Moving into 1981 the real ‘biggie’ exhibition that captured everyone’s attention was the Royal Academy’s A New Spirit In Painting show that opened early in the year. Looking back it was a really skewed oddball selection. Heavy on the Germans (they put up a lot of the cash that enabled the then strapped RA to mount it), the Americans and British following on and with the rest of Europe behind them (other than Matta no one from the other continents featured) it was also conspicuous in the total absence of women painters (even in 1981 something of a shock) and artists of colour (not so surprising at that point, viz. Bowling RA in my first post on this subject). It has been suggested that in part the relative reductiveness of the selection with regard to abstraction reflected Nicholas Serota kicking back against the predilections of his predecessors at Tate, Sir Norman Reid, and the recently (1980 ) appointed Alan Bowness. More likely it was more his tastes and those of co-curators Norman Rosenthal and Christos M. Joachimides, and a general desire to stir things up a bit. It’s rather forgotten now but alongside the emergence of ‘new’ figuration (that dominated its reception and discussion) there were resolutely abstract or – perhaps more accurately – non-representational painters featured in the show. Brice Marden and Robert Ryman represented the US in the reductive nature of painting, whilst Gotthard Graubner and Alan Charlton did a similar job for the Europeans. Charlton continues to be one of our most single minded painters, confining himself to a range of greys, expressed in singular forms, often in groups and/or simple triangular forms and far better recognised in Europe than the UK though Annely Juda is currently running a retrospective show. Besides these the others were an odd bunch, late De Kooning‘s, Frank Stella – moving into full on lurid construction mode and Howard Hodgkin, who seemed to be very much an ‘outlier’ – thoughtful and intelligible, considered and elegant pictures that seemed firmly within the ‘canon’ rather than outside it, obliquely or not. Nonetheless what this extravaganza did, more than anything was usher in a period in which figuration, narratives and textuality re-established themselves as values, if not the ‘key’ values, in contemporary painting.
Not that the signs weren’t already out there if one knew where to look. In my neck of the woods (the Midlands) there was the ambitious painter Trevor Halliday working out of Birmingham. Of the same generation as John Walker (who also hailed from the city) Trevor had steadily established a reputation, much of it resting on his solo exhibition at the Ikon Gallery in 1974, where the large (typically 2 by 4 metres), ribbon like paintings of sophisticated handling and carefully modulated construction were quite unlike much else in UK abstraction at the time. In the latter part of the 70’s his move out of Brum into the countryside to the south saw him virtually disappear from exhibiting for a few years after which he emerged with a new painting (as part of a selection of historical material at the invitation of the local Museum & Art Gallery), still large in size but with an expressive figuration and a classical theme to boot…viz. Diana & Actaeon, replete with three of his hounds.
The change of tone that the ‘New Spirit’ ushered in would quickly transform the exhibition scene over the coming years but in the early part of the decade abstraction still had a prominent place in the UK scene. In many cases it was the commercial gallery sector that led the way. The Rowan Gallery had been around for quite a while (and had been substantially involved in bringing Bridget Riley to prominence as well as the New Generation sculptors). Another significant venue for abstraction was Annely Juda that, in one incarnation or another has been doing a vital job for abstraction since Annely Juda established herself in 1968 (having previously established the Molton Gallery and operated the Hamilton Galleries). The pressures of recession saw these two combine for a period (82 to 85) as the Juda Rowan Gallery and it was there I saw Jeremy Moon‘s work in depth for the first time in the spring of 1982.
Also having opened back in 1978 by the 80’s the Nicola Jacobs Gallery was giving abstract painters opportunities, especially a clutch of shows in 1980/81 that gave good gallery exposure to a host of interesting abstract painters. I saw work there by John McLean, Gary Wragg, Peter Rippon, Mali Morris, Paul Rosenbloom, the latter showing canvases diametrically different from the works of just a few years earlier. Where previously he had been making vertiginous ‘allover’ monochrome canvases with heavy impasto these were replaced by delicate marks and dabs of colour in linen. I’m also pretty sure I saw at least one canvas there by Patrick Jones, a consistently excellent and much underrated painter to this day, not least because his delicate stained canvases have been dreadfully out of fashion for donkey’s years despite being of exceptional quality. At the Ian Birksted Gallery I first saw the marvellous paintings of William Henderson, still, as his 2015 Bankside show demonstrated, one of our most exciting and accomplished painters.
The plurality of public venues that were prepared to give artists space and time to experiment were relatively few but they were incredibly energetic. Robin Klassnik’s Matts Gallery was one such and although the programme was very diverse it did give one painter, Ian McKeever, an opportunity to try out new directions… I was blown away by his installation work ‘Black & White…or how to paint with a hammer’ that took place there. There were also chance encounters, a casual visit to Gimpels in 1983 where Caryn Faure-Walker had selected Freya Purdue as one of the younger, less established artists for Stroke, Line & Figure and whose exuberant and delightful abstractions suggested paintings of quality might follow, a hunch that her appearance in Pacesetters V in Peterborough in 1985 confirmed.
Back in the public/artist led sector the vitality of the Acme Gallery that operated between 1976 and 1981, had given some important exposure to several ambitious abstract painters none less so than Gary Wragg whose 1979 exhibition had revealed a substantial talent whose enormous, wrought and expressive canvases teetered on the boundary between figuration and abstraction. One of its later shows, actually two shows, took place in 1980 where Eight Artists:Women:1980 was a declaration of the then, still, precarious and liminal position of women artists. Amongst the painting were lively and accomplished shaped works by Sarah Greengrass, who sadly died early and Mikey Cuddihy who showed experimental, process driven works that presaged her move into installation and a more overt reference to feminist perspectives later in the decade. The closure of Acme Gallery perhaps something of a harbinger of what was to come as the vogue for figuration took a hold.
part four on its way shortly…