#97. Robin Greenwood writes on Content and its Discontents.

Paul Cézanne, “L’Estaque, View Through the Pines”, 1883

“To be ‘new’ a painting doesn’t have to have been painted in 2018, or even by a living painter. What this survey and the comments show is that time, discernment and taste has not yet caught up with many of the paintings on display. A painting is ‘new’ if it opens up untapped resources for others that have been lying fallow or unnoticed, or if it reasserts the fundamental eloquence of the means, the simple elements of colour, line, plane, area-shape, facture, in a surprising way — (confined surprise, as Greenberg called it, not literal theatrical surprise -Seminar 8).”   Comment by Alan Gouk on Key Paintings of the 20th Century, a ‘Musée Imaginaire’, Part 2, 11.3.18.

“For something to be “new” in this sense, not only does it not have to be painted in 2018 or by a living painter, but it doesn’t have to be either modernist or abstract. Just saying.”   Comment by RG in reply, 12.3.18.

“…a number of the Tintorettos were new to us, and what’s more, were exciting and up-to the-minute. The experience of such art is often not only a ‘new’ thing, but also a ‘now’ thing, a revelation of the moment, even if we have seen it before. With art as good as this it is never just a matter for art history. And there is more originality and immediacy in a few Tintorettos than in a dozen FIACs.” [FIAC is a Parisian Contemporary Art Fair].    From a Poussin Gallery catalogue essay, “New to Sight”, by RG, January 2010.

“Hitchens spoke once again of how he felt torn between the inspiration he got from direct contact with nature and the increasing desire to let the picture have a life of its own – to deal with it purely in terms of its own internal requirements.” Ivon Hitchens, quoted by Pete Hoida in a comment on Key Paintings of the 20th Century, a ‘Musée Imaginaire’, Part 2., 21.3.18.

Neither way, thank you. Comment by RG in reply, 12.3.18.

Speaking personally, I would be hard-pressed to put more than a handful of non-figurative modernist works into my own Musée Imaginaire of favourite paintings. More specifically, of all the many great paintings that I have stood in front of (rather than looked at as images – a crucial distinction, I think), I find that very few, if any, are “abstractions”; unless, that is, you would make the case that all art is an abstraction. In which case, “new” abstract art, as I would define it, would be the only sort of art that I would judge to have not been “abstracted” from anything at all, but discovered as a new thing by means of the articulation of invented abstract content. Miros, Gottliebs, Rothkos and Nolands have made little impression on me when I’ve seen them up close. Images of blobs, grids, rectangles (geometric or fuzzy) and stripes may look tight and sexy when miniaturised on screen, but a fifteen-foot beige-striped matt-stained Noland, or a six-foot splodge of Gottlieb, are not as much fun in real life; and late Rothko is absolutely no fun at all. I see a contrived formalism (often rather insalubriously combined with hints at a portentous subject-matter) in much of 20th Century abstraction and I don’t much like it. I like art that is perceived as far as possible as content, not as vehicle.  That’s a problem for abstraction.

John Constable, “Flatford Mill, Scene on a Navigable River” 1816-7

Cézanne or Constable? Constable takes precedence, and so to Flatford Mill (Scene on a Navigable River) of 1816-17, (Tate Britain), painted when he was around 40 years of age, but in effect an “early” painting, and one of his first biggish landscapes. I look at this painting every time I visit Tate Britain. Did he ever paint anything better? I don’t really know the answer to that, because I vacillate between this and The Opening of Waterloo Bridge (‘Whitehall Stairs, June 18th, 1817’), exhibited 1832, and normally also in Tate Britain, but currently in America.

Flatford Mill is a dazzlingly clear, light-filled, spatial painting, the first major example of Constable’s big career achievement – the resolution of believable distance in landscape with a coherent two-dimensional organisation (for more on which see Patrick Heron’s great essay Constable: Spatial Colour in the Drawings). The scene allows access and passage to the viewer at all points and in all manners, the space being complex yet complete. I love the massing of the big line of trees and hedge, bounded by path and ditch, that pulls forwards in one singular, complex, three-dimensional swoop, offset against the varied horizontal lines of hay-ricks, trees, field boundary and cattle. The river appears in the far distance, beyond this interregnum, and returns you to the waterway at front. The subject-matter is familiar home turf to Constable, but the content is wholly new. A walk around Tate Britain will show no precedent in terms of such keen clarity of spatial realisation. Gainsborough certainly doesn’t come near, looking mannered by comparison. Constable’s hero, Claude, is bettered already. And in that clumping of trees, is Ruben’s Het Steen even now a precedent?

Constable showed Flatford Mill at the Royal Academy of 1817, but when he got it back he repainted the tops of the trees and the sky. Which is very interesting, because the tops of trees and the sky are invariably where Constable shows a major aspect of his originality in a diminishing vertical perspective, a kind of inverted vertigo, pressurising the airspace above his horizontal land and waterways, and compressing and densifying the spatiality – and the physicality – of his paintings. Note in this painting how already the undersides of the topmost leafy branches reveal themselves, bending away, and how that movement is taken up by the stricken tree behind.

The sky in a Constable is rarely if ever a flat backdrop to landscape, parallel to the picture plane, but more often an integral horizontal force, parallel with the ground. Constable’s physicality does not comprise of a literal rendition of the strength of trees or of individual landscape elements, but embraces the pressure obtained across the whole picture by means of the piling up and interweaving of tensioned activities. Flatford Mill is a first taste of it, but this quality comes into its own in later works like The Haywain, 1821, (National Gallery, London), the very great Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows, 1830-31, (currently on tour), and in particular, The Vale of Dedham, 1828, (National Galleries of Scotland, Edinburgh).

John Constable, “The Vale of Dedham”, 1828

The Vale of Dedham, 1828 is a prime example of Constable’s warping and buckling of space, across the whole canvas. Note the aforementioned swooping distortion of the tree-tops compared to the ‘frontality’ of the earlier work (below). I first saw The Vale of Dedham in 1990 on a visit to Edinburgh to see the Cézanne and Poussin exhibition, on a break from which I popped downstairs to the main collection specifically to find it. It was perhaps my first significant encounter with the greatness of Constable, whose work is fully able to stand its ground against both Cézanne and Poussin.

John Constable, “The Vale of Dedham”, 1802

This earlier work is in the V&A, dated 1802. Back then, the trees grew in a well-mannered arrangement, without distortion, and frontally to the picture plane, against a flattish swath of vegetation, more of which is repeated bottom left. Competent though this is, twenty-six years later, from an almost identical motif, the most modest of pictorial foundations becomes something far more open-ended and complex. Now, not only do the trees arch backwards in the later work, but we can also pass between them, or on either side of them, back into the painting. And, of course, we can see with clarity for miles, to the Gothic tower of Dedham church itself and the Stour estuary beyond. The profusion of active detail, far from confounding the content, electrifies the space in surges of action and reaction. This is a painting that does far more than depict landscape, and it opens the door to a charged and broken, yet unified, surface in painting.

Paul Cézanne, “L’Estaque, View Through the Pines”, 1882-3

I saw this painting L’Estaque, View Through the Pines by Cézanne in the Lila Acheson Wallace Reader’s Digest Collection at Wildenstein Gallery, 147 New Bond Street (now Richard Green), in January 1986, where it had the stiffest of competition: Georges Braque’s Sunflowers on the Table, 1946; Camille Pissarro’s extravagantly composed Sunset at Moret, 1901; Paul Gauguin’s moody and Pissarro-influenced Port of Rouen, 1884; a really great Henri Matisse, Anemones and Black Mirror, 1918-19; and one of Claude Monet’s greatest late Water Lilies, 1917-19. Yet the painting that still, even now, transfixes my imagination is L’Estaque, View Through the Pines.

