#112. Emyr Williams writes on Patrick Heron at Margate

Patrick Heron, “Cadmium with Violet, Scarlet, Emerald Lemon and Venetian: 1969”. Tate, London 2018 and estate of Patrick Heron. DACS 2018

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.

Patrick Heron, “5-6 September: 1996”, © estate of Patrick Heron, DACS 2018.
This work hit a tactile sweet spot getting the brushwork to connect with the size in a satisfying way. The use of yellow woven throughout recalls Matisse’s under drawing in colour and tempers the white, as do the other soft washes of greys.

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.

Patrick Heron, “Tall Purple: September 1962”. © estate of Patrick Heron. DACS 2018
One of the few paintings where he painted off a ground colour. This painting looks great in the flesh, quite luxurious in its use of purple. It exposes some of the over use of that colour (especially when it looks so abrupt against white) in the late garden paintings. Here the purple has a real heat which positively cuddles the other hues.

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.

78 comments

  1. The film mentioned was definitely the South Bank Show with Melvyn Bragg, it was made to coincide with Herons 1985 show at the Barbican which I visited. I enjoyed the new work he showed there, looser, freer garden paintings, as I had lost contact with Herons work since the 70’s.

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  2. I’m personally more drawn to the garden paintings than i am all the oval jigsaw stuff. There are figurative devices, sure, but overall they seem more full of life and energy. Lots of interesting passages and juxtapositions that make the earlier stuff look tame . that said, I’ve only ever seen heron in reproduction so i’m commenting from a position of ignorance.

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  3. Perhaps we no longer aspire to “make murals”, but nor, I hope, do we aspire to make designer scarves, or anything resembling them. Personally, I think Pollock is a much more substantial painter than Heron, even with the problems that his layering/webbing technique presents.

    I like this piece of writing a lot, and I admire it. I also admire Heron as a writer immensely – read his essay “Is Cezanne Still Alive?”. But it is in this text he flags up the limitations of his own painting, which never approached Cezanne’s massive achievements in the reconciliation of three-dimensions with two. Heron is almost entirely a two-dimensional painter, not to say a designer, as is suggested in this essay. I cannot get very far with this, and I cannot see how this can be developed. Others have tried, but the whole project of colour/shape as form seems shallow compared with so much greatness in the history of painting.

    Heron, in the text I refer to, suggests that even a Cezanne masterpiece has its limits to communication. I think that is especially true of the content of his own, rather slender painting.

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    1. Interesting. But should this reconciliation of dimensions still be the model of success for painting? i feel like the Hofmann style of painting, for instance (very Abstract Cezanne), can also seem tidy and mannered even at its best (cake decoration instead of scarves). But overall, i agree that Heron rarely leaves his safe zone- at least until toward the end but even then its a mixed bag.

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      1. The reconciliation of three with two-dimensions I see, in Cezanne’s case particularly, as being intimately connected to the tensioning-up of the entire surface of the painting, getting everything working as part of a whole. I don’t see that happening so much in Hofmann, and Heron does not even go there.

        As to whether it should be a model for success in new abstract painting, I think that is to be proven, one way or another, though it looks that way to me at the moment, because of what the best abstract painting is attempting. But it will be a different way of doing it, perhaps, from the figurative way of Cezanne.

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    1. It difficult to tell isn’t it? We can try to imagine Cezanne with all the figurative content subtracted, or even transducted; made abstract, but the images resist it- at least for me. There are so many abstract qualities to Cezanne but they always have a primary descriptive nature that is ineluctable. Can he therefore be a useful model for today’s abstract artists? I’m not entirely positive.

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  4. The most abstract thing about that Cezanne is the deliciously illogical vertiginous angles and the flickering light that radiates through everything. But surely these elements are still subsumed into a descriptive space- an illusory sphere. Can all these ambient, dizzying effects be effectively deployed without this sphere? In all probability no, although some are still trying. Is the answer then to retain some meagre degree of illusion, but only if we’re willing to relate it to surface and undermine it with exacerbated artifice?

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  5. Weird space. He seems to be letting the shapes and colours do their own thing independently of any figuration. The resulting conflicts only disappear when you let go of the figuration, but as an abstract painting it is a bit too unbalanced to make this easy or satisfying.

    I think Bonnard might be a more interesting starting point for complex abstract painting than either Cézanne or Matisse.

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    1. Not sure about that, although I’m looking forward to the Bonnard exhibition.
      Cézanne landscapes work a little differently to his still lifes. Landscapes work via multi directional movement, while the landscapes rely a little more on colour push pull and discrete areas. The landscapes move the still lifes are stiller.
      Given that both his best landscapes and still lifes are great paintings they can both offer something to us now.

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  6. Yes, there´s loads to learn from all of them. I was thinking that Matisse relies very heavily on (mostly drawn) figuration and/or modeling for his space, while Cézanne is very concerned with giving substance to what are then unmistakably objects.

