#129. Robin Greenwood writes about his new paintings

New paintings and sculpture, 2020

I’m posting this on 11th July 2020, my 70th birthday. I have a studio exhibition of sculpture and painting open now and for the rest of July, by appointment (07866 583629), but I’m concentrating this Abcrit post on twelve very recently-finished small and medium-size paintings.

For much of the past I have worked as a sculptor who painted occasionally, sometimes with long intermissions. The last couple of years have been different. As my recent sculpture has found its place in a new direction (for good or bad, better or worse), so the painting has recently begun to act as a companion to that sculpture in the development of an experimental three-dimensional abstract-ness.

The photo above is a view of part of the studio exhibition, showing a new sculpture, “Nuance and Nudge”, and three recent paintings: “Gemology/Gloriole”, “Urchin/Ultra” and “Topic/Traipse”. They are distinctive titles with no distinct meaning – “names”, in other words. I got very fed up with calling everything “untitled”, so I recently went out of my way to deliberately find strange words that have as little as possible to do with the paintings they are allotted to. (Abstract titles, perhaps? Please think nothing more of it!)

Carl Kandutsch wrote a very eloquent quote on Twitter about “Urchin/Ultra”: “There are multiple, maybe infinite layers of depth without violating the norm of flatness, all due to structure and color, shifting planes in a way that exceeds rational summation.” Very nice, thank you Carl.

But is it true? “Urchin/Ultra” was amongst the first of a series of paintings made over the last few months that involved the overlaying of one painted surface with chopped-up parts of other, sometimes older, paintings. The glued-on layers were later sometimes covered with further layers, and/or occasionally painted over. All the component parts of this and subsequent works deriving from this open-ended methodology, the complex parts being made and utilized without foreknowledge of their usage or outcome, to build visual “structures” that operate unpredictably (are they structures?). I have been working in much the same way in sculpture (for much longer), re-using previously-made parts or constructed sequences. Thus, used in a new context, all parts are seen and handled differently from when they were first made. A lot of diverse ways of working based upon processing conflicting content, one layer upon another (in painting’s case), turned in new directions, some layers thick and some thin, have resulted in the set of paintings I’m putting forward for comment below.

They don’t seem to me to have much, if any, connection with collage, but that may be just the three-dimensional way I think about things. Another comment, this time from Saul Greenberg on one of the earlier works from this sequence, suggested that “…the layers became interchangeable, there was no “collage”, it became one unified surface with infinite depth…” I’m sure that doesn’t happen every time, but that is certainly part of my ambition, and it would be nice to think it worked from time to time.

One thing in my painting I try to avoid is working with the “painted gesture”. That is the basis of a lot of abstraction, and it doesn’t suite my interests or methods. Maybe some will find this work unoriginal, but it operates in a place that I find newly engaging, with problems of abstract content I have not encountered in the same way before. These paintings are VERY connected with the sculptures I’m involved with, where I try to open out the space in as many different ways and directions as possible, without losing a sense of their strong spatial interactions. I’m hoping this is happening in my painting too, though with differences. The approach of pursuing an open and complex sense of three-dimensionality in two dimensions may be problematic, of course, but that is what I am involving myself with, and it feels pretty good.

There are more recent sculptures and paintings on my website at:

https://robingreenwood.com/

https://robingreenwood.com/painting-chronology/

https://robingreenwood.com/sculpture/

 

“Urchin/Ultra”, 2020, 115x86cm

 

“Topic/Traipse”, 1980-2020, 60x51cm

 

“Calcite/Cult”, 2020, 114x60cm

 

“Gemology/Gloriole”, 2020, 92x81cm

 

“Attic/Amok”, 2019-20, 53x46cm

 

“Gribble/Goad”, 2019-20, 61x56cm

 

“Zigzag/Zoo”, 2019-20, 42x54cm

 

“Welgild/Wheatgrass”, 2020, 86x69cm

 

“Heliotaxis/Hudna”, 2019-20, 61x61cm

 