This is a tour de force of how to build physical space on a flat surface, how to feel space as a solid articulation between tumbling steep incline and canopy, with just enough sky to pile on the pressure. This painting belongs to a series of works made by Cézanne at L’Estaque between 1882-87 which are amongst the greatest of his oeuvre, and include Gulf of Marseille, 1883-5, from the Musée D’Orsay, but which I last saw in an exhibition in Marseille itself a couple of years ago, when it impressed me enormously for its locked-in focus, everything in exact relation; and Sea at L’Estaque, seen often at the Picasso Museum in Paris (since it belonged to Picasso), wherein the sea and sky in the interstices compete with the spreading branches for solidity and surface.

Paul Cézanne,, “L’Estaque, View of the Gulf of Marseille”, 1883-5

Paul Cézanne, “The Sea at L’Estaque”, 1883-6

These are masterpieces, but L’Estaque, View Through the Pines is the best of the best, because of its handling of three-dimensionality and spatiality, tipping the viewer into the space of the picture, consolidating the buildings at the bottom so we don’t fall through completely… all resolved on the surface, a combination of tightness and flexibility, including the incredible top-to-bottom tree-trunk which does not divide.

Is Cézanne still relevant? Of course, and there is much to learn from him. If Constable invented the broken surface of things, Cézanne cements that breakdown forever into the content of painting, whereupon the means of delivering structure become a visible and an indivisible part of it. I don’t think we have yet got to the bottom of this, or bettered it, and it seems still so relevant to abstract art. If fact, it leads us directly to it.

Anne Smart, “Broiderie Landings”, 2013

This painting by Anne Smart I look at every day, since it hangs in my bedroom. I suppose I must look at it twice a day, at least. But I really look at it about once a week. The implications of how this painting is made is possibly the most radical thing we have recently seen in abstract art. I think where the radical nature of the work is rooted is in the mindset of how it is thought about from the first moment. Anne’s unorthodox approach to abstract painting, which has been building up for years, has led her instinctively to this point, and I think the difference she has made in rethinking abstract painting is really big, and should be fully acknowledged. But unlike a lot of abstract painting, I don’t think you can explain the difference as an aspect of facture. With facture, you get an almost literal demonstration of how the painting is made – brushstrokes, palette knife scrapings, etc. With this painting, just one of the things that makes it most compelling is that it gives away nothing of how it is made in the literal sense. It has, in a way, no facture at all, and yet it has a profusion of detail, detail that is paradoxically totally dependent upon how it is made. Strangely, it appears to have more detail when viewed from a distance of two meters than it actually does when up close; and all of this detail is absolutely exacting in what it delivers. Whereas so much abstract painting has lots of accidental eye-catching incident in the form of splashes, drips, drags and spotting etc., the detail in this painting is all carefully woven together and very deliberate. In a way, it is all detail, the whole thing – but some detail is big, and some is tiny. The thinking behind the work takes all that detail as content and compels it to be whole. Or rather, Anne works it until it becomes, by natural rather than contrived means, whole; and it is. Yet it was never, ever conceived as a whole “design”. It’s perhaps as far from design as has yet been achieved in abstract painting without falling into any sort of irrational random accidentalism. So yes, such subtle and strong “discovered” organisation is a very big achievement.

This painting to some considerable degree short-circuits the endless debates and deliberations on Abcrit about the nature of space in abstract painting – illusionistic, naturalistic, fictive, what-have-you. That the painting is both spatial and abstract I have no doubt. It seems to me too that it possesses the property that Simon Schama recently attributed to Bruegel’s Four Seasons on a recent edition of Civilisations: “visually inexhaustible”.

I see in this work a warping and buckling of space resulting in (or is it the result of?) pressure over the whole canvas. In that aspect, it reminds me of Constable a little. But for abstract art, this is a new way of thinking, in opposition to both semi-abstract compromise or formalist purity. I think this is a very, very good, perhaps great, example of art that is fully abstract, and it shows the potential benefits of having exactly that ambition, relative to delivering originality. Did I mention that it bears absolutely no relation whatsoever to the modernist tradition of “colour painting”? True, you can find things that look a little bit like it – but not really… Nothing feels like it, because nobody to my knowledge has made an abstract painting quite in this way before – from the inside, out.

Speaking of originality, how about this:

Tintoretto, “Susanna and the Elders”, 1555-56

Was there ever a more inventive spatial fusion. Tintoretto has a very different painting of the same subject-matter in the Louvre permanent collection, which is also dramatically spatial, having a strange perspective; but this version is something else. This may be my favourite painting… ever? Well, certainly one of Tintoretto’s best. It belongs in Vienna, but I saw it in the exhibition Titian, Tintoretto, Veronese: Rivals in Renaissance Venice at the Louvre in 2010. Make no mistake, I think Titian is a great painter (Veronese not so much), but Tintoretto blew him away. So much more spatial, physical, dramatic. Titian, by contrast, can look quite flat.

So how about the space in this? Weird, isn’t it? But the eye just rolls around the thing in some kind of continuous loop, dwelling on delicious detail after detail. Clever use of the mirror, between the two heads, but then there are so many clever parts to this work, you could just about mention everything in it. Huge changes of scale, fantastic small things, everything full-on but fitting in, no fudging… Everywhere looks great. Would that abstract painting could be so eccentric and fundamental at the same time. Perhaps it is already is.

It’s a very different kind of painting from the usual packed-out Tintoretto:

Tintoretto, “Paradise”, 1588

This is part of Tintoretto’s preparations for the large Paradise fresco, after he was awarded the commission to replace fire-damaged works in the Sala dei Maggior Consiglio (Hall of the Great Council), Venice. Tintoretto took over the job when Veronese and Bassano proved unable to complete. In fact, neither could Tintoretto, and the finished in-situ work was mainly the product of his family. This version, however, is thought to be by Jacopo himself, and I prefer it to the final painting, from which it differs considerably. This version is in the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid, but I saw it in an exhibition devoted to the competitive preparations for the fresco, Tintoretto’s Paradise: a Competition for the Doge’s Palace, again at the Louvre, in May 2006. The inventiveness of this work is perhaps more typical of Tintoretto than the Suzanna, and no doubt derives some of its organisation from Michelangelo’s Last Judgement, but as always with Tintoretto he outdoes everyone for imaginative content, indivisible from form.

This is from a press release from Alexander Gray Associates regarding a Frank Bowling show:

“The decisive moment of Bowling’s artistic development was his move to New York in 1966. Bowling’s painterly experimentation had led him to consider how abstract painting could be invested with social, cultural, and personal meaning without losing the essential and formal principles of painting. This lead him to move away from relatively straightforward figurative representation into more abstract work concerned with questions of form and colour.”

Here again is an example of the assumed “either/or” of meaning or formalism, content or form. You can – according to this hypothesis – invest art with content only if it is figurative content, because abstract art dwells exclusively within the terms of formal organisation, dealing, in Hitchens’s words quoted at the beginning of this essay, with the picture “…purely in terms of its own internal requirements.” What are those? Composition, proportion, the Golden Section, the endless echo of the pictorial rectangle? It’s no surprise, given such unimaginative endeavour, that abstraction fails to prosper in the hands of semi-abstract artists like Hitchens.

But turn this inside out. Abstract art needs abstract content precisely in order to prevent it becoming boringly formalist. And it needs content not just as an imposed inclusion into formalist structures, but as the wholesale and intrinsic thing itself, the thing that generates all structure. In other words, abstract content as abstract structure (just as figurative content can generate figurative structure, oh yes). To repeat, if your structures are facile and banal because they are engendered at the point of addressing the painting’s “own requirements”, your content is already dead in the water. It’s not a problem figurative painters ever had to address quite so frontally as abstract artists do, again and again, because there was always something outside of the artist/picture closed loop that preceded form – figurative content. There was always the intervention of some aspect of unregulated, informal – not to say random – reality, whether observational or imaginary, that came before its delivery by formal trope, and often that trope could be broken out from and discarded, if the content was strong – see Susanna above. In figurative painting, there was always something that required to be reconciled and synthesised through the medium, as per the way that Constable reconciled and synthesised the deep space and distance of his complex landscapes. Therein lies an involvement with a kind of improvised articulation that exists in febrile and developing tension rather than mannered and pre-ordained solution. But when it comes to synthesis and reconciliation in abstract art, well… you can’t do the reconciliation without the “something” to reconcile.