    Bonnard´s shapes have (visual rather than literal) texture, which gives them a degree of solidity without turning them into objects or destroying their flatness as painted areas. Block out the path in the painting above and you still have a very active spatiality and tangible surfaces without any obviously figurative clues or objects.

    Can abstract painting only be weightless, flat, coloured planes parallel to the picture surface? Can there be non-objective painting with objects in it? What counts as an object? I think it´s questions like these that make Bonnard interesting for abstract painting.

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    1. I’m going to hang fire about Bonnard until the Tate show, except to say that if you block out the path (or even if you don’t!) in “The Jardin”, I don’t see the achievement of “active space” so much as a decorative and flattened arrangement of pretty unrelated and rather eccentric shapes. These might well be interesting/exciting, but my experience of Bonnard has often been very unrewarding in even the fairly short term. But there are exceptions in some of his better work, which may or may not appear in the Tate show.

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    2. I´m not saying that it makes a good abstract painting, but for me the admittedly unrelated and eccentric shapes are extremely mobile backwards and forwards against each other, perpendicular to the picture plane. They don´t form any kind of coherent pictorial space but they demonstrate powerful space-making qualities that seem quite independent of any figuration. Organise them less chaotically and you might get something good.

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  7. This Bonnard is looking remarkably similar in how it is put together in an ad hoc, extemporised manner to Heron’s “5-6 September: 1996”, and indeed to many of Heron’s “Garden” paintings. Presumably Heron knew that?

    I’m not at all against extemporisation, but that’s not the whole story for me, particularly when it stops at colour juxtapositioning.

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  8. Ethan
    Now that you say it, I agree that Wragg has looked closely and productively at Bonnard, but he mostly seems (in reproduction) to mix this up with a lot of gesture, drawing, willful fracture of pictorial space, neglect of the surface and an extremely relaxed attitude to any kind of wholeness. You can rate these further qualities as you like, but they are not Bonnardian.
    Nothing to stop someone taking this in a different direction.

    I think you can probably pick up stuff from anywhere in the history of painting and use it progressively. Why not?

    Robin
    From what I’ve read about him, Bonnard must have been one of the least spontaneous painters of all time!
    It’s a bit of a mystery what he was looking for in paintings like the one above. Elsewhere he can do wonderfully coherent renditions of naturalistic space.
    Is it unfinished? Is the space deliberately unsettling in order to convey some emotional/psychological/perceptual content? Was he on the brink of a kind of ab-ex (Joan Mitchell?) abstract painting without the posturing, but couldn’t quite let go? He comes across as a very serious-minded artist of Cézanne-like intensity, so I wouldn’t want to dismiss this “weird” aspect of his work.
    There were a lot of really good Bonnards hanging with Matisse in Frankfurt the year before last and Matisse looked a little bit slick and manipulative in comparison.
    I don’t want to get too sentimental, but there’s a strange and powerful, and intensely humble humanity in Bonnard’s painting. Something to fill the void in “zombie formalism”?

    “5-6 September 1966” is much better organised than “Le Jardin”. I agree with Emyr that this was one of the highlights of the show.

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    1. Until 1920, Bonnard painted from photographs. Once he began working from life, his paintings had more depth and colour. He wanted to paint representational subjects using the science of painting, and the close placement of complementary colours to create optical effects. That is why he made quick pencil sketches and noted colours, before painting in a studio; away from the subject. He was not exploring the abstract, but the science within painting practice, beyond that of Seurat and Signac. Working from direct observation and what the eye sees, they are unlikely to reproduce well as photographs. At a similar time, both Cézanne and Matisse were using Emerald green, which has been discovered, in many paintings it darkened over time to a black. Emerald green was not the only colour, but its resulting deterioration is the most prominent. It will be interesting to actually see Bonnard’s paintings.

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  9. i wouldn’t wish to suggest that drawing from history should be off-limits.That would simply be perverse. But i do hold that Bonnard is an already over-plundered cache of visual ideas. I would even reluctantly say the same for Cezanne. Hang me, but i can’t help but feel there is something a bit fogeyish about clinging to the influence of all these Frenchmen. I don’t wish for these comments to come off as mereley polemical. I am myself a huge admirer of Matisse and Cezanne and yet sometimes they feel too close to crutches for comfort.

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  10. I would much rather suggest that “drawing from history” IS decidedly off-limits. Why go there, to copy or plunder anything from the past? So I agree it is pointless to cling to the direct influence of these great Frenchmen. Surely better to go somewhere new with abstract painting. However, that is much harder said than done, and for the most part has not been fully done yet, and not connecting in some way with the huge ambitions and achievements of these great Frenchmen, who are part of a massive development in painting that happened in the latter half of the nineteenth century, and, almost entirely, ONLY in France, seems just as perverse.

    What is in question here, from my point of view, is nothing less than whether Bonnard – and Heron – has the degree of ambition and ability to nail down something new. It would appear that Bonnard wanted to do something original, and in the “Le Jardin” he appears (from reproduction) to want to abandon the more obvious literal spatial structures of landscape in favour of something different. But it looks pretty sloppy to me, like many of Heron’s “Garden” paintings. Cezanne and Matisse, by contrast, often make the abandonment of literal structures an occasion for the achievement of something inventive and new. Is “Le Jardin” inventive and new? Not convinced.

