William Gear: the Painter that Time Forgot is at the Towner Gallery Eastbourne, 17 July – 27 September 2015; at City Art Centre, Edinburgh, 24 October 2015 – 14 February 2016.
A Radical View: William Gear as Curator 1958 -1964 is also at the Towner, 9 May – 31 August 2015.
William Gear: A Centenary Exhibition is at the Redfern Gallery, London, 16 July -5 September.
Stockwell Depot 1967 – 1979 is at the University of Greenwich Galleries, 24 July – 12 September 2015.
Hans Hofmann Catalogue Raisonné is recently published in the UK by Lund Humphries.
At the Same Time as Now.
The Towner and the Redfern are both presenting the work of ‘forgotten’ artist William Gear, an associate of CoBrA in the 1940s and a controversial painter in his heyday of the 1950s. Also showing is an exhibition of the works acquired by Gear during his tenure as the Towner’s curator (1958-64), including paintings by Sandra Blow, Alan Davie, Roger Hilton and Ceri Richards. Gear fought battles with Eastbourne Town Council to get modern art, and in particular, new abstract painting, into the Towner collection, the outcome of which was to make it one of the leading contemporary collections in municipal gallery/museums at that time.
Gear’s very own version of a public outcry over contemporary art had happened a decade earlier in 1951, when his painting Autumn Landscape was awarded the Festival of Britain Purchase Prize, paid for out of the public purse, and attracting the ridicule and faux-outrage of the press. It’s hard to see why, since it looks now to be the most good-mannered of abstractions, and by our experiences of contemporaneity, unconfrontational. A lot has changed in the last 65 years of art; the position of always equating ‘now-ness’ with newness is well established (they are, to be fair, often difficult to differentiate), as one novelty project succeeds and eclipses another. If there is any value left in contemporaneity, it has to be more than just the next new thing, and certainly more than a rehash of what has gone before but is now forgotten.
I make that last comment because I was brought up short recently on seeing a reproduction of Gear’s Composition , painted in1949, which looks exactly like a lot of ‘Contemporary’ abstract painting. This kind of work is usually a loose scaffold of painted lines (triangles are favoured) or planes, in a few earthy colours, that may or may not represent some kind of three-dimensional object – maybe even an abstract sculpture, or something vaguely architectural – in a scant landscape, with vestigial references to three-dimensional space. There are a number of paintings like this in the Towner’s Gear show, but his were painted around 65 years ago, and have the excuse that it hadn’t been tried much before (though an origin in the Cubism of Picasso and Braque seems likely). On Gear’s part, it was a rather timid excursion into, and retreat from, the somewhat fuller – though I would argue still partial – involvement with abstract painting and process that his American peers were getting into (Gear showed with Pollock in New York in 1949, but was scornful of his drip technique). This kind of painting by Gear, and the work that unconsciously mimics it today, is more of a representation of something (like a sculpture) that is non-figurative (because it is not a figure), rather than being fully abstract (starting out from nothing, without a subject-matter). Whatever the reasons behind its recent re-emergence, it has a similar timidity to Gear’s, and is even more regressive now than it was then.
In the flesh, Gear’s paintings are much more worked, much less ‘provisional’, much less archly slapdash, than our present-day practitioners. But then the latter have had the benefit, or more likely its opposite, of the years of deconstruction of the processes of painting, from Pollock through to Oehlen and beyond. Gear knew little of that, and would, you feel, have loathed it. Gear does not do ‘casual’ or ‘provisional’ or even gestural. In fact, it is hard to find in all of his oeuvre a genuinely relaxed-looking moment, when the assumed dignities and diligences of being a fine-art easel painter are abandoned in favour of something more loose and instinctive. Even the more contingent of his images look pondered and preened, fully worked-up and over-worked. So deliberate and relentless is this designing-out of spontaneity from the picture, with never a moment’s relaxation, that I almost started to warm to him out of a perverse admiration for the cussedness of it all – almost. And whilst we would do well to be wary of attributing the expressive qualities of a work directly to the state of mind of the artist, in this case Gear’s unbending self-possession does seem to have brought about paintings that are hard to warm to, unless one is of a wholly uptight intellectual persuasion. His bearing may serve as an interesting corrective to the lax cod-amateurism of many contemporary painters, but it nevertheless remains that all his concentration and hard work end up taking his own abstract painting into a kind of cul-de-sac. Thus, his late paintings are concocted beyond endurance, a kind of garish and aggressive wallpaper, without space or life. Quite ‘Contemporary’, then.
