#120. Tributes to the Painter John McLean

John McLean’s last completed work. Untitled, 2019, acrylic on canvas, 90 x 151 cm. Courtesy of Art Space Gallery

Below are a series of tributes to the painter John McLean, who died earlier this year. The contributors all knew McLean personally. Nevertheless, they were asked to write primarily about his art. Sam Cornish

A memorial retrospective is being held at Art Space Gallery, Islington, 29 November 2019 – 24 January 2020.

East Coast, 1998, acrylic on canvas, 168 x 51 cm. Courtesy of Art Space Gallery

Duncan Macmillian

John was not always an abstract artist. He was a wonderful draughtsman and in his early years he made sombre, but still vivid paintings and drawings in an almost social realist mode. It was when he moved to London that he turned to abstraction, but his first abstract work, shown I think in 1964, was hard-edged. Nevertheless, he was already a colourist. For him, the hard-edge was a way of making colour sing and indeed it did, but composing with masking tape was never going to suit his temperament for long. Around 1965, just before his breakthrough into free, painterly abstraction, I remember him showing me a very strange work. It was essentially a heavy blob of paint in the middle of a piece of wire mesh. I was baffled at first but then I saw what he was driving at. It was as though he had devised an equation to express his idea of figure and ground where, although they each have their own character, they are not separate, but in dynamic tension, at once both distinct and indivisible. He had been looking at Korean pots and saw how they worked that way.  After that his painting took off and never looked back. Pouring paint and using a squeegee, there was a terrific liberation in the works that followed, often on a really big scale. Later, after meeting Clement Greenberg and the New York painters he supported, for a while John’s painting got a bit more formal, but he had captured the poetry of colour and freedom and never let it go.

He was generous in his appreciation of the art of others, whether historical or contemporary, and was always willing to learn from them. His great windows in Norwich Cathedral are quite his own but also a homage to Matisse. Perhaps this alertness to new inspiration helped keep his own creativity alive, for, through all the terrible adversity of his illness, right to the very end his spirit never for a moment flagged. He held a show of wonderful new paintings only weeks before he died.

In his art he created a unique dynamic out of the interplay of colours with variations of hue and saturation and subtle changes of depth, density, texture and ground in the application of paint. He gradually evolved an iconography of coloured shapes like enlarged dabs of the brush, circles, blobs and spirals, shuffling rectangles and other, loosely formed geometric shapes, but these elements were never still. That was why he talked about dance as a metaphor for what he was doing. For him painting was as alive and as autonomous as music. As a composer he could be symphonic when given the chance, as he was in the Norwich windows, but he was more often, like Schubert, the master of chamber music and song, of music made visible.

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#119. Tim Scott quotes from Werner Haftmann, “Painting in the Twentieth Century”, 1966

Werner Haftmann, “Painting in the Twentieth Century”, 1966

Excerpts concerning the origins of abstract art, for discussion.

Abstraction: “…the German mind stylised it (the visible world), filled it with demons and hallucinations that varied in intensity, according to the degree of the artist’s participation. This went so far that at an early date questions arose such as these: Might it not be possible to disregard images of nature entirely? Might not the inner image expressed entirely in abstract forms be the only worthy content of a picture? Visible reality was an element hostile to art, a fetter, a world of pretence….”     P.65.         [Tim Scott:  ‘Germanic (i.e. north European)’ as opposed to ‘Latin’ (i.e. French)]

Picasso:”…The aroma that interests Picasso arises from the tension between the self and the ‘otherness’ of objects and can be made intelligible only by representational analogies. This is the basic reason why he kept clear of abstract painting and why he said in 1935: “Abstract art is nothing but painting, but what happens to the drama? There is no abstract art, one must always begin with something, then all traces of reality can be removed. There is a danger there, because the idea of the object has left an indelible mark. It is the idea that stimulates the artist, inspires his ideas, arouses his emotions…”     P283.

