Following on from my last but one post Matthew Morrison Macaulay asks where did you first see an abstract expressionist’s painting, and what was your impressions of the photography that came from America of the artists studios or the artists at work in their studios? First I want to be ‘picky’ (probably the weather…) but I don’t like the term really and much prefer ‘the New York School’ (though of course that has as many contradictions too).
Goodness its a hard question. I do recall going to the Tate in 1969 (aged 17) to see the Art of the Real…by this time my wonderful art teacher the late Peter Thursby had introduced us by way of his personal copies of Studio International and Artforum (that with typical generosity circulated freely around the classroom) to artists such as O’Keefe, Kelly & Louis but it was the more minimalist works that had been included in this exhibition that really challenged me. The Stella’s, in particular Turkish Mambo a good example of the ‘black’ period and Six Mile Bottom, of the following metallics, were a knock out and had a profound influence on what I decided right then would be my touchstones once I got to college). In my head I think there were one or two more ‘black’ paintings in the show (I have an image of three of them in a row in mind) but the catalogue (link above) of the original MOMA show suggests not. And on that visit the Tate had recently acquired the first of the Seagram mural pictures but I suspect that, with Norman Reid in the process of sending the maquette of the room hang for the lot (probably around the time of my visit!) to Rothko, the ‘Rothko Room’ was not yet a reality. But that show did have a Rothko (see above), a Still, Reinhardt and a couple Newman’s in it…so they likely were my first encounters.
A year later I’m back in London first at the ICA for When Attitudes Become Form – an even more challenging show for an art student about to embark on their Diploma studies (about which I may write in future and glory be the whole catalogue is available here). And I think the Rothko room had been installed by then at the Tate? I do know that the following year they did a sensational Barnett Newman show. That catalogue contains some lovely ‘Barney in his studio’ shots but by then one of my prize possessions was a Reinhardt catalogue with those absolutely amazing photos of his NYC studio – pictures that cemented my idea of being the heroic New York loft artist as the pinnacle of desire!
And time passes…and I’ve not managed to post in very nearly a fortnight. Perhaps I’m running out of things I want to say…or just too busy with other things (but what?) or just too plain idle. But there are small moments of thought that might have made decent posting. Like the economy and certainty in the 50’s and 60’s of Francis Bacon’s paintings that moves into a kind of Mannerism later where the paint thickens and becomes perhaps a little less sure of itself (at least to my eyes) – seen in the rather good display at Tate Liverpool (now sadly closed I think). Or the sheer genius of Louise Bourgeois in the display in the new Switch House at Tate Modern. Here I was especially taken with 15 drawings made in her 97th year…and I’m certain mistakenly labelled as etchings? (or not..the etching is the base on which she drew further marks so the link says)..although maybe I’m wrong (as without looking too carefully I mis referenced to my companion a Whiteread as an Andre!). I was less excited by Wifredo Lam than I had expected…too much influenced by others (even after the early days) and thinness in process taken perhaps just a wee bit too far. And the Liverpool Biennial display at Tate which (sorry but) looked like contemporary art but was pretty much just stuff by and large.
In my own work I’m busying myself with various projects, making inroads into what has become the second part of a three part romp through Schama’s Landscape & Memory, getting into the Playground of the Midlands canvases, but also casting around for a form for a series of paintings stimulated by the East Coast (a follow on from the Cornish Coast group). At first I experimented with a tall upright and agonised over the exact dimensions settling eventually on two competing sizes and ratios. Then I pretty much settled on the thinner of the two at 130 cm. high (the turning of the flat coast in the east on its side an idea I nicked from Shelagh Cluett, oddly enough one of whose works from the relevant series was up in Tate Liverpool). But – and I imagine anyone unfamiliar to art practice will wonder what I’m agonising about! – I’m still not happy so I have plundered the far past for a ‘fresh’ idea (see top of post) a take on my proscenium arch idea that I first deployed in my practice in 1969. There’s nothing new under the sun…well certainly in my practice!
Paul mails me from Australia to say “have you got a picture of Ron Haselden‘s paper roll machine from his exhibition at the Ikon Gallery in the late 70’s” and of course I have! In fact I’ve four of these…though sadly I’ve none of the drawings that accompanied it – and that were rather beautiful. Ron’s idea – like many good ones – was rather simple…could he make a machine that would make a paper cone (similar to something you might roll by hand) and how far might the scaled up roll project? Of course scaling up isn’t so easy – it’s the paper thickness thats the problem. We used newsprint first and that just didn’t cut the mustard. A heavier cartridge worked better…but still not that well though we had the excitement of the moment of collapse as it faltered and toppled. So then the idea was arrived at to coat the paper as it rolled out with a varnish… In all honesty the enterprise was rather a noble failure (it did project but never in the way you can make a small cone do so in your hand – you can see there was quite a bit of spare gallery space going!). But it was great fun and the image shot down the roll is – to my mind – exceptionally beautiful.
Oddly enough I was reminded of this project only a couple days ago when I saw an article about Anish Kapoor installing a huge show of his in Berlin. It included a new machine that shoots his now trademark red wax across the gallery…a machine that reminded me of Ron’s…
Ron now lives and works in France…and mostly seems to show there. He’s one of our unsung heroes of UK contemporary art in my view…much more worthy of a major celebration at Tate than some of the YBA’s or the latest ‘sensation’ from abroad culled in a lazy stroll around the Venice Biennale or some such!