“The more stuff in it, the busier the work of art, the worse it is. More is less. Less is more. Ad Reinhardt

Minimalism is, by design, content-free art. Minimalism leads directly, indeed is a part of, conceptual art, and that, for our purposes at least, is the end of that. But minimalism is a compelling and pervasive aesthetic that runs through a whole strand of abstraction that doesn’t necessarily define itself as such.  I don’t know why this has never occurred to me before, but I would now concede that there is very little point in arguing about the existence of abstract content in quite a lot of modernist painting and sculpture championed as paragons of abstraction, because, as I now acknowledge, there is very little abstract content in it. Taking Noland as example, horizontal stripes repeated top to bottom of a painting, or concentric circles in a target, do not lend themselves to any kind of interrogation of what abstract activity is going on. You have to get pretty nuanced to make a case for anything at all happening, except for the usual suspects of up-front or laid-back colour relationships. The case is made over and again that this is enough and more than enough for abstract painting. Not for me. And as Anne Smart once said to me, on being shown a book on Noland: “What’s abstract about a circle?” What, indeed?

By contrast, the more content in art, the more the potential of art. Content by no means guarantees great achievement, but lack of it minimises the possibility. What does it mean to have some kind of rolling and tumbling repertoire of energised stuff – either physical or imaginary – that is a repository of abstract content? Some would say that what is being discussed here is not content, but language – the personal language of the individual abstract artist, built up over years of experience. And although I don’t refute the part played by personality and experience, I resist that idea simply because language implies metaphorical expression. That would not be abstract. And abstract implies a somewhat more disinterested mode of operation than the usual and expected subjective expressionism of the semi-abstract.

It seems very hard for people to imagine abstract content, but I think that is simply down to a lack of precedent and a failure to think creatively in an entirely “abstract” mode. With practise, this is possible. Any unnaturalness soon fades. When the content starts to generate structure of its own accord, rather than being shoe-horned into some ideal “abstract form”, things start to fall into place quite quickly.

I have made my own case in the past for the idea that the more diverse and complex is the content that is synthesised by the artist, the greater the art. That seems to stand the test of my experience. But I agree that this use of the word “content” is contentious in visual art, and especially so when applied to abstract art. And there would be no point in adopting such a contrary position unless it is useful in some way. I believe it is.  Such a concept, as applied to abstract painting, may well be superfluous to those who work quite happily without such intellectualisations, and it’s a pointless concept if it proves to be of no use to anyone. But John Pollard is a painter for whom it might well be relevant to his progress as an artist- which, over the past couple of years has been spectacular.

John Pollard, “Brutal World”, 2016

This is another painting I own and look at a lot. I have, therefore, had lots of time to make up my mind about it, and I think it is very good. At the moment it hangs – very interestingly, I think – next to Painter’s Song by Fred Pollock. I’m not going to make anything out of that comparison here, other than to say this: that the Pollard is full to bursting with great stuff to look at, stuff that is very inventive and – given the means of its delivery, with black outlines and three-dimensional-looking “things” – surprisingly abstract. By comparison, the Fred Pollock, which I think is a very good Fred Pollock, looks rather conventional and formalist, having as it does quite a contrived compositional delivery of its colour content. Because of paintings like John’s and Anne Smart’s, I now see the Pollock differently from how I used to. I see it differently because it is different. The ultimate comparative value of the John Pollard relative to the Fred Pollock may well be up for grabs, subject to personal taste and opinion, but the difference is not. There is something new afoot, which the Pollock does not partake of, but which the Pollard does.

This difference is in no small way to do with exactly how they are thought about from scratch, and how that in turn changes the way that the observer of this new art is engaged by it. It is to do with how the eye is moved, and kept moving, whilst the mind is set to work down steeply imaginative, demanding and varied pathways. This is all still “live” and yet to be really understood (by doing it, mainly) and written about, but the potential is very clear…

I’ll stop here, because some things at this point are ineffable… But I did find this passage by the American essayist Elizabeth Hardwick, writing about the experience of reading a (typically 19th C.) novel (Middlemarch, actually), which I for one would be happy to have transposed to the “ongoing” continuum of experience of looking at one of my abstract sculptures as they strive towards a more fully abstract three-dimensional complexity:

“The length of a novel, the abundance of detail have a disturbing and exciting effect upon the imagination; in a sense one reads on to find out “what happens” and yet what happens is exactly the most quickly forgotten, the most elusive. It is even difficult to know how to state the problem: is it psychological, simply rooted in biology, or instead, an aesthetic condition, necessary to the special effects of the novel? What seems to remain locked in the memory is a general impression, a selection of detail, a blur of interesting scene, the shape of character, and, above all, a sort of remembrance of how one felt when one was first reading the book [my emphasis]. The remembered exhilaration of the mind, pleasure of the senses, hang upon the frailest thread of incident, the dimmest recollection of language. You know you were fascinated, you were convinced – at the time, when you were deeply there, in the story, in the turn of phrase here and the observation there, the surprise, the resolution that pleased. Tracks, not very deep, laid down in the memory prompt us to assert merit and excellence.”

Elizabeth Hardwick, Reflections on Fiction, 1969, in Collected Essays, NYRB Classics.


  1. Well thats great timing ,as there are still threads running from Alans article.Its very good to see Robins choice of Art to eulogise.I have to agree about the Cezannes at L’Estaque,perhaps some of the best pictures ever painted.However what I want to discuss ,which bares down on Robins choice ,isn’t formalism , its modernism.Not post-modernism but essentially the period between the Cezannes ,say 1890,though Picassos Cubism,Matisse and early Miro,to the USA during the world wars,Abstract Expressionism and beyond,up to about 1960.I saw the last gasp at an Ellsworth Kelly show at the Tate,a marvellous 30 foot semi-circle lozenge ,painted all ONE FLAT blue ,which to my mind gave me a wonderfull vertiginous volume,like looking over the edge of the world. That is what I experienced in front of the picture.That is what I signed up for when ,as a youth I joined the art school in Exeter and met all its visitors at the station,Heron,Frost,Aubrey Williams ,Fishwick,Macneish,Albert Irvin,Basil Beattie,Terry Setch,the usual suspects.This period seems to be over ,[see Harry Hays last remark on Alans Museum,the tide is defineatly out.]Personally I have to admit I don’t yet understand Robins Ideal Abstraction,but look forward to experiencing it at his show coming up in Deal,curated by Sam Cornish.I actually see the quest as slightly futile ,a bit like Flat Painting ,but Im sure that will reveal the shallowness of my practise! I am much more interested in how Cezanne gets you immediately by the +++++,with his pictures and makes you feel and identify with his struggle.He portrays figurative reality,but that not what you get ,you get a stephen hawking moment ,this is how the universe is made and I am using a language of the same hue. Actually I think Robin has missed Modernism altogether as there are no examples to rejoice in in his choice.I wanted to flag up all the weird and wonderfull Modernist masters ,like the Roger Hiltons in relation to De Styll,Bram Van Velde,Samuel Becketts favourite painter,Christopher Woods imaginary Breton seascapes,Miro smuggling his constellations out of Europe in a suitcase.etc.The Malevichs in Russia before Stalin,John Golding ,a mild but passionate scholar and painter ,got really angry at a Tate discussion on why the Tate had rejected the two most important collections offered to them.The Douglas Cooper collection of Cubism and Roland Penrose Surrealist works could have made England the centre of the Art World ,instead of New York or Paris ,it would have been London.That is why the English are visually illiterate,apart from Cromwells vandalism of the churches.I am not arguing with Robins choices,but pace the Noland’s ,I was unimpressed by formalism and Greenberg,probably because he was in decline by the time we had our discussions.I understand Alans relishing the belle peinture of Hoffman after Matisse.There is a whole school of Colour Painters in New York,influencenced by Albers ,that has never been seen here.However in the waste land thats left,I see some light.It comes as always from other Art forms ,music and film.Bob Dylan was a pervasive hero of mine ,Im glad he was in my life.Ken Loach KES and Land and Freedom,Beau Travail by a young french woman etc.We are ageing rock stars and am not going to give up because History has passed us over .England is full of new huge spaces This train doesnt stop at this station We may just have to walk.


