The 80’s part 2…

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Allopa, Frank Bowling, Acrylic on canvas, 182.2 x 71 cm., 1979

Who were the ‘winners’ and (possibly the ‘losers’ !?) in 1980’s “British Abstract Painting” then?  It was a decade that started boldly enough for abstraction when John Hoyland was asked by the Arts Council to select the Hayward Annual in 1980.   Its worth a glance back at the Annual’s history.  And worth recalling that in the late seventies the English contemporary art scene (and general public interest in it) was much enfeebled compared to that of the past few decades.  Consequently with seemingly fewer opportunities for substantive national or international exposure, backbiting and grumbles were all the more the norm (yes far worse than today!).  The annual began in 1977 and the first two years were Committee jobs whilst the 79 offering gave five ‘young’ (ie. under 35!) artists the opportunity to select a like minded grouping each and a curious ‘ancillary’  programme of four video/performance artists.  In this 1979 five ring circus abstraction did reasonably well,  James Faure Walker, then of Artscribe, was chosen to represent “abstraction” and he put his impressionistic colour fields into the arena with Jennifer Durrant, William Henderson, Bruce Russell & Gary Wragg.  (And Nicholas Pope threw in a dose of abstract sculpture too with Richard Rome, Katherine Gili & Jeff Lowe).  No matter that none of these first three ‘annual’ shows seemed to impress the critics or the gallery going public that much, probably the fate of almost every ‘survey’ type show in history, but the Arts Council, stung by the various gripes from the earlier iterations thought it a good idea to give over selection to a single artist to choose work, as the AC Director of Art put it “from a position of deep personal conviction”. 

Hence Hoyland.  His selection was an unabashed apologia to abstraction split into the ‘old guard’, established heavies, dead and alive, and a younger generation grouped around those artists operating in the various East London studio complexes. (This latter generation feature substantively in Matthew Macaulay’s exhibition that accompanies his seminar in Coventry). The established group (as Hoyland included Caro, Scott & Tucker’s sculpture) representing a diverse painting practice from figuration in the persons of Matthew Smith, Patrick Caulfield and Frank Auerbach to an equally eclectic mix of abstraction drawing in Ben Nicholson, several of the St. Ives group (Heron, Hilton, Frost & Lanyon) by way of others as different as Hitchens, Hodgkin, Stephenson & John Walker.  The ‘younger’ group (quite a number of whom were older than Walker…) whilst exhibiting a breadth of abstraction were more homogeneous and would go on to feature significantly in the art of the decade.  Whilst still being dominated by males it did include two (yes two!) women artists – Gillian Ayres and Mali Morris and one artist of colour, Frank Bowling.  A foot (albeit a very small one) in the door.  Much of work was large scale, loose and painterly ranging from light staining (John McLean, Morris, Richard JamesGeoff Rigden) through to heavier impasto, knife work and mixed media (Gillian Ayres, Terry Setch, Anthony Whishaw, Michael Moon and Michael Bennett).  In between there was a deal of vigorous mark making and sloshy brushwork (Basil Beattie, Frank Bowling, Jeffrey Dellow, Brian Fielding, Clyde Hopkins, Albert Irvin, Patrick Jones, Fred Pollock, & Paul Tonkin).  There was relatively little in the way of solid clearcut formal organisation other than in the delineation through colour and much in the way of scumbling, all over colour and expressive handling.  For a certain kind of abstraction it was a fairly comprehensive grouping albeit missing some obvious fellow travellers (Gary Wragg & Bill Henderson – for example – missing presumably because they had been selected the previous year).

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But what else was happening in British Art in 1980?  Well one place to look is in what we export; the 1980 Exxon International Exhibition (remember Exxon…oh by the end of the decade well dodgy!) British Art Now: An American Perspective is of interest.  Selected by Diane Waldman, the show at the Guggenheim, New York featured an eclectic mix of painting, sculpture and  photographic work yet all the four painters (Alan Green, John Edwards, Hugh O’Donnell and perhaps (definitions again) we might include Keith Milow were all pretty much resolutely abstract (again whether Milow’s intriguing Cross pieces are abstract might be debatable).   On arrival in the US the critics were not especially kind. Some of their criticism, particularly of the painting, centred around the belief that it was a pale reflection of trends in the US and whilst that might arguably have applied to Green and Edwards to some degree it could decidedly not be to O’Donnell or Milow.

