist in the second half of the 20th century. That idea still has romantic appeal, but it will no longer suffice to produce progressive results. Having tip-toed all around the edges of abstract art, we now have to plumb its depths. Our modern abyss which we must face up to is the amorphous and vast complexity of possibilities, the endless potential, of empty abstract space. Having ventured there, we will have wondered if perhaps the very emptiness denotes order (see Minimalism again; it still seems a good option sometimes, but only for about two minutes, until you get bored). There is not even an extant tradition of painting and sculpture in there to pick up on. Yet, that will turn out to be a good thing if we are resolved upon creativity and not literalism. We must enter the abyss; and we must return with our sanity intact and our imaginations loaded with new “form-meanings” which can extend the disciplines of painting and sculpture into the future. We can’t any longer trust the “next new thing” like we did in the 1960’s; what we need is a better new thing altogether. We need progress. The artist has to put him or herself through a set of encounters, of chances, of coincidences, within the constraints of their chosen medium, but without limit to their scope or duration, that show the appearance of interconnectedness, of transformative visual relationships, of structures that mimic thought, that run in parallel with human consciousness. Each artist must find his or her own way to do this, but collectively these endeavours must answer to the future of visual art. The forms, the spaces, the elements that go to make up painting and sculpture are subject to the same recalcitrant and obstinate physicality that we, as human beings, are. We can get ill, we can get lame, we can die. These are real things, and the elements of real painting and sculpture are subject to these conditions too. They reflect what we are. Putting oneself in the way of such discovery and loss is where the hard work is. Chance plays a part, but persistence does too, particularly in dealing with the “loss” part of it. If we can get past that, then the form of the work itself can begin to look spontaneous and uninhibited, rather than simply being demonstrative of a literally spontaneous process. Then we can contemplate the true lucid order and inventiveness of the unconscious. We can feel the thrill of looking into the abyss; but our gaze will be contemplative and steady, our vision measured.

5.

If we can indeed make such new and properly abstract work, we will need to look after it, and exhibit it properly, and look at it properly – that will be very important, and we might have to learn how to do it all over again. We will have to find strategies to enable us to be in the physical presence of the work in order to see it “in the present”. We will have to avoid the ubiquitous tendency in contemporary culture to historicise events, actions and ideas almost immediately, to ascribe interpretations in an instant. All art has, in the past hundred years or so, been re-mediated and recontextualised endlessly; first by books and photography (in catalogues like this!), then by film and television, now by the internet and mobile technology. This puts a distance between us and art, and few people seem to believe they can trust their own feelings and responses enough – just watch people in galleries now, who, having taken the trouble to turn up, take a mobile phone shot of the art (then photograph the label) and walk away: they cannot trust themselves to take away in their head anything of the experience of the art itself; nor do they have time to discover what is real in the work.

We are encouraged to believe, by artists, galleries, curators, critics and commentators – and indeed, directors of institutions even – that in accessing images of art via these new media and reading an accompanying text, that we can get a measure of the work. This may be true for art history, where the study of art is about context, and it may work for conceptual art, where the content of the work is literal or literary, but it will not work for real painting and sculpture, no matter what lengths are taken to elucidate it, even if the writing about the art is good. It misses the point of personal contact with such art. It misses out on that moment of entering the same actual space as a great work of art and being gripped to the core of one’s central nervous system by the physical interaction; it misses out on spending time with the work and unpicking that initial encounter and beginning to understand how and why the thing was put together in the way it was; and then it misses out on being able to imaginatively reconstruct the experience with a greater insight than before, such that one can walk away from the work with something very distinctly gained: not an image on a phone, but its meaning – or at least a first go at it. It is easy to think that we have seen a work of art by looking at a photograph or a screen image, but rather hard to remind ourselves every time that this is just not true. Looking at some form of reproduction is now so easy to do that it often seems too big an exertion to experience art unmediated by the “inaccurate or irrelevant language”, to quote Bryan Robertson again, of the media. We really do have to make that effort, though, if we are to experience what Robertson so cogently described as “a convergence of circumstances which enforce an unprecedented act of recognition”.

We can’t, of course, avoid the progress of the internet; but, despite seeming incommensurate with expectations of modern life and the progressive virtualisation of the arts, the continuing value of painting and sculpture will not be denied. We cannot doubt the power and excitement of the best work of Titian or Tintoretto, Rubens or Constable, Cézanne or Picasso, when we experience them for real. And of course we need good new art too; we always need new art, not least to keep alive and extend our understanding of visual form and meaning. For art to be real and free and meaningful, it needs to be experienced in a manner largely liberated of interpretation, whether intellectual or technological. Anything that mediates between you and the work changes and diminishes the nature of that experience. Visual art is not a language, and its meaning is not, therefore, translatable into words. Visual art is, as Robertson says, a revelation.

July 2009, with amendments July 2010.

Published as a catalogue essay for Poussin Gallery

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Poussin Review 2010: New to Sight.

On a recent trip to Paris I happened to see “A”, a well-known London art dealer and jolly nice man, on the Eurostar escalator. “Hi. Going to FIAC?” he asked. I had to think quick – FIAC, what the hell was FIAC? I surmised “artfair” – that’s what “A” does, travel the world’s artfairs. I shook my head gravely, and explained I was on my way through Paris to the Pyrenees. Which was true. Hardly time to stop, sadly. “Good luck, have a nice weekend”. We had planned, in fact, a two-day stopover in Paris to visit “Titian, Tintoretto, Veronese” at the Louvre. It seemed a little pompous to mention it. Perhaps I was momentarily embarrassed to own up to my own lack of interest in contemporary artfairs, or indeed my unwillingness to participate in the general melee of commercial interests surrounding the contemporary art scene which of late seems to consume all of our art institutions, no matter how eminent; dealers, critics, curators – everyone loves new art!

