“Take a giant step…” as the great Taj Mahal once sang… or was it the Monkees: “Take a giant step outside you mind”?
In April 1969, as a young art student at Wimbledon School of Art in London, I went to see a big show of abstract art at Tate Gallery: “The Art of the Real; An Aspect of American Painting and Sculpture 1948 -1968”. This was very new and exciting to me back then, and in its way, as I will explain, it still is.
The show originated and was shown in 1968 in MOMA, New York, where it was devised and directed by E. C. Goossen, and subsequently presented with the help of the Arts Council of Great Britain to the Tate Gallery, London. Here is the opening to Goossen’s introduction:
“To propose that some art is more “real” than other art may be foolhardy. Yet many American artists over the last few years have made this proposal by the nature of their work. They have taken a stance that leaves little doubt about their desire to confront the experiences and objects we encounter every day with an exact equivalence in art. That they are shaping this equivalence by modifying forms inherited from the history of modern abstraction may or may not be an accident. Certainly there seems to be a growing distrust of idealism and its unfulfilled promises. The “real” of today as it is posited by this new art has nothing to do with metaphor, or symbolism, or any kind of metaphysics. It is not the ideal Hegelian essence that Hans Hofmann was invoking several decades ago in his essay, “The Search for the Real”. It does not wish to convey the notion that reality is somewhere else. Neither is it related to the symbolic reality Malevich thought he had discovered when, in 1913, he first isolated his black square on a white field. Malevich indeed had produced a real square, but he employed it as an element in the construction of a precariously balanced, ideal order with which he proposed to bring forth a “new world of feeling”. Today’s “real”, on the contrary, makes no direct appeal to the emotions, nor is it involved in uplift. Indeed, it seems to have no desire at all to justify itself, but instead offers itself for whatever its uniqueness is worth – in the form of the simple, irreducible, irrefutable object.”
The essay concludes five pages later, thus:
“The gradual divorce of the physical means of art from expressionistic associations has been accompanied by a distinct change in attitude towards what art should attempt. Expressionism, even at its most abstract, continued many aspects of representational art, and constructivism, despite its purist look, was basically nostalgic in its search for meaning through traditional methods of composition. The new attitude has been turning art inside out: instead of perceptual experience being accepted as the means to an end, it has become the end in itself. The Renaissance artist laboured over perspective in order to create an illusion of space within which he could make believable the religious and philosophical ideals of his time; the contemporary artist labours to make art itself believable. Consequently the very means of art have been isolated and exposed, forcing the spectator to perceive himself in the process of perception. The spectator is not given symbols, but facts, to make of them what he can. They do not direct his mind nor call up trusted cores of experience, but lead him to the point where he must evaluate his own peculiar responses. Thus, what was once concealed within art – the technical devices employed by the artist – is now overtly revealed; and what was once the outside – the meaning of its forms – has been turned inside. The new work of art is very much like a chunk of nature, a rock, a tree, a cloud, and possesses much the same hermetic “otherness”. Whether this kind of confrontation with the actual can be sustained, whether it can remain vital and satisfying, it is not yet possible to tell.”
This, I think even in retrospect, was pretty good, and was the start of something important for me about how to make “abstract” art, and how to make it “real”. I had by then already abandoned any connections with figurative painting and sculpture of any kind.
Here are some of the works that I saw at the Tate:
The three big minimal artists from that period, Carl Andre, Donald Judd and Robert Morris were the ones that interested me most. Morris died quite recently, after a rather wasted career; Judd died in 1994; Andre is still going at 83. I’ve seen lots of their work over the years, but would not look at it much any longer. But Judd and his “Marfa, West Texas” project has always fascinated me. These pictures I find compelling and convincing. He quite rightly refused to call his work sculpture. It is not – it’s architecture, and he was very, very good at it.
And his equally beautiful New York cast-iron apartment building:
For abstract sculpture, where does this go? Nowhere. This is all architecture. BUT – we do now, at last, and not entirely unconnected to this, have a very strong idea about how abstract sculpture is really going to do the job, and it will be – it already is – a really great discipline entirely in its own right.
