These are tough times for sure.However much one tells oneself that the studio is a fine place to ‘self isolate’ (see last post) there’s a need, fairly regularly, to get out and replenish the batteries.I often do so with my pal Simon (see many previous posts!) either on one of our Leicestershire projects or visiting shows – often at hand or more occasionally far flung.One of the latter several years back involved an almighty cock up whereby we planned to set out for the Louvre – Lens not realising it was a French public holiday!Discovering it at the last moment we swerved away north to Bruges and back via Ostend.This enabled us to take in MU:zee in the city.Its a large rambling modern building that looks rather as if it may have been a department store (it was) and as I rambled around I was powerfully struck by several of the Belgian artists represented.Chief among them is of course Ensor but there are fine works by Permeke, Brusselmans and more recent figures such as Jan Fabre and Wim Delvoye.But what really got to me were works by the hitherto only vaguely remembered Léon Spilliaert.His self portrait in particular seemed both haunting and haunted, a study in depression and insomnia.It struck me as easily the equal if not possibly more harrowing than Munch’s The Scream.
So I had been limbering up for a visit to the show of his work currently holed up in the Royal Academy and thinking just my luck as it now seems certain that its run will end before the curfew lets up.Luckily however the Academy have put up a video of the show – not a substitute of course – but something to help out.It’s worth a look, not least if you are a painter now. Although notionally figurative many of his works are of equal interest to someone wedded to abstraction and his range is truly astonishing.It’s a mystery to me that he’s not better known or better regarded – and given that he’s lucked out in London likely to remain so for many.Check out the video so you’re not one of those…and we never did (as yet…?) make it to Louvre-Lens!
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.
This is (the first part) of a text I started writing ahead of the symposium at The Herbert Gallery. Coventry organised by Matthew Macaulay, but continued after the event to incorporate some thoughts about it.Given my active engagement in the subject and experiences of the period (I spent that decade working in the subsidised Visual Arts sector and often visiting both London & elsewhere always endeavouring to take in any shows I could) naturally I was keen to go along. As it happens quite a few of those things I had already written about came up on the day…though quite a few others didn’t so here goes…
Where does one start in a discussion about this subject?Is it even a valid subject at all? For a start what constitutes “British’ in these Brexit times, or even more so back in the 1980’s.At the start of the decade the Royal Academy was still a quarter of a century from electing its first Black artist (Frank Bowling in 2005) but had fully embraced European emigres such as Freud and Auerbach. Identity politics, around Feminism and gender as well as race, were all impacting on the art of the time although the official organs of distribution were still, certainly at the beginning of the decade, indifferent if not ignorant of them.Two speakers on the day (Rebecca Fortnum & Maggie Ayliffe) spoke at length to issues around Feminism and its impact on abstract painting, though in passing its worth noting that much of their eloquent testimony revolved around paintings, and especially exhibitions, from the early nineties rather than the eighties. Perhaps a more blatant omission was any testimony to racial politics and the absence of any people of colour at the event (I’m fairly sure of this though I apologise if I’m wrong) and but a passing visual reference to only one British artist of colour on the day (Frank Bowling again) in a decade when the emergence of the “Black Art’ movement (admittedly short on ‘abstract’ painters) was a key feature of what was taking place.
Moving on, as we all know, the term “Abstract’ is fraught with difficulties too numerous to detain us in this lifetime (and certainly within this text) but the notion of boundaries between that which is properly abstract, that which is ‘abstracted’ and figuration, however loosely defined played quite a part in the decade in question.This was raised a couple of times in the day but never really teased out.As it happens most of those painters referenced were ‘abstract’ in that they abstracted from reality (of some sort!, more qualification!) and notions of landscape was a shadowy presence for nearly all of them.There was little mention of painters who might more readily be accepted as truly non-representational (accepting that some of them might allude to ‘real world’ influences anyway) other than in Daniel Sturgis‘s text on Alan Uglow though even here we were teased with the references to football pitch layouts that Uglow enjoyed alluding to.
Painting as a term we might all understand a little better but even so by the 1980’s even this had reached myriad points of debate. A good deal of the boundary shifting in painting was taking place in the USA and at the event David Ryan in his opening paper drew a good deal of attention to what was happening there as well as what happened here, including some of those artists engaged in that very practice.
And beyond all the foregoing history is, of course, written primarily by the ‘winners’ although we now live in dramatically revisionist times that suggest that, as in previous centuries, time will have a profound say on what shakes out over the long run (the ‘re-discovery’ of Uglow championed by Bob Nickas may or may not prove to be an example). Although, as is inevitable with an open call for papers, the day was full of disjointed and disparate texts there was much to reflect on and the show Matthew had brought together that was the end point of proceedings is well worth a visit. Part 2 to follow!