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)…

 

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Painting In Three Dimensions

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Moor Shadow Stack, Sean Scully, 2018

I imagine there might be a few grumbles amongst the sculpture fraternity that Sean Scully is showing sculpture (with paintings, prints, drawings and photographs) up at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park.  After all his reputation rests mainly on his body of paintings made over the past half century.  But its quite a coup for the place nonetheless as Scully is surely one of the biggest beasts to have shown there over the years.  Its well worth a visit as it is showing concurrently with Giuseppe Penone, another ‘big beast’ of the Arte Povera group making YSP quite a classy destination at present.

And it gave me pause for thought that – by and large – the work as a whole showed off Scully’s talents and clear sighted approach to great effect.  Its the latter characteristic that got me thinking.  Right from the get go Scully has gone after his objective of making relevant abstract paintings for our time.  His early work utilised grids at a time when they were much in vogue, but drawing upon observations and feelings of things seen in the world, progressed to a more closed, indeed sealed in, disposition whilst billeted (for the most part) in late seventies NYC before breaking out into an art that is abstract but routed so firmly in the emotional and geophysical that he can rightly claim that they are not abstract at all.  Like most of us of pensionable age he is now in a furious race against time with so much to do aesthetically and inevitably a closing door in which to do it!  The sculptures have come along in recent years and, as he was at pains to point out in his lecture, have been conceived and executed with the same lucidity as his other work.  They are in effect paintings in three dimensions with the materiality being the main spring of their presence in the world.  He also stressed the vital importance of truth to material in these works – that also got me thinking.  Take Moor Shadow Stack – my pal Paul (who knows a thing or two about installing big works!) and myself were speculating earlier in the day that the piece must have been constructed of carefully engineered hollow slabs but his talk made such a play of the material quality being informed by its solidity that I’m now convinced that all the sculptures on show were solid objects (either that or he’s damn clever at convincing me!).

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Crate Of Air, Sean Scully, 2018

If I have minor concerns (and they are so) then it is firstly in the sighting of Crate Of Air, a monumental piece, that I felt was a little cramped in its placing.  Ideally it would dominate the lower lawn facing the lake in my opinion.  Mind that would have involved relocating the Caro that I suspect the heroic installation team might have cavilled at given the scale of the undertaking. My other niggle is the surface quality of the paintings.  Like most I’ve seen in the past five or ten years they are made on sheet aluminium using (what I think) is a proprietary aluminium primer that allows the luscious quality of the oil to sit on top.  This gives the work in some light (particularly pale grey Yorkshire autumn light) rather a pasty sheen that I’m not so sure about.

However these are very minor issues (for me, let alone anyone else) and the paintings looked wonderful in the big open space of the Longside Gallery.  Several of those on show I’m fairly sure had come from his 2015 and 2017 Chaim & Read shows (that by good fortune I happened to see) – the big multi panel painting Blue Note certainly was central to the Wall Of Light Cubed exhibition.  The opportunity to see it alongside other works and set against the sculptural works in a generous space (everything being a bit cramped in Chelsea) was a real treat!

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Installation, Longside Gallery

ATA…part two

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It’s the view from the Palazzo Falier…quite something really and it takes an artist with a certain amount of chutzpah to pit a body of work against it…but its a quality you can never deny Sean Scully.  As it happens I’m a total devotee (I was once substantially responsible for putting together his first mini-retrospective) though neither of my colleagues on this occasion are quite as taken with his work.  To be absolutely frank even I felt that some of the pieces here were falling a little short.  I really love these large interlocking pictures…

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and those chosen here were as good as any I’ve seen.  These Doric paintings have all that brooding melancholy and delicious surfaces.  The Landline series pushes the simplicity of form to the outer limits for these vehicles for colour and the introduction of some lurid greens was for me a little jarring.

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And the two really large pictures that pushed together several of these broad horizontal formats looked a tad bombastic and pedestrian.