  2. As an accompaniment to the High Abstract exhibition at the Poussin Gallery in 2011, I gave a response to a gathering including Robin. In it I said that all my favourite painters are figurative. I think we would all say that if we were completely honest. That’s why I began Part 1of the Musee Imaginaire with the proviso “First the Giants, then the Pygmies” (Elie Faure), and resisted the temptation to begin with an image of Rubens’ The Three Graces” (Prado).
    But this doesn’t mean that I think there is profit in a direct transfer of the kinds of “abstract content” evidenced by these figurative masterpieces to our situation today. The idea that this is possible is in itself a kind of “formalism”.
    But set that aside — the first part of Robin’s account is eloquent and almost persuasive, were it not for its being a preamble to yet another polemic against modern painting (let’s not call it modernism, it’s just any painting since the god Cezanne, apart from a grudging acknowledgement of Matisse).
    I think it is what is known as the straw man argument, a polemic against a position that no-one, or no sane person holds.
    Who says that “you can invest Art with content only if it is figurative content”. He uses the words of a mediocre commentator, Alexander Gray, addressed at Bowling’s painting, against the painting itself, failing to notice that this is in fact the opposite of what Gray is actually saying.
    Who says that it is an opposition, “content or form”? Certainly no-one I know.
    On Hitchens’ remark about the painting’s own internal requirements —“What are those — composition, proportion, the *Golden Section, the endless echoing of the pictorial rectangle” —
    These are just not applicable to Hitchens most adventurous paintings at all. (I’ve already listed them in Part 2).
    “..content not just as an imposed inclusion into formalist structures” — Who thinks in this way of painting? , apart from Robin himself. It just repeats the idea of the separation of form and content which no-one in modern painting thinks, an idea which everyone indeed has invested a lifetime to oppose.
    What would “extraneous requirements engendered at the point of addressing the painting’s own requirements” be? I’m afraid words fail me at present to unwrap this bolus of misconceptions.
    “Facile and banal, — mannered and pre -ordained” — Yeah,right!
    On Noland’s pictures — “do not lend themselves to any kind of interrogation of what abstract activity is going on”. Abstract activity as defined by Robin that is.
    “The more content in art, the more potential in art”. This as usual rests on interpretation, an in my view the misuse of the term “content”. (See virtually every article on Abstract critical and abcrit to which I have commented. We are up against the brick wall of Robin’s intransigence.
    “.. rolling and tumbling repertoire of organised stuff” … this sounds remarkably reminiscent of my description of Bach Toccatas … “climbing and tumbling”, which Robin sneered at a year or so ago.
    “When the content starts to generate structure of its own accord — rather than being shoe-horned into some ideal “abstract forms”. Who thinks this
    S way or is doing this? See the comment about the misuse of “content” above, and in any case who or what on earth is he criticising, or indeed talking about?
    On Fred Pollock’s The Painter’s Song — “contrived compositional delivery of its colour content”. That’s utter tosh. And I am sure that John Pollard would be the first to acknowledge that he has learned a great deal from this very painting. I am not going to be drawn into a critique of John Pollard’s Paintings, only one of which I have ever seen in the flesh, so let’s leave it at that. “Something new afoot”? Well you would say that , wouldn’t you.
    If Robin still maintains that he has not read Part 3 of my Key Paintings trio, I would have to say that I don’t believe him, or else he is clairvoyant?.
    And this is just for starters — I was looking forward to a sun kissed Easter vacation and a respite from this barrage of animus against everything I have stood for. No such luck on both counts. But I’ll be back later!


  3. The thing about someone in the throes of animus is that their writing mimics the fabric and tenor of rational discourse whilst being shot through with prejudice and resentments.
    Robin wants to attack my writing and my painting, but to do so directly would be too obvious and too blatant, so he chooses instead to be rude about Fred Pollock’s work, which has a good many similarities to my own. (He could have chosen to disparage works of mine in his collection).The comparison Pollock versus Pollard is invidious to both parties, and need not have been made at all. Its purpose is to make the claim that “something new is afoot” in the Pollard, whereas of course there can’t be something new in The Painter’s Song, dated as it is, 1993, and comes from a painter who has an evolved and fully coherent style. This judgement is just plain wrong, (and I do not wish to disparage the Pollard in saying so), so wrong that it calls in question Robin’s judgement altogether, and suggests that he is so invested in the Brancaster project that he can no longer see straight.
    “Contrived compositional delivery of its colour content” is his stilted way of disparaging the painting. The critical and pejorative term of this phrase is “contrived”, but it is meaningless. Everything in the art of painting is contrived. It is an artificial art, an art of contrivance, and this holds for Tintoretto and Constable no less. It’s an epithet devoid of significance in the context of painting. But here the claim is that the authenticity of a true Abstraction is in the hands of Robin’s Brancaster cohorts, of course, because only they are trying for it.
    John Pollard is in fact following an exemplary path, and one that I have recommended for many a year, namely to identify what you consider to be the strongest elements in the past of painting, and to build on them. John is performing a melt down and fusion of disparate elements from the practices of De Kooning, Kline, Grace Hartigan, Alan Davie, Fred, (myself even, perhaps) and other painterly painters. I may not have chosen this path myself, and there are aspects of his approach that I am not too keen on, but there is absolutely nothing to say that it may not prove fruitful. I wish him well. But don’t let your zealous partisanship blind you to an obvious gap in quality.


  4. Well Said Alan.I too was reluctant to criticise John or Ann ,both of whom I have the highest regard for.However Fred Pollocks painting is of a different order ,something I personally got a great deal from at the Brancasters we did together.I see nothing formalist in his approach,just years of experience,attack,decision making,struggle and resolve.What more could you want from the man?As you can see from my note above,I find the lack of any sort of discernible tradition and Robins dismissal of the history of Abstraction as wilful fake news and there is too much of it about.Speaking entirely personally,I wouldn’t have spent my lifetime in my studio ,if it wasn’t for a book on David Smith by Cleve Grey.To dismiss his entire oeuvre because its not 3d enough misses the evident romance of his position.When Tony Caro and Motherwell went to Albany hospital to pay their respects to the dying sculptor,something absolutely essential to OUR survival was lost.It was his individualism,pioneering inventive spirit which we still need today more than ever ,if Harry is right about the tide being out.Maybe Robin can be more eloquent about his Abstract qualities ,altho I appreciate they are what he is wrestling with in his work,and can be best experienced.The discussion about form and content takes me back to tweed jackets with leather patches,pipe smoke and bad breath of endless art school critiques.Im sure Meyer Shapiro has something to say on the subject.I don’t mind Robins preachy comments on Sculpture as he’s earn his spurs,but save us the pointers on the Future history of Abstract Painting .


  5. So Patrick….
    Was it the the drama of his death that made it possible for you to regard David Smith to be an individual,pioneering and inventive artist? Qualities you clearly deny John Pollard and myself…Please explain…
    ….and it is Anne with an E


  6. No ANNE,I am not making any judgements about your works ,either yourself or John ,as I have seen neither.I was simply sticking up for Fred in his 81st year.Graham Boyd is 91 and still working ,individual quality that I admire.I do have a question for Robin tho .Privately he has said to me that he had difficulty with the Cezannes in the National portrait Gallery BECAUSE OF THE FIGURATIVE CONTENT .I thought the show absolutely magnificent ,almost familial.The faces were mostly blurs but the rest of the pictorial architecture extraordinary and almost Cubist.[thats Modernism ]Can Robin discuss why he can accept the landscapes but not the portraits ,as this might elucidate his theoretical position .If you really want to know I think ANNES picture looked rather beautiful,a quality I feel is important ,but without looking at it in the flesh I couldn’t possibly comment .Can Robin discuss his Abstract qualities a bit more thoroughly please ?


