Patrick Heron at Turner Contemporary, Margate.
The hanging of this exhibition has had a lot of column inches devoted to it. The paintings looked really good in these spaces and in spite of the missing traditional chronological reasoning did not compete or confuse. The spaces are not huge, so it is easy to move back and forth, cross-checking things if so desired. I failed to see what the fuss was all about. I understood there were themes but to be brutally honest I didn’t pay attention to them and proceeded to wander around and take each work on face value. The signature Herons (the “wobbly hard edged”) such as the huge “Cadmium With Violet, Scarlet, Emerald, Lemon and Venetian: 1969” look immediately familiar and impressive. These works are characterised by their fully saturated higher-keyed primaries and secondaries straight from the tube, activated more by a literalness in the brushstroke rather than a painterliness per se. The brush being a markedly smaller than thought Japanese watercolour brush. Sitting uniformly on a white ground gives each hue the same reflective force. Complementary colours buzz optically against one another as their shapes flip-flop between positive and negative areas, à la Matisse’s cut outs. Heron’s optimism in an almost hedonistic colour, is supported by his wilfulness to drive each colour shape through to its conclusion in the same way as it was started – the brush scribble, more often than not. They have an insistency which, with hindsight, is possibly their undoing at times; in these works he seems to have put himself ahead of his own curve. By this I mean he understood fully what he was doing, not quite moving himself into the more profound areas of discovery – the speed of acknowledgment of each work’s merits is condensed into a shorter space of time. Colour will always surprise but they teeter ever so slightly into the realms of design (this is not to consider design in any pejorative way but to define its nature in terms of more predictive outcomes, for design has to have a preconditioned purpose at its heart).
What is significant in these paintings though was his rejection of North American modernist symmetry, preferring to connect with the checks and balances of European easel painting instead. The sheer bloody mindedness of putting huge amounts of a single colour is startling to see, yet they never become “fields” as such, as there is a familiar positioning and counter-positioning approach of smaller elements so characterised by the term “French”. Not really a surprise given his connection with Braque and his championing of Matisse. This affirmation of the easel and rejection of the field was ultimately what caused friction in his relationship with Clement Greenberg who was trying to get him to empty out his work more. I met Patrick Heron on two occasions and vividly remember the first of these as a student when he came to lecture and repeatedly reiterated his disgruntlement with Greenberg’s promotion of American modernism and its claim for a vanguard status. The empty spaces and cropped edges were an anathema to him. At its most extreme, cropping became a decadent taste exercise, shunting all internal relationships about and finding something in there to shout about – as there was usually always something in there, it seemed a doomed to succeed sort of endeavour. Heron saw more potency in the inter-relationships of surface to shape and shape to whole. In this take on painting, the application of the paint becomes ever more important. By coming down in scale on the brush Heron was forcing a more intimate engagement with his surface and a setting up of a stronger declaration of scale in the painting. Heron’s work is all about scale and this is an issue which should not be sidestepped by painters today. American painting post-Pollock arrived at a problem which set in with the self- cancelling nature that the quest for a neutrality of format created. The assumption was that such a neutrality was the ideal carrier of colour content. For a while this was fine, but as Noland himself discovered in his second version of his circles, made on 2 ft square canvases to address this shortcoming, much of the colour field paintings kept the viewer at an optimum distance and didn’t invite a “deeper” engagement. This is a moot point for a painting is apprehended at light speed. It could therefore be argued that such engagement is in fact not what it is about; the initial eye hit carries the content in one jolt. Yet it was the lesson of Cézanne that informed Noland to return to the closely worked instances of paint rather than more generalised areas. What Heron was after was an impact that reveals all but is built on a more specific set of internal incidents to get to that impact. There is a covert assertion here that the eye – vis-a-vis the brain – can indeed handle a greater amount of detail and inter-relational elements and still perceive it with that same wholistic jolt. Heron would point – quite rightly – to late Matisse as a shining example of what colour, space and light can look like in a painting. The richness of internal area to edge, of colour to colour, of scale, space and ultimately light all invites and wallops in equal measure. In short, you can in fact have your cake and eat it.
Although Heron saw merits in American modernism: the energy, size and originality; what was missing was this closer intimacy of easel painting. Pollock was a game changer but ultimately the game ran out of time. We no longer aspire to make murals. An oversized work will create a physical sense of scale in the viewer, but it can shut down eye movement through the desire to envelop. Heron was right about scale and through his brush-scribble started to get at the principles of movement through detail. However, this detail needed something to work with and against – enter the employment of shape. Details can be created in more nuanced ways, but we are in the early days of acrylic and still holding on to the palette. Brushes and mops meant a loss of the hand wrought so prized by Heron. He could see the bigger picture. To get at colour, an artist must first get at the paint. To get a sensitivity and feeling into the colour would also mean getting a sensitivity and feeling into the handling. A field that is empty is much the same as a field that is full (compare a Milton Resnick with an Olitski spray painting); it’s the flip side of the same coin though I would argue that the Olitski delivers the more seductive work every time). However, when the details are unable to create scale the work loses its potency for specificity and can lapse into an indeterminate pictorialism.
