Sam Cornish

#120. Tributes to the Painter John McLean

John McLean’s last completed work. Untitled, 2019, acrylic on canvas, 90 x 151 cm. Courtesy of Art Space Gallery

Below are a series of tributes to the painter John McLean, who died earlier this year. The contributors all knew McLean personally. Nevertheless, they were asked to write primarily about his art. Sam Cornish

A memorial retrospective is being held at Art Space Gallery, Islington, 29 November 2019 – 24 January 2020.

East Coast, 1998, acrylic on canvas, 168 x 51 cm. Courtesy of Art Space Gallery

Duncan Macmillian

John was not always an abstract artist. He was a wonderful draughtsman and in his early years he made sombre, but still vivid paintings and drawings in an almost social realist mode. It was when he moved to London that he turned to abstraction, but his first abstract work, shown I think in 1964, was hard-edged. Nevertheless, he was already a colourist. For him, the hard-edge was a way of making colour sing and indeed it did, but composing with masking tape was never going to suit his temperament for long. Around 1965, just before his breakthrough into free, painterly abstraction, I remember him showing me a very strange work. It was essentially a heavy blob of paint in the middle of a piece of wire mesh. I was baffled at first but then I saw what he was driving at. It was as though he had devised an equation to express his idea of figure and ground where, although they each have their own character, they are not separate, but in dynamic tension, at once both distinct and indivisible. He had been looking at Korean pots and saw how they worked that way.  After that his painting took off and never looked back. Pouring paint and using a squeegee, there was a terrific liberation in the works that followed, often on a really big scale. Later, after meeting Clement Greenberg and the New York painters he supported, for a while John’s painting got a bit more formal, but he had captured the poetry of colour and freedom and never let it go.

He was generous in his appreciation of the art of others, whether historical or contemporary, and was always willing to learn from them. His great windows in Norwich Cathedral are quite his own but also a homage to Matisse. Perhaps this alertness to new inspiration helped keep his own creativity alive, for, through all the terrible adversity of his illness, right to the very end his spirit never for a moment flagged. He held a show of wonderful new paintings only weeks before he died.

In his art he created a unique dynamic out of the interplay of colours with variations of hue and saturation and subtle changes of depth, density, texture and ground in the application of paint. He gradually evolved an iconography of coloured shapes like enlarged dabs of the brush, circles, blobs and spirals, shuffling rectangles and other, loosely formed geometric shapes, but these elements were never still. That was why he talked about dance as a metaphor for what he was doing. For him painting was as alive and as autonomous as music. As a composer he could be symphonic when given the chance, as he was in the Norwich windows, but he was more often, like Schubert, the master of chamber music and song, of music made visible.

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#90. Sam Cornish writes on David Annesley at Waddington Custot, London

untitled, 1969, painted aluminium, 210.8 x 200.6 x 61cm

Three sculptures by David Annesley at Waddington Custot (until the 6th of January) use colour to very striking effect. My understanding is that all three were made recently under the supervision of the artist, completing editions from the sixties that were not fulfilled. They were conceived in 1968 and 1969.

All three polychrome sculptures have similar but not identical structures, based around the interaction of circular and triangular shapes, their basic geometry enlivened by wavy lines – a very common feature of the art of the sixties – and curled corners. They follow the paintings of Kenneth Noland and the sculptures of David Smith, and ultimately, Josef Albers’s series Homage to the Square. Although the colour is the most important thing, it is not quite right to say that the format is neutral. For one thing the scale is vitally important, both for creating a relation to the body, and for giving colour space to operate fully – the smaller sculptures on display are much less effective. The manner in which triangle and circle interact is also important to their contained dynamism, or to put it the other way around, their enlivened stability.

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#68. David Sweet writes on “Kaleidoscope: Colour and Sequence in 1960’s British Art” at the Longside Gallery and touring.

Kaleidoscope: Colour and Sequence in 1960s British Art, installation view at Longside Gallery, Yorkshire Sculpture Park © artists and estates. Photo: Jonty Wilde. Left to right: William Tucker; Anthony Caro; Robyn Denny; Richard Smith

KALEIDOSCOPE: Colour and Sequence in 1960’s Art.  http://www.artscouncilcollection.org.uk/exhibition/kaleidoscope

Longside Gallery, Yorkshire Sculpture Park. 1 April – 18 June 2017

Djanogly Gallery, The University of Nottingham. 15 July  – 24 September 2017

Mead Gallery, University of Warwick. 5 October – 9 December

Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool. 24 February – 3 June 2018

I’ve never liked Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. The 1967 album seemed a betrayal of what the Beatles stood for, namely the authentic voice of the North of England, and signalled their transformation into a crypto-postmodernist bunch of dandified dilletanti. (Ringo excepted, obviously) I wasn’t crazy about the cover either, influenced by Peter Blake’s obsession with Victoriana, though the insert poster of the Fab Four in day-glo military uniforms was at least strong on colour.

Colour in the sixties was rationed, and experienced against the background of colourlessness. Now colour has triumphed. It’s everywhere, creating a totalised and vibrant chromatic context of what Goethe called ‘motley’. But in this exhibition, curated by Natalie Rudd and Sam Cornish, colour’s place, though central, is insecure and colourlessness comes back into the reckoning.

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