#56. David Sweet writes on “Undivided Attention: Getting around ‘aboutery’.”

Gillian Wearing, “Rock ‘n’ Roll 70 Wallpaper”.

This isn’t really a review of Art Rethought; the Social Practices of Art, by Nicholas Wolterstorff, a book by a philosopher about art, with no illustrations. To do that properly I would have to summarise its central arguments and insights, offering comments and analysis, pointing out its limits or achievements. I think I could write a review, because it isn’t that obscure, but I don’t want to. Yet I’ve read it, and did want to say something based on that reading, relating it to the problems of criticism in the area of abstraction that this site supports.

I want to start with a question the book does not raise; ‘Why make abstract paintings?’ This is a different question from, ‘Why make abstract paintings now?’ Pictorial abstraction is a genre with a long history and painters have had their reasons for choosing to work within its constraints. To justify this choice some have offered explanations as to what their work ‘means’, which varied from the theosophical, to the political, psychological, mythological, Kantian, etc. Abstract Expressionist paintings produced the heaviest concentration of meaning claims focussing on highly abstract concepts like the sublime or existentialism that seemed to fit with the ‘abstract’ pictorial structures and methodologies they devised. Then Frank Stella came along. He more or less said his painting didn’t mean anything. So escaping from meaning appears to be Stella’s reason for making abstract paintings. This might have seemed understandable in the period when Abstract Expressionism had lost its lustre, but it might also be a good reason for making abstract paintings now.

The central exhibit of a new show at the National Portrait Gallery is by Gillian Wearing and called Rock ‘n’ Roll 70 Wallpaper. It consists of a set of large photographs arranged in a grid containing images of the artist, who is in her fifties, digitally manipulated to depict her in various stages of ageing. No doubting what it ‘means’. Of course it’s about ‘exploring issues which affect us all…around ageing, memento mori, the transience of life,’ and ‘themes around gender, masquerade, performance and the idea of the self.’ But what if these sociological ‘meanings’ were deleted? With the images gone something that looked like a high modernist painting would remain, a large multi coloured grid, in which a certain amount of chromatic interplay was happening. We would still age, life would still be transient; we would still ponder the idea of the self. We knew about all that before we got to the gallery. What would be missing is the ‘aboutery’.

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#55. Robin Greenwood writes on Victor Pasmore at Pallant House Gallery, Chichester

Victor Pasmore, “Model for the Apollo Pavillion”, Peterlee, 1967

Victor Pasmore: Towards a New Reality is at Pallant House Gallery, Chichester, until 11 June 2017 (and previously shown at the Djangoly Gallery, Nottingham Lakeside Arts).

http://pallant.org.uk/exhibitions/current-exhibitions/main-galleries/victor-pasmore/victor-pasmore

In 1861, the 80m tall spire and tower of Chichester Cathedral calamitously collapsed under its own weight from a structural failure of the piers, depositing as it did 6,000 tons of rubble into the nave below (6,000 tons! The Eiffel Tower, well over three times the height, weighs in at only 7,300 tons. You get a lot more height for your heft with steel – but I digress). You would think, to read the account of Victor Pasmore’s controversial conversion in 1948/9 from lyrical landscapist and Euston Road “Objective Realist” to abstract painter, collager and relief-builder, that the scale of disaster for the reactionary English art establishment who had thus far supported him was equally cataclysmic. Pasmore, prior to his apostasy, seems to have been the apple of many a well-connected eye, leading a rather charmed existence: working alongside William Coldstream and Claude Rogers to set up the Euston Road School in 1937; being supported and patronised by the then director of the National Gallery, Kenneth Clark from 1935 up to 1948. Then, having gone abstract, gaining the support and encouragement of Ben Nicholson; showing regularly at the Redfern Gallery, through all phases of work, until taken up by Marlborough in 1960; and being appointed Master of Painting at King’s College, Durham/Newcastle , in 1954, where he taught alongside Lawrence Gowing. Throughout his life, he seems to have been well in with everyone that mattered.

In retrospect, the transition from figurative to abstract looks rather harmless and parochial. In this exemplary show at Pallant House Gallery, excellently and unobtrusively curated by Anne Goodchild of the Djangoly Gallery, Nottingham, Pasmore’s evolution is set out chronologically (I love chronology! How different from the Vanessa Bell show now at Dulwich, which destroys all semblance of developmental logic by its intrusive theming), from his first talented efforts as a gifted young painter, taking us coherently through all his wildly different phases, up until the late sixties and his excellent design for the Apollo Pavilion in Peterlee, 1967, which is where the show ends. After which, Pasmore retreated to his house in Malta for thirty or so years, producing the ubiquitous and rather repetitive biomorphic paintings and prints that you now see all over galleries and art fairs. He died in Malta in 1998, aged 90.