  7. Perhaps ot would not be invidious to attempt a resume of some of the opinions from commentators to Abcrit on ‘content’ in abstract painting and sculpture.

    1. What it is NOT is the representation in any form of the real world, as in figurative art, intentionally, or even more to the point, unintentionally (clouds, skies, landscape or in the case of sculpture, other ‘things’.
    2. Whereas art has to be ‘about’ something, this stems purely from the artist’s experiences of the world -,’intentions’; and not any sort of narrative within the work itself.
    3. The ambition to make ‘new’ art (which has led artists into abstract modes), can be, and often is,a repetition of forms and methods that have gone before historically. Forms, coloiurs, styles of handling,and making, are not necessarily unprecedented.
    4. Newness, originality, is conveyed through a change of STRUCTURE, not form. Genuinely new art appears through conceptual change of its fundamental ordering, not surface appearance and facture..
    5. Greenberg said content in abstract painting and sculpture is quality; which leads, of course, to defining that word. But can we define the difference between five notes played in some sort of sequence, and the same five notes by Mozart ?


    1. Tim, I am interested in your sentence, ‘Genuinely new art appears through conceptual change of its fundamental ordering, not surface appearance and facture.’ I sort of understand but not really, what would ‘change of its fundamental ordering’ mean?


  8. What concerns me is that I feel progressively a withdrawal of the right of the individual artist to do as they see fit.
    The often lack of genuine inquisitiveness,human respect and regard ,amounts to a gradual undermining of these rights of the artist.
    The paintings and the sculptures made can then be criticised, but we do have to allow the artist all of the room in the world to make their work.
    Do not think this is a feeble cry for some sort of freedom after having crawled out of the weight of a hundred paintings from the past and a list of do’s and do nots and a trip down memory lane with old “friends”…far from it …….
    Some sort of forward motion is inevitable.
    Standing still cannot be an option?


  9. There is categorically no “barrage of animus” in this essay. That is hysterical. The “the fabric and tenor of rational discourse” is just that. And, helpfully, Tim’s comments continue that open dialogue.

    I have categorically never suggested “…there is profit in a direct transfer of the kinds of ‘abstract content’ evidenced by these figurative masterpieces to our situation today”, not least because it would be contrary to my thesis.

    I certainly am not attacking Fred in order to attack Alan by proxy, because I’m not even attacking Fred. I’m giving an opinion about a painting (which I say is a good painting). The pejorative term I used was not, as suggested, “contrived”, but “compositional” – and the painting very decidedly, despite its loose handling, is “compositional”. That does not mean it is worthless, only that there are certain recognisable devices at work in the Pollock that hold it together conventionally. Those tropes are absent in the John Pollard because he chooses to make a different sort of work.

    I’d be quite happy to discuss openly the conventions of Alan’s own painting, if he wishes. This would not amount to disparagement, but to dialogue. If that kind of exchange of opinion is not acceptable to Alan because it goes “against everything [he] has stood for”, then I suggest he finds another, more deferential, not to say acquiescent outlet for the opinions that he is given liberty here to express.


  10. Noela – Take, for example, Matisse,(who is frequently discussed on Abcrit). His art is not dissimilar from that of, say,Delacroix; a shared culture, subject matter, basic raison d’etre. Yet it is clear that the,resulting painting is wildly different; the imaginative leap Matisse had to take to distance himself from the past (to make new original art) is what I meant by “conceptual change of fundamental ordering”.in his work.


    1. Thank you for clarifying Tim, I also think your 5th point is key, I agree and accept Robin’s ideas about trying to get more abstract content into painting and I feel that ‘quality’ is an important consideration in tandem with that goal. Is it to do with taste or do we have an instinctive feel for quality?


      1. To interject – with apologies – I would say that you cannot consciously pursue “quality”, because not only is it indefinable, indeed more so than any other value, but if you try too hard for it you will almost certainly and pretentiously fail. Whereas you most certainly can think consciously (and of course, act unconsciously and spontaneously – they are not exclusive modes of operation) about how to “develop” the content you bring to the work (as I have tried to show in my examples). Take better care of that, and the quality can perhaps look after itself. This, again, is what I mean by thinking (and rethinking) about abstract art from the inside out.


  11. Recognising ‘quality’ is the thing rather than perusing it perhaps.
    Seeing something within a work whilst making spontaneous moves ( Alan helpfully encouraged this some while back on Abcrit) needs to be recognised constantly to further a piece of abstract work.
    And of course discussion and assessment by others is also key to this process.


    1. I meant pursuing not perusing sorry, also just asked someone what quality was and they said it’s ‘what you know’ .


      1. Yes it’s an absorbing process of not knowing beforehand but knowing when you see it, or knowing when someone else points it out.


      2. I think it can be very open-ended – you can just trust yourself and what you are doing to bring about an unanticipated outcome. Sometimes a new kind of failure leads to something that advances what you are doing in a new way.


      3. Yes, failure is very much part of it, sometimes it can be liberating when something is so bad whatever you do can be an improvement and a step forward.


  12. Two things:
    Every artist knows the moment when the work in hand starts to “speak” and tell him/ her what to do.
    Whether this is the unconscious, inspiration, some kind of not-self, divine inspiration or fate, it is an important part of art-making and I think it is this that Hitchens is referring to when he talks of attending to a painting’s needs, rather than any formal/conventional requirements.

    Secondly, and this is just a thought, one of the widely shared ambitions and driving energies of modernist art has been to break through boundaries and do something new. This is not to be sneered at – it has presented today’s artists with immense freedoms in what they can do.
    I wonder though whether this liberating moment hasn’t served its purpose, so that further pursuit of the new only leads to the gratuitously shocking or to an equally gratuitous explosion of materials and things that count as art.
    Could it not be a time for consolidation? A time for artists to see what these new freedoms have made possible, without the imperative of deliberate innovation?
    I am no art- historian, but I doubt that Tintoretto or Cézanne were obsessed with doing something new. They were obsessed with making good paintings, and to this end, as Alan suggests, they studied the paintings of the past and of their contemporaries, saw things they liked and disliked, and tried to make their own paintings accordingly.
    I think this aspect of looking at other paintings and coming to conclusions as to what is important for one’s own work is significant with regard to Anne’s comment and to the Brancaster project in general.
    Every artist is going to have different priorities and different lessons they have learned from looking at the art of the past. Each can bring their own perspective to bear on the work that is shown. To a large extent this is going to involve regarding the work as if it were ones own and judging it according to ones own criteria. There is nothing wrong with this, and in fact I find it potentially more productive than trying to step into someone else’s shoes and judge their work by their own criteria. You’re more likely to have a good eye for those aspects of art-making that concern you directly in your own work, than for stuff that you imagine someone else might be trying to do.
    This may lead to more apparent criticism, but it will be informed criticism and an impulse to question ones own work in directions that may be ultimately irrelevant or may open up new perspectives.
    From this point of view, I think it is unfortunate to want to place the whole thing under a banner of “newness” or “absolute abstractness”.
    Of course these are aspects that will have their champions, and the corresponding criticisms will be made. Others may concern themselves with formal qualities, social import, emotional impact or whatever. It is then for each individual to decide what to take on board and what to politely ignore since it is irrelevant to their own endeavours.
    Maybe this is all very obvious, but it is something that has occupied me, particularly in respect of recent discussions here on abcrit. I’m as guilty as anyone of having a narrow view of what is good in art. I even think it may be important to have a narrow view for oneself in order to make good art. But maybe listening to everyone else’s obsessions and prejudices, in the awareness that they are obsessions and prejudices, is more fruitful than trying to reach a consensus for a whole group.