“Overt/Oblast”, 2019-20, 61x61cm

 

“Divot/Demit”, 2020, 54x40cm

 

Yogh/Ytterbium”, 2020, 66x56cm

15 comments

  1. Dear Robin,Like the look of these very much.The relation to your Sculpture is palpable.Wont be able to get by unless Linden Hall has an opening/closing,but dont want to miss that ,so hope to make an appointment around August 15th?Curious to know if the last action on your part is with a brush in hand,aside from judgement?Also loads of wonderfull small pictures,within the more complex whole.Fascinating ,a must-see

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  2. First of all Happy Birthday Robin.
    What an impressive amount of work, again!

    We (Mark and I) have enjoyed looking at these works and found them intriguing and absorbing. As far as I can tell from screen views, the most integrated visually and uncollaged looking appear to be Gemology/Gloriole, Attic/Amok, Heliotaxis/Hudna and Overt/Oblast to my mind. There is a textural coherence in these which connects across the surface.

    I like the look of Welgild/Wheatgrass, the organisation and strength of the rich red elements that stand out from the green ground give a sense of depth and the blue strips add movement and rhythm.

    I find Yogh/Ytterbium an exciting piece, I like the multifaceted, multi coloured quality of the smaller collage shapes and the contrasting wedge of earth green and orange angled near the bottom of the canvas. There is a lot to see here, a lot of dynamic movement.

    I can see how the construction of the paintings connects with your sculptures, and the ‘diverse ways of working based upon processing conflicting content’ can leave an open pathway to discovering something new.

    Hopefully we can get to see these for real.

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  3. Happy birthday Robin. These look really good.
    Brilliant, bold and harmonious colour and I know we speak a completely different language when it comes to “composition”, but for me tight and well composed.

    I appreciate your concern about avoiding gesture and this seems to be a very successful way of avoiding it while retaining spontaneity.

    I think as painters we are all involved in squaring the circle ( or should it be cubing the sphere?) of coherent spatiality, integrated surface and abstractness, all made more difficult by complexity.

    It seems to me that in these works you have taken the pressure off the surface to combine a maximum of abstractness and spatiality. It’s hard to say from the jpegs (and screens are very kind to this sort of surface) but it looks as if the stuck-on elements often lack integration: Divot/Demit looks fantastic but has an obviously broken surface. The hard,straight edges on Urchin/Ultra sit uncompromisingly on top of the space beneath.

    Interestingly (and maybe only to my heretical eye) in works where the surface integration seems more complete, the pressure finds its escape in another direction – either in a comparative loss of space (Attic/Amok, Gemology/Gloriole) or in figuration (Overt/Oblast, which to me is a rather lovely still-life).

    Maybe if flatness is no longer an interesting option and abstractness is an overriding concern, then a relaxation on surface is the only way left to go. These start to make the case.

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  4. Happy Birthday Robin!

    I very much enjoyed receiving your catalogue of recent works in the mail the other day, along with the Making Painting Abstract catalogue. It was funny to be viewing the paintings in the catalogue as your recent works, only to find here that there are some more recent still. I think that both sets of paintings, regardless of the different strategies they employ, both succeed at creating shifting pockets of space without foregoing strict attentiveness to how it resolves itself in two dimensions. What astounds me, in works like Ultra/Urchin, is how this is achieved when there are “sharper”, more “in focus” areas sitting atop what could almost be seen as an out of focus backdrop. The relatively blurred content beneath always appears capable of reestablishing itself up at the surface, in equal capacity as the cut out forms on top.

    Ultra/Urchin is not my favourite however. I think I prefer the more craggy textures at play in ones like Heliotaxis/Hudna, or Divot/Demit and the less determined placement of the canvas cut outs, and indeed at times, the inability to distinguish between what is cut out and what was already there, and how these things have overlapped.

    I also like the small microcosms at play in works like Yogh/Ytterbium.