I didn’t care to admit it to our friend, but the truth is I didn’t even know FIAC was taking place. Later that same morning, in Paris, on the way to the Louvre, we had to go past the entrance to FIAC (which is indeed an art fair, perhaps the Parisian answer to Frieze, but comprising mainly French galleries – I know, French Britart, don’t go there!), and looked in the windows and tried very hard to convince ourselves that, as galleristas in Paris, we really ought to do it, and that – tomorrow – we would.

We knew we should… We had a whole free day in Paris to digest the previous day’s Titian/Tintoretto/Veronese thing, which we spent mainly just wandering, thinking. We passed the FIAC again, and we passed another manifestation of it, a sort of Parisian “Zoo” thing, I guess. But we could not be tempted by installations of meter-high brightly coloured plastic rabbits, or mysterious black-plastic bundles reminiscent of something very, very bad I did at art school in 1968. They seemed, to understate the case, to be somewhat unattractive postscripts to the art of the Venetian masters.  We peered through the windows feeling sad and old, looking at things that seemed even sadder and older than we felt, all things jaded and unoriginal; and we wondered why art now was so fantastically crap.

There you go, we missed out on the new, exciting, up-to the-minute art in Paris that week. Except to say that, unlike most of what we could see through the windows of FIAC, a number of the Tintorettos were new to us, and what’s more, were exciting and up-to the-minute. The experience of such art is often not only a “new” thing, but also a “now” thing, a revelation of the moment, even if we have seen it before. With art as good as this it is never just a matter for art history. And there is more originality and immediacy in a few Tintorettos than in a dozen FIACs. In fact, without even seeing it properly (but on the basis of having seen similar things before and been senselessly annoyed by them) I’m rather presumptuously inclined to dismiss it all as rubbish. Rubbish, that is, if you dare be so bold as to compare it to Tintoretto. Should we not do that? No, probably not, a hopeless, useless exercise. There is for the most part no comparison to be made. They do say comparisons are odious, but we had had great enjoyment comparing Titian with Tintoretto and Veronese. It seems a wonderful, insightful thing to do, this side-by-side comparison thing (a big cheer then for the person who recently hung Rubens, Titian and Cezanne together on one wall in the National Gallery). But I suspect it is the literalness of contemporary art which means it cannot be meaningfully rated against or compared with the clear and strong visual form of Venetian painting. There is nowhere to go with that comparison – it doesn’t work.

So – we’ve put some contemporary painting and sculpture together for this show that rectifies all that! But seriously, you can compare any of the work in this show with Tintoretto, if you are so inclined. It is all visual, and it all has form, more or less – some more, some less. It speaks the same visual language as Tintoretto. It’s true that none of it would ultimately match up to Tintoretto (have you gathered yet that Tintoretto came off best in our comparison with Titian and Veronese. More of that another time, perhaps), and it’s also true that in some cases it would be rather off-putting to do it, but none of it would be rubbished by the comparison, like most of the work in FIAC would be. All the works in this show have something to say for themselves visually, being driven for the most part by the same kind of impulses that informed Tintoretto’s decision-making – the imperatives of the eye, the look of the thing, the “feel” of the thing, the structure of visual organisations, how to organise a space to have the utmost liveliness and intensity…  I could go on.

We started Poussin five years ago with the introductory words to the inaugural catalogue – “It’s the look of the thing that counts…”. It was an optimistic statement back then about how visual art could carry on developing and how what one visual artist often gets from another is a subtle blend of unnameable visual prompts which lead deeper into the structure of the work (as opposed to non-visual prompts which might lead elsewhere). Would we want to change that statement now, upon reflection? Well, we seem to have learnt much in our five years of showing abstract art, but the message remains of relevance, and in the light of ongoing developments in contemporary art, it is all the more necessary to keep saying it. Perhaps, given what we have learnt, we would amend it to “It’s the form of the thing that counts…”,  and therein lies a whole world of definition trouble. Because what do we mean by “form”? It’s a problem word. Lots of different uses of the term have been made in the past, and I am inclined to attempt another one – a definition of form not as a constituent part of an artwork, but as a discovered condition of art.

The pervasive literalism of contemporary art means genuinely plastic and spatial values are in danger of being lost to our consideration of painting and sculpture, both in the recurring evaluation of old and new work, and in the continuation of that evaluation which constitutes a part of the process of creating new art. The achievement of form in new art, dependent as it is upon these plastic and spatial values, has therefore become a critical issue. The form of a work of visual art can only fully emerge when a significant proportion of the elements of the work are seen to be in a structured visual relation to one another, at which point an overarching sense of purpose becomes evident, embodied in the physical fabric of the work. This state of complex but lucid unity often consists of the grouping of lesser forms or part-forms together into bigger and broader unions, to the point where the whole work becomes in the end one complex relational entity, one form. This state will at no point have been a predictable outcome for the artist, and most probably never have been synonymous with their intentions. Such form can only be discovered by a sustained and diverse imaginative engagement with the physical processes of painting or sculpture. This is particularly true in relational abstract art, though I imagine it to be the case in the best figurative art too, especially in Tintoretto. So, here is our definition: form is the state of resolution resulting from a successfully developed set of visual relationships, discovered by the artist, but ultimately seen as autonomous of them or any external considerations or context. At the point of achieving such a condition, form and meaning are inseparable: perhaps one might elaborate a little by speculating that the more complex the set of relationships resolved, the greater the ultimate form, and the greater the art?