Likewise, for abstract painting now, where does Patrick Heron’s work go? Nowhere either, is my best guess, though many, many people will disagree, because they love Heron’s work so much. I’ve blown hot and cold about it over the years, and after this show I was pretty cold, but there are always things to think about and appreciate with Heron – not least some of his excellent writing.
So, on Thursday 18 October we set off for the press preview – followed by the opening on the same evening – of the Heron show at Turner Contemporary, Margate – having been transferred from Tate St. Ives, where we did not see it. And Margate, would you believe, was looking absolutely beautiful that day, with a stiff, north-easterly wind kicking up a mass of white horses, right out to sea as far as the eye could see, and as far as the equally-ravishing view of the massive London Array somewhere beyond the horizon.
“…colour is both the subject and the means; the form and the content; the image and the meaning, in my painting today,” says Heron in 1962.
Well, let’s have a look. Big claims have been made here on Abcrit for the quality of “Red Garden Painting”, 1985, and I have tended to support them, because in reproduction, on a small scale, this and other similar works look rather good. In full size, on the wall, it looked very sloppy and shambolic. Nothing much stuck with me, beyond a rather scrappy design and an insistence upon a pure, crude colour-scheme. Let’s say straight away, it’s an abstraction from a figurative idea – a garden, of course – and this cannot any longer be addressed as a way and means to take forward abstract painting. Modernism, colour, design, drawing are not ways to move on and get further into abstract painting now, if they ever really were. They were and are only ways to stay where you are now, or go back – to something we now know too much about, and are thoroughly underwhelmed by. Well, I am.
There are similar but worse paintings in the show (until 6 January 2019) than this “Red Garden Painting”, including: “10th-11th July 1992”; and “21st December 1991”, as examples. Even worse are works from the seventies like “Big Complex Diagonal with Emerald and Red: March 1972- September 1972”. I cannot get on with this set of work at all.
Better are Heron’s early figurative paintings, such as the Braque-like “Christmas Eve: 1951”; or the horizontal stripes of “Lux Eterna: May – June 1958”; and “Green and Mauve Horizontals: January 1958”.
For me, the best painting in the show is “Interior with Garden Window: 1955. It’s figurative, and it’s out of Matisse, of course, and it’s pretty obsessed with colour, but I do like it, and I think the organisation is inventive.
When I mentioned this to Mel Gooding, he said he thought of it as being wholly abstract. I don’t really see how that can be the case, because it has such a strongly-abstracted composition. But now we know – don’t we, surely? – that “abstraction”, and in particular, “modernist designed abstraction”, is in no way taking us forward. We know that from doing Brancaster Chronicles. The claim for progress by the kind of modernism preached by Heron and others cannot be made to stick at the job any more.
And I think I should also mention that the curation of this show, that received mainly – though not wholly – praise from the critics, made no sense to me at all. You could have switched over all the paintings in the four or five “thematic” rooms in the gallery without making any difference to the point of the show at all – assuming it had one. It seemed to me a rather futile exercise, even when extracts from Heron’s own texts were added to the mix.
Claims for the viability of this kind of modernism will continue to be made, of course. They are, for example, made over and again by Alan Gouk and others, and he repeated it in his recent show at Felix and Spear, London W5 – Alan Gouk: A Retrospective: Part II. This was on from 6 October to 3 November. I did not think it was as good as Part I from last year, but Alan had big ideas. I was not five minutes through the door before I got a lecture on how important “Gaucin Night II” was in his oeuvre, and how I should go about the business of looking at it, standing back (as far as one can in such a tiny gallery), seeing the bigger picture. But to me it looks dated, a semi-figurative composition on a background, with that central bottom purple showing up rather badly the limitations of the composition, and the whole “running-out” of the “scheme” in this kind of horizontal, blocky, layered design rather giving things away. “Through the Years” and “Un Lemon Por Civilon”, both 1999, suffer a very similar fate. They too are figurative colour compositions. These are not Alan’s best work. More to the point, despite all this lovely colour, they are not abstract and not “real” enough.