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#118. Robin Greenwood writes on John Bunker: “Faint Young Suns”

“Scheherazade”, 2018-19, 120x180cm

John Bunker: “Faint Young Suns” at Unit 3, London E3 3LT.

“Scheherazade” is the largest work on show at John Bunker’s new exhibition, and is one of his best works. But then, most of the work in this show are not only amongst his best work to date, but are perhaps amongst the best around by anyone at the moment. He has taken another step forward from the work he has patiently developed over the past few years (the last two years, in particular), to the point where he can claim to be in a place of his own choosing – a full and powerful articulation of original abstract art. It’s not painting and it’s not sculpture, but I would hesitate to call it collage either. At the moment, we don’t need to call it anything.

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#117. David Sweet writes on Clyde Hopkins

“Die Einen Sind im Licht”, 2017

Clyde Hopkins: A path through dark and light.

You would expect a body of work, created over a span more than forty years, to display a pattern of development from early attempts, to the mature output where an artist’s ‘signature style’ has fully evolved and is then consolidated. But the paintings of Clyde Hopkins seem to resist this schematic interpretation. Those from the late seventies and early eighties are stylistically different to those produced in the late eighties. Another change occurs in the nineties and from 2008 or thereabouts the paintings seem to take on characteristics almost the opposite of those to be found in work from earlier in his career. So, instead of one signature style, there are several.

Each of these signature styles is fully resolved and sufficient, rather than marking an evolutionary stage in an ongoing narrative. Each deploys an established set of procedures and material properties. The pattern that emerges is more a series of brackets rather than a smooth gradient, each bracket containing a group of works with similar visual qualities. As in algebra the contents of the bracket have to be dealt with separately but there is a further move that can be made with the device: The paintings can be bracketed with works by other painters to widen the context in which they may be appreciated.

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#116. Chris Stephens writes on New Paintings by Pete Hoida

“Crucible”, 2011-2018, 97 x 219 cm

Pete Hoida, New Paintings is at the APT Gallery, Harold Wharf, Creekside, London SE8 4SA, 11 – 21 July 2019

In the 1950s, painter and critic Patrick Heron wrote about the artist Ivon Hitchens. There he noted a tendency in England to understand painting ‘primarily in terms of literature’, to respond first to ‘atmosphere’ rather than ‘pictorial qualities’, and to prefer realism or the theoretical nature of constructivism over the ‘sensuous’ tradition of Fauvism and Cubism. Hitchens, for Heron, was a rare instance of a British painter able to look the French sensualists in the eye. In addition, his painting was the most ‘distinguished’ British example of what Heron described as the ‘necessary fusion’ of the two main sources for any artist: ‘art and nature’, international and local.1 With pleasing alliteration, much of what Heron wrote of Hitchens can be applied to Hoida.

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#115. Robin Greenwood writes on “Past and Future Abstract”

Paul Cézanne, “Still Life with Apples in a Compote”, 1879-80

In the late 1870’s Paul Gauguin made direct contact with Paul Cézanne, possibly through the intercession of Pissarro, who seems to have had his fingers on the pulse of a number of important painters of the time. And though Gauguin, unlike Pissarro, maintained no intimate communication, his devotion to Cézanne’s work remained immense throughout his life. The respect was not reciprocated; yet, prior to their meeting, Gauguin had purchased five or six Cézannes for his own collection, much-prized works that were eventually sold off to pay for his debts in the 1880’s, when his bourgeois career collapsed; despite which, Gauguin recognised the importance and significance of these works. The angled knife on the table-top (Chardin?) was a spatial invention used by many artists to extend the flattened forefront space of the still-life’s subtle outward-ness towards the viewer.

This particular Cézanne painting, “Still Life with Apples in a Compote”, was Gauguin’s most valued, and was kept the longest, being a canvas that did much to sustain his own vision of what advanced painting might be, or indeed, might become. This was the Cézanne that stayed in Gaugin’s meagre Paris studio until at least 1893, an important painting for Gauguin to own. My theory is that it remains important in the ongoing development of abstract painting, and how we now might take it further than its early stages as begun by Kandinsky in 1910, or Malevich in 1915. The key to this is wholeness – making everything in the painting work together from edge to edge.

