“Anyone involved with the search for the Abstract would know that it was not a stunt. It was far too demanding, and powerful, for that.” Frank Avray Wilson, ‘Thinking About Painting’ 1990
This exhibition covers the work of Frank Avray Wilson from 1948 to 1962 and includes examples of his early experiments with formlessness, such as ‘Tropical Sea’ c1948, followed by tussles with cubism and geometry as in ‘Harbour’ 1952, and ‘Configuration’ 1953-7, before developing his ‘dream-like crystalline’ approach for which he became known, which makes up the main body of the show.
Born in Mauritius, Avray Wilson studied Biology at Cambridge University between 1932-5 and it was while involved in this scientific research in 1935, making a painting of a cell structure from under a microscope, that he had his ‘eureka’ moment;
“I drew some of the cells, colouring them with fast running watercolours, overrunning with Chinese ink. The result astounded me. Instead of dead replicas, the forms were bursting with life, looking more living than the cells when alive. From that day my attitude to painting changed… how could a drawing be experienced as more living than life? FAW, 1990.
In his writing “Reminiscences” from 1913, Kandinsky talks about the insubstantiality of the atom and the melting of reality: “one of the main obstacles [on the path to abstraction] was swept away by a scientific event. This was the further division of the atom. The disintegration of the atom was, to my mind, analogous to the entire world. Suddenly the thickest walls collapsed. Everything became insecure… I wouldn’t have been surprised if a stone had melted in mid-air before my eyes and grown invisible.”
Before this it was thought that the world was made of solid things, and the basic building blocks, atoms, were thought to be solid too. Following on from Einstein’s theories of particles and relativity in 1905, the unsettling discovery in 1911, made by Rutherford, was that the atom consisted of mainly empty space… then in the 1950s atomic scientist Oppenheimer declared: ‘The world that is revealed to our senses is only a world of appearances. The world of realty is hidden under the surface of things and this real world can be reached both by the mystic and the scientist, [and I would add, the abstract artist] each in his own way: the mystic by introspection and the denial of his senses and the scientist by mathematics and inductive reasoning [and the artist through intuition and experience].’
In the late forties, the world was being shaped anew, and populations were having to come to terms with the obscene destruction of two World Wars; artists had to work out where they stood and how they could proceed in this wasteland. Many turned to abstraction as a way of trying to make sense of an indeterminate world that had disintegrated on many levels.
It is no coincidence that a common resonance seen to be running through lyrical/informal/expressionist abstract painting in Europe from the ’30s to the ’50s is an intuitive vision of the microcosmic or atomic structure of the world; not just illustrated, but imbued with energy and a bursting vitality, in opposition to the more mathematical approach of geometric abstraction.
It was on his travels after the War in 1946 in Paris, that Avary Wilson became exposed to Tachism, or Abstraction Lyrique, the European precursor to Abstract Expressionism. Then, back in London in the 1950s, having decided to devote himself to painting, he became a member of the progressive Free Painters Group, with the like-minded Tachist painter Denis Bowen in 1953. Throughout the 1950’s, Avray Wilson regularly returned to Paris, where he exhibited, and met leading figures such as Hans Hartung, Alfred Manessier, Georges Mathieu and Jean Paul Riopelle. With Bowen, Avray Wilson founded the legendary New Vision Centre Gallery in London in 1956, which promoted lyrical and expressive forms of Abstraction, along with hard-edge geometric. Together they participated in the landmark ‘Metavisual, Tachiste, Abstract’ exhibition at the Redfern Gallery, London, in 1957, which included Lanyon, Wynter, Hilton, Gear and Heath, Davie, Denny, Ayres and Blow all of whom would go on to develop their own paths in response to their experience of the world, both internal and external.
