Robin Greenwood

#61. Harry Hay writes on Brancaster Chronicles at the Heritage Gallery, Greenwich

Brancaster discussion in progress, 10th April 2017. Photo John Pollard. Film of the discussions will be made available to view on the Brancaster Chronicles website (Branchron.com) shortly.

Brancaster Chronicles at Greenwich, at the Heritage Gallery is open 11, 12, 13 and 18, 19, 20 April 2017, 10am-6pm. https://branchron.com/news/

I paid my first visit to Maritime Greenwich in 2010. I was in my first year of art school, aspiring towards figuration and rather disinclined to pay much attention to abstract art at all. Turner was my favourite artist, and so I was rather drawn towards seeing some of the world he depicted. The uniform that Nelson died in after his wounding at Trafalgar is particularly resonant in my mind. It is hard to reflect, almost impossible in some ways, on how we get to where we are. How many moments are there along the way that lead us to change course so drastically, for we hardly seem to notice it as it happens. Some may say that the divide between Turner and abstract art is not such a huge leap. Well it certainly feels so in reflection. If we fast forward seven years, my reason for returning to Greenwich couldn’t really feel more disparate.

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#57. Robin Greenwood writes on the Disconnect of Meaning in Public Sculpture

Installation at the junction of Bermondsey Street and Tower Bridge Road, London SE1

The following is an extended version of a short talk given at the Royal College of Art on 23rd March 2017 on the occasion of the “What’s That Thing?” Awards, organised by @elliswoodman of the Architecture Foundation and @igortoronyi of the Spectator, with the winner announced by Stephen Bayley.

The Difference Between How a Thing Looks and What It Means.

I moved to Bermondsey Street, South London, about 22 years ago, when it was pretty much of a white working-class enclave and commercial area. These days it is a hipster hangout and restaurant destination, so it was a surprise when a couple of years ago this decidedly unhip installation appeared on a newly-laid bit of pavement at the junction of Bermondsey Street and Tower Bridge Road. Not being much of a fan of public sculpture, being as how it has such an appalling track record, I tried for a while to ignore it. I thought too that it would make a good candidate for Igor’s “What’s That Thing?” Awards; and it annoyed me. Why and what was this horrid thing at the end of my road, ruining the streetscape?

But it is in fact a war memorial, and you can’t say much against, or deny a place to, a war memorial, even if the execution is execrable – as in my opinion, this is.

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#55. Robin Greenwood writes on Victor Pasmore at Pallant House Gallery, Chichester

Victor Pasmore, “Model for the Apollo Pavillion”, Peterlee, 1967

Victor Pasmore: Towards a New Reality is at Pallant House Gallery, Chichester, until 11 June 2017 (and previously shown at the Djangoly Gallery, Nottingham Lakeside Arts).

http://pallant.org.uk/exhibitions/current-exhibitions/main-galleries/victor-pasmore/victor-pasmore

In 1861, the 80m tall spire and tower of Chichester Cathedral calamitously collapsed under its own weight from a structural failure of the piers, depositing as it did 6,000 tons of rubble into the nave below (6,000 tons! The Eiffel Tower, well over three times the height, weighs in at only 7,300 tons. You get a lot more height for your heft with steel – but I digress). You would think, to read the account of Victor Pasmore’s controversial conversion in 1948/9 from lyrical landscapist and Euston Road “Objective Realist” to abstract painter, collager and relief-builder, that the scale of disaster for the reactionary English art establishment who had thus far supported him was equally cataclysmic. Pasmore, prior to his apostasy, seems to have been the apple of many a well-connected eye, leading a rather charmed existence: working alongside William Coldstream and Claude Rogers to set up the Euston Road School in 1937; being supported and patronised by the then director of the National Gallery, Kenneth Clark from 1935 up to 1948. Then, having gone abstract, gaining the support and encouragement of Ben Nicholson; showing regularly at the Redfern Gallery, through all phases of work, until taken up by Marlborough in 1960; and being appointed Master of Painting at King’s College, Durham/Newcastle , in 1954, where he taught alongside Lawrence Gowing. Throughout his life, he seems to have been well in with everyone that mattered.

In retrospect, the transition from figurative to abstract looks rather harmless and parochial. In this exemplary show at Pallant House Gallery, excellently and unobtrusively curated by Anne Goodchild of the Djangoly Gallery, Nottingham, Pasmore’s evolution is set out chronologically (I love chronology! How different from the Vanessa Bell show now at Dulwich, which destroys all semblance of developmental logic by its intrusive theming), from his first talented efforts as a gifted young painter, taking us coherently through all his wildly different phases, up until the late sixties and his excellent design for the Apollo Pavilion in Peterlee, 1967, which is where the show ends. After which, Pasmore retreated to his house in Malta for thirty or so years, producing the ubiquitous and rather repetitive biomorphic paintings and prints that you now see all over galleries and art fairs. He died in Malta in 1998, aged 90.