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#114. Tim Scott quotes from and comments on “But is it Art?” (OUP 2001), by Cynthia Freeland

Tim Scott quotes from and comments on “But is it Art?” (OUP 2001), a book by Cynthia Freeland.

“… Rituals of many world religions involve rich colour, design, and pageantry. But ritual theory does not account for the sometimes strange intense activities of modern artists, as when a performance artist uses blood. For participants in a ritual, clarity and agreement of purpose are central; the ritual reinforces the community’s proper relation to God or nature through gestures that everyone knows and understands. But audiences who see and react to a modern artist do not enter in with shared beliefs and values… Most modern art, in the context of theatre, gallery or concert hall, lacks the background reinforcement of pervasive community belief that provides meaning…”      (P.4) 

I am sure many of us have attended these ‘performance’ ‘artworks’ and  the above strikes me as eminently true.     TS

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#113. Tim Scott writes on New Sculpture and Direction, Movement, Space and Physicality; Robin Greenwood writes on Three-dimensionality.

Towards a New Sculpture: 2

Tim Scott writes on Direction; Movement; Space; Physicality.

Direction:

Far too frequently, direction has depended on ‘received’ form that is most often provided by manufactured preformed material, but can also equally be the product of shaping and forming any material by the sculptor. Historically, in sculpture, it was most often the bi-product of gesture, usually provided by the subject matter. In abstract sculpture this source disappears as being self-evident and decisions around it become crucial. The start, ‘from where’, and the finish, ‘to where’. of any sculptural part is of vital importance plastically. All too often it is merely a cosmetic decision that forms part of a composition that the various parts of the sculpture conform to. Direction is an expressive decision of intent which should have physical meaning and purpose and contribute to the plastic realisation of the whole piece.

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#112. Emyr Williams writes on Patrick Heron at Margate

Patrick Heron, “Cadmium with Violet, Scarlet, Emerald Lemon and Venetian: 1969”. Tate, London 2018 and estate of Patrick Heron. DACS 2018

Patrick Heron at Turner Contemporary, Margate.

The hanging of this exhibition has had a lot of column inches devoted to it. The paintings looked really good in these spaces and in spite of the missing traditional chronological reasoning did not compete or confuse. The spaces are not huge, so it is easy to move back and forth, cross-checking things if so desired. I failed to see what the fuss was all about. I understood there were themes but to be brutally honest I didn’t pay attention to them and proceeded to wander around and take each work on face value. The signature Herons (the “wobbly hard edged”) such as the huge “Cadmium With Violet, Scarlet, Emerald, Lemon and Venetian: 1969” looked immediately familiar and impressive. These works are characterised by their fully saturated higher-keyed primaries and secondaries straight from the tube, activated more by a literalness in the brushstroke rather than a painterliness per se. The brush being a markedly smaller than thought Japanese watercolour brush. Sitting uniformly on a white ground gives each hue the same reflective force. Complementary colours buzz optically against one another as their shapes flip-flop between positive and negative areas, à la Matisse’s cut outs. Heron’s optimism in an almost hedonistic colour, is supported by his wilfulness to drive each colour shape through to its conclusion in the same way as it was started – the brush scribble, more often than not. They have an insistency which, with hindsight, is possibly their undoing at times; in these works he seems to have put himself ahead of his own curve. By this I mean he understood fully what he was doing, not quite moving himself into the more profound areas of discovery – the speed of acknowledgment of each work’s merits is condensed into a shorter space of time. Colour will always surprise but they teeter ever so slightly into the realms of design (this is not to consider design in any pejorative way but to define its nature in terms of more predictive outcomes, for design has to have a preconditioned purpose at its heart).

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