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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Gone South (part 2…the bit about the art!)

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Despite forecasts to the contrary Friday dawned very bright and sunny again…bizarrely as the news was full of the tribulations of the West coast of the UK.  We hightailed it to the De La Warr Pavilion in Bexhill that looked magnificent in that light.  A brisk walk along the beach, equally glorious and quite bracing (it is January after all…), showed off the place to very best effect.

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Alison Turnbull‘s exhibition in the Pavilion was interesting…she is a painter I’ve seen only very occasionally over the years.  This show seemed on the face of it well suited to the venue, indeed her interest in the modernist architecture makes it a shoo in in some respects.  That said I was less convinced by it…in part I suspect because of the way in which it was laid out.  Several differing strands of practice were dotted around the space, quite literally in the case of the ‘dot’ paintings (that I feel are the strongest), so that following the train of thought was harder than one might wish.  The elegant table cases that contained many drawings and painted paper pieces should have added to one’s understanding and appreciation of the work but for me (and my wife) there was something a little soulless about them.  Overall the show lacked a little guts and passion…at least to my taste.

Back to Hastings then as the Jerwood had now opened.  ‘Guts’ and ‘Passion’ then…and Basil Beattie could never be accused of lacking them!

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This show of large pictures (pretty much all of which have been made in the last eighteen months or so, no mean feat as you are nearing eighty I suspect) had all the trademark tropes I’ve come to expect over the near on forty years I’ve been admiring his work.  But (and in keeping with the display of Guston’s next door that I’ll come onto in a moment) with a freedom and insouciance that was at first a wee bit shocking.  It was as if he was riffing on his own motifs, so much so that they seemed sometimes almost cartoon like.

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And there were clear avenues down which the work might be taken further, new directions that must be really exciting for an older generation figure – powerful reasons to keep on working at a high energy and with plenty to say.  At the time of writing I’m still digesting the work…rethinking the one or two I didn’t think were as successful as well as reflecting on the others that I loved from the off.  No better recommendation than that really.

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In the adjacent space were a host of Guston’s prints, mainly lithos that I always feel are very nearly as good as drawings themselves, and a beautiful small canvas that complemented the print work well.  They all came from that period just after ‘the change’, that point where he shocked the art world to its core by reverting back to figuration from the earlier trademark coalescing abstractions.  Now, from a safe distance of over forty years, it all seems pretty reasonable but back in the day…  Beattie, of course, made a similar transitional journey, but now it might seem (from, say, the canvas in the near right side of the installation shot above) that maybe he could travel back again in the other direction…its the freedom now that still makes painting so fresh and dynamic despite all the other competing contrivances of contemporary art.  I can’t leave this venue without making mention of Marlow Moss, an artist who was previously unknown to me, and as the show sets out to prove, quite a few others. Its an undoubted fact that, in the twentieth century, being a woman, openly lesbian and working near to but slightly apart from an acknowledged  centre of art (St. Ives) did you no favours at all.  Although her work undoubtedly owes a debt to the leaders of constructivism (and Mondrian in particular) she also made her own contribution with on the evidence here a voice of her own.  A reassessment of this thoughtful, intelligent and pellucid artist and her work was clearly overdue and credit goes to Tate St. Ives and Pallant House whose project this is.

Time was challenging us now but, and maybe because the weather had now finally started drawing in on us, we did decide to drive swiftly westwards towards Chichester and Pallant House.  Although its a journey of nearly two hours on a Friday through by now awful rainy and windy weather I wanted to see Triptychs by Sean Scully.  Now I’ve not only seen plenty of Scully’s over the years but curated and presented his work, and am lucky enough (through his generosity) to own a work on paper.  Nonetheless this was a real opportunity to see a small but beautifully curated show centred on a theme that has re-occurances over his entire career.  And the beauty of this show (as apart from the others, except the Moss that runs till April) is that if you are quick you could still get to see it yourself (it runs till the 26th of this month – January 2014)!

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Take for example this absolutely sumptuous oil on aluminium painting Barcelona Robe, one of the recent pictures.  The use of the hard and definitive edges of the metal support against the more recognisable brushstrokes is a real triumph.  Or look at this painting from a slightly earlier period…a real beauty.

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There were plenty of others, and prints, watercolours, pastels and other drawings, all packed into three smallish galleries but in such a way that all the work was able to breathe and the viewer more than able to fully appreciate them.  It was the kind of show that hammered home his reputation as one of the leading figures of his generation at work across the globe.  Another aspect of Sean’s approach that is really refreshing is the honest and direct way of talking about abstract painting he has.  There were several well chosen quotations from him amongst the beautifully crafted and presented captions that accompanied the work (I don’t generally welcome these in galleries but here they genuinely complemented the works)…and this one struck home for me…a good place to end really.

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