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    1. Robin,
      Literaly ‘copying’ should of course be off the table for any mature practicing artist. This is not what I mean by saying ‘drawing from history’. When you ask us to consider the achievements of Bonnard (or his ambition) you are not, I assume, calling on artists to copy him. But then what are you calling for? You believe there is something instructive there yes?

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  11. There is much in this thread to tackle. Bonnard, as Heron, has his problems. Of this we can both agree. Of course, it is extremely difficult to conceive of a wholly new form of abstract painting, untethered from the achievements of french painting whilst not falling into the trap of novelty.

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      1. As an abstract painter I’m admittedly a novice. Poetry is more what I’m good at. But this website has ennervated me and made me passionate about abstraction. There’s a lot to learn. And discuss.

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  12. Dear Ethan, I note that you are good at poetry. I have checked in the Oxford dictionary and found the following definition for ‘enervate’:- 2 to emasculate. 3 to weaken physically; now only of things that impair nervous tone. 4 to weaken mentally or morally; to destroy the capacity for action.
    Perhaps this is what some of us feel.

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    1. Robin, I note that you have copied the image from Caroline Hislam’s recent twitter page (Caroline appears in the picture) to which you pose a query. There the painting is contrasted with two Pete Hoida paintings where the painting is quite differently constructed and the image hovers to the foreground. All the works, the Heron , the Gouk and Hoida all refute pure abstraction.
      By the way, I admired Emyr’s scholarly article, but as usual find the comments stray into issues about what might be ways of, to use the horrid phrase, ‘going forward’. Comparing Matisse with Bonnard for example is the old apples and pears. For my part, I enjoy the paintings without subjecting them to utilitarian notions of how it might affect (another horror) ‘my practice’. Rather it is a matter of honing one’s sensibility. Might I add that, yes, the language matters.

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      1. I love this idea of refuting pure abstraction. What is it, and how do you do that? Since the language matters, perhaps you’d better explain. Do hone my sensibility for me…

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  13. I feel like the space in the Gouk is perhaps more abstract- or is it just walled off? Unfortunatley I can see all kinds of devices in the Heron that are simply figurative. Tufts of grass and bushes. That said they are both luscious paintings from what i can tell and i think I understand your logic in connecting them to the Bonnard garden painting. All three of the painters appear to be “punctuating” the space in a very active way. Its the mode of this punctuation that differs.

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  14. Back to the subject…. by way of West Penwith.

    Hitchhiking between Gurnard’s Head and Penzance I was given a lift by Patrick. Everyone locally knew that he lived at Eagle’s Nest, some four miles up the road from Boswednack where I was staying. I was easily able to recognise that it was him by the colours of his striped knitted jumper – it was 1967, and though I had no ambitions to be a painter at all, I had seen some of his stripe and horizon paintings. I am sure that art wasn’t even mentioned and we parted at Penzance.

    I next met Patrick at an outdoor summer party at Eagle’s Nest in 1968, where I had been invited by a Canadian student who was employed making stretchers for Patrick. I was too shy to even think of asking to go inside the house to look at his paintings, and I only remember meeting an ėmigrė potter; I was immensely impressed to meet a living person who had studied at the Bauhaus. There was a gramophone on the grass and the potter waltzed (this at the time of the late sixties) so I was even more impressed.

    It was one morning in the summer of 1968 that I called at Sidney Graham’s house (W.S. Graham) in Madron, who I would occasionally see for a drink to talk his and my poetry. He was teaching me that words matter; the right word for the wronged (sic) occasion, and we once spoke into his reel to reel tape machine to prepare him for a Third Programme poetry recording and to prepare me to alter some misplaced line endings, punctuation and to lose a bit of mumbo jumbo. On a particular morning I found he already had a visitor and I was introduced to Roger Hilton, of whom I knew nothing at all. I recall that at some point the conversation turned to Patrick heron, and how he had by dint of a penchant for self publicity risen into the limelight leaving Hilton, Lanyon and Frost in the shade. On leaving I had asked Hilton to give me a lift up to the Gurnard’s Head, and told him that it was “not much out of his way” as he was headed for St Just. He was quite prepared to give me a lift, but absolutely furious at me for this presumptuous inaccuracy, and perhaps it is from him that I learnt not to put up with the bollox.

    Now this digression and detour is not to illuminate myself in the glow cast by the Gods, but to point out just how wrong one can be; which matter I will by and by arrive at.

    By 1981 I had completed studies at two London Art schools and felt myself to be a little more au fait with “abstract painting”. There was a Patrick Heron exhibition of his fairly recent paintings at the Riverside Arts Centre, Hammersmith, and there he was standing alone in the empty gallery; I remember now to my embarrassment that I told him I preferred his earlier work – something no artist wants to hear at his latest exhibition. He asked me if I was Alan Gouk, who he was waiting for, to be interviewed by. I denied it. Alan arrived and I left.

