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.
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.
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.