The attainment of robust visual form is inversely proportional to the degree to which the content of the work is accountable for itself in other, more literal terms. These cover just about anything we can think of: geometry, objecthood, formalism (in which I would include all format painting and all manner of academic abstraction), process, storyline or literary content, etc. If you can name it, then the art becomes accountable by these terms rather than by its own newly created and unnameable abstract visual identity. So that, if the content of the work is not newly invented, then the art that results is not in a meaningful sense fully creative. Is genuine creativity not what we are after – a lucid product of a bright imagination and intellect, made physical and real in the material world? And by the way, this discussion of form in art is not to be seen as promoting something exclusive or elitist – there are probably as many ways to make good form as there are good visual artists. What is more, new invented form is amongst the most accessible of things for the arts audience, at least for those willing to connect with real visual originality. Such form does not rely for its achievements upon verbal interpretation or historical or cultural context (though this knowledge might help us in the approach to difficult or complex great art). It does, however, most certainly depend upon being in the physical presence of the work of art rather than looking at some mediated version of it. Our response to art often comprises of a very straightforward moment of impact or revelation (though it may take several attempts for it to register) followed by a much longer developing relationship between the viewer and the work. Not everyone will want to or be able to get involved in this way, but that doesn’t matter. The quest for the total accountability of access to the content of visual art is probably a vain one, and the way it has been partially achieved in recent times, and the way that art has become popularised, is by making art more and more non-visual – more literal, in fact.

One of the things that Poussin Gallery has done over the last five years is look back to work made in the Sixties and Seventies. Our primary reason for this was our awareness that in the Sixties there occurred an extraordinary explosion of new forms (that word again – perhaps we should here substitute the word “shapes”, since we want to reserve “form” for higher purposes) that ran the gamut of quality, but were almost all primarily visual phenomena. We wanted to connect back to that moment when art was still predominantly and overtly visual in its mainstream. Was there something to learn from that period? Had we missed good things that had lasted beyond their initial excitement and visual novelty? We also looked, perhaps with even greater interest, at some of the abstract work done in this country in the Seventies, when the expanded field of the art scene eclipsed by degrees even the most high-profile abstract painting and sculpture of the time, regardless of quality. Despite (or because of) that eclipse, some of the practitioners of abstract art who had not capitulated to novelty or fetish looked a little more sharply at their discipline, dug a little deeper, and pursued the harder things to pursue rather than the easy answers. This appeared to be particularly true of British painters, who took the initiative of high-ambition abstract painting away from the Americans. They got little recognition for it, but we have seen plenty of evidence in shows at Poussin over the past few years of the quality of effort put in by a handful of British painters over the latter part of the Seventies and right through the Eighties and Nineties. The Americans (and Canadians) seemed to get a little stuck in format painting, non-relational or minimal painting and “process” painting. In comparison, the British seemed more interested in developing… well, form. There is nothing else to call it – form through relationships. And whilst the best abstract art, as we have said, is dependent upon an imaginative involvement with the procedures and materials of its processes for both the initiation and development of its structures, it now seems relevant to ask whether and how much the finished forms of abstract art have been abandoned too early to the many novelty seductions of those same processes. It is probable that an over-reliance on either process, and/or on the limiting factors of format, have been all too inhibiting to abstract painting and sculpture.

But it is true, after all, that we need to be stimulated by new things; that, indeed, new art is needed which asks questions of old art, as well as vice versa. So we are very pleased to welcome to Poussin work that is, for different reasons, “new to sight”. Either it really has never been seen before because it is brand new; or it has been seen and forgotten; or it has never been seen properly. All the work, whatever its history, communicates in a direct way through the language of visual art, through visual relationships, through form!  Whether the form herein is major or minor, whether it is of a quality that will last, is another matter; a matter for us all to decide individually and collectively. It is a group of work you can compare and contrast without fear or favour and then go on to compare with all other work that is based upon plastic and spatial values. As the work of Tintoretto can testify, painting is a fantastic medium, a really great way to “have your art”, to get your fix of form. When it reaches the heights Tintoretto reached, it is pretty unbeatable. We all have a way to go with this…..

One last thing. Whilst I said previously that the final condition of form is not a predictable conclusion for the artist in each individual piece of work, nevertheless a broad aspirational vision of that potential outcome is essential. In fact, a vision of the future of abstract art as a complex and unified state of form will be a requirement for any artist with ambitions to make abstract art that can match the achievements of the greatest figurative art of the past.

January 2010

Published as a catalogue essay for Poussin Gallery

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Anthony Smart: New Sculpture

“Much of Caro’s sculpture needs to be seen from one primary angle. Some of it (e.g. screens set against a wall) insists on a particular view and excludes others. We may walk round sculptures to know them better but there is almost always a main view and sometimes only one that makes sense. The notion that sculpture is at its best when it can be enjoyed equally from many different angles has no basis in history. It is noteworthy that Dieter Blume, in the Blume catalogue vol. I, speaks of the illustrations being taken from photographs ‘generally taken from the front’. ”

Footnote 6 from a catalogue essay by Norbert Lynton “Five Sculptures by Anthony Caro”, Arts Council touring exhibition 1982.