    1. Richard,
      Thank you for your comments. We do, of course, disagree. I’m no art historian either, but I’m certain that Tintoretto, Cézanne and even – in fact especially – Constable all harboured a ferocious ambition (bordering on anxiety) to deliver a new kind of art of great originality. I see none of them as consolidators. What’s more, they were all incredibly competitive, though in part this urge was turned inward.

      I don’t really understand what it would be that you would set out to consolidate at this moment – your own prejudices and conventions, or some of the more obvious unoriginal shared tropes of abstract modernism? What are these new freedoms that you now think might be worth sitting on? Rectangles and grids? Semi-abstract landscapes? And I’m curious as to why you make no mention, along with everyone else so far (apart from a passing reference to beauty from Patrick) about my comments as to the originality of the Anne Smart painting – or rather, her approach to painting.

      I’m not suggesting everyone starts working like Anne (which would be probably impossible), but I am suggesting that you can learn from her hugely intelligent example of how to come up with something original for yourself. I’d also like to flag up just how fantastically and fundamentally different the Smart is from the Pollard (interestingly, far more different than many a Gouk and Pollock, as Alan himself has recognized), despite both having a commitment and belief in furthering the abstract. I keep saying it, but this endeavour only opens doors and frees up different individual approaches.

      And I think you (and Alan) are wrong about Hitchens, who was a rather conservative formalist intent on developing a stylised and limited system of working that shut the door on much of an attempt at pictorial invention and imaginative content, figurative or abstract – a system within which his limited subjective expressivity could be rather comfortably contained.


      1. I really admire Anne’s work, I have seen some fantastic large earlier paintings and am very impressed by how she has distilled her approach to abstract work and developed her quest for creating a personal vision.
        John and Anne’s work is polar opposite which shows how an abstract pursuit can be completely individual.
        I perhaps would have chosen a different example for John but I respect his searching and freedom to test different ways of working and commitment to complexity.
        This all takes time however, and so it should in order to attain a level of quality.


  13. Robin.
    Thanks too.
    Competitive yes, ambition yes, to make great art yes, to be original per se, I´m not so sure. To be true to their own personal vision, more likely, and originality as a by-product of that OK.
    I see originality much as you see quality – as something that cannot be directly pursued. But whereas quality stays and is inherent in the artwork, originality is transient and becomes contextual – we can admire the quality of Tintoretto´s painting, but we only know how formally/structurally original it might have been in the context of its art-historical background. And if its originality is not due to any formal invention but to the strength and uniqueness of its maker´s vision, then see above.
    I think it´s interesting that many people here seem to prefer the old masters to anything that modernism has produced. This is in spite of the fact that modernism has opened up new freedoms with the non-representational use of colour and form (in painting). It occurs to me that one reason may be that artists have hurried from one new thing to the next, without pausing to see what might be achieved in terms of personal vision with the methods and freedoms at hand. I´m no expert on modern literature either, but it seems to me that after a modernist breakthrough phase with Joyce, Brecht etc. things have returned to normal, with writers (ambitious or not) making use of the new freedoms where appropriate without necessarily seeking any structural or stylistic novelty. This is what I mean by consolidation.
    None of which means that Anne hasn´t profited from her own search for newness and abstractness. I am lucky enough to own one of her paintings and agree that it is not just beautiful but (in a quasi-literal sense) phenomenal – a cause of admiration and amazement to all who encounter it. I´ve written about it a couple of times on the Brancaster website, alone and in conjunction with Harry´s work. I personally think that its space is atmospheric rather than abstract and that its quality has a lot to do with its embodiment of age old painterly conventions of space, surface, wholeness etc., but we have already disagreed about that too.
    So yes, a personal commitment to more abstractness can bring amazing results. I just don´t think it´s essential, but potentially confining rather than liberating and I would personally regret it being the exclusive and official “Way of Brancaster” either in the discussions or in its public persona (if Brancaster should need such a thing at all).


    1. Richard,
      I respect your point of view, though I think that Brancaster has been from the outset very closely focussed upon encouraging new and progressive abstract art in as non-prescriptive a way as possible. There is for sure no “Way of Brancaster”, since how could one predict such a thing, uncertainty and diversity being endemic to the task – but I don’t think that weakens the emphasis.

      With regards to originality, here’s a few Constable quotes:

      “It is always my endeavour however in making a picture that it should be without a companion in the world. At least such should be a painters ambition.”

      “…your regard for me has at least awakened me to believe in the possibility that I may yet make some impression with my “light” — my “dews” — my “breezes” — my bloom and freshness, — no one of which qualities has yet been perfected on the canvas of any painter in the world.”

      “By a close observation of nature, [the artist] discovers qualities existing in her which have never been portrayed before, and thus forms a style which is original.”


  14. It was good to read Robin’s account of the space in ‘Broiderie Landings.’ Interesting too, because in reproduction the space can come across quite shallow. It certainly would appear to have less depth than John’s ‘Brutal World’, which employs more dramatic shifts in scale and tonal contrasts, and suggests more of a space between “things”, delineated as they sometimes are. I would hasten to suggest however, that a black outline does not necessarily segregate portions of the space. That it does would be an assumption. It is after all still paint, working in relation to the other painted marks around it. I think one of the strenghts of ‘Brutal World’ is in the way that the near central rose greyish shape hooks around the receding mixture of greens and reds without completely breaking away from it. This is possibly achieved by the fact that what could serve as an outline for the rose grey shape becomes part of the green and red recession. It does this in two spots, one where it becomes a larger black form that joins in with the red and green, the other being just above, where the black outline to the grey forms starts to diminish into the green and red area. This creates a kind of continuity, where things have moved forward and back in space without appearing to sever their links to each other, and without any recourse to figuration.

    This kind of continuity is also what we see in ‘Broiderie Landings’, but with a completely different sensibility, and probably with more equal measure across the whole painting. It appears to have less depth than ‘Brutal World’, but the abundance of white throughout probably keeps everything quite close in that regard. However, if Robin’s description is anything to go by, it may be the more ‘spatial’ of the two. This is where it gets tricky, and I don’t think the reproduction of the work is going to be a tremendous help. I have to go off my own memory of Anne’s paintings, and to a large extent my own, and that experience of looking at densely populated paintings. Here it goes…

    Does the density of content (I’m going to run with this word, it will make things way easier), when precisely adjusted to lead into any of the other moments in any possible direction, create a kind of mental imbalance for the viewer? By imbalance, I mean that if we want to, we can lock ourselves into any part of the painting for a considerable period of time, and at the expense, for that time, of the rest of the content, but only for that time, because of the freedom we enjoy of being able to spend just as long somewhere else in the painting, and neglect the part that so utterly engaged us prior. We end up with an ever shifting visual hierarchy, which can only be achieved by making every square inch equally as important as each other. The shifting of focus can throw the peripheral information into a kind of depth, but it is not necessarily destined to stay there. I don’t think this should exclude the possibility of some parts naturally advancing or receding as a result of warm/cool, light/dark contrasts, or juxtapositions of scale. These things will happen too. I think the kind of experience I have attempted to describe above, can only really be had by seeing the painting in the flesh, and even then it requires a lot of time spent with it. And even then I might be wrong. It might not be what is happening at all. It may just be that this is how we all look at paintings anyway. But I feel that it is quite different to how I look at quite a lot of abstract art, which often asks us to take in the whole work at once, to be engulfed, and not get lost in pockets. This may still be the more radical approach, and I still feel challenged by Pollock for instance, and the ramifications of what he did. But these pockets intrigue me nevertheless.