Abstract art is not about “abstracting”, I repeat – though we have seen quite a lot of that tried out over and again, even on Brancaster (and still continuing, off and on). Alan, of course, encourages this. And what’s more, it was not much more than ten minutes before I got a rather rude lecture on my misunderstanding, in my writing on Abcrit, regarding the singular lack of any kind of relationship, human or otherwise, between the great figurative painting from the past and his kind of modernist painting and its immersion in the (inadequate) world of colour, colour, and yet more colour. Then I very quickly got yet another ticking-off, this time on my perfectly honestly-held opinions about Katherine Gili’s sculpture, as expressed coherently here on Abcrit. This makes him a little crazy! He will defend her work to the end, but that does her no favours. And he’s pointlessly rude about my opinions on her work, which I stand by. Perhaps that’s the end, then. He really needs to make an effort to see things from a new point of view. And he should stop thinking we are all in his debt, and try very hard to stop imagining that any good new painters – like the very fine and progressive John Pollard, for example – an artist he once derided because he thought him very poor indeed – are now doing well because of HIS influence. This is unlikely, and even if only partially true, will soon dissipate (we hope). Make it “real”, Alan!
I was at Gouk’s show with the very well-mannered (!) Patrick Jones, whose new paintings I have yet to see, except in pictures. They look like some of Patrick’s best work to me, so here are some he has sent. I hope those who have actually seen them might comment…
The very talented John Bunker had a show of “New Collages” at his London studios in November. I have thought right from our first meeting, when he was making wacky constructions or assemblages with found objects, of his considerable talents. He has moved things along in his work quite a lot since then, of course, but I feel a little stuck with the most recent show. Quite a lot of it did not work for me beyond a kind of “decoration”, and I include the large work in that criticism. I’m somehow uneasy with all the developments relying on the collage of these many and various found objects or pieces of material when they are placed so loosely upon an open wall, and with quite such a degree of unresolved ideas, as if they were hanging there as rather pictorial illustrations. This is what I wrote about his work from Brancaster Chronicles in 2017:
“I think it is especially difficult with John’s work to form a discriminating opinion, not only because he has a consistently high level of novel invention throughout the work, but also because he makes work that is neither painting nor sculpture – he operates in territory pretty much his own, and we are all mindful of keeping open all the options. However, on reflection, I do think this is a mixed-bag of work that does all sorts of different things with quite varying degrees of success.
The relationship of the work to the wall might be seen as analogous to open space in and around a sculpture, but not only does that mean very little, I don’t in the end think the analogy stands up. The wall has become part of John’s new territory, and it is used in a variety of interesting and experimental, but also inconsistent, ways, and it needs careful thought. For me, the ones with the linear strings or wooden spacer elements don’t work so well, and perhaps don’t engage so well with the wall even as they seemingly attempt to gain more of it by opening out across it. I like the idea of that, and I understand the ambition, but these elements I think become a bit literal/figurative, as in the “hanging” of “Cannaba”, and make the work more object-like, less pictorially spatial. What seems to me to work best is when a diversity of different things integrate pictorially, sometimes including the wall, but with it weaving in and out and through the other material in a more natural way, with the spatiality of the piece not unsettled by figurative triggers. I realise in saying this that I am aligning these collages far more with painting than with sculpture, but I see no convincing third option. I rather think John sees them very differently to me, so I’m trying to keep open the possibilities of all these things.”
I think I would repeat this comment about quite a bit of the new work this year. However, this one looks to me to be far the best, because it resolves all those issues and holds these things together very convincingly. Nothing hanging about here!
Looking forward to Lee Krasner at the Barbican, 30 May – 1 September 2019. I really hope this show is good, though the title “Lee Krasner: Living Colour”, puts me off a little. Would it be too much to anticipate seeing this? Even if not this one, she has so many great-looking paintings from around this period.
To finish: a couple of wonderful photographs from the Whitechapel Art Gallery’s archive exhibition on the Jackson Pollock show put on by the late, great, Bryan Robertson in 1958. Wow, what a show that must have been, and what a great piece of true curation. Before my time, sadly, but I did meet Robertson, and I thought he was a giant.