    I last spoke with Patrick sitting at a table in the Four Season Chinese restaurant in Gerard Street after the private view at the Barbican (1985) where he showed his garden paintings. We talked only about his sea bass, my octopus and “Old Osborne”, a grumpy farmer who lived between Boswednack and Zennor. At this time I was pretty impressed by the later garden paintings, as was Alan Gouk. I recall some years later at Montrose Alan saying he was afraid it would be said that he was overtly influenced by Heron. Actually, as you will see in the painting illustrated in Caroline Hislam’s recent tweet (@CarolineHislam), there is some similarity although Alan’s painting has a somewhat more conventional left to right orthography. I didn’t think any lesser of Alan for being influenced, I thought this lighter touch work was good; and for that matter I found that Heron’s work suffered more by comparison with Braque than Alan did with Heron, when Heron was making rather drawing-like paintings of interiors.

    At this time I criticised Heron’s very large “jigsaw paintings” (for want of a better term), due to a prejudice I had about design in painting. We know that he very quickly sketched simple outlines, and then filled them in with small strokes of a Japanese brush. For some dogmatic reason I felt that this sort of disqualified the painting! That they should be constructed with decisions made, if not spontaneously then as the work proceeded. Now here I was many, many years later at Tate St Ives 2018, confronted with my misplaced ideas. In front of these great coloured works any tenets that I had held were defeated by experience. I could only judge these paintings by submitting to the sheer enjoyment of the colour and step back and forth to a position of reading these works as an analytic exercise, and both to the pleasure and presence of the work as it held the wall and me on my feet in front of it. Let us not forget the tactile experience and beauty of the nap of the canvas brought forth by these tiny brushes.

    No, let us forget Heron’s claims to have instructed Rothko or to have surmounted his achievement in the stripe, or in the case of Hilton what might be designated his non-referential abstractions, or his masters Braque or Matisse. But here in these massive jigsaw canvases he finally became Patrick Heron, great painter.

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    1. Nice post Pete, I remember having that reaction to Heron’s work when I first saw it many many years ago, it just didn’t hit me in the same way when I saw the recent Tate St. Ives show. Might have had more to do with me than the work.

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  15. I can sympathise with Pete’s defence of Heron’s ‘jigsaw’ works. I haven’t had the luxury of seeing them firsthand but have no trouble in believing they contain subtle physical charms. Also, restraint can be just as effective an approach to painting as chance and spontaneity- when done right! But i still can’t help but think there was something a bit safe about Heron. Not in the sense that he was too ‘polished’ or unaccommodating. I feel rather that Heron was a little too concerned with making decisions that were tasteful. Perhaps at the expense of all else. Could we say the same of someone like Olitski? Probably not. Would be interesting to hear some responses.

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  16. On a point of fact — I never met Heron at the Riverside in 1981, and he would never have asked Pete if he was me, since I had known him well since 1964, when I worked on his show for the British Council Sao Paolo Biennale of 1965. He knew exactly the difference between my 6feet 2inches, and Hoida’s smaller stature.
    And I see no left to right “orthography”.

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    1. Alan, what are your thoughts on Heron as he pertains to this thread? I only ask because I know you have a lot of respect for him and have cited him as an influence. The prevailing opinion seems to be that while he wasn’t ambitious with a capital A, he was a master of sensitive handling and ‘slight’ subtle decisions. Is this on the money or are we being politically correct?

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  17. Ethan — I find it impossible to précis my views on Heron extensively recorded over many years. I’d refer you to the following:
    Patrick Heron I Artscribe No 34 1982
    Patrick Heron 2 Artscribe No 35 1982
    Patrick Herons new paintings Barbican Gallery Catalogue. 1985
    An evening with Patrick Heron. State of Art issue No 1. Flowers East Gallery 2005
    Key Paintings of the 20 th Century 2 on abcrit.com. 2018
    No one has yet mentioned the excellent catalogue essays for this show by Andrew Wilson, especially as concerns “explicitness of scale”. They left me with no reason to write any further on the subject myself. And now we have Emyr’s fine contribution, although I rate the Garden Paintings, both groups, higher than he does. Unfortunately almost all of the second group were destroyed in the MOMART fire.
    Assimilating aspects of Heron’s style freed me from any allegiance to the philistine English obsession with turgid overworked, laboured complexities in defiance of the “utter directness” which is the mark of truly modern painting.

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  18. But I wonder if directness really is the holy grail we want it to be. Someone like Peter Halley, for instance, seems to me to be utterly ‘direct’ and not ‘overworked’ at all. And yet he seems to have no allies here on this website from what I can tell..

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  19. Complexities in painting do not have to be laboured (see Cezanne, Pissarro and another half-dozen great painters of 1870’s France, or Matisse and Derain in 1900-1910, for example), and if complexity appears to dominate the painting, it is perhaps better criticised as “complications”.