    What I admire about Robin’s paintings is that they aren’t trying to reinvent the wheel. The works can appear quite modest, the colour sometimes subdued, the marks anything but flashy. But they are sustained by a probing search to open out the spatial possibilities in constant regard to the two dimensional limitations, and they don’t deviate from that, despite the breadth of experimentation.

    So once again, Happy Birthday Robin.

    Looking forward to seeing what comes next.

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    1. Harry – An excellent summary – nothing I could disagree with.
      I, of course, am interested in the fact that ideas for renewal in painting can come from sculpture.

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  5. Happy belated birthday wishes Robin!
    I’ve enjoyed your postings of recent work with stuck on bits.
    It is very hard to judge them on screen but I like the look of them: it makes complete sense to me that mixing up your content in this way can produce very interesting relationships between the various content of your work. It is why diptychs, triptychs, etc, can result in some really interesting work, as can mixed media at its best: see John Bunker or even the best of Rauschenberg.
    When we work on just the one surface area we tend to conform to patterns, repeat stuff, make it cosily connected, familiar and safe (I should say I’m guilty with this). This doesn’t mean that you can’t produce very good work in this way. It’s how many of us work. However, bringing new stuff in from elsewhere disrupts this: it often won’t work but if you have a good eye for complex relationships it is worth a try.
    The main issue will be whether the bits are so alien to the surface that they end up disconnected from the surface and looking like they belong to a completely different spatial entity or world. Generally I think these don’t, but I would need to see them.
    The issue with relational compatibility between areas of a painting, or indeed sculpture, is something that is an ongoing crucial question: are ‘areas’ of a painting working, or not, with other ‘areas’, and what do we mean by working?
    One last point. It looks like you don’t paint over the stuck on bits after they are stuck on in a way that overlaps on to the stuck on surface? That might be an interesting experiment.

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    1. Thanks John. A few of these works have had paint applied after the cut pieces, though that has occasionally seemed like more of a problem than a solution, I hope resolved in these. One or two have ended up having numerous changes of layers/techniques. But these things are actually central to my thoughts, rather that a set of adjuncts to the content.

      Not sure about “compatibility” – depends what you mean. I sometimes like severe differences, if I can get them to work (whatever THAT means!).
      An example of this might be “Gribble/Goad”, though I imagine not many would agree. When you sometimes cannot distinguish fronts from backs, even when you think you can, it gets very interesting.

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  6. Compatibility means what works: I hope we are all trying to fathom out what that means. Incidentally, I have just re-read your ‘High-abstract’ essay from the catalogue of the Poussin Gallery exhibition of the same name back in 2011. Although I think some abstract painting has tangibly developed in terms of complexity over the last nine years, the essay is bang up to date, which is interesting. I don’t think it is available online? If you don’t want to post it perhaps you could make it available for people who haven’t read it?

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  7. High-abstract

    ‘I believed… that abstract art was an incomplete kind of art, that even at its best it did not achieve all that art could do, that figurative art could be more complex, more specific, richer in human content.’ David Sylvester, About Modern Art 1996.

    At certain high points in the history of visual art, figurative paintings by great artists such as we might all agree upon – Tintoretto, Constable, Cézanne and Matisse being a few of my own favourites amongst very many – have embodied states of profound plastic and spatial three-dimensionality and fully-developed form such as are not to be found elsewhere in any other feasible human endeavour. This, for me, is as good as visual art gets. Throughout the last five hundred years and more of a remarkable history, the spatial architectures of figurative painting have been exceptionally inventive, particular and diverse. In the best works, complex form and meaning become united, indivisible and coherent. One only has to bring to mind Titian’s Diana and Actaeon, recently seen at the National Gallery, to recall that the greatest objective form in painting can be made to feel so very personal and vivid, so synonymous with the conditions of our own physical and emotional states. It makes a mockery of the conceit of many a modern artist who, by discarding or dismantling the principles of painting and sculpture, declares that they aim to bridge the gap between art and life. Great painting has for a long time been really good at that.