So, what to make of this man who is described by Anne Goodchild in her catalogue essay as possibly “the patron saint of the committed Sunday painter”? Not a very flattering description, to say the least, but I think I know what she means. The exhibition moves very fast between the phases of his work, and as I walked around I jotted down the most visible and, to me, obvious of his influences, as follows: Cézanne; Vuillard; Degas; Manet; Corot; Matthew Smith; Morandi; de Staël; Klee; Schwitters; Seurat; Bruegel; Turner; Whistler; Mondrian; Gottlieb; van Gogh; Rodchenko/Tatlin constructivism; Nicholson; Le Corbusier; Miro; Arp. Bonnard and Kandinsky are also cited, but I couldn’t see them.

I repeat, these are just the obvious ones that I could point to. I have never been to Pallant House Gallery before; I have never been to Chichester before; and I’ve never known an artist to have such a long list of clear and present influences. Was the man really such a dilettante?

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#47. Robin Greenwood writes on Robert Rauschenberg

Robert Rauschenberg, "Ace", 1962

Robert Rauschenberg, “Ace”, 1962

This isn’t going to be a review of the Tate’s Rauschenberg show. I’m more than a little disappointed that it includes so few of his “Combine” works from the fifties. I was hoping for many more in order to justify my long-held belief that Rauschenberg possessed a genuine visual talent, a “good eye”, which I had hoped seeing more of his best paintings would confirm. I think he had a natural gift for putting all sorts of stuff together that shouldn’t really go together, in a manner that challenged some of the orthodoxies of abstract painting, making things that looked good and worked in concert. Despite all the oddball stuff he got up to both before and after the “Combine” period, I’ve held on to this opinion for a long time, based upon things of his I’ve occasionally seen around, but also upon reproductions. And of course I was hoping that the Tate show would afford the opportunity to confirm my view in front of the real things. Some chance, and the fact that it doesn’t is indicative of the low priority all things visual get these days. Tate gives equal weighting to all the different phases of Rauschenberg’s career, which might be thought of as only reasonable and objective, were it not for the fact that most stuff before and after the “Combines” is poor, and mostly non-visual; so that, in fact, a more objective appraisal would necessarily have privileged the “Combines”. Obviously it would be out of the question for Tate curators to make such a call on their judgement.

Here’s a selection of some Rauschenbergs from the fifties that are NOT in the show (click to enlarge):

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#42. Robin Greenwood writes on Alternative Narratives to Ab-Ex at the RA – plus a Review of the Reviews.

Hans Hofmann, "In Sober Ecstasy", 1965

Hans Hofmann, “In Sober Ecstasy”, 1965

“In Sober Ecstasy”…  I was, I was.

Not drunk, but pretty high. But not until the very last room of the show, having been bored and annoyed, as usual, by the uninteresting posturings of Still, Rothko and especially Newman; and somewhat underwhelmed by David Anfam’s selection of de Kooning and Pollock. Finally, here was a so-called Abstract Expressionist painting, “In Sombre Ecstasy” by (to quote Matt Dennis from his comment on the Motherwell post) “the criminally under-represented” Hans Hofmann (1965, from the Audrey and David Mirvish collection, Toronto) that was not only properly abstract, but also truly expressive. I think this is a really good painting, possible a great one. I think it might hold its own against a decent Cezanne or Matisse; I’d love to see it in the company of a good Tintoretto or Constable. I’d love to see it in good company, full stop.

I’ve seen it before, at the Hofmann show that Hoyland put together at Tate in 1988. I don’t recall being quite so taken with it then, but there was a lot to digest in that show – the whole oeuvre of Hofmann’s later works, and it was all new to me.

It’s the best Hofmann that I can now recall seeing, which must also make it one of the best abstract paintings I’ve seen. In my opinion it is a very integrated work, including the big rectangles, my frequent stumbling blocks (pun intended) with Hofmann, especially when they take over most or all of the painting. In this instance they are much more fully integrated with all of the other content – the powerful but unspecified movements which course both diagonally across, and back and forth through depth. The other general factor in this particular painting’s favour, compared with much other abstract painting, including far too many Hofmanns, is its completeness; it has been carried right through to a resolution, rather than left off at an early stage in a half-painted, half-bare-canvas state. Hofmanns are on the whole all the better for being fully worked up, and this one certainly is.

