More on the New York School…

 

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Mark Rothko, Number 10, 1950

Following on from my last but one post Matthew Morrison Macaulay asks where did you first see an abstract expressionist’s painting, and what was your impressions of the photography that came from America of the artists studios or the artists at work in their studios?  First I want to be ‘picky’ (probably the weather…) but I don’t like the term really and much prefer ‘the New York School’ (though of course that has as many contradictions too).

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Matthew in his studio…

Goodness its a hard question. I do recall going to the Tate in 1969 (aged 17) to see the Art of the Real…by this time my wonderful art teacher the late Peter Thursby had introduced us by way of his personal copies of Studio International and Artforum (that with typical generosity circulated freely around the classroom) to artists such as O’Keefe, Kelly & Louis but it was the more minimalist works that had been included in this exhibition that really challenged me.  The Stella’s, in particular Turkish Mambo a good example of the ‘black’ period and Six Mile Bottom, of the following metallics, were a knock out and had a profound influence on what I decided right then would be my touchstones once I got to college). In my head I think there were one or two more ‘black’ paintings in the show (I have an image of three of them in a row in mind) but the catalogue (link above) of the original MOMA show suggests not. And on that visit the Tate had recently acquired the first of the Seagram mural pictures but I suspect that, with Norman Reid in the process of sending the maquette of the room hang for the lot (probably around the time of my visit!) to Rothko, the ‘Rothko Room’ was not yet a reality. But that show did have a Rothko (see above), a Still, Reinhardt and a couple Newman’s in it…so they likely were my first encounters.

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Frank Stella, Six Mile Bottom

A year later I’m back in London first at the ICA for When Attitudes Become Form – an even more challenging show for an art student about to embark on their Diploma studies (about which I may write in future and glory be the whole catalogue is available here). And I think the Rothko room had been installed by then at the Tate?  I do know that the following year they did a sensational Barnett Newman show. That catalogue contains some lovely ‘Barney in his studio’ shots but by then one of my prize possessions was a Reinhardt catalogue with those absolutely amazing photos of his NYC studio – pictures that cemented my idea of being the heroic New York loft artist as the pinnacle of desire!

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Ad in the studio…pretty decent view from the window!

 

Back to business but what business?

IMG_9369It’s difficult to post whilst one is on the move…especially when staying in charming, but very rural, French hotels where the wifi is quite fugitive.  Although to be fair on this occasion of the thousand mile trek across Europe it worked pretty well and my absence online has been more a consequence of my mystery ankle injury. This has made walking quite difficult and more to the point made me tetchy and restless…and its that really has kept me away from my blog.  I seem to be on the mend at last so I’m back!

Although my mobility is still a little restricted I’m getting on with some work.  Plotting out the upcoming show at Harrington Mill ought to be taking precedence but as usual I can find plenty of other distractions to keep me from closing the deal.  Alongside the large paper works that are concerned with woodlands I have the Playground Of The Midlands project, the ongoing Rough Cartography, more of the Wonky Geometry both on board and on paper, the 50’s Jazz pictures (quite a few of which need collecting from the recent outing at the Ashbourne Festival), the Lavanderia d’Italia, my Ragbags, lots of the TFTLR constructions and some related sculptural pieces!  So hardly any wonder I struggle to focus on just one project at a time and it is hard to refute the notion that I’m always spreading my creative energies too thinly.

Like many other people in the UK I’m also totally perplexed and a little discomfited by the current political situation and tempted to give vent to my feelings here.  However so much is being said by so many about it all (and most of it opinion and speculation) that I don’t see much point in adding to it.  Nonetheless it is all adding to a terrible sense of turmoil and upheaval that certainly isn’t good for the soul.  I pondered this recently whilst viewing Out Of Order, a large solo show by Michael Landy, currently at the Museum Tinguely in Basel.  He’s an artist that I’ve rarely given any thought about…other than his famous Breakdown work (where, in case you don’t know, he destroyed all his possessions in a fortnight) and if I expected anything it was that it would be a ‘typical’ YBA stuffist show…lots of rather fey bits and bobs.  In fact it turned out to be both a thoughtful and extraordinarily intelligent show with a lot of very accomplished ideas well executed.  He had jumbled up work going back over twenty five or so years in a kind of warehouse landscape aesthetic lending a chaotic air to a body of work of real substance.  Rather like Tinguely himself Landy uses this air of entropy to disguise much deeper feelings about values and our idea of worth. I came away with a great respect for an artist that operates in a diametrically opposite location to my own preoccupations.

And having had a day of looking at what Museum Tinguely and the three locations of the Basel Kunstmuseum had to offer I came away with little else that genuinely intrigued or challenged me.  Of course there were plenty of examples of famous and not so famous works on display.  They have, for example, some extraordinarily good examples of Picasso and plenty of big, and I do mean big in the case of Frank Stella, hitters from the post war period in the US.  Maybe I’m jaded (yes let’s face it I am) but much of the ‘contemporary’ work of the past twenty or so years seems to be pale retreads of what came before. Sophisticated and polished perhaps (with the art market in mind of course) but without genuine feeling or emotion or even just that vague inchoate sense of discovery.  And this sense of unease and numbness also infects my own creative process too.

