Brit Abstraction

 John Pollard Brutal World 2016

So we’ve come to the end of the Brit Week. I know I’ve missed a load of painters (and sculptors if you’re so inclined). The reason for this quick survey was that it had become really apparent that somehow this Post War history was unknown to me (and many others I know as well). I had no idea of Greenberg’s connections to the UK. I had even less of an idea of how his ideas about painting were still flourishing there – especially among a broad community of painters and sculptors. Truth is I felt like this endeavor was a bit chancy – and by that I mean that I am commenting on work that I do not know and have not actually seen from photos and articles. A ghost in the machine so to speak. Chalk that up to the eArt World in which we live – extremely wide exposure with exceptionally shallow participation and understanding. It requires us to make a lot of assumptions.

I’d like to point out that Abcrit (@AbstractCrit) is doing a hell of a job promoting British Abstract Artists and their histories. Also there’s a newer online publication called Instant Loveland (@instantloveland) that is providing a broader perspective of the current scene. Both are recommended for great reading, spirited debate (if you’re so inclined), and knowledgable writing. And these are great places to begin any further research you might endeavor. 

You might also check out the Late Modern master Alan Gouk whose work, thought and writing deserves our attention. I’m also enjoying the more contemporary Abstract Mannerists Patrick Jones (@AbstractPatrick) and John Pollard (@jpollard72). And last but not least one of my favorites – the critic and excellent Modernist painter, Matthew Collings (@m_collings ) – who has much to say about just about everything. And I do mean everything. Again this has been brief and there is so much to see and read – but I’ll leave that to you.


Gillian Ayres Cumuli 1959

“Entering this room from the uncertainty of the previous one is an emotional and physical shock… here is an entirely coherent, strong and visceral presentation of painting from somebody right at the beginning of their journey. The progression from the dense, sensual attack of the Hampstead Mural, (which has more resonance with European painting, Davie and Denny, than with Pollock), to the long liquid paintings that followed, was realised between 1957 and 1959; by any standards it is an immense achievement. With these, Ayres could hold her own among contemporary works by Frankenthaler and Mitchell.” Nick Moore on Gillian Ayres August 17, 2017.

Gillian Ayres April 8th 2017 – September 3rd 2017 Exhibition

Yep – these works by Gillian Ayres are classic Late Modern painting. They are also undeniably strong, powerful and magnificent. I came across the pictures on the internet looking for Brit post war abstraction, and immediately thought, “Hold on Sonny Jim… what is this?!” I had sort of worked backwards going through her masterly Matisse/Picasso influenced late work (not really my thing), and gradually came onto these. These aren’t mannered abstraction, but they also aren’t “pure”. The color, space and movement is Baroque in feeling and attitude. She’s also taken the lessons of Tachisme and AbEx / Color Field painting and managed to keep the space open and alive unlike so many of the 2nd generation painters. I have absolutely no idea why this work  and this artist aren’t better known here in the US.

“‘I hated their dominance, and the way they taught. You’d do a Braque-style drawing, and they’d come up and have a row with you because it wasn’t what they did. You were always waiting for the row. You have to be careful with teachers: they might be in the business of making an audience for themselves. In the 1950s and 1960s, people were always attacking you for what you did if you were, as I was, working in abstraction. Your nerves used to go, you seized up with all this talk that you were a charlatan, that even a child could do it. One hated having to be defensive. No wonder I was a complete sucker for people who genuinely liked my work, even if it was just the gas man.’” Gillian Ayers in conversation with Rachel Cooke, July 13, 2015.


Frank Bowling Elder Sun Benjamin 2018

“Through the destruction of the natural picture-plane, Bowling allows himself to reconstitute new boundaries of creativity. This strategy is clear in “Elder Sun Benjamin” (2018) wherein the artist divides the canvas into thirds with two strips of patterned cloth. Bowling is a very careful artist, meticulous about whatever materials appear on the surface of his paintings. The exhibition’s catalogue mentions how the artist’s grandson returned from Zambia with silks that Bowling would later incorporate into his new paintings — but these fabrics were actually made in China or Malaysia. Their inclusion conceals a compound meaning; it’s an obvious reference to the artist’s grandson, but a more subtle gesture to Bowling’s dressmaking mother. Emblematic of a globalized political economy, the fabric also points to how the fashion market obscures international state boundaries and theories of identity.” Zachary Small on Frank Bowling’s paintings, October 1, 2018.