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#36. Tim Scott and Robin Greenwood discuss Abstract Sculpture

Tim Scott, "Bridge of Echoes I", 2014

Tim Scott, “Bridge of Echoes I”, 2014, laminated paper (for plywood)

The following is taken from a recent exchange of emails.

Tim Scott: Dear Robin, I thought you might like to read this by Clement Greenberg, re Abcrit discussions on “abstract content”:

“….The quality of a work of art inheres in its “content”, and vice versa. Quality is “content”, you know that a work of art has content because of its effect. The more direct denotation of effect is “quality”. Why bother to say that a Velasquez has “more content” than Salvador Rosa when you can say more simply and with direct reference to the experience you are talking about, that the Velasquez is “better” than the Salvador Rosa? You cannot say anything truly relevant about the content of either picture, but you can be specific, and relevant about the difference in their effect on you. “Effect” like “Quality” is “content”, and the closer reference to actual experience of the first two terms makes “content “virtually useless for criticism………indulge in that kind of talk about “content” myself. If I do not do so any longer is because it came to me, dismayingly, some years ago that I could always assert the opposite of whatever it was I did say about “content” and not get found out; that I could say almost anything I pleased about “content” and sound plausible……”

Robin Greenwood: Thanks Tim. We all define these things a bit differently, don’t we, but I’ve found the idea of “abstract content” quite useful recently. Time will tell if I’ve got it right or wrong.

Tim Scott: I’m interested. Are you saying that “abstract content” is different to any other sort of content? (Clem says it’s all the same but should be called “quality”; he doesn’t use the word “value”, as in value judgement.) Another point he doesn’t touch on is whether there is any difference between “sculpture content” and “painting content” in terms of definition.

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#32. Robin Greenwood writes on Content and Continuity

Pieter Janssens Elinga, "La Balayeuse", 1668-1672

Pieter Janssens Elinga, “La Balayeuse”, 1668-1672

“Shakespeare’s pre-eminence is of course due to his extraordinary originality; but to begin to understand his originality, we have to interpret the word correctly. It does not mean that he invented a kind of drama that was quite different from that to which his age was accustomed, or that he invented new ideas for his dramatic subjects. It means that as part of his poetic talent and his imaginative intensity he possessed an unusual critical power. This, too, must be properly defined. He left no assessments of his own or of anybody else’s work, but a great imaginative writer must use criticism to test the vitality of the literary forms of his age. He tests them, rather than invents new ones… [in order to be] continuous with the imaginative expression that nourished him…”

 “In all these plays Shakespeare is not rejecting the accepted forms of theatrical tradition; he is revitalizing them by bringing them into relationship with the actualities of real experience.”

C.Gillie, Longman Companion to English Literature; The Great Age: 1590-1620; Longman.

Lucky Shakespeare, to have lived at such a time, when forms and precedents and high, ambitious, competitive achievement were strong, and the artform in question could thus properly express the deepest feelings of the age. I’m not sure in visual art we are in the midst of anything like such interesting times, but nor do I believe that we are in an age of shallow feeling that must be mirrored in the contemporary art we make. But it strikes me as something of a dilemma; we might need on the one hand to overturn all precedent in abstract art so far; yet we can’t presume to make painting or sculpture without thought or structure, about any old thing and from garbage; and so, on the other hand, sympathising with all the achievements of abstract art to date, even if we consider them only minor, we might wish to continue to attempt to make something of their precedent – but yet more real, more intense… better.

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#23. Robin Greenwood writes on Flatness at Pace and Plastic Space

Installation shot at Pace London, works by Caro and Noland.

Installation shot at Pace London, works by Caro (Stainless Piece C, 1974/5) and Noland.

Hoyland, Caro, Noland at Pace Gallery, London.

In the mid-20th Century shared unreality that was ‘Caroland’ it was somehow viable, with intentions that were quite probably on the right side of honest, to make a sculpture – in this case, Stainless Piece C, 1974/5 – that sat flat on the floor and rose up no more than a couple of inches, so you looked down upon it like a relief laid horizontally (I made a few like this myself); and to make it out of a few scattered (or were they artfully composed?) pieces of stainless steel plate and other bits and pieces (David Smith’s steel?) that had been scoured with an angle-grinder to give an optical illusion of depth to its surface when it had none at all to its structure (again, like Smith?). In the Pace Gallery, London, this work is shown on a plinth that is a good three inches taller than the sculpture itself (didn’t Caro do away with plinths? Did the gallery decide the work’s lack of status required one?), making a combined height, sculpture and plinth, of oh… all of eight inches or so. And because it’s by Caro, and because he’s now dead (R.I.P.), and because it’s a piece of art history merchandising already, and because it’s the prestigious Pace Gallery; because of all this and more, and for no reason due to its inherent value, since it transparently has none, unless you view it through a thick haze of sentimental regret for simpler and more certain times in abstract art; this pathetic little piece of twaddle has become a luxury commodity, imbued with all the myths of modernism, reflecting back at us our own ‘good-housekeeping-modern-but-weren’t-we-ever-so-radical-back-in-the-sixties’ taste.