This seemingly casual and unapologetic statement regarding the particular properties and limits of three-dimensionality in sculpture, with specific reference in this case to the work of Anthony Caro, but implying a much wider acceptance amongst artists, critics and historians, gives us our first clue as to the sculptural territory that Anthony Smart has chosen to occupy and the orthodoxies he has dismissed. To be more precise: if one considers the above statement for a little longer and perhaps a little deeper than was intended and if one intellectually presses on beyond its straightforward acquiescence and asks the simple question “Could sculpture be more three-dimensional than this?”, then one might get a glimpse of the main motivating force behind Smart’s chosen direction. To begin to answer it – as Smart is doing – is to begin to see the potential for a new kind of sculptural freedom, namely the opportunity for abstract sculpture to go anywhere and be anything, unconstrained by the legacy of literal objecthood within which it has operated for the last fifty years or so, and free from the constraints of frontality, free from the naming of “front” and “back”, and notions of the “best view”; indeed, unhindered by any number of named and nameless props and crutches upon which sculpture has to date been hung. No sooner do we get a little glimpse of the terrifying array of possibilities of such an abandonment of our familiar everyday world of two-dimensional images and one-dimensional allusions, than we realise that with things that are truly three-dimensional we are all of us all at sea, without the means or the language to easily deal with the experience. We are in a place of weird, unfamiliar and difficult structures that don’t conform to familiar patterns of things we already know. Do we want scary? Yes we do. We have to turn off the lights to see shooting stars.

Smart has described his new sculpture as “freestyle”. By ignoring the many comfort-zones of literal content and identity in abstract art, and the constraints upon structuring that follow from them, he now presents us with unfamiliar, imaginative and far-flung visual structures which operate in spaces as fully three-dimensional as we have yet seen. Smart has indeed chosen a path that has “no basis in history”. Good for him, and to his credit. In any case, abstract sculpture is itself relatively new and undefined, being less than fifty years old in its “mainstream” form, and so has no basis in history either. This is as yet a largely unexplored world; I would go so far as to suggest abstract sculpture is a new art form, still in its infancy, differing radically as it does from all preceding figurative sculpture and inhabiting space in ways that are only available to work which is properly abstract. So the first positive thing to say about Smart’s new work is that they are pointing the way to a big, optimistic future for serious abstract sculpture, opening up new territory, and coming at a time when many thought it was dead in the water and any number of its erstwhile practitioners and champions had more or less abandoned it for more fashionable and easier pursuits. Because, make no mistake, this kind of sculpture is fiercely difficult to make.

I have no doubt that this will seem to many people overstated or misguided, and some would insist upon art having to deal with things familiar and known in the literal world in order for it to become at all meaningful. I don’t agree, but, right or wrong, the fact remains that this is Smart’s chosen direction, and if we undertake to pay some attention to the progression of his work and attempt to understand why it has arrived at its present state, then we will at the very least see clearly the difference, the newness, of his approach. Like anything genuinely new, Smart’s work knows exactly, historically, where it’s coming from. Nobody would question that Anthony Caro’s sculpture, along with the work of David Smith who preceded him, and of Tim Scott and others who came after him, plays a hugely significant part in the genesis and development of abstract sculpture, and in particular, abstract steel sculpture, and Smart would rightly acknowledge the fact. It is of great importance in the development of his work that Smart studied sculpture at St. Martin’s School of Art under Caro. And whilst Smart’s work to date offers a critique of Caro, so it rightly should if it is to repay the debt. In any case, one ought to note the fact that most of Caro’s groundbreaking works from the Sixties do not depend upon frontality to anything like the extent implied in the quoted essay footnote by Lynton. I use it to illustrate a general kind of complacency about sculpture’s potential that prevailed around the time Smart was formulating a more radical approach to abstract sculpture. But in the Sixties and Seventies every which way had to be tried by any sculptor seeking out modernity in order to break with the past and test the limits of sculpture’s newly-won territory. Dealing with the literal “objectness” of abstract sculpture was very much a part of this process, and frontality is a variation of this objectness. Lots of things in this period just had to be tried out, at least once, to find out…

In the first decade of radically abstract work in the Sixties, sculpture changed from a vertical, columnar, circumscribed set of forms, into an horizontal, non-figurative, open spatial arena. Three-dimensional art could now encompass real space, across a limitless horizontal plane (the ground), and could therefore act in all sorts of ways it never could previously, including operating in the same literal space as human beings. Much has been made of Caro’s abandonment of the plinth, but the essential change was the shift from vertical to horizontal, and the chance to then re-size the space of a sculpture to match actual human scale. But most objects in the world, including most artworks now labelled as sculpture, are literal objects, and are not built to encompass the extreme conditions of full, illusionistic, plastic three-dimensionality which the scrutiny of being a sculpture ought perhaps to require of it. Simply naming a thing “sculpture” does not fulfil those conditions (although this was a popular strategy at the time). It requires exquisitely difficult thought and practise to enable those extreme conditions for abstract sculpture, and their subsequent spatial and formal values, to prosper and develop; and for the most part, when faced with the choices and dilemmas of a career in art, the majority of artists can’t be bothered to work it out – and this includes the generation of sculptors who had started the revolution in the first place in the Sixties. Subsequent generations, enamoured with the novelty of it all, were certainly not going to bother trying to untangle this new confusion because it was much too exciting as a confusion; also too difficult and obscure to unravel; and containing as it does a seductive opportunity to benefit from the ensuing perplexity and mystification of art. No sooner had we differentiated sculpture from statuary than we attained a new state of confusion, between sculpture and objects.