Paraphrasing Jasper Johns – at some point one’s work tends to become more personal. (“One must simply drop the reserve.”) Purity will not, can not ever be maintained, because over time purity becomes doctrine and decoration. Artists should have very little patience for such things. Frank Bowling’s work has never been about pure abstraction from what I can tell. His process has always been personal and his abstraction feels close up and true to life. It’s always interesting when an artist goes after primaries principles and uses them in unexpected ways. And Frank is at his best when he does this. From the work I’ve seen online he uses Modern process as Johns did, but unlike Jasper his work isn’t distanced or conceptual. It’s more self-conscious, narrative and expressionistic in tone and feel right from the start.

[Robin Greenwood has a different take on the work and this interview with Frank is a real gem – (you might want to have a listen linked here). ]

“He [Clem Greenberg] taught me that I should never allow myself to be excluded from any of the activities concerning my work. When I arrived in New York, I left London thinking I was being put in as a black artist, rather than an artist who happens to be black. When Clem came to see my work, I became committed to abstraction and he asked me why I hesitated so long to commit myself and I said “I thought I wasn’t being allowed to participate, that was a no-go area.” He said, “Don’t believe any of that bullshit, you are allowed to do what you want.” While he was sick and dying, he tried to get me in a gallery that was the most forceful. Clem called them and told them to get in touch with me. I told him he shouldn’t have. He said, “Don’t worry about it, you just hang in there.” He died soon afterwards. I’ve hung in there.” Frank Bowling in conversation with Nadja Sayej, November 2014.

Bowling may have also had in mind the work of his contemporary Barnett Newman. In 1966, Newman completed a series of four paintings, Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow, and Blue?… Bowling’s tongue-in-cheek response, Who’s Afraid of Barney Newman? (1968) calls into question the “purity” of primary colors and the authority of Western systems of knowledge; its green, yellow, and red bands echo the colors of the Ethiopian flag, a symbol of African and Caribbean independence movements beginning in the late 1950s. Bowling injects Newman’s abstraction with historical memory and challenges the mold of Black Art, with its insistence on representational forms. Nicole Miller reviews Frank Bowling’s show Make It New, November 1, 2018.


Albert Irvin Transcend 1973

“His spiritual godfathers are the American 50s abstractionists although his god, he claims, (‘my home-bred god’) is Turner, painter of the sublime, whose later paintings William Hazlitt described as ‘pictures of nothing and very like.’ One wonders what Hazlitt would make of those masters of the modern sublime, the American abstract painters of the 50s. What might he say of Rothko’s ‘Buddhist television screens’? Barnett Newman’s flat paintings with their ‘zips’? Ad Reinhardt’s ‘Black Paintings’? In the 90s Hazlitt would feel more at home, for the credibility of such painters is in question. Anyone who professes to trade in the sublime these days takes a risk. No sooner have you said, ‘My search is for the unanalysable,’ as Irvin did in the 70s, than you run the risk of making a fool of yourself. The sublime is out of fashion, and the body in which the sublime once lived, grand abstraction, is often said to be ill to the point of death.” Albert Irvin in conversation with David Illington May 1 1990.

When I was a younger artist I watched a program about Motherwell scrubbing in a black blob on a large raw canvas. Motherwell stood back, looked it over, dunked his brush in the slick paint and proceed to slash a few spots and drops from the blob into the unpainted area to make the “process” appear fast and unplanned. I realized then that AbEx romanticism was all bullshit, just another technique. Motherwell had pulled back the curtain. So what’s an artist’s intention? In this painting from the early 70s Albert Irvin has structured typical Color Field processes into a kind of conceptual mannerism. There’s a division between the color pools at the bottom and the “cloud” of color at the top – Modern structure below, unfettered process above. He is concentrating the color field, breaking its continuity and adding a narrative structure to the abstract process. Irvin is reaching back to a Romantic form of symbolic Landscape painting. It’s a play, a theatre piece about abstraction and Irvin’s part in it.  