So, what to make of this man who is described by Anne Goodchild in her catalogue essay as possibly “the patron saint of the committed Sunday painter”? Not a very flattering description, to say the least, but I think I know what she means. The exhibition moves very fast between the phases of his work, and as I walked around I jotted down the most visible and, to me, obvious of his influences, as follows: Cézanne; Vuillard; Degas; Manet; Corot; Matthew Smith; Morandi; de Staël; Klee; Schwitters; Seurat; Bruegel; Turner; Whistler; Mondrian; Gottlieb; van Gogh; Rodchenko/Tatlin constructivism; Nicholson; Le Corbusier; Miro; Arp. Bonnard and Kandinsky are also cited, but I couldn’t see them.

I repeat, these are just the obvious ones that I could point to. I have never been to Pallant House Gallery before; I have never been to Chichester before; and I’ve never known an artist to have such a long list of clear and present influences. Was the man really such a dilettante?

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#54. John Bunker writes on “Painting & Structure” at the Kennington Residency, London

Sophia Starling, “Stack (Marble)”, marble dust and acrylic on linen. 190x170x15cm.

Painting & Structure was at the Kennington Residency, London from 9th to 24th February 2017

Have you watched Larry Poons on YouTube where he considers the luxurious drapery in a Velasquez and says ‘that’s what you want’? Did you hear the one about Kenneth Koch asking Willem de Kooning whether he had read Frank OHara’s poem called ‘Radio’ in which it is said…

Well, I have my beautiful de Kooning

to aspire to. I think it has an orange

bed in it.

Willem de Kooning is reported to have mentioned how he was interested in mattresses because they were pulled in at certain points and puffed out at others ‘like the earth’…

Or to put the histrionics on hold for the moment, let’s think about how our notions of ‘a future’ affect the present tense- or even ‘the past’. Maybe consider one of those old fashioned sci-fi stories where one exquisitely machined pill (a white and slightly over sized lozenge) takes the place of a hearty 3 course meal. All that messy business of yearning, gratification, ingestion and excretion done away with. Replace all that with a glass of water and a hard swallow followed by a swollen stomach and a tiny flurry of gas expelled on the march down those long dark corridors. The ones that connect the living quarters to the mines being dug under Mars’ new exploratory colony.

Hold those images in the mind for a moment… Close your eyes… Then open them again and find yourself at the Painting and Structure exhibition at the Kennington Residency on Kennington Lane in south London… This show brings together an interesting mix of painters who tend to ‘play’ with the tension between crafted excess and severe reduction. Excess can take different guises though. One might immediately think of impasto with gusto for instance. But what dominates here, is extremely fine tuned attention to details, to surfaces, to materials, to the history of the medium, to the throbbing gristle called culture in which it all stews… But what is finally distilled after all this excessive boiling down and fastidious reduction? Well, that is the question.

Whether it be an orange mattress or a white pill or a Pope’s skirt there are so many structures on which the painter can hang an idea, a starting point, a way in to something new. But I think it is the art historical notion of ‘the grid’ as ‘structure’ that is the ghost at the dinner party to a greater or lesser degree in the work of nearly all of the artists gathered here in Kennington.

Donald Judd was obsessed with ridding art of its connection to its decadent Old World European past. The Minimalists turned on the old concept of what happens in one part of the painting directly effecting what happens in another part and replaced it with the pragmatism of the grid. Marks, actions or colours are quietly and equally placed across the surface of the painting, er, or should I say ‘object’? This New World Puritanism was soon to be undermined though. Since the late 70s various artists have taken their turn to humiliate and ridicule the grid. Judd’s and many other’s minimalist works were referenced in the shelving units, vitrines and display cabinets (think Koons’ basketballs, Hirst’s ‘specimens’, Bickerton’s logo clad wall boxes) in the art of the 90s. In terms of abstract painting Peter Halley has suggested since the 80s that his work is based on a ‘strong mis-reading’ of Minimalism. Mark Bradford has said that he is attempting to inject subject matter back into Minimalism.

 So from this historical perspective the grid never went away so much as periodically being on the receiving end of a good kicking like every piece of well-worn visual rhetoric should. But it is the unstable correlation between this stoic, if macho, rationality of the grid and the skewing by ‘painterly’ or sculptural means going on in this show that creates interesting historical tensions and connections. But are these works strong enough visual experiences in their own right to go beyond their anchorage in the shifting sands of art history?