But Smart did bother to try to untangle this confusion, and so here we arrive at the main reason why his work has taken a different path from much other sculpture since the Seventies. One might say that this avoidance of the literal is synonymous with the avoidance of “ideas”. And even mindful of what Michael Fried has written on the subject, most sculptors from the period, including all of the New Generation sculptors who followed Caro, relied to varying degrees upon a vocabulary of literal ideas and images for their work’s identity as three-dimensional objects. The critical landscape for sculpture from this period is littered with references to the literal world of objects. It is true to say that literalness is the state into which almost all sculpture in the Sixties and Seventies to a greater or lesser extent fell. It is where sculpture still is as far as most artists and the broader new audiences for art are concerned; hence the literalism of almost all contemporary art, which has by escalating degrees followed this particular path to its brain-pulping conclusion.

In the early Seventies, a progressive and self-critical working practice was set up by a group of sculptors working in welded steel in Stockwell Depot, South London, led by Peter Hide and including Smart, John Foster and Katherine Gili. Through a new and aggressive directness in their work, they began to question some of the orthodoxies of taste in the abstract sculpture of the time (the more trivial and fetishistic preoccupations of the art scene in general were simply ignored) in order to make a little of their own independence and originality felt. Smart made a forceful repudiation of pictorialism’s weightlessness and lack of physicality in his “Tamarind” and “Stirrup” series of sculptures from the mid-Seventies. Hide, Foster and Gili too stamped their own individual sensibilities upon abstraction, with increasingly more massed and concentrated works, particularly by comparison with the preceding “New Generation” of sculptors from a decade before. We should note here that from the early Seventies, and independent of the Stockwell group, Tim Scott had moved away from the literalness of his early work and in 1972 had begun to introduce a more physical manipulation of his material. He had started to forge steel to bring out its malleable plastic qualities, and this of and by itself necessitated a more fully-rounded, more three-dimensional way of thinking, which was to prove a prescient part of the way forward for Smart. By the late Seventies there had arisen amongst a small number of sculptors and students associated with St. Martin’s a profound dissatisfaction with the slender critical perspective of Modernist taste, and this was about to precipitate a sea-change in the work of this group.

Perhaps the most noteworthy influence on Smart, particularly at this time, was the teaching, writing and comradeship of the painter Alan Gouk. What Gouk did most convincingly as a teacher of sculpture (quite aside from his considerable achievements in painting) throughout the Seventies, and with increasing force as the decade progressed, was to put his full intellectual weight behind finding and analysing historical examples of alternative ways to proceed in three-dimensions that might allow abstract sculpture to regain some degree of genuine three-dimensional physicality. He instituted amongst the staff and students at St. Martin’s a sustained study of the comparative history of sculpture throughout all world cultures and periods, not from the point of view of an art historian, but in order to look at the direct relevance of such work to the contemporary condition of sculpture. This culminated in Gouk delivering the essay “Proper to Sculpture” (published later in Artscribe) as a lecture at Wimbledon School of Art in 1980. Already prior to this, Smart, who was by now teaching alongside Gouk at St. Martin’s, had begun looking into the physical structures of specific historical sculptures. There began a period of open-ended analysis and interpretation of these structures, without too much foreknowledge of how to turn them directly or indirectly to sculpture, even though the desire for sculptural achievement remained paramount. These new structures, although discovered firstly in figurative sculpture from the past, were gradually elicited from a radical new use of life-models. The more three-dimensional these structures were, the better. Before long it would come to seem to Smart and others at St. Martin’s that the most three-dimensional, physical, differentiated, holistic and interdependent structures relevant to sculpture were those which constituted the working parts of the human body. The image of the figure was always eschewed in this, even when anatomy was tackled head-on in order to better understand the inner workings of the body. The emphasis was categorically on “the body” and not “the figure”. That “Sculpture from the Body” (as it became known after the Tate Britain show in 1984 “Have You Seen Sculpture from the Body?”, organised by Smart, Katherine Gili and Robert Persey) produced rather few sculptures of any status or lasting significance is put into perspective, at least as far as Smart’s work is concerned, by its consequences as a way of thinking about sculpture which avoided literal objecthood and image. The “body-as-structure” blew away frontality, pictorialism and a lot more besides – it could do nothing else – but what it put in its place was immensely complex, and not simple to make use of directly in sculpture.

This engagement with the physical and the three-dimensional properties of the body is the key place where Smart arrived in the Eighties. A series of forged steel sculptures were made, the early ones being recognisably from the body, and the latter ones, seeking some sculptural resolution independent of the body, simplified themselves by degrees, and in more abstract forms, into forceful interpretations of the body’s “sense of purpose”. By the early Nineties, Smart had moved on again. His re-engagement with the large-scale openness and transparency possible in abstract sculpture was to inform his next moves, but all he had learnt from “Sculpture from the Body” came with him.

So where are we now? More than twenty years have elapsed since Smart last used a life model to inform his sculpture, and no obvious correspondence exists between Smart’s new work and the structures of human anatomy. But that very same thinking – about the physical realities of form in space, its displacements and its relationships and effects across space – has, if anything, become even more focused and concentrated. That these new sculptures in the present show can occupy the same floor space as the viewer without resort to literalness is already an achievement of note, although it causes difficulties both in their making and in our subsequent business of looking at them. There is no longer a vestige of confusion about their abstractness. Nor, any longer, do they seek to plastically manipulate the material, other than by illusion; that is, by the implications of visual relations between parts. They are spatial organisations, but they do not rely upon geometry for their spatial relationships. Each move they make, each spatial articulation, attempts to extend the previous one, not by repetition, but by variation. The stakes are very high for these works, not least because the elimination of literal content means they have nothing to fall back upon if they do not succeed as sculpture. They are also quite obviously more complex than most abstract sculpture we have previously encountered. Is this good or bad? All my instincts say “good”, though of course it is all to be proven. In any case, what do we mean by complexity in art? Is a late Beethoven piano sonata complex or simple? Complex, but not complicated!