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Trojan, Hugh O’Donnell, Oil on canvas & wood, 80 x 72 ins., 1978

And also taking place for the very first time the very grandly titled The British Art Show had opened back in December 1st 1979 in Sheffield.  Going on through winter and into late spring 1980 it visited both Newcastle & Bristol. Significantly it specifically came nowhere near the capital.  Whether or not selector William Packer’s valiant attempt to reflect not only London’s dominance but reach all parts of the nation (nearly…there was nowt from N.I.) was a reflection of, or consequence of, this is a moot point.  What was clear (and of course all the exhibits were produced in the late 70’s) was that for Packer at least, abstraction was a significant force accounting (with painting & sculpture) for roughly half the hundred plus exhibitors.  Contrast this with the second ‘edition’ of the show (back to a ‘committee’ of sorts again) in late 1984 where abstraction (both painting & sculpture) accounted for less than a quarter of those selected.  Packer’s selections brought a host of lesser known abstract painters to a wider audience alongside already established figures.  A goodly number of those already mentioned above and those listed below were joined by recognised ‘stars’ like Bridget Riley on the one hand and relatively unknown painters like Michael Mayer (a personal favourite) on the other. The eclectic nature of the mix emphasised by other abstract painters as diverse as Sean Scully and Edwina Leapman (both showing trademark early minimalist all over stripes) and other more eccentric figures several of whom are now much less remembered (such as Harry Snook, Janet Nathan and Will Rogers, all of whom might rightly be considered as makers as much as painters, deploying construction and collage as much as more traditional painting materials) and all of whom deserve greater recognition.

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Ancon, Janet Nathan, Mixed media, 142.5 x 149.8 x 10.2 cm., 1978

Turning to back to other ‘domestic’ issues.  Somewhat less lavish than any of the previous shows was a Kettle’s Yard touring show (where it toured I don’t know?) simply titled Paintings and drawings by Martin Ball, Graham Crowley, Jeff Dellow, Clyde Hopkins, Joan Key, Bruce Russell & David Wiseman.  It was a self selecting group and they invited Bill Packer to write an introduction to this show too. Packer suggested that even at this early point in their careers, five of the exhibitors were “consciously, if tentatively, (to) embrace figuration”.  The painters themselves issued a statement reasserting the art of painting and sculpture and went as far as to proclaim that  “there is no need to defy that tradition [of painting as a medium], or to avoid reference to it, in order to achieve ‘New Art’.” Much of the work was characterised by loose or hazy references to either landscape or geometry, there was a good deal of strong colour and plentiful evidence of paint handling. Several of artists (all around thirty at the time) were still evolving their personal languages, indeed the works chosen clearly showed significant movement of this kind. Most of this group were still operating outside of the ‘academy’ as visiting or sessional lecturers and others had only recently taken up tenured jobs.  It is interesting to speculate that as they all transitioned to full time posts with the concomitant additional duties (gathering pace as these institutions, already mostly Polytechnics rather than Art Schools, moved towards the University status they would acquire in 1992) on the impact on careers in many cases (something also discussed by Bill Packer in his British Art Show catalogue).   Also happening in the summer of 1980 were the Serpentine Summer Shows, an opportunity to view a diverse selection of what emerging talents were working on at the time.  This gave valuable ‘prime location’ exposure to a host of artists drawn from across the UK. That summer I saw Terry Setch for the first time, austere yet beautiful minimalist works by John Mitchell & Christine Floyd alongside a diverse mix of other art of all kinds.

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Something that seems significant looking back is the emergence in the latter seventies of cheaper colour printing. For example, contrasting the two Hayward Annual’s in 79 and 80 the catalogue of the former is exclusively in b&w whilst in 1980 the ‘younger’ group are all represented in colour (albeit a single image).  Given the nature of the work this is pretty vital for all the abstract painters.  As we shall see there are several publicly subsidised venues and commercial galleries that were beginning to take advantage of these new less expensive colour card and brochure print outfits to the advantage of artists and to painters in particular.

The Hayward curation in 1980 marked a key moment in Hoyland’s career, that would be cemented by winning the biannual John Moores Painting Prize a couple years later.  It was a bold enough statement in a premier venue of what ought – one imagined- to dominate the painting landscape in the decade ahead.  What could possibly go wrong?  See part three (hopefully posted with a week or so)…

 

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Painting In Three Dimensions

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Moor Shadow Stack, Sean Scully, 2018

I imagine there might be a few grumbles amongst the sculpture fraternity that Sean Scully is showing sculpture (with paintings, prints, drawings and photographs) up at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park.  After all his reputation rests mainly on his body of paintings made over the past half century.  But its quite a coup for the place nonetheless as Scully is surely one of the biggest beasts to have shown there over the years.  Its well worth a visit as it is showing concurrently with Giuseppe Penone, another ‘big beast’ of the Arte Povera group making YSP quite a classy destination at present.