I sympathise entirely with his take on scale and its relational factor, furthermore, it being in direct connection with the proportionate size of his works. Indeed it was enlightening to read in the catalogue a quote hitherto unknown to me about just this fact when discussing a particular painting from 1959: …there had been a single violet lozenge shape in the middle of a dulled green ground (possibly a bit Gottlieb-ish)…“but I felt that this denied explicit and particular scale to the picture. It made it into a signal, a sign, which might have existed on any scale, from that of a postage stamp to that of an ocean liner’s design. It removed the explicitly 4ft x 5ft- ness of the picture! So I let the surrounding square discs return!” (In my previous articles on Space in painting, this was the exact point I was trying to make.) Heron may well have employed shapes which with time can feel ever so slightly of their time. I believe that is in part down to his reluctance to work paint over paint, preferring to keep it side by side, the eccentricities thus take the form of the containing shape which carries the brush-scribble colour.
Heron started out painting silks and the touch and delicacy of handling never left him. There are rarely moments in the show of a fully loaded paint work or even instances of really pushing the oils about and wrestling with the surface. Heron eschewed that approach, preferring more of a sparring rather than heavy hitting with his paint. At times there were some layered bits of colour when he did allow himself the opportunity rather than keeping colours alongside one another, painting off a white for each hue. Heron preferred the single skin of colour as it maximised the reflectiveness of the white ground. He felt colour on colour was potentially deadening in effect due to the resultant opacities and he detested acrylic paint. Though on this latter point I think he had yet to see how it developed in quality and what potential it now has for colour and surface.
The heat of the wobbly hard-edged paintings breaks up into an airiness in the “Garden” paintings. If my memory serves me correctly, Heron talked about a film being made of him in the studio (I think he showed it or stills and the work at the talk he gave when I was a student- was it a South Bank show?) A crew visited Heron’s studio and he made a painting for the camera in a looser way to his usual draw and fill approach (of which there is a BBC film of artists in their studios in the archive featuring Hoyland also), The pressure of having to perform in some way became a liberation, making him trust his drawing and work straight with paint as line and area from the off. I could be wrong about this, but I have a memory of it.
These garden works are much more hit and miss due to the increased variables at play: line mainly and a breaking up of those discs into looser areas with staccato daubs massing or meandering around, in and out of zones of different colour. The white is all conquering, bleaching out much of the fuller potentials of the contrasting hues and at times, ironically in light of his protestations to the contrary, relegating them to elements of design rather than releasing them through the painting. In this they have connection with the gouaches on show: roll them up and they’d make great scarves. He asserted he did not design anything but the feel of design lingers. The white can be too imposing, but it was a relief to see examples of him weaving in other pastels or soft yellows to add a greater expressive nuance to the white by turning it into a “light” rather than keeping it directly “white”. It is useful when handling colour to consider any hue with the letter “a” before it to broaden the target for the colour decision… just saying.
I would not identify Heron fully as a painter’s painter, myself, though there are numerous rewarding clues, not least the directness of the attack and the ambition for colour. He has a wonderful way of handling his paint which is subtle and sophisticated. He found abstract painting but never left landscape, in so doing though I am thankful he avoided the more questionable motives that many of his contemporaries tried to bolt onto their work: numinosity, angsty soul-searching, and all the rest of the existential baggage that artistic egocentricity has an unfortunate habit of parading forth. He preferred to consider the physical rather than the metaphysical; so issues of how we perceive space, distance, form, ideas about synthesis, responses to one’s environment occupied him to the end. Thank goodness for that. However, as a path for abstract painters, it is a bit of a windy trail down to a beautiful beach, rooted in the local and holding on the intoxications of ozone and eye-watering light. Colour, space and light were his goal. It still is the biggest prize; the symbiotic relationship of this triumvirate is still so protean in potential. However, I feel that colour on colour rather than just alongside is a greater challenge to now take forward. His use of scale, edge and the importance of colour at generating space through light is significant. Furthermore, his assertion that the true humanity of an artwork lies in its actuality, its concreteness and concomitant decision-making when actually painting, rather than the employment of subject matter to guide one’s feelings in some way cannot be stated loudly enough. He drifted in and out of our artistic landscape much in the same way as his shapes drifted in and out of focus: sometimes sparky and crisp, other times soft and muted. Always heartfelt and sensitive.
A day later I was on a street in what has become my hometown. I saw a kid standing on the kerb, face stained with the residues of a cheap sweet. He was staring at some gaudy Christmas decorations. If he’d had a brick I think he would have thrown it, but after a pause, he just wandered on and kicked at some grass sprouting up through worn paving stones. Just for a moment there was a mischievous menace in the air, whistling in on an icy biting wind…I don’t think that kid has ever owned a scarf.