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#53. Matthew Dennis writes on Ian McKeever and “Faith and Doubt” in Painting

Ian McKeever, ‘Portrait of a Woman 5’, 2015, oil and acrylic on linen

Ian McKeever, ‘Portrait of a Woman 5’, 2015, oil and acrylic on linen

Faith and Doubt in Painting; or, Confessions of a (lapsed) McKeever Believer

Ian McKeever’s show of paintings at Galeri Susanne Ottesen, ‘Portrait of a Woman’, which I managed to catch during a recent 24-hour stopover in Copenhagen, gave me a great deal to think about. None of it, sadly, to do with finding all that much to celebrate in the works themselves – more about them in a moment – but rather, with the realisation that my views on abstract painting in general, and McKeever’s paintings in particular, have undergone a radical transformation in the last couple of years; to the point where I’m left feeling a little embarrassed at having spent so much time allowing myself to be carried along by the approving critical consensus, and overlooking what I now consider to be fundamental problems with the work. I wanted to like the new paintings, I really did; however, since any honest assessment I could make of them would be little better than a hatchet job (fun to write, but, I suspect, a lot less fun to read) I have opted to go further, and use McKeever’s work as a hook on which to hang various thoughts I’ve been having, about both abstraction, and abstractcritical/Abcrit.

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#52. Geoff Hands writes on Ian McKeever: “Against Architecture” at Matt’s Gallery

Ian McKeever, "Against Architecture" installation, Matt's Gallery, London

Ian McKeever, “Against Architecture” installation, Matt’s Gallery, London

Ian McKeever: “Against Architecture is at Matt’s Gallery until 19th March 2017.

https://www.mattsgallery.org/artists/mckeever/exhibition-3.php

During the summer of 2016 I visited Ian McKeever’s studio in Dorset. Already an admirer of his work for some 30 years or so, access to the studio to see works as yet unfinished or not exhibited before was much appreciated. This included work from his ‘Portrait of a Woman’ series, which was about to be sent to Galleri Susanne Ottesen in Copenhagen. It was intriguing to see that these apparently abstract paintings were linked, conceptually, to Italian portraiture from the 15th century. Hopefully, at some point in the future, this most recent series of paintings will be seen in the UK (although two were exhibited at the RA last summer).

Upon leaving the studio, some small works that seemed familiar from a catalogue in my collection, were propped against a wall and on a shelf; as nothing more than an impression, they suggested possibilities for sculpture, but I thought no more about it. These included some of the photo/painting panels, first exhibited in Copenhagen in 2014, which re-appear in Against Architecture at Matt’s Gallery.

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#51. Alan Gouk writes on the Shchukin Collection at Fondation Louis Vuitton, Paris

Gallery of Matisses at the Shchukin Collection, photo John Pollard

Gallery of Matisses at the Shchukin Collection; photo John Pollard

The Shchukin Collection at Fondation Louis Vuitton, Paris has been extended to 5th March 2017.

http://www.fondationlouisvuitton.fr/en.html

This unmissable show is likely to be the highlight of this year and possibly of the decade. The flamboyant kite-like superstructure in Frank Gehry’s signature style apart, the main galleries display beautifully the visionary taste and judgement of this extraordinary Russian collector. What monstrosities may we expect when this show closes? Gerhard Richter? Cy Twombly? Bill Viola? Ai Wei Wei? God help us! So let us rejoice while we can that there once was a man of superlative judgement to take the true temperature of his times, a time before the psychopathology of art globalisation. This is an exhibition that normally would have gone to the Met. or the National Gallery. How many handbag sales have gone into this colossally expensive enterprise on the fringes of the Bois De Boulogne?

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#50. “Structure Through Colour”; A Film on Pete Hoida with Mel Gooding

Pete Hoida, "Hurricane Lamp", 2016

Pete Hoida, “Hurricane Lamp”, 2016

Pete Hoida: Abstract, Not Abstract?

In his introduction to a Hoida exhibition in 1994, Alan Gouk wrote: “For a painter at least, there is no such thing as “abstract space”, no such thing as “abstract volume”, and finally, no such thing as “abstraction”. Picture making,[Hoida] makes us see, consists simply in setting emotions side by side (not just colours side by side). Before colours are ready to take part in the poetic intrigue which is the art of painting, they must first of all register an emotion; they must be personalised. They must be pungent of sensation… It is rare nowadays to find an “abstract” picture which tastes and smells of the full lustre of natural sunlight and air… Hoida does persist, in trying to make clear things that are tacit and cloudy, that have no name until painted.”

Geoff Rigden, 2008: “…these not-so-abstract abstracts…”

Peter Davies, 2006: “The imagery is abstract in the sense that nothing is described beyond the plastic language of paint as a tactile and moving substance capable of producing sensations”

Estelle Lovatt, 2015: “our knowledge of the world informs what we ‘see’ in abstract art, but, honestly, abstract art is a way of seeing, in itself.”

Pete Hoida, 1995: “ I did not set out to paint a Conference pear tree outside the studio, but when I had done the painting I realised that the colours corresponded in some way that was not directly representational, in that they contained something of the startling rich creamy colour of this Conference blossom. And I would like to think that the same force and positive energy that is in nature is radiating from the painting.