    But painting over the last sixty years or so, viewed from our particular perspective of the story of abstract art, has gone from being at the forefront of visual culture – abstract painting was in the 1950’s and ‘60’s a radical and principal mode of modernist expression – to a backwater of lost confidence and ambition. Painting is no longer guaranteed centre-stage in many galleries and museums (by clear directive of the principals of these institutions), and whatever new painting does remain in play in contemporary art is almost entirely figurative and often gratuitously weird and fatuous. The little that there is in the public domain of new abstract painting, meanwhile, is often derivative, ironic and literal; in fact, a kind of disguised figuration. Genuine and progressive abstract painting has gone underground. Nevertheless, my proposition is that it is precisely this unfashionable and much misunderstood area of activity (as well, of course, as abstract sculpture, which is held in even more disregard) which holds the promise of an authentic and liberated future for visual art.

    To be clear about this, most contemporary so-called “visual” art is not tied to the particular and the visual at all, but to the ambiguous and the literal. The content of such art is to be found not in the work itself, in intrinsic attributes equating to and comparable with the plastic and spatial values of painting from the past, but as bolt-on additions to the art-object, often as a result of a curatorial interpretation, to be found on a label or a website or even as a replacement for the object altogether. It is the triumph, I hope temporary, of the collective literalism of instant art history over the particularised visual imagination of the individual artist. Should we choose to follow only this path into the future, we risk losing our ability to create and to appreciate art that is founded in the transformative visual relationships peculiar to good painting (and some sculpture); and we must take care too, with galleries and museums preoccupied as they are with the wholesale delivery of such curatorial interpretations, not to lose our liberty to discover in our own time and in our own way our own meanings in art, freely and independently. Of course, “meaning” is indisputably our real purpose, but meaning is not the same as interpretation; such meaning, such “human content” as is to be found in visual art, is of some consequence to us all in its broad revelatory effects quite because of its independence from either literal or literary interpretation. The scope and variety and resonance of all such meanings are solely reliant upon the quality of the visual form, which is the singular responsibility of the visual artist; such meanings are discovered only by the simple expedient of looking, the responsibility for which rests with the observer, if they so freely choose.

    Herein lies the paramount problem with the literalness of contemporary art; it has no visual form. Often described as sculpture but better described simply as “art-objects”, being any kind of object or assemblage of objects whatsoever, contemporary art in all manner of its manifestations does not operate purely and purposefully through visual structures; it does not possess the means to deal in plastic and spatial values; it cannot achieve profound states of plastic and spatial three-dimensionality. Not one of the many novel materializations of contemporary art provides the kind of non-verbal meaning that we can find in a good painting. In order to discover such meaning in visual art, the day-to-day literal meanings of objects and relationships must be dismantled, melted down and reconstituted in the real-world crucibles of painting and sculpture, recreated as transformative visual relationships, the “real illusions” of art. Literalist art, of course, seeks an altogether different effect – to merely collage together everyday meanings in surprising combinations; but the surprise is short-lived compared to true visual creativity.

