British Painting in the 80’s – part 5.

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The Sense Of Sight, Christopher Le Brun, 197 x 193.5 cm., oil on canvas

Mai Dolgok (Current Affairs), opening at MOMA, Oxford in March 1987, curated by David Elliot and Lewis Biggs for the British Council and toured to Hungary is a good bell weather show for what might be considered the ‘gold standard’ in British contemporary work by the second half of the decade.  It ranged widely over practice of all kinds but of the twenty six selected artists barely four might be called ‘abstract’ painters.  For although Gillian Ayres and Howard Hodgkin can be counted fairly squarely Ian McKeever and Christopher Le Brun occupy a more ambiguous space.  It is a measure of where things had moved by that time that Art & Language (Baldwin and Ramsden) exhibited canvases that were more overly ‘abstract’ than either of the foregoing under their post-modern conceptual and political riffing – in this case on the work of Jackson Pollock.

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Cry, Jennifer Durrant, 265 x 288 cm., acrylic on canvas, 1985

In the Spring of 1987 Jennifer Durrant’s solo show opened at The Serpentine.  This was a tour de force, work of astonishing ambition and scale.  Michael Harrison’s eloquent eulogy to Cry, painted in 1985 (and exhibited at the John Moores) suggested its complexity and vast depth.

But then…less than twelve months later comes Freeze in 1988…akin to the advent of punk in the music of the seventies, sweeping all before it, drowning out other voices and creating a false sense of redundancy rather than welcoming the plurality that characterises the art of this century.  Of course some quality emerged from it…Fiona Rae for one, who went on in the 1990’s to make intelligent and original paintings.

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Towards the end of the decade re-affirmations of the continued vigour of abstraction came from a less likely source, and, one suspects, was less visible to many (most) in the metropolis.  In a relatively new initiative to re-engage with municipal galleries around the country the Arts Council worked with enterprising curators to mount significant touring shows.  One of the fruits of this was  The Presence Of Painting, curated by Mike Tooby and mounted first at the Mappin in Sheffield.  Billed by Mike as “Aspects of British Abstraction 1957 -1988” it featured many of those mentioned hitherto in its 43 selected painters, and over half the works featured had been painted over the decade in discussion.  At the heart of his argument was a passionate belief that such work had struggled through the late sixties and seventies to be thoroughly appreciated, even especially visible and that certain modes of making dominated by process had rather buried a more plural and inclusive notion of what abstraction could be.  For audiences in Sheffield, Newcastle and Birmingham it made for compelling viewing.  I recall being pulled up short by an astonishingly austere but exceptionally beautiful painting made in 1987 by Peter Joseph, a painter I’d quite forgotten at that time (although he had shown up in BAS 2).  An artist not previously known to me also made quite an impact – Yuko Shiraishi whose quiet, completive paintings showed a deft and lyrical understanding of colour.  Shiraishi continues to this day to be woefully under appreciated (her show earlier this year at Annely Juda was a beauty).  

Following hot on the heels of this show came The Experience Of Painting, another AC initiative but this time working with Mike Collier at the Laing in Newcastle and bringing Mel Gooding to the party to write the catalogue introduction.  In this show eight abstract artists were brought together in a more in depth exploration of their craft rather than the larger survey format.  All but one, Francis Davison were in the earlier show and all still working at the time of the exhibition (sadly Davison had died back in 1984).  Although opportunities to view a significant grouping of works by Bridget Riley, Jennifer Durrant, Gillian Ayres, Albert Irvin and Kenneth Martin had been evident over the decade it was good to see more of James Hugonin’s and especially Edwina Leapman’s canvases.  Together the eight of them were properly represented (and it was a revelation to see Davison’s late collages) as well as enjoying the catalogue where Mel Gooding’s introduction was coupled with his interviews with the artists to great affect – giving voice to them and their ideas and working methods and providing me at least with material I still quote to this day.

It’s worth noting that in addition to these shows both Tooby and Collier had presented opportunities to significant abstract painters over the same period.  I recall a large exhibition of Brian Fielding in Sheffield around the time of his premature death that revealed his emergence as a significant figure and suggested that more was to come from him.  In 1989 in Newcastle Collier championed a show by Liverpool based Terry Duffy. Although uneven in quality it revealed him to be a lyrical and intelligent painter

The John Moores Liverpool Exhibition was something of a barometer for what had happened in painting though it seemed often to lag slightly behind rather than ahead of prevailing trends.  Hoyland had taken first prize in 1982, just as the figuration craze following on from the ‘new Spirit’ was really getting into gear.  In 85 Bruce McLean surfing the semi figuration wave took the prize with an enormous canvas that aped the fluid, one touch, abstract gestural approach but with overt figural elements.  In 1987 Tim Head, an artist whose career had hitherto shown a remarkable diversity (encompassing installation, projection, print, photography and painting) won with Cow Mutations a painting as much conceptual and procedural and far removed from the concerns of most ‘abstract painters’.  By the end of the decade the figuration craze reached its apogee with Lisa Milroy’s Handles though it is interesting to note that quite a few abstract artists were pushing their way back into the show as a whole.  Jeff Dellow, Michael Bennett, Madelaine Strindberg, all showed tough, vigorous and intelligent canvases

As the decade drew to a close I had less opportunity to see work particularly in the capital.  Two shows stick in my mind however.  At Nottingham’s Castle Museum David Austen showed small canvases that, as has become increasingly apparent over subsequent decades, were hardly abstract though its easy to assume that Man without Skin could be a non figurative image.  Back in London at The Serpentine Susan Bonvin’s Colour In Context provided an opportunity for her to present complex structures that showed a really confident exploration of colour relationships in space. 

So by the beginning of the nineties what might be said about abstract painting?  We were moving inexorably towards the market completely defining the public discourse and a concomitant disinterest by it in “abstract’ painting as other than what Graham Crowley calls ‘wall furniture’.  There was a gathering consensus towards a complete detachment from any demarcation between figuration and abstraction, that has flourished in the present century.  And a climate developing in which painting generally has to take its place alongside other media (that for the most part doesn’t yet include the digital in 1990).  Everything goes in phases so it was only really in the early nineties that Feminist perspectives re-emerged overtly in exhibitions such as  (dis) parities at the Mappin in Sheffield and despite many advances, including ever larger cohorts of female students dominating degree courses, women artists are still underrepresented in most contexts. 

Perhaps most significantly slowly and surely abstraction in painting was taking its cues more from academia than from the market and more opportunities to view it and promote discourse around it have almost certainly led us to the place we see it in today.

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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)…