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#14. Robin Greenwood writes on: Contemporaneity – William Gear/Stockwell Depot/Hans Hofmann.

William Gear, 'Autumn Landscape', 1950. Copyright the Artist's Estate. Image courtesy of Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums, Laing Art Gallery

William Gear, ‘Autumn Landscape’, 1950. Copyright the Artist’s Estate. Image courtesy of Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums, Laing Art Gallery

William Gear: the Painter that Time Forgot is at the Towner Gallery Eastbourne, 17 July – 27 September 2015; at City Art Centre, Edinburgh, 24 October 2015 – 14 February 2016.

A Radical View: William Gear as Curator 1958 -1964 is also at the Towner, 9 May – 31 August 2015.

William Gear: A Centenary Exhibition is at the Redfern Gallery, London, 16 July -5 September.

Stockwell Depot 1967 – 1979 is at the University of Greenwich Galleries, 24 July – 12 September 2015.

Hans Hofmann Catalogue Raisonné is recently published in the UK by Lund Humphries.

 

At the Same Time as Now.

The Towner and the Redfern are both presenting the work of ‘forgotten’ artist William Gear, an associate of CoBrA in the 1940s and a controversial painter in his heyday of the 1950s. Also showing is an exhibition of the works acquired by Gear during his tenure as the Towner’s curator (1958-64), including paintings by Sandra Blow, Alan Davie, Roger Hilton and Ceri Richards. Gear fought battles with Eastbourne Town Council to get modern art, and in particular, new abstract painting, into the Towner collection, the outcome of which was to make it one of the leading contemporary collections in municipal gallery/museums at that time.

Gear’s very own version of a public outcry over contemporary art had happened a decade earlier in 1951, when his painting Autumn Landscape was awarded the Festival of Britain Purchase Prize, paid for out of the public purse, and attracting the ridicule and faux-outrage of the press. It’s hard to see why, since it looks now to be the most good-mannered of abstractions, and by our experiences of contemporaneity, unconfrontational. A lot has changed in the last 65 years of art; the position of always equating ‘now-ness’ with newness is well established (they are, to be fair, often difficult to differentiate), as one novelty project succeeds and eclipses another. If there is any value left in contemporaneity, it has to be more than just the next new thing, and certainly more than a rehash of what has gone before but is now forgotten.

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#6. Robin Greenwood writes on Richard Diebenkorn and the Hollowing-out of Painting.

Ocean Park #43, 1971

‘Ocean Park #43’, 1971

Richard Diebenkorn at the Royal Academy, London, 14 March – 7 June, 2015

If I’ve read one 5-star review of the RA’s Diebenkorn show by now, I’ve read at least ten, most of them little more than P.R. exercises repeating the same blandishments to the gallery-going public, to recognise and acknowledge a masterly evocation of the lambent light and open spaces of his native Californian west coast. Spoiler alert: this will not be another piece of positive flannel. OK, Diebenkorn was by all accounts a fine fellow and a much-respected artist, and his reputation has grown considerably over the past two decades as he has entered the collective art-school consciousness of recent generations as the straight-up kind of painter’s painter in an age of conceptual art. More and more young abstract and semi-abstract painters have become familiar with the three phases of his work, and it now chimes in with something that has recently happened in abstract painting, whereby it has become the acceptable, non-scary version of modern art in general; safe to feature in sofa catalogues, a safe occupation for the younger amateur painter, decidedly unthreatening; in fact, not too radically abstract. And Diebenkorn is a kind of flagship painter for the confident employment and enjoyment of these ubiquitous modern aesthetic tropes. He now, reputedly, has clout and charisma, where he once seemed a peripheral and minor contributor. He undoubtedly had a degree of talent, and his paintings have the sniff of sincerity and ‘authenticity’; they look superficially like the ‘real deal’. But, as some clever wag pointed out recently, authenticity is a content-free zone. If you think Diebenkorn’s art has anything to do with, say, a continuation of Matisse’s lifelong core project, you’re wrong; if you think Diebenkorn is anything of a colourist, you’re wrong; and if you think Diebenkorn is exciting, you are living a very sheltered life. He raises the mediocre to fantastic levels of significance. More on all this later.

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