I said at the beginning of this essay that abstract sculpture had now the possibility to “go anywhere and be anything”, but in fact the “thing” that sculpture must become is its very own sweet self, at last. Abstract sculpture can get at the very heart of this in ways figurative sculpture never could. The fact that Smart’s new sculptures don’t look like “anything”, like any object in the world, is in their favour, in the long run, and if that is going to make them “difficult”, so be it. At last, I say again; about time. We have had fifty years of abstract sculpture based in various states of “objectness”, on every conceivable kind of literal crutch, we have just about run the gamut of it and it is for the most part going nowhere. Now, along comes Smart with works that fairly fizz with formal and spatial potential, but which don’t need to rely upon allusion for their reality, or indeed for their meaning. They are physical sculptures, but they are not about “objectness” – “table-ness”, “door-ness” – likewise running, jumping, sitting; they don’t allude to these activities. They are in fact about their own “sculptural-ness”, their own profound state of three-dimensionality. They explore sculptural space for us, because we can’t do it ourselves, we are literal and they are not. They explore for us the reality of artistic illusion, a world entirely based upon relationships.

To spend any time with Anthony Smart is to become aware of his acute engagement with the physical world – its landscapes, rivers and mountains, its plants and trees, its seas and its harbour walls, its buildings in its towns and cities; his imagination is deeply rooted in the whole of the natural and man-made morphology of the world, the relationships between things, the purposes of such relationships, its whole dynamic geography. Such a sensibility about the outside world drops directly in upon his own imaginative world of space and form, of manipulation of material, in order to find functioning relationships within the work that will in turn influence space, put pressure on it, to shape it and mould it, to make it ever-changing but purposeful, to make us aware of the sheer unstoppable activity of space. There is at the heart of this work a quite brilliant vital thrust, but it is, in the actual presence of the work, rather elusive – you will just have to track it down and dig it out for yourself, as it is not going to sit up and beg for you. Don’t think that because I said these works explore three-dimensionality for us that you don’t have to work at them. You need to stalk them a little, you must circle them, you must experience them in time as you walk around them, and all that time they won’t even hint at anything you can put a label on. But you will get something undeniably new and positive out of them. Despite their first appearances of “busyness” and complexity, and of playing a little fast and loose, they are by nature substantial and measured. You can walk and you can talk around this work, and you will discover that they put something into the world new and original which does not rely on any other thing in the world for its merit. And this is just as it should be; this is the future of “abstract”.

April 2009

Published as a catalogue essay for Poussin Gallery

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[extract from] Negotiations with Imaginary Architectures in New York, Paris and London

New York, June 2005

…Hofmann is the ultimate “piece of paint” painter, and come June 2005 I’m stood in the new MOMA in front of the ultimate “piece of paint” painting, his Cathedral of 1959. Those ochre/yellow rectangles are banging away across the bottom, and the reds are hanging over blue across the top, and the canvas literally is sagging under the weight of pigment – not so much a “fat, loaded brushstroke” as one concrete piece of colour-stuff up against another, and another. And, yes, it is all strong and powerfully visual and real, and I am getting off on the imposition and drama and colour of it, particularly the variations around the primaries.

Except I’m not really, because I’m distracted. I’ve noticed that S. has moved on, and isn’t sharing my moment with Hofmann any more. She’s hardly looked at it; certainly not long enough to give it its due, this being a masterpiece of abstract painting and all. She’s moved on to the next thing on the wall, which doesn’t look too interesting. It’s a big thing under glass, and the glass is reflecting light from a window, so I can’t really see from where I am in front of Cathedral what it is that is so important that it can take you away from a very good Hofmann. And I am certainly not ready to move on, so I say rather impatiently “What is it?”, and she says, “Come and have a look”, and now I’m really annoyed because my concentration is completely blown.

It turns out to be Matisse’s Memory of Oceania 1953. Quickly, I’m persuaded to let go of the Hofmann, and give myself up to the influence of the more pro-active forms of the Matisse. It just straight away seems much more engaging, less confrontational. All the parts are different sizes and shapes and orientations, but are in some special kind of coordination of activity. There is a lot of “uplift” and openness about it, and a great deal of what one might lazily describe as movement, but that is not really a correct description of what is going on. It is not the case that the elements of this work are in movement, and certainly not that they are describing movement, as in, say, some Constructivist or Futurist illustration of process. What these elements seem to be doing is allowing us the space to move, in amongst them, allowing us imaginatively to negotiate a route from one place to another, by different ways and different means, sometimes traversing open spaces, sometimes travelling through the forms themselves. The arrangement of forms not only invites us to participate, but carries us around and about without obstacle. Importantly, we move in something rather more stimulating than a two-dimensional space.

Despite the framing effect of a coloured border to the work, I am less aware of the actual boundaries of the object than I was with the Hofmann. In fact, I am much less aware of its “objecthood” all together, because what holds my attention from the start is the unexpectedness of certain spatial relationships, which despite being at the time new to me, immediately seem believable. It is a great feeling, to be surprised and almost simultaneously convinced of a new and imaginative spatial arrangement. It’s not an unfamiliar feeling, of course – I get it whenever I look at a really great figurative painting.