    And “directness” can be both good and bad, the latter proven by Halley’s banal “modern-ness”. To be “modern” means very little to me, if all it means is simplification. Certainly the Heron’s we have been discussing are simplified in a way that has very little to engage me. But I think Alan and I will never agree on this.

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  20. I’ll try one more time —- I wonder if Robin ever stops to ponder, when he is pouring cold water on Heron’s Paintings, how it is that Heron is so marvellously precise and detailed in his account of Cezanne’s “solid space”, and Constable’s drawings, more eloquently observant than any other writer (Robin is happy to repeat almost verbatim these pearls of wisdom) and yet paints his own paintings in the way he does, without trying to emulate the structural and spatial complexities of these masters, (which are never turgid or overworked, or almost never, and take directness all the way up to eleven).
    Does he never think that there are good reasons for this gulf in method and aspiration, one reason being that Heron associates Cezannism with the Euston Road School, Coldstream, Evan Uglow, Keith Vaughan, and a thousand other academic mannerists active in England when he was growing up, and at the Slade.
    Heron grew away from that milieu, with a different life history, different foreground influences. And above all to be true to his own temperamental inclinations — economy of means, the maximum of sensuous vibrancy with the minimum of “labour” — “utter directness” — the post-fauve desideratum — space and light through the immediate chiming of colour and the sensuous delight of scribbled brush drawing. That’s where Heron came in, and to which he constantly returns.
    To constantly harp on about your own “thesis” (self designated” ) or even your own predilections, is not criticism. The role of critic is not to project your own conflicted desires onto the art in question, upbraiding it for failing to meet criteria foreign to its purpose, but to try to elucidate what is being attempted and why, and only then to evaluate. Let alone to imply that if only the artist were to follow the critic’s injunctions the art would be the better for it. Heron’s “perfect pitch” as a colourist Mark’s him out as head and shoulders above any English rivals, which is alone enough to mean that he will continue to exert a compelling influence on truly modern painters to come.

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    1. Yes, you can try once more – since this comment is nowhere near as offensive as the one I previously blocked – but there is still no reason to mention my recent painting in this context, especially since you haven’t seen it. But you are right in as much as I am not a critic. I have opinions. Never mind.

      There are lots of reasons why Heron might be a better writer than painter. There are no reasons why “Cezanne-ism” has any critical claim on Cezanne.

      And without “harping on” about yourself, if possible, since that is your favourite topic, I would be interested in knowing whether there is anyone, beyond yourself, on whom Heron continues to “exert a compelling influence” in this so-called “modern” way that you favour. And is it still true?

      Without rancour, please.

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  21. I think overall it does well for painter’s to avoid mannerism, whether they are “direct” or “laboured”, whatever these terms mean . Striving to be Modern with a capital M might be a bit Quixotic if taken in the wrong way, although I think Alan may be describing Modernism as a rejection of “indirect” mannerisms, which I’m on board with.

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  22. I know this is a really long shot but could Heron have been emboldened/inspired by Basquiat in his paintings from the late eighties and nineties?

    Of course the “subject matter” is very different, but they are both using flat colour in combination with thin, spikey drawing in what are essentially graphic works. They also have a lot of signs and motifs in common: Things crossed out, ladders, webbed circles, jagged lines.
    At the risk of getting a seriously bad reputation for this sort of thing there’s even a Basquiat crown or two in “21 June 1992”!

    Whatever the truth of this, I think there’s a point to make
    here concerning Heron’s supposed tastefulness or lack of ambition. If you ignore the “edginess” of Basquiat’s subject matter, (which time is inevitably taming and aestheticizing anyway) then his works are conventionally rather well composed.
    When it comes to such formal characteristics, Heron’s late paintings (from about 1985?) go way further than Basquiat in defying artistic convention. I’m not saying that this makes them any good, but tasteful and unambitious they are not.

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    1. This is so much of a stretch I kind of wish it were true!. Although weren’t a lot of people at that time aggressively uninterested in Heron on account of him being a symbol of formalism or something? Also it’s funny for me to think of Basquiat as conventionally well composed. Seems more jotted down like a high school doodle book. Perhaps that’s a convention we owe to him. I definitely agree that time makes rude art tame- or tamer than it was. Even Cezanne is biscuit tin material now.

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  23. To get back to Heron for a moment: When I say that Heron’s “tastefulness” was a bit of a hindrance I understand the problematic implications that come with this statement. Anything can cease to become jarring when we become familiar with it and anything unfamiliar can, even if graceful, initially seem shocking or vulgar. This is how Matisse went from a “fauve” or beast to “hypnotically beautiful” (in the words of Heron). But there seems to me to be a kind of Keatsian “negative capability” or “illogic” to the works of Matisse (1946’s Racaille Chair for instance is still so strange to me) that just isn’t there in Heron. Heron loved to justify or explain artistic decisions but Matisse was very much like a somnambulist. He would do what felt right, whereas Heron would simply do what he thought wasn’t wrong. i’m not advocating automatism here but rather I’m questioning an over-regulated or over-delineated sensibility.