The first thing one is aware of walking into a room full of Avray Wilson’s paintings is the vibrant colour; vibrant in that it appears to be alive and pulsing, even glowing, bringing to mind stained glass or a kaleidoscope. This implies light coming through the paintings, as if they are back lit; but this effect is due to the intensity of the colours used, mostly primaries, and that they are thickly laid on with a knife; but it also has much to do with the strategic use of black. In a lot of the paintings there is a substantial black content, not only in patches or clumps, but as a lining to the other colours. He uses the black to outline and separate the colours, thus enhancing their intensity in the way that the Expressionists did, and as he had practiced in the figurative paintings he had done in 1948; he learned from looking at Rouault and the German Expressionists; “The uses of paint learnt in this figurative expressive phase of the 40’s, rough, impulsive thick and defiantly un-painterly, served me well later.” FAW 1990
At the door of the Gallery we are greeted by the glowing warmth of ‘Thrusting Reds’ 1959, a red and black piece with the intensity of glowing coals; the thickly laid paint radiates out from the off-centre core, edged either side by arcs and a horizontal thrust on the left. Next to this is the smaller and earlier ‘Talisman’, 1954, with its rotational energy breaking the thick black structure, seeming to spin on a yellow and white patch that is quite central; the thickly painted white areas to the edges of the canvas are dirtied by black and an L shaped area of this mix breaks into the centrality of the painting on the left. A diagonal flash of yellow in the top left area also breaks the black substratum to open out the structure and is reflected at the bottom centre by three bands of multicoloured paint in varying densities. The rotational movement is achieved by wide, long strokes of deep red that cut over the dense black structure. (Compared to it, the later ‘Nucleus’ 1957, on the opposite wall, is of the same size but much more static and makes me think of a furnace with its glowing, central red.)
The centrepiece of this wall is the large canvas ‘Reactive’ 1959, a shattered tessellation of yellow and blue which merge to form areas of green in the middle and to the top right corner. It appears to be turning and throwing off particles and bending the vertical blue on the left in the process, as bars of colour – yellow, blues and greens – are thrown off, away from the centre.
On the end wall is the almost monochrome blue ‘Myth Form’, 1958, which slowly releases other fragments of colour as we look at it. The dark blue and black network of strokes is peppered with small marks of yellow and red in the central area, making it seem to glow. There is a curved lattice which swings down to the bottom left corner from the tipped horizontal, giving the painting a sense of structural movement, as opposed to the liveliness of the generous, buttery paint application. Spaces are pierced through to the turquoise background (for that is what it is, for all its lively application of paint) and it appears more static than the previous two pieces mentioned, with movement being potential, and with the general mass being central.
The downstairs gallery holds a similar, smaller monochrome painting in green, ‘Meeting’ 1960; again it is centrally massed but more animated, with a vertical emphasis and bowed elements spreading up and out from the centre. The area to the edge of the canvas, as with the previous piece, is roughly painted in a tone lighter than the mass, though here there are darker patches that reconnect it, anchor it, especially down the left hand side, so that there does not appear to be so much of a ‘background’ on which it is floating. This gives a sense of space rather than detachment. Slightly below the centre of the painting is a flash of red paint echoed by two duller ones just above it and to the right. This gives the piece a glowing core that is common in Avary Wilson’s work (as in ‘Myth Form’ above); there are five paintings that have this feature, but they are all subsumed into the general energy of the paintings and do not make them static.
‘I studied biology hoping that it would provide me with an explanation of the wonder of life. But the claim that life was no more than a molecular mechanism, led me to join the ranks of ‘vitalist’ biologists, who recognised that life, like beauty, was a quality, not a thing.’ FAW 1990
Avary Wilson’s love of colour and nature was rooted in the intense “breath taking beauty” of the semi-tropical environment of Mauritius which he had soaked up as a child. As a scientist who was interested in the microscopic structure of life, and, like his fellow travellers in abstraction, Davie and Wynter, Avray Wilson had also studied Jung, “as the only psychologist who touched into the transcendental component in art and life”. All three also had a common interest in Zen in their quest to get to the reality beneath appearances, and in what was seen as a bid for authenticity, something from deep within that enlivened their work.
It was the vital fusion of energy and structure through colour that was to occupy Avery Wilson over the next ten years, ploughing an idiosyncratic field amongst his peers who were also working with energised colour and form – Wynter’s mescaline-infused, reverberant, jewel-like paintings from the mid-fifties such as ‘High Country’ or ‘Carnival’, both from 1956; Gear’s explosive ‘Pastoral’, 1952, or the vertical ‘Landscape Structure’ from 1954; Riopelle’s Mosaiques series begun in 1953, monumental canvases made with heavily loaded strokes of the palette knife to build a complex patchwork of shattered colour.