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All that said Scully is still one of the best abstract painters in the world and the best pictures are superb so I’m carping really.  When he gets it right (and thats most of the time) he’s just spellbinding…and here there were enough paintings of that quality to satisfy.  And alongside the paintings were some ravishing pastels…

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So all good in the end.  By this time we had done a fair bit of looking…time for some lunch so off to one of the city’s best bacaro’s…Gia Schiavi.  The cicchetti here are just beautiful to look at and better to eat.  The creamed cod fish is to die for.  We might have simply holed up there for the rest of the afternoon except we wanted to do a mini giro d’ombra so we made a beeline for All’Arco…expecting it to be crammed…but we arrived a little late for lunch so the pace had slackened off.

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Here I had two glasses of house Red…one to go with the cicchetti and another to celebrate the election of Jeremy Corbyn as our new leader!  We picked up the news on our mobiles as we arrived.  A little later we turned the corner to take in our third bacaro Do Mori.  By this time it had thinned out a fair bit and we could admire this gem…said to be one of the oldest in the city.  I was taken with the ceiling decor!

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As a great day out drew to a close we just had time to visit Ca’ Pesaro for the Cy Twombly show. Not a moment too soon as it closed a day later…  It was a rather patchy display overall but not without some interesting and unusual works including several early paintings and some fairly uncharacteristic pieces.

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Take for example this curious little drawing above from 1966.  Or these canvases with the swirls of high keyed colour…

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But here too it was hard not to be impressed at the sheer energy and exuberance of a major artist.  These four canvases said to be half of the last group of works he ever painted say it all really…raging against the dying of the light.  A lesson for us all maybe…

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The Cold from Hell…

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has been keeping me from here for very nearly a week…  I had hoped to post a considered reflection on the current Ikon Gallery exhibition As Exciting As We Can Make It, Ikon in the 80’s that in a very modest way I made a contribution to but it seems now that the moment has gone.  However as a tiny contribution to the celebration the picture above is the only image I have of the major Sean Scully show we mounted in 1980/1 – just a pity that it is so murky.  The catalogue for the show has quite a number of my pictures taken at the time and full credit to their team for cleaning them up to make them acceptable for publication!  The current show was quite a nostalgic occasion, meeting old friends and colleagues and being re-acquainted with work I hadn’t seen since back then.  Some pieces stood up remarkably well – a sculpture by Shelagh Cluett and a beautiful drawing by Ron Haselden flanked by a huge Terry Shave canvas; a lovely Bert Irvin (who turned up at the event still a sprightly 92!): the imposing Dennis Oppenheim piece that dominated the large rear gallery on the top floor.  Overall it’s well worth a visit – and I say so not simply because I was a very small cog in the machine from 1977 to 1981.

Gone South (part 2…the bit about the art!)

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Despite forecasts to the contrary Friday dawned very bright and sunny again…bizarrely as the news was full of the tribulations of the West coast of the UK.  We hightailed it to the De La Warr Pavilion in Bexhill that looked magnificent in that light.  A brisk walk along the beach, equally glorious and quite bracing (it is January after all…), showed off the place to very best effect.

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Alison Turnbull‘s exhibition in the Pavilion was interesting…she is a painter I’ve seen only very occasionally over the years.  This show seemed on the face of it well suited to the venue, indeed her interest in the modernist architecture makes it a shoo in in some respects.  That said I was less convinced by it…in part I suspect because of the way in which it was laid out.  Several differing strands of practice were dotted around the space, quite literally in the case of the ‘dot’ paintings (that I feel are the strongest), so that following the train of thought was harder than one might wish.  The elegant table cases that contained many drawings and painted paper pieces should have added to one’s understanding and appreciation of the work but for me (and my wife) there was something a little soulless about them.  Overall the show lacked a little guts and passion…at least to my taste.

Back to Hastings then as the Jerwood had now opened.  ‘Guts’ and ‘Passion’ then…and Basil Beattie could never be accused of lacking them!

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This show of large pictures (pretty much all of which have been made in the last eighteen months or so, no mean feat as you are nearing eighty I suspect) had all the trademark tropes I’ve come to expect over the near on forty years I’ve been admiring his work.  But (and in keeping with the display of Guston’s next door that I’ll come onto in a moment) with a freedom and insouciance that was at first a wee bit shocking.  It was as if he was riffing on his own motifs, so much so that they seemed sometimes almost cartoon like.

