Installation View, upper gallery, Richard Smith – Work of Five Decades, Flowers Gallery, © Richard Smith Foundation, courtesy Flowers Gallery London and New York
Richard Smith – Work of Five Decades is at Flowers Gallery, Cork Street, London until 15th July 2017
Richard Smith – Work of Five Decades is as rich and tantalising a show as it is modest and partial. Well chosen combinations of work signal original and singular twists and turns across Smith’s career. It was a chance to get up close to some of the later more delicate and intricate works loosely coming under the rubric of the “Kite” paintings. But there were also the more robust deliberately awkward painterly works that play explicitly with the grid and illusions heightened by intense colour-play. These contrasts and continuities in approaches did not disappoint – but in ways totally unexpected.
The biggest surprise came on encountering Smith’s Snakes and Windows filling the whole of the ground floor (upper) gallery space. I was taken aback by my initial reactions to what is essentially an installation piece because I was instantly reminded of my first encounter with Matisse’s Memory of Oceania and The Snail brought together in Tate Modern’s Cut-Outs blockbuster in 2014. In a note I’d made at that time about them both I said:
“…and finally found myself perplexed but totally engaged by the slow-motion collapsing architecture of Memory of Oceania. The Snail, according to the received wisdom of art historical myth-making, takes us to the cusp of a new kind of visual drama, one of colour and shape devoid of subject-matter adhering only to the shape of the canvas itself. Was this the future that Matisse had in mind for his Cut-Outs?”
John Hoyland, “12.6.66”.
It is somewhat taken for granted that the art of painting allows us to engage intimately with the work of another’s hand and eye. Some might even suggest through the marks and traces locked in the gestures and dispersal of paint on canvas, we are witness to some special marriage of spirit and matter. As makers and viewers of paintings, artists have always exploited these contrary sensations of the public and private at work in the mind during the act of looking. Are you a voyeur or co-conspirator? Lover or fellow member of the dispossessed? Intrigue, desire for narrative and the visual unravelling of secrets all elicit deep fascination, bound up as they are in the articulation of the medium itself. Figurative painting’s power, to a lesser or greater degree, hinges on the frisson of implied intimacy or its denial. But what about abstract painting? It was these sorts of questions that kept coming to mind as I walked round Power Stations, the show of mostly large scale abstract paintings by John Hoyland spanning the period 1964 to the very early 80s.
The tension between the public and private roles of art intensified in the debates around abstract painting in the post-war period. In fact there is something faintly absurd about the size of Hoyland’s paintings in at least the first 4 rooms of the Newport St. gallery. They portend to the dimensions of great history paintings, yet give us such little detail or sniff of a narrative of any kind. ‘Handling’ is reduced to a minimum, either locked into a deep staining of the canvas or in the masking-off of flat, high-keyed ‘blocks’ of colour. Their size is institutional, municipal, dare I say it, communal. Overtly public in their forthrightness and seeming simplicity, they ask to be shared as visual experiences by the many rather than owned by the one or the very few (unless you are a millionaire artist-come-collector-come-property-developer with mansions of large dimensions – but more on that later).