British Painting…part 4…

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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.  

Walker, John, b.1939; Labyrinth II

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.

Shave, Terry, b.1952; Inferno Storms
Inferno Storms, Terry Shave

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…

 

British Painting in the 80’s – part 3

IMG_1403Moving 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 Koonings, 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. 

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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 WraggPeter 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.

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Dappled Russets, Patrick Jones, 229.8×177 cm. acrylic on canvas, 1979

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…

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)…