    Whilst I can confidently make claims for the meaningful forms of figurative painting from the past, similar claims for the achievements of abstract painting to date are perhaps more difficult. Abstract painting presently has two problems: on the one hand, it has lost momentum by being sidelined by the popularity and accessibility of contemporary non-visual art, largely because of the ease, as already noted, of interpretations of such art and the comparative difficulty, often extreme, of such explanations for itself. On the other hand, many of the literalist tendencies of contemporary art sprang in the first place out of abstract art’s own downgrading of ambition, in the 1960’s and ‘70’s, when the processes and materials of painting and sculpture heretofore in the service of the plastic and spatial values of vanguard visual art were deconstructed into literalism and “objecthood”, process and performance. A good deal of abstract art remains tainted by this disjunction of its means with its proper purpose and, much as I would like to make the distinction, there is no clear division between poor abstract painting and sculpture and any other sort of non-visual art around at the moment. In fact, it’s likely that the abstract art is more boring. There is not much worse in art than a dried up, barren formalism, especially abstract formalism. It is a distinction we need to make here – the pursuit of plastic and spatial “form” in visual art has only a passing linguistic relationship to “formalism” as such. Whilst the pursuit of new form is about being both inventive and creative, formalism relies upon academic compositions and formulas, and is yet another variety of literalism. The current weakness of the case for abstract art lies mostly in the ambiguity of many of these familiar mannerisms, such as geometry, compositional formatting, design devices, or those ubiquitous literal effects of process. And, dare I say it in the face of the wrath of the colourists, even the slender effects of structurally uncorroborated colour relations are not enough either. So Sylvester’s early-held view looks right. It depends upon what you are comparing with what, of course, but if you are going to compare the best figurative painting from history with the best of abstract art to date, then there is no contest. The structures of figurative art are massively more exciting, varied and imaginative. Whenever I doubt the wisdom of this, I imagine dropping a Constable “six-footer” into an exhibition of abstract art (or, indeed, any other kind of new art), and watching the subsequent collapse, like a house of cards, of most of our modern conceits. In truth, a so-called academic old painter like Constable could even now show us a thing or two about radicalism and invention in the plastic and spatial arts. His visual structures are more advanced, more sophisticated, “more complex, more specific, richer in human content” than ours are! Admit it! Only by admitting of the fact can we hope to match the ambition, the sheer visual audacity, of a great painter like Constable. This is, of course, a rod for our own backs as practising abstract artists; so be it.

    Of course, looking back into history, figurative painters had all the advantages. They had everything-in-the-world as complex and specific subjects from which to start. Every possible spatial architecture that the world could provide to the eye was available to them with which to feed their imaginations (this is far more than the poor figurative sculptors had, but more of them later). They only had to open the door and step outside their studios to see a whole world of particular and varied possibilities – to say nothing of all the human stories and dramas with which to populate their worlds. What do abstract artists have? It looks dolefully meagre by comparison, and initially discouraging of any aspirations to match in abstract art the plastic and spatial achievements of the greatest figurative painting. Yet, though it may be difficult to see how such ambitious desires can be fulfilled, it is only in the deepest darkest mystery of such difficulty that one might find the freedom to invent something truly original. It is in that very void that the promise lies, the outrageous possibility of working towards an abstract painting without an idea or a conceit or any other kind of false agency, free from all constraining configuration. I know it invites ridicule in the current climate of literalism to suggest that the artist might work without ideas or concepts of what the work will be “about”, might shed all pre-conceived formats or images (even “abstract” ones) for the finished work – but I stand by it. This freedom, this openness, this desire for discovery, is the key to unlocking the big, wide-open spaces of new abstract art; it is the precise antithesis of conceptualism. Retaining only the ambition for strong visual form as a guiding principle, it becomes possible to work towards something embodying its own intrinsic sense of purpose and variety and interest. Such work might initially develop under the sway of several conflicting impulses and imperatives all at once, often in contradictory states. The work may proceed with give and take at all points, where nothing is sacrosanct, all elements can be either brought forward or disposed of, all expectations overrun, in a state of unique and daunting nonconformity, until finally, after many reversals and revisions, new form arrives. Or not! For nothing is guaranteed; it cannot be if this is to be for real. Strong new form will develop only from the artist being able, in the first part, to create perhaps unconsciously but nevertheless very precisely the meaning of one passage of material to another within a visual relationship; and then go further to find relationships and meanings with other passages in the work, and so on, to the point where the whole aspires to become, at the last, one complex relational entity, one form. This is, of course, making it sound straightforward when it is in fact immensely difficult and demanding. The strategies to achieve these ends will be tortuous and unheard of, and a far cry from the spontaneous ease of the abstract artist of legend. But it is only what the best figurative painters always did. Why should we think great modern art must be easy or simple? I suspect that on the contrary this new complex abstract art herein proposed will be of protracted difficulty, and require a considerable and sustained imaginative effort. Conclusions and resolutions will not be achieved swiftly, at least not until the whole project has momentum – until the forms start rolling out a little. The good artist will find all this an exquisite difficulty.