    1. Really good. Yes, I think we are knocking on the door of something really good here about the nature of spatial structure in painting that is trying to be more and more abstract and not rely upon figurative prompts. The first half of your last paragraph not only reminds me of the quote from Elizabeth Hardwick I gave, but suggests a different way of thinking about space that is not concerned with its depiction as such, but within the experience by the viewer; the drawing in and pulling out in the looking. I see it as analogous to the debate about literal versus abstract structure in sculpture. Its about the artist really dealing with the meaning of one piece of paint in relation to another, or its neighbours, and what that does, from inside of the painting, outwards. The wholeness is still there, I think in both Anne’s and John’s work, but achieved in a different way – certainly not compositionally.

      “The shifting of focus can throw the peripheral information into a kind of depth, but it is not necessarily destined to stay there” – thats brilliant.


  15. I presume when you refer to Pollock you mean Jackson and the more or less undifferentiated “all-over” wholeness thing? I think what’s interesting to me about the Smart and the Pollard is that they have neither the problems of formalist compositional design NOR the all-over Pollock way of achieving a wholeness. The Pollard is on the face of it much more differentiated than the Smart, but I think that is only superficial and the latter has in real life great variety and depth of detail that sets you off down some very involving imaginative paths, and all different! I too admire (Jackson) Pollock, as I said on Alan’s feed, but his marks tend NOT to differentiate but rather to homogenise the surface. I think John Pollard’s interest in complexity AND diversity come into the equation here. So, thinking out loud… in effect, to get a new kind of spatiality going on, maybe differentiation needs to happen continuously and at all points…?


  16. So everything in the garden is rosy.However I feel we have a very different problem,as mentioned by Simon Schama.If Art has to reflect the audiences self -interest,its obsession with birth ,death and marriage and what occurs in between,then Abstract Art has NO PLACE IN OUR SOCIETY TODAY.I happen to live in a very Conservative area,where I present my Abstract Art course to all comers.Its a hell of a way to survive,but has its moments.Fred Pollock rang me to urge me to see the Picasso show at Tate Modern,which he says is excellent.Im curious because I believe its work from the 30s ,a long time after his Cezanne of L’Estaque was filling his imagination.I can already tell from my students photos of Marie Terese back view in a mirror,that he is dealing with DUALITY of perception ,very far from Harrys all over composition.Despite having to get a mortgage to pay for entrance/what happened to Sir Nicholas idea of a palace of culture ,if the entrance to fee for this exhibition is £22?Altho I can’t comment on Annes work ,Ill have a go at that none abstract circle ,her ideas, at a different time.I find Robins assertion that all long horizontal abstract paintings will be viewed as landscapes,then probably by inference vertical canvasses will be figures etc.slightly depressing .Ive been listening to Martin Luther Kings speech in Memphis ,which I remember watching on my parents black and white television.He knew he was going to die,but his lack of self interest ,which is currently EVERYWHERE,was part of the reason I became an artist.Whatever I paint next ,I am very interested in a language which grabs the observer ,gives them a vital sense of themselves,their civil rights . How to do that with an Abstract Painting ,which has no anecdotal reference to babies,brides or coffins ,is an urgent ever present danger.Tim mentioned it .I rang Hampstead and Alans talk doesn’t appear to be scheduled yet ,but hope to attend .


  17. Yes, I did mean Jackson. Thanks for clarifying. I should clarify further that what I was describing cannot be accurately categorised as an “all over composition”. The two different experiences, of looking at a Jackson Pollock and looking at a Smart, simply don’t match up. It’s not to say that one is better than the other, just that something else has happened, as it should do nearly seventy years on. What I described does not fit into the bracket of all-over painting because of the shifting hierarchies vying for attention. It seems somewhat paradoxical that this should be achieved only be equalising the pressure across the whole painting, but I think that is where John’s diversity comes in to play. It’s as if wholeness can take care of itself to some degree, whilst the job at hand becomes one of treating each area as a unique proposition, ideally until the delineation of those ‘areas’ is no longer apparent. From there comes this continuous differentiation at all points.

    I think this is what John and Anne are doing in their work, and it is so great to see it happening with such vastly different results.


  18. Actually, the wholeness doesn’t take care of itself, but is the direct result of hard work and this willingness to make a continuous experience out of all this diverse and improvised content. The pursuit of wholeness is a driving force but perhaps subliminally so.


    1. I agree with all that. I do think that with the possibility of a new kind of spatiality comes a different kind of wholeness. Maybe that is not for us to quite understand yet. I think my main point here is to drive the painting via the content – spatial or otherwise – rather than any pre-determined notions of wholeness such as formats or compositional devices, including even “all-overness”.

      The thing I wonder about is the size of mark-making in relation to meaning. I think if things get both too small and too similar all over, then you are back into possibly creating “overall” effects that then tend towards descriptive or atmospheric space again. I think this goes against “abstract”.


      1. I like this exchange in Brancaster from three years ago.

        (Mark also rightly pointed out at the time that an aim for complexity can just end up failing in terms of being ‘complicated’. I don’t imply from the quote below that Mark was a big supporter of my work, he was very critical.
        I might rather say failure when aiming for complexity often results in a disorganised, fragmented, unintegrated work: working all over is important, partly because who would want a partially working painting? And also because we all know that it is quite easy to generate many interesting, meaningful parts on a canvas, the illusive goal being to achieve that all over (wholeness).
        But it isn’t an all overness of similarity (for me). That isn’t ambitious, or lasting.

        Mark Skilton: The thing with complexity I think, is that the achievement is finding a method of organisation that makes it clear, without actually losing the complexity, that somehow through the continuous working you don’t simplify it, but you organise. You can’t impose an organisation on it you have to sort of draw it out of the work but once you achieve it then you get clarity.

        John Pollard: That’s what I try and do. When I say diversity and complexity it’s a given that it has to work together. I kind of like the idea of putting some kind of order and structure into chaos, hence the variety…

        Mark Skilton: It can’t be imposed…

        John Pollard: No, I don’t…

        Hilde Skilton: I think that in No. 2 you’ve imposed it, because of the grey just blocking out, you’ve tried to simplify it, whereas in No. 3 it’s all there, it just simply gels, it works. It comes up together, there’s complexity, there’s change, there’s everything happening and somehow it just sort of gels. I don’t want to be analytical at this point, that’s just how I feel about that one.


      2. So if Hilde is right, and I think she is, then forcing the “organisation” or “wholeness” is not the answer, it has to be discovered in working the content.
        Hilde herself is very good at NOT falling into any kind of obvious imposed organisation, as in her “Chameleon Colour”, 2017, which has a terrific looseness and maybe the wholeness comes from something/somewhere else, maybe the “liveness” of the whole thing BECAUSE it has no compositional elements to it? It just keeps on going, keeps moving.


      3. It has to be discovered rather than planned out all in advance but it is a mixture of things. Critical ‘judgement’ is crucial and often underestimated, while techincal skill/knowledge and notion of artist authenticity often overestimated. But, again, a combination makes sense.


  19. Apropos of the previous discussions on originality, this is from a review in the Guardian by John Mullan of John Kerrigan’s book “Shakespeare’s Originality”:
    “Kerrigan’s introduction ruminates about the meanings of originality, a concept unknown to critics before the later 18th century. Shakespeare inhabited a literary culture in which imitation of earlier models was applauded. Rhetoric (the Renaissance version of creative writing) approved of “invention”, but specified that this meant the clever combination of inherited elements. Yet Shakespeare is also different from his contemporaries: he is not showing off his literary knowledge but adapting narrative patterns and fragments of dialogue lodged in his memory. Kerrigan quotes Emerson observing that “All minds quote”; yet most of Shakespeare’s quotations – or inventive misquotations – would not have been spotted by his first audiences.
    A chapter devoted to Much Ado About Nothing reveals a play that is “pieced and patched and recycled” out of various Italian tales, its radical novelty a matter of the “piecemeal superflux” of reused materials. You will have to read slowly – and maybe Google – to understand the variety of materials (Ariosto, Matteo Bandello, Luigi Pasqualigo) that go into this nearly tragic comedy. The reward is a vivid sense of how original it was to borrow.”