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And there were clear avenues down which the work might be taken further, new directions that must be really exciting for an older generation figure – powerful reasons to keep on working at a high energy and with plenty to say.  At the time of writing I’m still digesting the work…rethinking the one or two I didn’t think were as successful as well as reflecting on the others that I loved from the off.  No better recommendation than that really.

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In the adjacent space were a host of Guston’s prints, mainly lithos that I always feel are very nearly as good as drawings themselves, and a beautiful small canvas that complemented the print work well.  They all came from that period just after ‘the change’, that point where he shocked the art world to its core by reverting back to figuration from the earlier trademark coalescing abstractions.  Now, from a safe distance of over forty years, it all seems pretty reasonable but back in the day…  Beattie, of course, made a similar transitional journey, but now it might seem (from, say, the canvas in the near right side of the installation shot above) that maybe he could travel back again in the other direction…its the freedom now that still makes painting so fresh and dynamic despite all the other competing contrivances of contemporary art.  I can’t leave this venue without making mention of Marlow Moss, an artist who was previously unknown to me, and as the show sets out to prove, quite a few others. Its an undoubted fact that, in the twentieth century, being a woman, openly lesbian and working near to but slightly apart from an acknowledged  centre of art (St. Ives) did you no favours at all.  Although her work undoubtedly owes a debt to the leaders of constructivism (and Mondrian in particular) she also made her own contribution with on the evidence here a voice of her own.  A reassessment of this thoughtful, intelligent and pellucid artist and her work was clearly overdue and credit goes to Tate St. Ives and Pallant House whose project this is.

Time was challenging us now but, and maybe because the weather had now finally started drawing in on us, we did decide to drive swiftly westwards towards Chichester and Pallant House.  Although its a journey of nearly two hours on a Friday through by now awful rainy and windy weather I wanted to see Triptychs by Sean Scully.  Now I’ve not only seen plenty of Scully’s over the years but curated and presented his work, and am lucky enough (through his generosity) to own a work on paper.  Nonetheless this was a real opportunity to see a small but beautifully curated show centred on a theme that has re-occurances over his entire career.  And the beauty of this show (as apart from the others, except the Moss that runs till April) is that if you are quick you could still get to see it yourself (it runs till the 26th of this month – January 2014)!

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Take for example this absolutely sumptuous oil on aluminium painting Barcelona Robe, one of the recent pictures.  The use of the hard and definitive edges of the metal support against the more recognisable brushstrokes is a real triumph.  Or look at this painting from a slightly earlier period…a real beauty.

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There were plenty of others, and prints, watercolours, pastels and other drawings, all packed into three smallish galleries but in such a way that all the work was able to breathe and the viewer more than able to fully appreciate them.  It was the kind of show that hammered home his reputation as one of the leading figures of his generation at work across the globe.  Another aspect of Sean’s approach that is really refreshing is the honest and direct way of talking about abstract painting he has.  There were several well chosen quotations from him amongst the beautifully crafted and presented captions that accompanied the work (I don’t generally welcome these in galleries but here they genuinely complemented the works)…and this one struck home for me…a good place to end really.

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The Analogue/Digital debate…

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is not being conducted by my two grandsons!  But their presence in the household over these past few days has seen us out and about a fair bit (in the case of the above on the pasture at the rear of Sudbury Hall, Derbyshire). So I’ve been using what time has been available to carry on with my pastel details of the virus images.  And this morning (the family having a day out with friends) working up the images to the sounds of Neil Young and his corking early album, After The Gold Rush.

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The making of pictures by hand is often thought of as anachronistic, not least by many in the art world. I take a position alongside artists such as Sean Scully and Jonathan Lasker in thinking that making something by hand is an expression of what it means to be alive…and this quote comes from one of them (I don’t recall which but they both have spoken eloquently on the subject of why paint now?) and expresses my thinking better or at least more succinctly than I can…

” We are all, at present, more divided, less empowered and certainly far less connected to the effects of our world than we should be. It is for this reason that I am deeply involved with the textures of a medium capable of universalising so much lost intimacy”.

And in making these pictures I am listening to the music on a gramophone – ok so at a remove from the actual making of the sounds but a faithful, analogue reproduction.  And this I believe creates an intimacy and a warmth to the sounds that no amount of ones and zeros lined up will ever satisfactorily replace.