And it gave me pause for thought that – by and large – the work as a whole showed off Scully’s talents and clear sighted approach to great effect.  Its the latter characteristic that got me thinking.  Right from the get go Scully has gone after his objective of making relevant abstract paintings for our time.  His early work utilised grids at a time when they were much in vogue, but drawing upon observations and feelings of things seen in the world, progressed to a more closed, indeed sealed in, disposition whilst billeted (for the most part) in late seventies NYC before breaking out into an art that is abstract but routed so firmly in the emotional and geophysical that he can rightly claim that they are not abstract at all.  Like most of us of pensionable age he is now in a furious race against time with so much to do aesthetically and inevitably a closing door in which to do it!  The sculptures have come along in recent years and, as he was at pains to point out in his lecture, have been conceived and executed with the same lucidity as his other work.  They are in effect paintings in three dimensions with the materiality being the main spring of their presence in the world.  He also stressed the vital importance of truth to material in these works – that also got me thinking.  Take Moor Shadow Stack – my pal Paul (who knows a thing or two about installing big works!) and myself were speculating earlier in the day that the piece must have been constructed of carefully engineered hollow slabs but his talk made such a play of the material quality being informed by its solidity that I’m now convinced that all the sculptures on show were solid objects (either that or he’s damn clever at convincing me!).

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Crate Of Air, Sean Scully, 2018

If I have minor concerns (and they are so) then it is firstly in the sighting of Crate Of Air, a monumental piece, that I felt was a little cramped in its placing.  Ideally it would dominate the lower lawn facing the lake in my opinion.  Mind that would have involved relocating the Caro that I suspect the heroic installation team might have cavilled at given the scale of the undertaking. My other niggle is the surface quality of the paintings.  Like most I’ve seen in the past five or ten years they are made on sheet aluminium using (what I think) is a proprietary aluminium primer that allows the luscious quality of the oil to sit on top.  This gives the work in some light (particularly pale grey Yorkshire autumn light) rather a pasty sheen that I’m not so sure about.

However these are very minor issues (for me, let alone anyone else) and the paintings looked wonderful in the big open space of the Longside Gallery.  Several of those on show I’m fairly sure had come from his 2015 and 2017 Chaim & Read shows (that by good fortune I happened to see) – the big multi panel painting Blue Note certainly was central to the Wall Of Light Cubed exhibition.  The opportunity to see it alongside other works and set against the sculptural works in a generous space (everything being a bit cramped in Chelsea) was a real treat!

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Installation, Longside Gallery

More on the 80’s – part 1

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David Manley, Man & Nature, oil on canvas, 162 x 105.6 cm., 1985

This is (the first part) of a text I started writing ahead of the symposium at The Herbert Gallery. Coventry organised by Matthew Macaulay, but continued after the event to incorporate some thoughts about it.  Given my active engagement in the subject and experiences of the period (I spent that decade working in the subsidised Visual Arts sector and often visiting both London & elsewhere always endeavouring to take in any shows I could) naturally I was keen to go along. As it happens quite a few of those things I had already written about came up on the day…though quite a few others didn’t so here goes…

Where does one start in a discussion about this subject?  Is it even a valid subject at all? For a start what constitutes “British’ in these Brexit times, or even more so back in the 1980’s.  At the start of the decade the Royal Academy was still a quarter of a century from electing its first Black artist (Frank Bowling in 2005) but had fully embraced European emigres such as Freud and Auerbach. Identity politics, around Feminism and gender as well as race, were all impacting on the art of the time although the official organs of distribution were still, certainly at the beginning of the decade, indifferent if not ignorant of them.  Two speakers on the day (Rebecca Fortnum & Maggie Ayliffe) spoke at length to issues around Feminism and its impact on abstract painting, though in passing its worth noting that much of their eloquent testimony revolved around paintings, and especially exhibitions, from the early nineties rather than the eighties. Perhaps a more blatant omission was any testimony to racial politics and the absence of any people of colour at the event (I’m fairly sure of this though I apologise if I’m wrong) and but a passing visual reference to only one British artist of colour on the day (Frank Bowling again) in a decade when the emergence of the “Black Art’ movement (admittedly short on ‘abstract’ painters) was a key feature of what was taking place.