Memory of Oceania is negotiable, in all its parts, across all areas of the painting. This is all achieved visually and abstractly; no anecdotal prompting, no representational trickery, just these simple but athletic colour-forms, summoning from out of their literal flatness a rounded spatial experience, a physical journey for the eye. In some ways, the components of the painting – simple geometric or hard-edged shapes in near-primary colours; red, green, yellow, orange, blue – are very similar to the elements of the Hofmann. But whilst the Hofmann presents itself as a spatially active wall of colour, pushing and pulling against the picture plane, the Matisse offers a vision of a much more plastic and three-dimensional world. Was it the best thing I saw on my New York trip? Possibly not. It had to compete with a lot of things of the first order, like several things at the Metropolitan Museum, and, memorably, a masterpiece of a Van Dyke at the Frick. But without a doubt it was better than the Hofmann next to it, and better than other Hofmanns we saw later. I would care to say now that it’s the best abstract painting I’ve yet seen.

Returning to the Hofmann for a moment, it is worth asking whether the slabs of orthogonal paint that jostle together, more or less (as in many Hofmanns) in reiteration of the rectangle of the stretcher, and reinforcing the “objectness” of this rectangular object, are in “intelligent relationship” with one another, or are they just literally next to each other? It seemed to me at the time, and reflection has not changed my opinion, that the relationships between parts in the Matisse are of a different order to those in the Hofmann. They are superior. Is the painting as physically “present” as in the Hofmann? Maybe not, in a literal sense, but it is profoundly physical. Even though there is a genuine “touch” to how it is constructed, and you get a sense of the delicate physicality of the coloured paper cut-out shapes, this is not really what I mean by the physicality of Memory of Oceania. There is more going on here, and it’s very much about the spatial construction of the work – its architecture, how it is built and thought about – and it’s something that the Hofmann doesn’t really have. Or, at least by comparison with something as great as the Matisse, might be said to have less of. It’s a physicality of a different order, perhaps of more significance because it is less literal.

When the qualities of Matisse’s late cut-outs are discussed, colour is often cited as their highest achievement, and always insisted upon as Matisse’s biggest contribution to modern painting. I’m as big an admirer of Matisse’s colour as anyone else, but what strikes me more often, not just with the late cut-outs but with work from all periods of his career, is the inventive spatial organisation of his paintings. This for me is at the heart of Matisse’s huge originality. Sure, the organisation of his paintings is in part dependent upon colour. But Matisse is inventive at the most basic level with the structures of his painting. Think for example of Still Life with Eggplants 1911 with its upturned floor and wall framing a more rounded still life against a screen, this reflected in a mirror; which corresponds across the painting with a view through a window of a landscape, which is like a painting; and then a more distant space than that (but within the building) of a glimpse over the screen into another room/space. It’s as complex as Las Meninas.

Or how about The Moroccans, apparently simple, but actually as sophisticated a spatial proposition as you would care to have in a painting, all perfectly negotiable – with manipulations of the space, yes, but without obstacles or complete disruptions. It’s as complex and at least as comprehensively realised as (and inspired by?) Manet’s A Bar at the Folies-Bergère, which is itself a tour de force of spatial inventiveness. Matisse takes little for granted in his major works, and his architectures invite us to negotiate the paintings in unfamiliar ways, to feel our way around them. This is a very great thing indeed, and what much great painting has in common. It is, for me, what makes Tintoretto and Rubens and Constable and Cezanne all great painters. We are invited to negotiate their invented worlds, on their invented terms, and without suspending our disbelief, because these things are made real and anew for us. And whilst so much second-rate art flags up early on what it wants us to feel, great art gives us the room to let us discover for ourselves our own feelings about the situation in which we find ourselves, and does so through the most direct of expedients, the imaginative grasp of our own physicality.

Before going any further with this, I want to say that I agree with those who consider Hofmann to be the best abstract painter to date. He is very, very good indeed. He’s just not as good as Matisse, who is great. But Matisse is a figurative painter, even though one must read Memory of Oceania as an abstract painting. I don’t think there is an important contradiction here, and I don’t really want to get into the figurative v. abstract thing on this level, because it’s more interesting to work out why the Matisse is better than the Hofmann. It seems to me that this difference is the very thing that makes great abstract art and great figurative art all of the same order of experience, all “intelligible in terms of the past”, as Greenberg put it. But I did want to say that my high regard for Hofmann is undisturbed by this comparison. In fact, what sets Hofmann above and beyond many fellow American Abstract Expressionist painters of quality, like, say, Newman or Rothko, and even Pollock, is his (Hofmann’s) invention and re-invention of the architecture of his painting, his unwillingness to resort to a formalism devoid of content, his refusal to go for “format” painting (like Rothko tended towards, and Stella and many others did later on) over real discovered form.

If Hofmann’s architecture is found to be less pliable, less resilient than Matisse’s, then at least he had an architecture – and a credible one at that – which remains way beyond the means of most abstract painters. Maybe Hofmann’s “push and pull” is too crude a conceit, not quite a fully rounded, three-dimensional kind of construct. It is still better than flatness, which many commentators on (including, regrettably, Greenberg) and practitioners of Modernism have promoted as a positive quality of modern painting (which is tosh). No, Hofmann is not downgraded by this comparison with Matisse, it is Matisse who is re-evaluated because of it – upwards, of course. We’ll come back to the Hofmann/Matisse thing later. Meantime I want to explore this idea of “negotiating” a painting.

Paris, April 2006

We are at the Musee d’Orsay, the Cezanne and Pissarro, 1865 to 1885 show. There are two particular paintings from this exhibition, both by Cezanne, that I want to talk about here. The first is La Cote des Jalais, Pontoise 1879-81, which I don’t recall seeing before. It is a particularly good work to consider from our point of view of “negotiating” a painting, of getting around it. For a start, it works right across the full extent of the canvas, and refrains from fading out towards the edges (and centralising the motif) in the annoying way that some late Cézannes do. It has that most reliable of devices, namely a path leading us in from the bottom edge of the canvas toward the middle foreground. This path, however, is shunted off to the right-hand side of the bottom edge, and is already itself some way away from us. We are certainly not already “on” the path, in the way that we are with, say, Pissarro’s painting of the same name of 1867. We are not “on” that path at all, but we are “on” the hill upon which the path is situated, and the hill is pitching us forward, downward, into the painting.