There is something compelling about Fried’s discussion of theatre, particularly in our age of distraction… But beyond the – potentially large – problem of returning to words which are so weighed down with meaning, thinking about Irvin’s work (particularly that of the seventies) it occurs to me that I would like to try and begin to reclaim ‘theatrical’ as a positive word in painting. Not positioning it as Fried did within a theoretical scheme covering the whole of modern painting but simply in a limited sense, as a positive adjective suggesting drama, an openness to life and to sensation and an achieved and striking display of bravado. Sam Cornish on Albert Irvin’s paintings April 2012.


Patrick Heron Green and Mauve Horizontals January 1958

“On meeting Heron, the writer David Lewis wrote, ‘Patrick Heron is perhaps the most literate painter I have ever met. Yet that in itself is misleading. When I met him in London in 1950 he was better known as a critic than as an artist. Yet there was nothing literary about his painting. Quite the reverse. His art explored a progression of visual experiences which informed and sharpened his literary sensibilities, to a point that his capacity to enter into the work of the painters and sculptors he wrote about was, in my view, unmatched in English criticism since Ruskin’ (St Ives 1939-64, 1985). As a consequence of the interest generated by this literary exposure, Heron and his contemporaries held around fourteen one-man exhibitions in New York in the 1950s and 1960s, which has to be seen as an indication of the international significance achieved by this generation.” Ina Cole on Patrick Heron, October 2012.

I have not experienced a real history of Brit Late Modern painting, but while looking online for Patrick Heron’s work what struck me straight off was how fresh his early stripe paintings look. This painting is from 1958 at the height of AbEx popularity and the beginning of Minimalism’s rebellion. I can see why Greenberg and crew would find this painting an outlier. It certainly has formalist beauty, but there’s something more involved here which isn’t connected to the so-called “grand issues” of AbEx painting. The dimensions of the support. The arbitrary nature of the space. The values in the color. The controlled movement of the brush from edge to edge. These things create a self-consciousness and a critical narrative structure about the processes involved. 

‘Now the Americans are cheating, changing the chronology so as to make themselves look more innovative. For example, I was doing stripe paintings in the mid-Fifties and Morris Louis did them in the early Sixties, but they’re trying to fiddle the dates. In December 1957 my stripe paintings were hanging all round the house when Hilton Kramer came to stay. He took my idea back to the States with him. Now he’s calling mine ‘just tasteful derivations from Rothko’. The Americans take some aspect of art and turn it into a product: and stripes became an early Sixties product, with critics like Clement Greenberg urging his stable of young painters to turn them out because they would sell.’ Patrick Heron in conversation with Angela Lambert July 27, 1993.


John Hoyland 28.5.66 1966

“… it was more difficult for painters because we were still labouring under the enormous shadows of Newman, Rothko, Still and the rest of them. Marvellous as their paintings were they didn’t really give one any room to go into in painting: they opened up the door for minimal art and even conceptualism, but for painting they seemed to close the door. I think Rothko is a really good example of an artist who painted himself into a corner. So I felt – as a young painter – that one had to re-examine the basic things, in the way that the sculptors were doing. At that time most American artists were saying that these were old-type European preoccupations. Maybe so, but the reason Hofmann was so influential was that basically he was an old-type European artist, stuck with those values. He was the guy who really set about complicating the surface again, dealing with illusion again, with the plasticity of paint, using a full chromatic range, using all these things that had been eliminated from painting by the second generation of American artists.” John Hoyland in conversation with Adrian Searle, Artlog 1978.

We in the US know very little of Postmodern Era abstract painting in the UK. After the success of Damien Hirst’s Newport Gallery exhibition of John Hoyland’s color field abstractions the Pace Gallery on 57th Street brought some of those works here to New York. I think this was among the first shows of UK Late Modernist abstraction seen in the US for decades. Of course there are reasons for this – Post War hubris on our part, the waning importance of abstract painting in the US art world, and a long rivalry over the “ownership” of the Late Modern era. Interestingly, Clement Greenberg and Hans Hofmann were particularly influential in the development of this British Late Modern abstract painting. Their ideas of surface and flatness, color and field, size and scale and “push and pull” are immediately present in much of this Brit Abstraction. These artists created a long form Mannerism which developed quietly in the shadow of the better known UK celebrity figurative painters and Saatchi-branded YBAs.