    If abstract painting now has potential for the discovery of new visual form and meaning, then possibly abstract sculpture has even more. Abstract sculpture as it was originally established as a distinct entity by Anthony Caro and others in the early 1960’s had quickly eclipsed figurative sculpture, especially with regard to ambitious spatial values if nothing else. Equally quickly, following that initial dramatic breakthrough, most sculpture became inhibited again, this time by the beginnings of the pernicious literalism we have previously noted. The constraints of figuration were replaced by those of “objecthood”; so far, so disappointing. But it has become apparent of late that sculpture can take a very different direction from this, can become more wholly abstract than it was in the 1960’s. Unimpeded by boundary or configuration, image or “objecthood”, it can thence find ways to interweave real substances and real spaces in complex and transparent large-scale relational combinations which will be altogether new to art. Such exhilarating potential for the expansion of plastic and spatial values and the consequential delivery of new visual meanings is in marked contrast to the constraints put upon past sculpture by its almost singular subject of the isolated and often reposed human figure. Whilst it has undoubtedly had its moments of high activity and expression, from Michelangelo to Rodin and Degas, the history of figurative sculpture can bear no qualitative comparison to the complex and diverse spectacle of figurative painting as we have described it above, and looks to have little direct bearing upon the future of abstract sculpture, which might credibly be considered a new and only marginally related discipline. How optimistic for real visual art would that be?

    Are these views subjective? Probably, but I do like those criteria of Sylvester: “more complex, more specific, richer in human content”. Unlike a lot of criteria by which we judge art, they seem plausible and modestly objective, at least in the first two of the three; and the third, the achievement of “human content” is such a great ambition for abstract art to have. Abstract art, it seems to me, has not yet taken upon itself anything like the formal and spatial complexities that the best figurative painting of the past has so potently transformed into “human content”. It has not yet become either complex or specific, instead boasting of the modernity of its simplifications, and citing its generalities and its ambiguities as proofs of a high-minded universality. If these had to be tried out and mined out, then so be it, but mined out they now are; they no longer serve. It’s time to be more ambitious.

    Abstract sculpture and painting are now uniquely placed as disciplines to achieve the expansion of our imaginative visual universe in the real world; should we fail in this, we are going to lose something of consequence to the breadth of our humanity. Should we prosper, such success would be brilliant and famous; for it is surely good and wise to keep our imaginative lives coupled by these means to our physicality. Figurative painting, as I said at the beginning, has been at times dazzling and lucid at this fusion of physical form and intelligent meaning. Abstract sculpture and painting can extend those achievements into the future. The works in this current exhibition give us a glimpse of that future, a look at some lonesome but prescient examples of high-ambition, high-complexity abstract art from the past 50 years, some possible exemplars of the new “High-abstract”. Welcome to a world of post-literalism. It’s going to be extraordinarily exciting.

    February 2011

    published in High-abstract catalogue, Poussin Gallery

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  8. Robin – This is a little masterpiece of an essay – I cannot imagine how I missed it, but miss it I did. Thank you John.
    I shall probably want to comment no doubt; I hope others do.

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    1. It’s been sat on the Poussin Gallery website since 2011 with a picture of Alan Davie’s “Patrick’s Delight”, by far and away the best thing in the show. Otherwise, not a great exhibition (poor sculpture by me!), and not a great catalogue, with a deliberately obstructive foreword by Mel Gooding.

      You can find it here:
      https://www.poussin-gallery.com/site.php?exhibition=73
      Or on my website: https://robingreenwood.com/selected-writing/

      The essay was pretty much ignored or criticised by most people at the time. I remain proud of it.

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      1. Robin – I have re read it thoroughly; I can only say that there is no need to add to it, it is so good, I suggest required reading for all.
        I can only suppose that the “ignoring” came from stagnant minds. Anything really good is usually ignored.

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