We have a choice. Rather than take the path, we are more likely to opt for a faster entry down the field heading toward the bright curve of the road. I was reminded of an exceptional Cezanne I saw some years ago, at Wildenstein’s in Bond Street, Landscape at L’Estaque. It was part of the Readers Digest Collection, and it had some serious opposition in that show. It is only a smallish canvas, and it was close to a fabulous big Monet Water Lilies to which it could offer no contest from a distance. But on closer inspection it accorded a wonderful pitch forward down a slanted hillside, this time under a low canopy of olive trees, with glimpses of the sea to draw one forward and down and in. In terms of spatial invention, it left even the Monet for dead. The Pontoise painting by Cezanne has by comparison, beyond the pitch of the hillside, a more extensive prospect, and can be negotiated by a number of different ways and means. We can return to this painting a number of times, and still be discovering new means to negotiate it by. We can get to the middle-distance of the village via the bend in the road, which holds the centre of the painting. We can head up the left of the canvas to the water, round the back of the trees that skirt the road, and thus attain the far end of the village before looping back to regain the road. We can even cross the road on the right and make for the far side of the valley, by way of the singled-out house to the right of the main group of buildings. Faster than all of these, we can attain the highest ground, the furthest farmhouse, by ascending with the vertical poplar trees that rise from the near side of the road, and go right on up to just touch with their tips the upper extent of the painting.

None of this is about realism. Cezanne’s painting is not realism. The transitions in Cezanne’s painting work because of being able to negotiate successfully the form given to the paint, in a manner that may, possibly, parallel how we would negotiate the landscape, but does not by any means imitate it. In fact, the form of these transitions in the paint could downright contradict the literal form of the landscape, but in any event will almost inevitably short-circuit it. In a successful painting such as the Pontoise work, one piece of paint, one passage of structure, leads us to another, but we retain our freedom of movement and a choice of which direction to follow. Any notion that the artist has a controlling “message” for us is put paid to by these liberties. With art of this order we are given the freedom, and of course the ensuing hard work, to fend for and feel for ourselves whilst the fabric of the imaginary space is woven for us. This is not a confrontational experience, but a free and fair “negotiation”.

There was an earlier painting by Cezanne – also done in Pontoise – in this show, which was of an altogether different nature. Paysage aux Environs de Pontoise 1875-77 is both an interesting and a disturbing work. At the time, it ran through my head that I was looking at the first ever abstract painting. This is nonsense of course, but whilst I simultaneously was recognising the work as a direct stylistic forerunner of a number of Matisse landscapes (from Collioure), I was also realising that I could not negotiate this painting in anything like the same manner as the later Pontoise work, or indeed many of the other Cézannes or Pissarros in the show. The components of the painting were “adrift” somehow, in a manner that reminded me of a lot of abstract painting. (I should point out that the Matisses mentioned as being possibly derived from this work do not suffer from this disconnection.) These components in the Cézanne were not locked into the physicality of the landscape (remember the anecdote about Cézanne’s interlocked fingers when discussing his motif?), which means in our case the physical form of the paint. They were not really, in the terms of this discussion, negotiable. The forms were kind of floating about, “abstracted”, whatever that means. It was interesting, but I was disturbed by it, coming as it did from Cézanne. I didn’t get it.

London, June 2006

I just have to compare the feeling of being cut adrift by that second Cézanne with the consummate connected-ness of the best work in the current (as I write) Constable show at the Tate to know that I’m very troubled by my recollections of that Cézanne, and by implication with the state of much abstract painting. One of the great things about Constable is the number of options he gives you to get into a painting. The Hay-wain is one of his simpler constructions, but even here we are presented with a range of opportunities. When it comes to the more sophisticated work, like View on the Stour, Near Dedham or Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows, we have almost complete freedom to roam, and with complete confidence that we won’t be falling down on the job. I would go so far as to say that I think Whitehall Stairs is a most ravishing essay in structure, comparable to anything, in any field of human endeavour, that I can think of. It is surely the case that no abstract painting gets anywhere near this level of resolved spatial complexity, and nowhere near this level of feeling through the structures available to vision (Patrick Heron’s “reality of the eye”). Sure, you can get around a lot of abstract painting pretty easily, without too much fuss, but I guess that’s the point, it’s a little too easy; it’s usually easy because it’s flat; and when it’s not flat and easy, it becomes non-negotiable. This is beginning to sound like I think abstract painting is very unsophisticated compared to the best figurative art. I guess that is true, because I can see no reason for not making such a comparison between the two, and no conclusion possible from such a comparison other than that abstraction does not yet get near to matching the achievements of figurative art.

By coincidence, at the time of writing this I saw the other day a very fine (albeit awfully hung) show of Heron’s beautiful abstract paintings at the very same Bond Street premises, now no longer Wildenstein’s, where I saw that great little Cézanne all those years ago. That Cézanne haunts me still, and it haunted the Heron show. It acts as a rebuke to all present-day conceits, both in my own work, and in the work of others whom I admire. It was so unassuming and yet so clear in what it achieved, and it achieved a great deal. It communicated directly what it needed to say, it was both so utterly real, and simultaneously so full of invention.

June 2006

An edited version of what was published in December 2006 on the Poussin website to accompany Poussin Review 2006