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  24. At least Ethan had the bottle to say he had not actually seen a Heron.Makes you wonder about so many passionate aficionados of English Abstract Painting .How many have made the effort to get to the RWA in Bristol ,where there is an extraordinary show of Albert Irvin and the Abstract Expressionists.The space is fabulous and whether you go with the thesis ,that Bert went from kitchen sink to full colour Painting ,as a result of seeing the Tates show of American Art,is another matter.Imagine the space without anything in it ,and then look at each work separately,without any headphones,just your eyes.To me they are emotional triggers,straight to the heart.I actually prefer the more tonal oil paintings ,where tone is of the essence.However ,the list of Pollock,De Kooning ,Guston,Hartigan ,Gottlieb,Hoyland ,Beattie ,Lanyon et al ,means this show has stopped at no lengths to make its point.Personally I see Morris Louis,but as somebody said to me recently ,who is that? Makes you realise where we’ve got to .

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    1. Makes you wonder what exactly? Perhaps there are meaningful reasons as to why someone might be unable to visit galleries as often as they would like, beyond simply not being “passionate” enough.. I have however had the privilege of seeing certain works by Albert Irvin (not the LSD hopscotch stuff he’s famous for but the more tonal stuff I believe you’re referring to) and was, I’m sad to say, emotionally “untriggered”. Alan Davie on the other hand…

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  25. Ethan ,Respect .Im not having a go at you .Each to his own .Matthew Collings,who has been perceptive on occasions,notably concerning John Maclean and Frank Bowling ,even Alan Gouk. recently compared Hockney to Piero De la Francesco..Since Goldsmiths sold us the YBA s ,Saatchi.Norman Rosenthal,Philip Green have been able to wipe their arse on the Art World ,Pardon my metaphor.There is a terrible complacency at work here..At least you,ve got some credible interest.I hope to meet you at Robins Open Studio ,[where I hope you were luckier than me to receive an invitation!] Probably if I had a website ,Id feel very complacent about the state of things.The government has fallen apart,the right wing are taking over and all we can do is talk about Bonnard.Very nice ,cultured and absolutely irrelevant.Why not have a go at the spelling ,as thats very public school,or indeed the punctuation?I have a terrible fear of being forced to talk about exactly what it is that makes me an Abstract artist.I am not interested in writing down what Im doing for fear of having to replicate it.As Paul Klee said when Dying ,Im just not close enough to you,Dear Lord .Fortuneatly theres a resurgence of Bauhaus,where it all began coming up.

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  26. Pretty much everyone gets compared to Piero della Francesca as far as I can tell. But to be honest I don’t believe the dilemma for living artists is necessarily one of conservatism. Living Artists should have a meaningful relationship with the Art of the past, and not feel under pressure to renounce it. This is why I like Cezanne. He understood the contradiction in trying to respect the old masters whilst also trying not to cheapen or institutionalise them. Bonnard must have also understood this to some degree. But I sympathise with what your’e saying about ‘complacency’ as it seems to echo my own fears about romanticism and styles becoming ‘institutionalised’. But If you asked me if i believed that any of the artists who have been commenting on this thread have become complacent I would say no. I see a lot of inventiveness and enthusiasm. I see an encouraging mistrust of what is lowest-common-denominator. But I think some of the rhetoric might drift into ‘complacency’. I don’t believe it is silly or ridiculous at all to talk about Bonnard in the year 2019. Or Basquiat, or Heron. But we have to be careful not to make them into Raphael-style fetish figures.
    Heron was an amazing writer. I adore his essay on late Matisse. But it says more about Heron than it does Matisse. Heron misinterpreted Matisse the same way that Matisse misinterpreted Cezanne. But this was all necessary so as to think ‘around’ these artists and not be trapped in each others ways of thinking. Perhaps not all of them were conscious of it but I believe it’s what made them successful. That’s why I’m of the belief that If we continue to think about Heron in his own terms it might be a bit of a problem. As for the rusergance of Bauhaus I would say sign me up!- on the condition that there are less paintings and more wall hangings.

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  27. Emyr – I enjoyed your excellent analysis of Heron and the commentary that has followed. A lot of debatable issues have been raised and give food for thought..
    One, which pertains as much to sculpture as to painting is that of ‘design’. The modern English usage of the word (it does not exist in other European languages) tends to mean a preconceived idea which is most suitable for manufacture or commerce rather than the old art historical sense of the word (i.e. the ‘design’ in a Poussin);. that is to say referring to the construction of a picture (or sculpture).
    I would like to hear more views on this, since falling between two stools of ‘design’ and design as structure is a very important issue for both arts.

    o

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Tim, I think the ‘preconceived idea’ is the key point here. I have in the past ‘designed’ my abstract paintings which has given them a kind of limited interest value. Something preconceived when working abstract, doesn’t apply so strongly for figurative work I don’t think, does sometimes not have the depth of something that is developed and interacted with as part of its creation, to my mind.
      The development of structure, coherence or overallness or whatever one would call it, would be integral to the process of discovering what makes a painting or sculpture work. That endeavour would hopefully be a rich experience which could find its way into the work and be communicated to the audience.