Andrew Lambirth writes enthusiastically in the Redfern Gallery catalogue that Gear, along with William Scott, Peter Lanyon, and Roger Hilton, was ‘part of a generation involved with painting as painting’. Ha! Where have I read that before? Does every generation have its cohort of painters painting about painting? Bloody hell, it’s meaningless! I wonder if Titian, Tintoretto and Veronese were doing it? None of Lambirth’s list are really abstract artists (though they all, to varying degrees, abstract [the verb] from figurative sources); yet Lambirth continues: ‘Gear spent formative years in Paris, and there he experimented with the abstract properties of paint.’ Well, just what are these oft-cited ‘abstract properties of paint’? Is it abstract when it comes out of the tube? Is it differentiated in some profound way from toothpaste or salad cream? Surely ‘abstract’ can only be applied to paint when it is engaged purposefully within the visual activity of a painting; and then you are no longer talking about the literal materiality of paint, but about the active content of the art. It’s a nice confusion; a conflation; a complete reversal even, of what is literal with what is abstract. Isn’t this a very similar confusion to the one about real abstract art not representing anything, so therefore it doesn’t mean anything, it just kind of ‘is’? And then this supposed quiddity, which you somehow empathise with by means of all the senses and some very iffy French philosophy, can have all manner of subjective significance, allusion and metaphor attached to it by the viewer, without fear of contradiction, in order to relate to it in some non-visual (and invariably sentimental) manner. In which case, the more simplistic the art, the more easily it lends itself to such doubtful paradigms.
That particular standpoint makes Gear’s rigour seem positively intelligent. I get the sense that he strongly aspired to get his paintings to summon some kind of particularised feeling – a sense of a landscape, perhaps, which he himself had felt and experienced, and which he desired to capture, and which would be built into the work by him, rather than casually attributed at a later date by the viewer. I admire the specificness and determination of that vision, but I think the results fall short, for reasons both of his inflexible sensibility, and for the crude state of development in abstract painting at that time, to which he was wedded and past which he was ultimately unable to travel. Contra Lambirth, Gear was unhappy to take the road of ‘painting as painting’, but could not see past it to a point where properly articulated abstract content might carry real meaning of its own accord; and consequently he opted to back off into a figuration of ‘abstract things’. It’s too much of a compromise to be great art, and it’s symptomatic of a significant moment in abstract art’s development, and one that has been revisited more than once over the last hundred years, as if it’s a place that’s difficult to get beyond. The symptoms are disquiet about the possible lack of meaning when subject-matter of any kind is abandoned, a failure of belief in the power and purpose of abstract content on its own terms; a feeling that ‘painting about painting’, and paint as paint is not enough.
Of course it’s not enough, but that’s no reason to back off. The Abstract Expressionists were notoriously loath to abandon subject-matter and metaphor; and looking at Pollock’s late painting and his return to figuration, recently reviewed here by John Bunker on Abcrit, you get the strong impression that, very different from Gear though he was, he too fretted about abstraction’s detachment from human content. Pushing on beyond this point, keeping faith with the abstract, believing in its power, remains to this day a radical and tough thing to do… as we continue to see.
Tucked away in the nether regions of Greenwich, in three separated spaces, is Greenwich University’s Stockwell Depot 1967 – 1979, a well researched, catalogued and curated exhibition by the former editor of abstractcritical, Sam Cornish. He has collected together works by some of the artists who occupied the eponymous studios and organised and participated in exhibitions there during the late sixties and seventies. This covers a period when abstract painting and sculpture had slipped from pole position at the cutting-edge of art practice, and were being increasingly eclipsed by all manner of anti-object and performance art. Indeed, Stockwell itself, one of the first artist-organised studio complexes, was begun more as an outpost to the experimental wing of St. Martin’s School of Art sculpture department than the focus for welded steel sculpture that came to later define it. Cornish’s recreation of Deep Space Installation, 1970, by Roland Brenner, reflects the adoption by some of the artists who founded Stockwell of the conceptualisation and dematerialisation of sculpture which had by then come to monopolize the discourse in the art magazines and the commercial and public galleries of the time (Harald Szeemann’s When Attitudes Become Form was the seminal ICA show in 1969). In its turn, that particular line of work had disappeared from Stockwell Depot by the early seventies, by way of the departure of some of the founder members, and the building was taken over mainly by abstract steel sculptors: Peter Hide, John Foster, Katherine Gili, Anthony Smart, David Evison. Also in the building, or taking part in exhibitions there, were a number of abstract painters following in the wake of, and reacting to, American Abstract Expressionism and Post-Painterly Abstraction: John McLean, Fred Pollock, Jennifer Durrant, Geoff Rigden, Douglas Abercrombie, Alan Gouk, Stephanie Bergman, Geoff Hollow amongst them. These artists form the main focus of the Greenwich exhibition. (The full story of Stockwell is well told in the exhibition catalogue.)
