KALEIDOSCOPE: Colour and Sequence in 1960’s Art. http://www.artscouncilcollection.org.uk/exhibition/kaleidoscope
Longside Gallery, Yorkshire Sculpture Park. 1 April – 18 June 2017
Djanogly Gallery, The University of Nottingham. 15 July – 24 September 2017
Mead Gallery, University of Warwick. 5 October – 9 December
Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool. 24 February – 3 June 2018
I’ve never liked Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. The 1967 album seemed a betrayal of what the Beatles stood for, namely the authentic voice of the North of England, and signalled their transformation into a crypto-postmodernist bunch of dandified dilletanti. (Ringo excepted, obviously) I wasn’t crazy about the cover either, influenced by Peter Blake’s obsession with Victoriana, though the insert poster of the Fab Four in day-glo military uniforms was at least strong on colour.
Colour in the sixties was rationed, and experienced against the background of colourlessness. Now colour has triumphed. It’s everywhere, creating a totalised and vibrant chromatic context of what Goethe called ‘motley’. But in this exhibition, curated by Natalie Rudd and Sam Cornish, colour’s place, though central, is insecure and colourlessness comes back into the reckoning.
Robyn Denny’s Over Reach, 1965-66, seems an exercise in colourlessness. It is built from large planes, which might be expected in a colour field painting, but it contains virtually no colour sensations. The wan, blue-grey area, which forms a deep border on three sides of the central rectangle, is peculiarly inert. Here the oil paint is thin but opaque with a finish that recalls the dead qualities of gouache, especially when too much white is used. The middle area contains the angular structures that Denny relied on for graphic interest but neither of its subdued hues has any chromatic power or tonal excitement.
On the other hand, Movement in Squares (1961) by Briget Riley, which is actually colourless, creates something like the percussive visual effect of strong colour through tonal contrast alone. The black and white interact as complementaries, setting up the retina-engaging conditions that became synonymous with Op art, an oddly unsatisfactory side-branch of abstraction. But, looked at as an easel painting, the kinetic effect of the rhythmic variations, that from a distance give the illusion of concavity, is lessened. The flatness of the grid is reasserted and a constructivist interpretation of the work becomes more plausible, avoiding the nausea of the optical illusion
Colour is usually regarded as belonging to the pictorial domain but in the period covered by this exhibition polychrome sculpture seemed a radical and liberating departure from the limited palette of stones, metal, and its alloys. Its arrival coincided with a preference for hollowness and a corresponding interest in surfaces, which had to be arranged to contain that hollowness. In pieces like Philip King’s Point X (1965) and Thebes (1963) by William Tucker, the colour has an ordinary, household relationship to the structure underneath, as in painted furniture. Viewed in pictorial terms, it doesn’t seem that advanced, but of course it would have looked innovative at the time in the context of sculpture’s traditional drabness.
As history shows, sculpture’s colourlessness reasserted itself fairly soon and remains a sign of seriousness of purpose even in practitioners like Hirst and Emin. (What colour are sharks, sheep, beds?) Even Caro, the art form’s greatest exponent of colour, turned away from it to favour the unfinished, readymade appearance of sculpture’s raw materials, old and new. But here he is represented by a successful example of his chromophile output, Slow Movement from 1965. This simple piece is not an ordinary combination of paint on steel. The enamel finish fuses blueness with the supporting metal rather than coating its surface like a skin. The colour replaces the steel, an effect that is very different from the fresh from the shipyard look of Double Red (1966) by William Turnbull.
In phenomenological terms this sets Caro’s deployment of integral colour in the centre of the formal concerns of the work, as original material rather than afterthought. The depth of the blue gives it an autonomy, so it appears directly shaped, but the intensity of its hue also affects the play of light and shade within the construction. The poised, vertical blade stands like a gnomon, but it casts no shadow, nor does one side of it appear lighter than the other. It shows that Fried and Greenberg were right about Caro, on the importance of ‘syntax’, avoiding the ‘structural logic of ordinary things’ and his work’s emphasis on ‘abstractness’, and ‘radical unlikeness to nature’.
The colour in most of the paintings does not match the intensity of Caro’s blue. This may be because it hasn’t lasted so well, or that colour in English paintings has always under-performed. John Hoyland’s 15.5.64 (1964) may have looked better just after it was painted. Wine red and green should generate enough interaction to maintain a high level of optical vibrancy even if the two rows of lozenge shapes were somewhat unadventurously placed, and their credibility as fully ‘abstract’ elements somewhat compromised. The paint was scrubbed on parsimoniously, leaving the ground showing through. It may be that luminosity has been reduced as the canvas underneath has darkened with age, killing the visual impact of the red, and without that the shapes seem to wilt under the attention that should have gone to the colour.
Luminosity has suffered a little in Richard Smith’s Trio (1963). The brightness of the yellows and orange is less than it needs to be in order to create a shimmering atmosphere out of which the image, mirage-like, can emerge. It has a slightly grimy appearance, as though the original drawing was in charcoal that has dirtied the pigment. As with the Hoyland, the shapes, particularly the three blue and white ‘fans’, appear compromised or derivative, but given that there isn’t enough going on in the rest of the painting, they are obviously necessary.
By far the strongest painting in the exhibition is Cape Red (1965) by Jeremy Moon. Moon was probably the best painter of that generation, making work that was clear-cut and avoided the iffyness and approximations that many of his contemporaries indulged in. He was influenced by American art, as were the others, but he was the only one that seems to have worked out the pertinence of shape in the development of pictorial abstraction. Choosing a square and flipping it 45 degrees, excludes the lingering suggestions of landscape or still-life that Smith and Hoyland cling to. The half circles, pushed into the corners by a suggestion of centrifugal force, pinch the dominant red area, twisting its profile out of true, making it more formally active. Because the colour does not rely on the luminosity of the ground, it doesn’t show its age and the particularity of the red, decided, mixed and adjusted fifty years ago, still looks the right choice.
But I realise I’ve missed the main point of the exhibition. It’s actually a show about the sixties, specifically sixties London. It tells the story of a time when thirty-something artists worked in their studios and were visited by a guy in a suit, with a chequebook and fountain pen. It illustrates the Arts Council’s policy of supporting a wide range of contemporary work, including Pop, represented by Joe Tilson, the Euro constructivism of Anthony Hill and Mary Martin, and whatever the artistic category occupied by Barry Flanagan may have been, so in that respect the exhibition is art historically accurate.
Having been an art student for most of the sixties all the exhibits have an element of familiarity and it would be interesting to see what those to whom the stuff is unfamiliar make of it. Apart from Caro and Riley this may feel like a show of minor art. At the time, British fashion, popular music, design, literature and style in general had an international impact, but the visual arts were less impressive. What mattered most, especially for those interested in the possibilities of abstraction, were the major figures of American art, showing both in the galleries and, in colour, in the art magazines, compared to which many items in Kaleidoscope look rather weak in identity and aesthetic purpose: Then, as well as now?