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  28. I think perhaps that the discussion of “structure” in the progress of abstract sculpture and painting must be challenged directly, no matter who the artist. The coherent wholeness of abstract art seems more of an important issue, unrelated to “structure” as we know it.

    If the connection with figurative or literal structure remains, the work looses much of its freedom. We are beginning to see a change, I hope, in how to think about abstract art as something with very a different kind of new “content”, unrelated to “known” factors, designed or otherwise.

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    1. Could ‘structure’ just be an incidental outcome as part of a coherent wholeness within an abstract painting or sculpture?
      What kind of ‘structure’ would be unacceptable?
      I am thinking could there be an abstract ‘structure’ which would be something holding the work together? Not something literal or figurative.

      incidental

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  29. Now Im totally confused.I responded to Robins comment that its possible to have a wonderfull piece of Art ,where you don’t have to FEEL anything.I suggested you could just enjoy the structure,in the fullest sense.I was thinking about a Cezanne,the empty house,with black windows.I was duly chastised,as structure wasn’t Abstract enough,by Robin.I am now in the midst of attempting a review of the Irvin show in Bristol and apart from a lengthy discussion about the colour [and paint],have had to come down on the side of a structure of feeling ,that the response to these huge canvasses cannot be cerebral,must be emotional.Hopefully this can come up at the symposium on Feb 4th on Abstract Art Now.Can Robin be a bit clearer why looking at the structure of a work,in the fullest sense,isn’t Abstract enough?Or have I got the wrong end of the stick again ,or perhaps wrong stick?again

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  30. ‘Freestyle’ is not new.
    Abstract art ‘ starting from nothing ‘ is not new.
    Structure has been understood, year on year, to be evolving.
    All of the elements of painting and sculpture have already been seen in differing combinations. The very first move common to us all was the dumping of pre-planning anything.
    We are where we are but that is NOT at the beginning. it just feels like it. It should always be a step on.
    As to the myriad of achievements it is very likely too soon to judge and define these.
    They need to stay loose and fluid. If we do not keep the fluidity of all of these elements in our own projects they will turn into designs!
    .

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    1. tony smart

      a lot of things are not new. that doesn’t necessarily mean it isn’t worth trying. am I wrong here? It’s surley HOW we give structure to that thing that is of importance.

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    2. Don’t quite agree with Tony on this – I think there are aspects, particularly in abstract sculpture, that might be completely new, and seem to dispense with known ideas about structure. We will have to see how that develops.

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  31. I would suggest that discovered structure is likely to be more interesting and go deeper/explore newer territory than preconceived structure, but that some kind of structure is important for a finished artwork. There´s a conceptual overlap with coherence. An artwork might achieve coherence on different levels: spatial, chromatic (harmony), structural (balance), evenness of surface “pressure” – all the kinds of things that let you take in the work as a whole but also to roam freely within, without getting stuck and without having to look outside for something that is missing.
    (For figurative art you could add narrative coherence, and maybe to a certain extent for abstract art too – those connecting stripes in Peter Halley´s painting for example.)

    A lot of art just goes for a single kind of coherence. I think that maybe the most ambitious art must be looking for multiple levels of coherence, including structure.

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    1. That´s not quite right..
      A lot of art just goes for a single kind of ADVENTUROUS coherence as opposed to TRIVIAL coherence or incoherence. Kenneth Noland´s target paintings are trivially coherent in their structure but adventurously coherent in their colour. Monochrome painting may be trivially coherent in colour but adventurously coherent in its spatiality.
      Maybe it is this trivial kind of coherence that people object to as structure. I don´t think that incoherence is good at any level. As an artist, I think you have to be trying to make something whole. If the work is original and discovers an unfamiliar kind of coherence then it may initially seem incoherent to its public – it may be contributing to a new way of making sense of experience. But this doesn´t mean that incoherence, lack of structure etc. are a sure sign of originality. I think they are more often a sign of desperation or disrespect on the part of the artist for their audience. If the only kind of coherence that you achieve as an artist is conventional and old hat, then you maybe have to accept that you have nothing yet to contribute in this particular direction. But you can´t just give up on structure, harmony, coherent space and Co. Simply ceasing to bother is not a contribution.

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      1. Richard

        I think the term ‘coherence’ is giving you too much bother here. “triviality” on the other hand is a very pressing issue. Tony seems concerned about automatism or ‘freestylin’ because it seems to him to be too elementary or obvious. Similarly, you seem worried about a lack of ‘structure’ incurring some sort of functional collapse within the work. Structure as we understand it is the just the relation between the parts and elements of the work. Thinking about structure as a formative context doesn’t preclude uninhibited improvisation or anti-composition but it needn’t be a gateway drug to those things. The recipe for avoiding cliches should probably be to ‘flip’ them the way someone might ‘turn a phrase’. Or, at least, a valuing of negative capability; the thing that’s most imaginative rather than the thing that makes most ‘sense’.