What is interesting is to note the unconventionality of the best of the later seventies works from Stockwell, and how, through a clear sense of physicality and spatiality, they put themselves beyond the aesthetic structuring of much other abstract work of that time, which though striving for novelty was visually more predictable and passive. This contradicts the perception, then and now – for it persists – that the Stockwell Depot work was orthodox. The sculpture in particular was viewed by the artworld as an academic follow-on to St. Martin’s, in the shadow of Caro, and it became marginalised as such. A more perceptive view reveals it to be no such thing; the Stockwell sculptors were breaking free from Caro’s influence and developing ways to reinvent sculptural structures, free of Caro’s predilection for pictorial solutions to sculptural propositions. The sculptures of Anthony Smart and John Foster in particular had by the late seventies completely broken from anything remotely allied to Caro’s frontality, or from the New Generation’s often glib sculpture-by-design, or from any trace of American minimalism. This was a real and measured progress in sculpture, towards a fuller three-dimensionality, confident in the strength of its articulated abstract-ness. Even now, in the midst of a resurgence of interest in abstract painting, it is unlikely the work in this exhibition will get the attention it deserves, yet any direct comparison with the Contemporary abstract art that today receives plaudits will confirm that the bold and lucid organizations of, for example, Gouk’s Sea Horse Tenacity 1, Foster’s Three Cornered, or Smart’s Tamarind 5, are superior still.1 And whilst I’m in this territory, just look at how much more active, three-dimensional and downright sculptural Foster’s use of I-beams in Three Cornered is, compared to anything Caro ever did with them. We are in the midst of a Caro-fest at the moment, and I have no wish to denigrate him, but we have yet to get to grips, even here on Abcrit, with just how far abstract sculpture has moved on from his approach – and, for that matter, from Foster too. It is a topic we must return to soon.
Hans Hofmann: Catalogue Raisonné of Paintings is just recently published in the UK by Lund Humphries. These three volumes surprisingly reveal that, starting as early as 1949, Hofmann was engaged in making spontaneous and unformatted small abstract paintings running concurrently with his larger, more familiar canvasses. The latter were often based upon drawn images up until about 1950, and then came the rectangular slabs over loose brushwork with which we are accustomed. By contrast, these smaller works have very little drawing or orthogonal compositional devices, and range far and wide in an uninhibited manner, mixing splurged and freely brushed or splattered colour in a startling number of ways and with a multiplying range of results. This exciting experimentation had started to happen before the signature inclusion of rectangles in Hofmann’s work had begun in earnest, and it continued right up to the end of his career. Indeed, included at the end of the Catalogue Raisonné are almost a hundred works described as ‘palette paintings’, which differ from the small spontaneous paintings to which I refer only by being unsigned or un-annotated variations of them. These experimental works seem to me suddenly of more interest than the Hofmanns with which we are familiar.2
The totality of all of these unformatted works, signed or otherwise, and now fifty or sixty years old, amounts to a huge range of new content previously unseen, which is very ‘live’, very fresh, very ‘now’. Hofmann in the fifties and sixties was exploring options for abstract painting in an unrestrained manner that went far beyond anything Gear could ever imagine or participate in. It would be good to see an exhibition of this other side to Hofmann, (most of these works appear to still reside in the estate of the artist’s executors) so that we can better judge its value. It may well have something relevant to offer in the quest to get beyond what feels to me, still, like unnecessary restrictions on abstract art, a lack of faith in its ability to tap into what John Bunker has described as ‘a deeper sense of “us”’. Even with Hofmann, I sense there is a little holding back, a playing safe with familiar compositional arrangements, a reliance on allusiveness to figurative suggestions, sometimes a semi-figuration. Even he, one feels, could not quite go all the way in making meaningful abstract content blaze out of the work, without hindrance. There is still work to be done to liberate the ‘now’ in contemporaneity.
- The latter two sculptures are not in this show, but there are other works by these artists. Gouk’s Sea Horse Tenacity 1 and Foster’s Three Cornered are reproduced in the catalogue.
- I cannot find any available reproductions of these Hofmann works, other than in the book itself.