By 1984 The British Art Show had rolled around for its second outing – this time starting in England’s second city before visiting Edinburgh, Sheffield & Southampton. A three strong selection panel (comprised of Jon Thompson, Marjorie Allthorpe-Guyton and Alexander Moffat) chose eighty artists of whom a dozen or so (definitions again) might be termed abstract painters. What is more striking by comparison with 1979 is the effusion of figuration, over twenty of whom were included. Although none of the selectors referenced it directly, they all, in one way or another, gave a nod to The New Spirit show in their texts. Some were fairly ‘classical’ (Kitaj, Auerbach, Kossoff), others Expressionistic (Bellany, Rego, Kiff), and there were the Scots, oddly enough Bruce McLean heading them up having returned to painting, along with newbies Stephen Campbell and Adrian Wiszniewski. And frankly much else besides from conceptualists Terry Atkinson and Art & Language to the really odd stuff that the ‘new figuration’ could turn up…John Hyatt, John Yeadon, Graham Durward and Peter Bailey.
Those abstract painters who were included were very much the established ‘team’. John Hoyland naturally enough, Gillian Ayres, Hodgkin, and from that East End, lesser feted group, Basil Beattie. Sitting somewhat aside from them were the cool minimalists, Alan Charlton, Peter Joseph and John Carter and those on the fringes of abstraction by this time…John Walker, Ian McKeever and, reflecting the still small chinks of light in female representation (13 in all), Therese Oulton.
In terms of encouraging and spreading the understanding of abstraction the emergence of cheaper colour printing began in earnest in the later seventies and impacted on the production of catalogues, pamphlets and postcards. When the Jacobs Gallery began producing small catalogues each of her exhibitors benefitted from the inclusion of several colour images too. The catalogue of this second British Art Show reflected this with a goodly number of colour images spread through the publication rather than, as before, a single section. It was a good job colour printing was getting cheaper as budgets (especially in the public sector galleries) were severely constrained in the first half of the decade as recession raged. Indeed the whole political scene was torrid over much of the decade, beginning with the Falklands War, continuing with the Miners Strike, the Greenham Common protests and ending with the rumblings of the Poll Tax revolts that ushered in the 1990’s.
One of the major events of the mid decade were the simultaneous shows by John Walker ,of paintings at the Hayward and prints at the Tate, in 1984. Walker had announced himself as one of our pre-eminent painters back in the late sixties at the Hayward with huge canvases that combined oddly shaped trapezoids bunched in groups set against rugged colour fields. Following prolonged sojourns in Australia and the States…he returned with paintings that, whilst still abstracted, were also struggling to accommodate the figurative impulses that the ‘new spirit’ had released. In particular he revelled in a long held obsession with the old Spanish Masters, Velasquez and Goya, as well as drawing upon imagery drawn from the Pacific cultures. These paintings were increasingly mixed together with religious text extracts, still very big, rugged and muscular, exploiting tonality and modelling in a way quite alien to many of the other leading figures in abstraction and set a challenge that has rarely (if ever) been matched in subsequent decades for painting that is both utterly authentic and painfully honest on the grand scale.
One of those painters who had learnt a lot from the example of Walker was Hugh O’Donnell. O’Donnell was the only artist to escape relatively unscathed from the critics mauling of the 1980 Guggenheim show. Subsequently his star was on the rise and he was taken up by Marlborough with whom he had shows in New York and, in the spring of 1985, London. The work in this show was fresh and vital, often as Ronald Rees put it in the catalogue “a new tactile quality and painterliness [with] a strong sense of immediacy”. The strong graphic, design elements went far beyond where most of the younger generation discussed so far had dared at the time and that painters like Hopkins and Mali Morris would venture late into the subsequent decade.
The difficulty of definitions actually increased over the decade as the continuing fall out from The New Spirit exerted its influence. Robert Ayers and Tony Godfrey put together a show at The Serpentine that ran through mid-winter in 1984/5 titled Landscape Memory & Desire of what had been, essentially ’abstract’ painters a few years earlier but now fell under a rubric of new-romanticism, Michael Porter, Andrew Mansfield, Maria Chevska, Peter Lewis, Theresa Oulton and Adrian Searle. All were, in one degree or another, making ‘abstract’ paintings albeit several of them flirting with and even overtly embracing clear elements of figuration. In truth it was less the examples of figuration in New Spirit (few of whom were interested in landscape) than than the licence that it gave to artists whose inclinations were more towards a far more rooted desire for English romanticism. The subsequent career trajectories of both Porter and Oulton saw them push further in the direction they had set here though for them and Mansfield the tide of fashion has seen them rather marginalised despite their evident quality as painters.
The fluid, seemingly one touch, exploration of form and colour exemplified by artists such as John McLean and Mali Morris in quite a few shows over the decade is another means of abstract picture making that has been somewhat marginalised, other than in recent works by Peter Joseph. It takes a certain kind of ‘commercial’ dealer to make a really long term commitment to an artist to allow them the freedom to make work that sits outside what is pretty much ‘allowable’ by the official organs of taste. In Joseph’s case the Logsdail’s at their Lisson Gallery, a nice irony really when the ‘market’ is seen (mostly) by painters as a bad thing.
Opportunities to get back to Birmingham were few, despite it being less than an hours drive away. But in the latter part of 1985 Clyde Hopkins show and in the spring of 1986, Terry Shave and then Barrie Cook presented excellent opportunities at Ikon for studying abstraction. Three very distinctive and quite different approaches to the genre each had qualities to admire. Hopkins was already beginning to strengthen the structures of his canvases, although the gestural marks and colour clouds were still much in evidence. Shave presented large almost monumental canvases where the neo-romantic spirit was informed with a deft, dynamic touch and suffused with a marvellous light. Sadly much of his work of the time was destroyed later but the canvas Inferno Storms, over three metres high gives an indication of the vigorous and confident qualities in the painting.
Cook’s show was more of a retrospective but as with several others discussed here (Peter Joseph, Alan Green, Alan Charlton) and others – I’m thinking of both Edwina Leapman and James Hugonin, there was a consistent and admirable single-mindedness to the means, methods and outcomes of his deliberations that fads and fashions were unable to significantly disturb, from the beginnings of their careers right through to today. Indeed these painters, whose work is determinedly and doggedly non -representational tend not to be especially clubbable so often sit outside the loosely formed groups and survey shows to their detriment as painters of considerable talent. However as the decade pushed on into its latter stages there was a growing trend towards re-evaluation of abstraction, indeed of painting, in the broader context of contemporary art practice as a multi-faceted, post-modernist and plural activity…of which more in part 5, the (mercifully!) last part of this series…