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  32. A note about cliches:

    We often think that something is cliche simply because of its rote familiarity. But there’s more to it than that. In order to be a cliche something has to hit all three of these characteristics

    .A familiar THING

    .used in a familiar WAY

    . to achieve a familiar EFFECT.

    In literature the metaphor of a “heart burning with passion” hits all three of these points. If we were to change just one thing we would no longer have a cliche. A “heart rotting with passion” isn’t spectacular writing but it’s an instant break of the formula.

    So how does this apply to Painting and Sculpture? I feel that someone like Sean Scully is cliched but not simply because he uses stripes. It’s because he uses those stripey things in a familiar way to achieve a familiar effect (i.e angsty flags). i think this process of ‘flipping’ cliches is happening all the time in abstract art – especially on BranChron although it’s never addressed in precisely these terms. Richard might be of the belief that avoiding cliches isn’t in of itself a guarantee of good work and I agree. but avoiding cliches doesn’t mean a chucking-out of all the things we love about space, colour, form etc. in painting. It just means giving them flexibility.

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  33. Thanks to Ethan for raising here the need to over-ride the cliche. It seems that Abstract Art, must in order to be Abstract, be constantly moving forward.

    ‘Freestyle’ is an adopted way of working for sculpture.
    Its being adopted here is to open up the world of three dimensionality beyond its being understood in terms of objects and things.
    ‘Freestyle’ feels like the opposite of a two dimensional, view based, ‘stage’ for stuff to be seen on.
    It seems that three dimensionality beyond all that and the object, must break with relational as it also appears must ‘Abstract’, which is not a world populated by things.
    ‘Free style’, has a more ‘close up’ , ‘hands on ‘ action with malleable material , in its broadest understanding it invents and re-invents physicality and all the elements of sculpture,and it can over-ride the ‘views’ so common in pictorial sculpture.
    All of this driven by the ‘Abstract’.
    It is as if Abstract Art is what the visual world has been waiting for.
    An Art free of the inevitable vagaries of representation.

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  34. Ethan
    I disagree. For me, triviality can be tolerated in some aspects of a painting (I’ll stick to painting here) if it deals simply with the demands for coherence in those aspects and allows the creative energies to be concentrated elsewhere. Noland’s target paintings are an example. Anne Smart’s astonishing and original paintings are not transcending structure; they have an entirely trivial, all-over structure, which leaves her free to work on space and surface, which are wonderfully coherent and well integrated.
    Coherence on the other hand is essential to all aspects of a painting. With the very first mark on the canvas you already have space, surface, structure and colour. (You also have a symbol in the sense that anything can serve as a symbol, but that’s an unnecessary complication here). As an artist you have to deal with all of these. This means (I think) bringing them each separately and as an integrated whole into a state that feels right, not in terms of external, theoretical, mimetic or maybe political criteria but in terms of the painting itself as a self-sufficient thing in the world. A painting that is incoherent in any aspect cannot be self sufficient. It is continually looking for whatever is missing to make it something whole.
    The audience may not immediately see it as coherent – for them it might be something new and liberating. But for the artist it must be coherent, or at least as coherent as is possible within the confines of their technical ability. Anything else is dishonest and self-indulgent.

    Deliberately incoherent painting – “provisional painting” – is sometimes praised as “two fingers at the establishment” and creative disruption.
    The establishment LOVES incoherent art. Paying for and owning something that no-one can possibly understand confers a sense of intellectual and financial superiority. And since it offers no viable new way of experiencing the world it poses no threat at all to the status quo.

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    1. Richard,

      I still think that what you call triviality might be different from my own usage of the word.
      It is not trivial to work with painterly problems that might be seen as traditional.
      Colour, form, space, and ‘composition’ will always be an ineluctable part of Painting.
      Triviality is not the thing in itself but rather the WAY or MANNER in which a thing is deployed. For instance, Anne smart may be addressing problems of “all-over” composition which may be seen as ‘traditional’ but the way and manner in which she achieves this is not trivial at all
      -in fact, very surprising and inventive
      Kenneth Noland on the other hand is such a yawn fest to me. His problem wasn’t that he was too ‘coherent’, in fact I think he wasn’t coherent enough. His paintings feel unresolved.

      I have no interest in art that challenges the status quo. As you observe, that’s probably exactly what the status quo wants. I am interested, as you seem to be, in traditional problems of abstraction. We shouldn’t be precious about these problems nor be afraid of trying to rethink how we conceive of them. That’s what creativity is.

      Tony

      In this context then, freestyle, might be of great use to a sculptor or painter.
      It’s interesting that you use a hip hop phrase
      Free styling in Hip Hop has always been a very hands on, malleable thing
      but it always has to conform to a sort of sensible structure, in this case, music and rhyme.
      It is not an entirely unrestrained thing, but rather a very delicate uncertain thing.
      It proposes new liberties for the artist but also familiar constraints and problems.
      I understand then what you mean when you say that freestyle
      for a sculptor is a very close up approach to making. There is a potential for discovery
      but i expect it is fraught with familiar dangers.

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