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 James, Geoff 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).
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.
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.
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.
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)…