I look at a Titian in the same way that I look at a Picasso. The point is not whether a painting is representational or not, but whether the artist’s manipulation of line and colour, space and light, texture and rhythm does anything.”

Pete Hoida, 2016: “I don’t want to do something that could be characterised as total abstraction; placing one colour in a skilful way against another colour is simply not enough, there has to be more to it. What is there – I want it to be something, but I don’t want it to be something that is too specific, too easily recognisable because it distracts you from looking at the painting, from looking at the surface, looking at the texture …. at all costs I want to avoid narrative but I also want to avoid pure abstraction.”

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#49: Ms. Ellen Knee writes on Matisse/Diebenkorn; Rothko; Copperwhite; Imperfect Reverse.

Henri Matisse, Interior, Flowers and Parakeets, 1924, Baltimore Museum of Art: The Cone Collection. Succession H. Matisse / Artists Rights Society (ARS)

Henri Matisse, Interior, Flowers and Parakeets, 1924, Baltimore Museum of Art: The Cone Collection. Succession H. Matisse / Artists Rights Society (ARS)

On Art News Phyllis Tuchman reviews The Matisse/Diebenkorn show in Baltimore:

http://www.artnews.com/2017/01/19/striking-up-a-conversation-the-baltimore-museum-of-art-unites-matisse-and-diebenkorn-in-a-glorious-exhibition/

Striking Up a Conversation: The Baltimore Museum of Art Unites Matisse and Diebenkorn in a Glorious Exhibition.

Tuchman writes:

“Astonishingly, Diebenkorn’s paintings in Baltimore are never overshadowed, as you might expect, by Matisse’s masterpieces. The American who twice lived outside San Francisco—in Berkeley (1953–66) and Healdsburg, California (1988–93)—as well as on the western outskirts of Los Angeles (1966–88) doesn’t just hold his own: he actually upstages Matisse.”

That indeed is astonishing…

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#48. Alan Gouk writes on Katherine Gili sculpture

Katherine Gili, "Quinary", 2014, steel, H.62.5cm

Katherine Gili, “Quinary”, 2014, steel, H.62.5cm

Katherine Gili: Looking for the Physical was at Felix and Spear, Ealing, London, 10th November – 13th December 2016.

http://www.felixandspear.com/katherine-gili

The sculptural power of Leonide, 1981-82, as it thrusts into space, to go no further back in Gili’s oeuvre, is clear affirmation that sculpture whose aim is to engage one immediately in a spatial way rather than having a predominant viewing point, does not need to do so equally from all points on the compass. Considered as an analogue for a structure, (with its figurative connotations in abeyance for the moment) its “stance” is forthright and unambiguous. It has remarkable physical presence from wherever it is viewed. It IS – it exists as an object in space, articulate and articulated, self-assertive and self-justifying (though that’s not all that it is). Each element is clearly defined in character and in its structural role. And it seems to say something about Gili herself, an enduring strength of character and artistic identity, proving that the unconscious reveals itself more through arduous realisation and reflection, than through perceptual self-trickery or doodling. It makes Giacometti for instance look very feeble indeed.

The fact that its structure is also a representation, if at some remove, of a body in movement allows one to accept without demur that it is anchored to a base and cantilevered from there.

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#47. Robin Greenwood writes on Robert Rauschenberg

Robert Rauschenberg, "Ace", 1962

Robert Rauschenberg, “Ace”, 1962

This isn’t going to be a review of the Tate’s Rauschenberg show. I’m more than a little disappointed that it includes so few of his “Combine” works from the fifties. I was hoping for many more in order to justify my long-held belief that Rauschenberg possessed a genuine visual talent, a “good eye”, which I had hoped seeing more of his best paintings would confirm. I think he had a natural gift for putting all sorts of stuff together that shouldn’t really go together, in a manner that challenged some of the orthodoxies of abstract painting, making things that looked good and worked in concert. Despite all the oddball stuff he got up to both before and after the “Combine” period, I’ve held on to this opinion for a long time, based upon things of his I’ve occasionally seen around, but also upon reproductions. And of course I was hoping that the Tate show would afford the opportunity to confirm my view in front of the real things. Some chance, and the fact that it doesn’t is indicative of the low priority all things visual get these days. Tate gives equal weighting to all the different phases of Rauschenberg’s career, which might be thought of as only reasonable and objective, were it not for the fact that most stuff before and after the “Combines” is poor, and mostly non-visual; so that, in fact, a more objective appraisal would necessarily have privileged the “Combines”. Obviously it would be out of the question for Tate curators to make such a call on their judgement.

Here’s a selection of some Rauschenbergs from the fifties that are NOT in the show (click to enlarge):

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