The centrepiece of the downstairs gallery is a large square canvas, ‘Energy’ 1958, predominantly bars of red amongst black, but with some strokes of orange and flashes of white towards the edges. It is the painting in the show with the least coherent structure, breaking away from the centralised, almost symmetrical approach of most of the others. At first it appears to be chaotic, in the sense that the application of paint is more ad-hock and broken up, with multi directional strokes and scattered energy. After some looking it starts to cohere into a six pointed shape, set off to the left with a circle lower right, and a familiar rectangular matrix to the upper right, both to the side of the main area (just to say that confronting this painting in the flesh, it takes some time for the eye to see what is quite clear in the reproduced image, where the structure is immediately apparent – underlining the argument for seeing the originals rather than judging an image). In the centre of the main structure is a small area of paint completely different to that of the rest of the canvas; it is a triangle of thick strokes of red within which is an area of orange and white on which are small drips or spatters of red and green, a completely different application than on any other painting of his I have seen. Once noticed it holds the eye and restricts the free movement around the rest of the painting and for me was an anomaly and a distraction.
There are two enigmas in this show; in the downstairs gallery, in a corner, is ‘Oracle’ 1956, a relatively subdued painting colourwise, in pink, violet, olive green and white, with a vertical emphasis and the expected black edging and bars. There are crackles of red that enliven the painting and add another complexity to the multi-layered work. In amongst the other brightly coloured explosive paintings, this holds its own and for me is one of the most interesting in the show because it is less structured and also because of the subtleties in the facture, the way the colours are pushed around into each other and the dark areas are more subtle. The enigma is that it appears to have been hung upside down; in the catalogue and on the website it is shown the other way up (see above image) so if you turn your computer upside down (sorry, my photograph of it in-situ had flare from the bright lighting on the shiny oil paint) you will see what I saw in the gallery. Strangely, it seems to work both ways up. Unlike a lot of the others it is not signed, therefore there appears to be no definitive top or bottom… the ‘which way up’ question is familiar to a lot of us painters, I think, and for me boils down to gut feeling, which then hopefully pans out when later analysing the painting with some objectivity. (As Motherwell said, ‘Knowledge never solves a painting, it depends on feeling.’)
The other enigma was upstairs and concerns ‘Exultation’, c.1960, a painting on board, consisting of four panels that fit together, and were obviously originally painted together. In the gallery the painting is separated into its four component parts by a dark frame around each piece, effectively destroying the whole… in the catalogue the painting is shown with its quarters separated by thin white space (which is less intrusive) and on the website we get the whole piece in all its glory. (See image below and the other one of it in situ next to ‘Nucleus’, 1957) In its completeness it is the largest painting in the show and would be a tour de force, and is one of the few not contained by the edge of the ‘canvas’; the energy seems to spread out, and there is a feeling that it could do so indefinitely. Again it is the small details that bring it alive; the flashes and streaks of yellow amongst the red, and against the blue; the haphazard stacks of blue and red bars with curves thrown into the mix. Though ‘Energy’ appeared to be the most chaotic or rather disordered at first sight, this painting has the true chaos of a creative matrix which has some underlying order not immediately visible.
In the show there are ten other paintings in vertical formats, some of them extreme, i.e. the height being more than three times the width, and one horizontal one, ‘Conjugation’ from 1953 (image above). There are too many to go into in this piece, but they vary from the very centralised blocky structures of ‘Integrant’, 1953, to the very fluid ‘Vertical in Blues’, 1960. All have the same generous and sensual application of paint that is characteristic of Avary Wilson’s work. As with all complex paintings, these repay the time one puts into them, letting the complexities come to light and the subtleties enrich them… viewing them with what Ehrenzweig called ‘a passive watchfulness’.
‘In aspiring to a vitalistic painting, biology had taught me the key importance of form in the expression of vitality. At profound molecular levels, vitally involved forms could be expressed in complex geometries, indicating that the visible ‘organic’ forms of life had a profound geometric basis.’ FAW 1990
But this geometric basis has to be searched out over time, for it is a ‘soft geometry’ that unfolds as you look and wait. As he put it in the first of his many books, “the artist is a necessary manipulator of resisting matter… he does not ‘see’ the imageries within his inner experience, but must ‘feel’ his way into matter…” FAW ‘Art into Life’, 1958.
Frank Avray Wilson was at Whitford Fine Art, London until 25th November 2016.