Moving on, as we all know, the term “Abstract’ is fraught with difficulties too numerous to detain us in this lifetime (and certainly within this text) but the notion of boundaries between that which is properly abstract, that which is ‘abstracted’ and figuration, however loosely defined played quite a part in the decade in question.  This was raised a couple of times in the day but never really teased out.  As it happens most of those painters referenced were ‘abstract’ in that they abstracted from reality (of some sort!, more qualification!) and notions of landscape was a shadowy presence for nearly all of them.  There was little mention of painters who might more readily be accepted as truly non-representational (accepting that some of them might allude to ‘real world’ influences anyway) other than in Daniel Sturgis‘s text on Alan Uglow though even here we were teased with the references to football pitch layouts that Uglow enjoyed alluding to.

Painting as a term we might all understand a little better but even so by the 1980’s even this had reached myriad points of debate. A good deal of the boundary shifting in painting was taking place in the USA and at the event David Ryan in his opening paper drew a good deal of attention to what was happening there as well as what happened here, including some of those artists engaged in that very practice.

And beyond all the foregoing history is, of course, written primarily by the ‘winners’ although we now live in dramatically revisionist times that suggest that, as in previous centuries, time will have a profound say on what shakes out over the long run (the ‘re-discovery’ of Uglow championed by Bob Nickas may or may not prove to be an example). Although, as is inevitable with an open call for papers, the day was full of disjointed and disparate texts there was much to reflect on and the show Matthew had brought together that was the end point of proceedings is well worth a visit.  Part 2 to follow!

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The Eighties…

I’m off to a seminar (a rare occurrence nowadays)…this Friday in Coventry organised by the energetic Matthew Macaulay.  Its about British Abstract Painting in the 1980’s and as a painter who is British, works non-representationally (pretty much from 1968 till now) and was about in the eighties I thought I’d pop along. Though the eighties was a weird time for me…as I went a bit figurative (ish)!  Not that I was the only one it seems…quite a few painters seem to have wobbled about a bit – strange days indeed.  Quite what I thought I was doing I’ve not the slightest idea thirty plus years on…

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An End Of Empire, 72 x 56 ins., oil on canvas, 1985

Anyway I’m working on a short piece on the topic…and will post it here as and when…with maybe some thoughts on what transpires on the day.

Ah revisionism…

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and rediscovery too…  I’ve been absent from this site for over a month I realise, making use of quite a bit of the good summer weather and being (unusually) at home to drag work out of the basement.  I have stored older work down in the dark recesses over the years despite knowing full well that the fetid conditions rapidly rot canvasses away.   Those that survive often require some restoration but its those that never got properly resolved, or where I lost interest that are most interesting.  Some remain intractable but I have found myself increasingly interested in resolving and completing others.

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I’m looking at these two from the Conversation Pieces (part two) series.  And have decided that part of their resolution will be to join forces as a diptych where two conversations get crossed wires.  Part of the process for me is re-imagining it as I did when first working on them…around six or seven years back.  Mostly I don’t work with tapes preferring to paint to the pencil line but just occasionally with these I chose to tape up a block to get that crisp, slightly raised line.

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Another interesting thing for me is rediscovering old pictures I’ve quite forgotten about.  This one comes from a series made in the mid 1990’s and was the only one of a group of a dozen or so in landscape.  It never quite fit with the rest, stylistically as well as format, but only now do I realise it was a precursor of the large series of paintings that began in the late nineties through to 2004/5 and formed the backbone of a solo show at Derby Museum ‘Nothing But Mirrors & Tides’

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their judgement of artwork may be faulty…

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16 works in progress, Wonky Geometry series, each 30 x 30 cms., 2018

“their judgement of artwork may be faulty”…Many, many moons ago I worked in an art gallery, and the Director (just returned from NYC) gave me a piece of paper.  Its here now…

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Although it was written (gawd help us) nearly forty years back much of it, despite the many changes in the art world, still stands.  It was the dealer Ivan Karp who, having had enough of artists pestering him, wrote it to stem the flow.  Goodness knows what he’d make of today’s art market.  But its that last sentence that resonates with me right now.  And what stands for dealers and gallerists and curators (what vulgar, squalid words they are!) equally stands for judges in competitions. I know many of them are artists too, but generally they are those whose primary objective is not making work but ‘networking’ and ‘brown nosing’  the aforementioned thus rendering their judgment equally faulty.  Its in my mind as yet another competition has passed me by…or not (as I’ve observed of late, that many of these exercises in fleecing artists of their meagre funds, they often ‘extend’ deadlines to pull in yet more gullible punters) and I marvel at the plausibilty of all of us – I’m not immune as I, albeit occasionally, do it myself – in falling for the lure of bright lights and associated fame promised by the tiny odds of success.