    All of which goes to show that even originality is a complex idea. I should point out though that Shakespeare was combining inherited elements of others CONTENT – in original ways.

    The review ends with the words: “Who wants Shakespeare to be made easy when he was so beautifully and originally complex?”


  20. “All of which goes to show that even originality is a complex idea. I should point out though that Shakespeare was combining inherited elements of others CONTENT – in original ways.”

    To the extent this statement means anything, it is incorrect.

    This is also incorrect: “yet most of Shakespeare’s quotations – or inventive misquotations – would not have been spotted by his first audiences.”

    On the contrary, Shakespeare’s plays were performed in an intensely competitive environment filled with allusions to other plays written and performed by his contemporaries and one of the primary appeals of the theater consisted in recognizing the rather obvious and pointed allusions, usually in the mode of ridicule, to specific plays, characters and individual lines written by other authors – in Shakespeare’s case primarily (but not only) Christopher Marlowe. For example, if the audience did not know that Titus Andronicus was a parody of Tamburlaine, the popularity of the play would be virtually inexplicable.


  21. “The thing I wonder about is the size of mark-making in relation to meaning. I think if things get both too small and too similar all over, then you are back into possibly creating “overall” effects that then tend towards descriptive or atmospheric space again.”

    This is something to be aware of. The mistake would be to start to accept small mark making as a technique, and forget that it is only one means for generating interesting and varied relationships. Those relationships and what we see them to be doing are what will deliver the content, rather than assuming the content to be somehow present within the method itself. The challenge is to actually maintain inspiration at all times throughout the whole work. These moments can be rare, and we can very easily slip into a state where we are just going through the motions. With the small mark approach, it can just end up as repetitive filler. It might look balanced, but I don’t know if that is necessarily a worthy aim.


  22. “The mistake would be to start to accept small mark making as a technique, and forget that it is only one means for generating interesting and varied relationships. Those relationships and what we see them to be doing are what will deliver the content, rather than assuming the content to be somehow present within the method itself.”

    About the same time (1882-ish) that Cézanne was in L’Estaque, Monet was on the north coast of France, making paintings in Dieppe and Varengeville like “The Church at Varengeville and the Gorge of Moutiers Pass”, 1882 – now on exhibition at the National Gallery in “Monet and Architecture” – which is very much at the front of my mind, having seen it yesterday.

    This is a very different kind of painting, a different kind of mark-making, a different kind of space, from the Cézannes, perhaps closer in technique to Renoir from this period – who was also in L’Estaque in 1882 doing this:

    Which way the influence ran, if any, between Monet and Renoir – and indeed, Cézanne – I pass on at present, but the tenor of both of their works (M & R) from this period is almost wholly taken up with the saturated diffusion of light and colour delivered by small flicks and touches of paint that in themselves are of not much account, but which cumulatively build the canvas to a simulacrum of naturalistic and/or atmospheric effect. Monet went on to deliver this kind of content in even more intense and dissolving form in paintings from Antibes, London, Venice, etc. Putting aside for a moment my own personal preferences, I think there is perhaps an instructive idea about how small mark-making might work in abstract painting such that it delivers light-like effects akin to Monet’s more picturesque representations; or takes on, by virtue of more deliberate individual characteristics in each mark or little group of marks, or perhaps slightly larger “things” themselves, a more structured spatial aspect such as might be seen in the Cézannes. If you cannot easily see the relationships between marks/parts of the work, then that kind of content is lost.


  23. I am interested in the word “complexity” (as used by commentators on Abcrit).

    Purpose and intent in art are often, though not always, complex rather than simple..Old art has, invariably, a complex purpose – narrative, illustration, representation, recognition, historical allegory, and so on; the forms and construction consequently being complex.
    In the XXth C. (as Alan’s musee demonstrates) the results have become (often) ,far simpler in construction and intent..It has frequently jettisoned old concerns in favour of a REDUCTION (simplification); .form, space, colour, plastic values, and so on, becoming the prime or sole generator of visual emotion and intensity.
    In the later XXth C., the post modern diarrhoea.of subject matter has been confused with the ‘complexity’ of previous art, with the consequent misinformation, misunderstanding and ignorant comparison as a result.

    Is the ‘complexity’ which is now sought in abstract painting and sculpture some sort of response to those disqualifications posing as real art, since it grows out of the earlier’simplified era ? ?


  24. I’ve had similar thoughts about Monet before, that there often is not all that much to the individual marks themselves. They are often extremely beautiful, scumbled and dry. But they will tend to run in one direction, and are quite brief, not extended, not curled around, not folding back in on themselves. The marks don’t do all the “quirky” things that Anne’s, John’s and dare I say my own paintings do. This is obviously not a criticism of Monet. This is what makes his work so radiant, atmospheric and important. But I think that as abstract artists we have to be avoiding atmospherics because they will create a figurative recession in space. For the most part, I think we do avoid it, but there are all sorts of things that can go wrong. I know that I have made paintings where I have been less involved in the individual characteristics of the marks themselves, somewhat electing to abdicate their individuality for the ‘higher purpose’ of the painting as a whole. There isn’t anything wrong with that, but I have been relatively underwhelmed by the results when I’ve worked that way. Sometimes it can produce an atmospheric space, sometimes not, but it might just give you a space that is less variable and less capable of reinventing itself as you look at it. In my experience, it can make the painting quite exciting to look at from a distance, but something of a let down when you get up close.

    Distance is something to consider. We don’t want to lose sight of the detail. Colour relationships can be really important here, but in conjunction with a whole lot of other factors like shape and contrasts in scale, things that can often be more visible from further back than up close. I’ve found that working with strong, contrasting colours has played a role in maintaining the visibility of detail from a distance, preventing the dilution of it into an atmosphere or something more singular.


    1. Wandering through the Monet exhibition yesterday I found myself really responding positively to the paintings that seemed to work from both near or far. There were quite a lot of terrific early and mid-period works where everything seems fully engaged at all times, such as in the Trouville beach paintings, which I think are absolutely brilliant.

      Then there is a distinct trait in some works for the pictorial space to coalesce at a certain distance from the canvas, then decompose into “just marks” nearer to. This happens in the single “Water Lily” painting in the show, where the surface of the pond recedes under the arched bridge brilliantly in a perspectival way when viewed from about 3 meters, then falls to bits closer in. I guess some people will find in this a kind of “abstraction”, but it seems to me rather a literal and negative experience, and I’m not so keen, notwithstanding the brilliance of the “effect”.

      “We don’t want to lose sight of the detail” – I agree. The question is whether we can find meaning in that detail that will open out beyond just the close inspection of it, to inhabit the whole painting, without changing the fundamentals of how you see the work, and without contradiction or a complete change in the nature of the space. I think this is why I question accepted ideas about what constitutes wholeness. Cannot the wholeness be a kind of “ongoing-ness” of the experience of the detail (a little like Hardwick’s experience of the novel), without the imposition of composition or other big ideas? I realise this might contradict what I have just said about the good Monets… but Monet had the “motif”.

      An artist that I’m interested by a lot at the moment is Altdorfer, who seems to be able to cram in lots of detailed content into his paintings without too much concern for any sophisticated or clever overall design, but who seems to carry the whole thing off by sheer involved intensity of that content keeping you nailed to whatever is happening in the work. You don’t easily “fall out” of looking at one of his paintings.

      And I guess this goes part-way to answering Tim’s question. Complexity can put you back inside the art, in an engrossing and imaginative involvement. For my part it has no connection with anything going on in post-modernism, or a response to it.


    1. Patriick – Very sorry to hear about Gilian; I didn’t know her well, but she was a great girl and a wonderful painter.


  25. I rather worry sometimes that the impression goes around that I only like one sort of painting. It’s not true, and I love all sorts of paintings including this stupendous Cranach that just sold in NY for $6million. It’s from a different universe from the Constables and Cezannes, but its wonderful:


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