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Perhaps I just need to step away from it all.  Whilst away I took this snap of a little drawing by Phil Thompson (owned by my friend with whom we were staying). Phil was a man of few words, I knew him mostly as the fella at the end of the public bar at the Griffin, but a terrifically talented artist when he minded to work.  This tiny drawing owes a little something to the Circus pictures of Leger and others but is also quintessentially ‘Phil’.  As we are often told history is written by the winners and art history is particularly cruel in that if the work is lost and destroyed then no amount of post hoc revision rehabilitates its quality.  Over the past thirty or so years the self publicists and their pimps that have flooded the contemporary art market have ensured their initial longevity but not of course their place in the real history of art that only really forms a clear picture a century or two down the line.  However I doubt Phil has any chance of posthumous recognition beyond the memories of those who knew him but we who do will continue to derive much pleasure from his work. So we take strength from that and keep on working.

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Bialowieza – Wald, acrylic & flashe on paper, 106 x 94 cm., 2016

So I must focus pretty quickly now on this sequence of pictures that use the idea of Wood as their central theme.  For quite a few years I’ve been indebted to Simon Schama and his Landscape & Memory for some of my thinking about work.  It was especially helpful to me whilst I undertook my major project for my photography Masters back in 2010.  Now I’m back delving into section one and finding elements that resonate with the large paper panels that will be central to my installation at Harrington Mill in September. So far there are three completed, each with a quotation drawn from the text, though the images, as always with my work, are substantially intended to function away from the textual as much as hand in hand with it.  Looking forward to completing the other fifteen panels that will make up the piece.

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Greenwood Tree – Wald, acrylic & flashe on paper, 106 x 94 cm., 2016

Reports greatly exaggerated…

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Were I to have any regular followers on social media they might be forgiven for thinking I’d stepped off the planet of late!  However it has simply been a case of the long awaited fortnight in Cornwall at the lovely Brisons Veor finally coming to pass.  Its not that one cannot get online there (actually there was a decent BT ‘hotspot’ one could purchase) but simply that other things took precedence.

So a self imposed ‘media exile’ then.  An opportunity to reflect and enjoy this most magical of locations.  I’m sitting at a small desk that faces south from Cape Cornwall towards Sennen and beyond to Lands End. Through the window is nothing but the heaving swell of the ocean as it makes the shore in Priests Cove, below me and away to my left. It is the kind of cool, windy, misty and dank early evening in late autumn that this most westerly part of England excels in and from the vantage point of this small and warm cottage completely blissful.

Today we took a trip out, away from our immediate surroundings that we have come to know pretty well. We took in the Terry Frost centenary exhibition that is taking place across the Newlyn Art Gallery and The Exchange in Penzance. It was organised between Tate St. Ives and Leeds City Gallery and in truth the whole enterprise seems a little off kilter, maybe the product of too many hands on the tiller or just as possibly not just one with a firm grip on it.

Then again I should confess from the get go that I’m not a massive fan of the artist whose work has always seemed to me to be either a little too hesitant or overly designed…and whose exuberant use of strong primaries is a little too much ‘in one’s face’ for my taste. That said the early work, focussed mainly on the space at The Exchange is very solid and does contain enough strong paintings to put him into the premiership in fifties British painting.  For me it is the pictures towards the back half of the decade that really hit the mark.

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In these the handling is freer, the gestures less forced and the colour is turned down a few notches.  Force 8 is a pretty fitting encapsulation of what it seems to me that the best of Frost is all about.  The ground is wristy and provisonal, the marks positive and yet unforced, and there’s a really intriguing landscape/figure dichotomy that hovers around the composition that keeps the viewer guessing…and looking which of course is ultimately what its all about. I guess that the sixties were a busy time for the artist, he seems to have been whizzing about all over the place, not least the States, and the influences from here, coupled with a move to acrylics, clearly impacted on him.  Not for the best in my view as the paintings are overtaken by the intensity of the colour, what the gallery handout calls “its presence as a character in itself”…and the works correspondingly have a strong designed element.  Now in the hands of a hard headed and unsentimental character like Frank Stella this ‘character’ was wrangled and rail roaded into submission in the 1960’s to make convincing pictures but with his adherence to forms and feelings from outside the rectangle of the painting there is often a falling back on earlier ‘boats’ or suchlike in Frost’s work that seems rather formulaic and a tad repetitive. The addition of a couple sausage like constructions do little to suggest a sustained engagement in seeking out new forms or invention.

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All that said overall it was a show of warmth and delight in the sheer physicality of the act of painting…and given the confines of the two venues and the absence of several key works perhaps shouldn’t be raked over as grudgingly as I have!  In any event from my brief acquaintance with him I doubt Frost would have given a toss what I think!

Its worth mentioning in passing that the little display of monoprints by Ben Sanderson in the picture room at Newlyn were a delight…there’s something of the spirit of Kevin Coyne at work here.

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They have a lightness of touch and a spontaneous wit that is, if you’ve ever tried it, much harder to pull off than might be imagined.