“The Modern Art in the United States exhibition, organised by MoMA and shown at Tate in 1956, prompted some younger critics, such as Lawrence Alloway and David Sylvester, to espouse American Abstract Expressionism as the most vital trend of their day, and British abstract painters quickly followed suit. In 1956 Alloway could report to an American correspondent: ‘I have just come back from a visit to St Ives and there, too, American styles are clear to see in the young artists.’ In March 1956 [Patrick] Heron wrote of the American artists seen at Tate: ‘Their creative emptiness represented a radical discovery, I felt, as did their flatness, or rather their spatial shallowness.’ And he concluded his review: ‘We shall now watch New York as eagerly as Paris for new developments.’” Eric De Chassey on British abstract painting, May 27, 2014. 


Wade Guyton, Untitled, 2018

“Guyton has always worked with what is right in front of him. Things from his own visual experience like graphic files, The New York Times and now his studio. These interiors are fragments that are part of a bigger picture about art making. They show aspects of how his work is made and handled, never revealing the entire process. Yet, the paintings do not combine to make a “full on” studio manifesto like Gustave Courbet’s The Artist’s Studio.”  Clayton Press on Wade Guyton’s exhibition, June 5, 2018.  

The computer is our conveyance to a universe of images (old and new) and nearly every artist working today uses its programming in one form or another. We may make the work digitally through lens programs, or make the work by hand and upload images of it, or we may incorporate both of these processes to complete the work’s journey through our “studios” and out into the world. 

“… the early nineteen-nineties were a heyday of academic critical theory, when thinking skeptically about art could seem as good as, if not better than, making it. The artists who counted were image-recycling gravediggers of tradition, chiefly the Pictures Generation of Cindy Sherman, Sherrie Levine, and Richard Prince. A prevailing scorn for handcraft encouraged Guyton, who readily confesses his own manual ineptitude. But something dramatic happened in the circle of his artist friends at the university, which included two others who became successful, Kelley Walker and Meredyth Sparks: they decided that the grandparents were cool. It often happens that, in youth, we glamorize a past that our immediate elders tell us is over and done. So it was with Guyton and his peers.” Peter Schjeldahl on Wade Guyton, October 15, 2012.

“As with Andy Warhol’s silk screens or Christopher Wool’s early stencils, his paintings make a virtue of suppressing the artist’s hand; where Warhol once said he wanted to paint “like a machine,” Mr. Guyton really does it. But just as Warhol never really gave up artistic control when embracing mechanical methods, Mr. Guyton, too, finds a voice in seeming automation. Even the simplest of digital gestures — once typing the letter X, now taking a millisecond’s screenshot — has some artistic motive, and the translation from JPEG to canvas introduces its own formal kinks.” Jason Farago on Wade Guyton’s show at Petzel, January 5, 2017. 

On Board

Paul Corio Out of the Afternoon 2017

“Art, then, is an expression and a stimulus of this imaginative life, which is separated from actual life by the absence of responsive action. Now this responsive action implies in actual life moral responsibility. In art we have no such moral responsibility—it presents a life freed from the binding necessities of our actual existence.” Roger Fry An Essay in Aesthetics, 1909.

The other day Paul [Corio] sent me Roger Fry’s An Essay in Aesthetics (linked). He had run across it after our night out at the Tavern where the three of us (our friend Michael Zahn was also there) were discussing the nature of painting at this particular moment. Paul is wonderfully old school and vociferous in his support of Formalism and Beauty. I won’t speak for Paul, but our engaging disagreement about meaning in painting and the artist’s intent and responsibility for that meaning are at odds (maybe Paul or Michael will comment on this issue for our scanning readers). Anyway Fry’s “vintage” essay touches on many issues that we all are trying to address concerning art, imagery and meaning in our all pervasive electronic culture. I thought that maybe you folks might also find this essay interesting in your own search for art & meaning amid this Mannerist Moment.

“The perception of purposeful order and variety in an object gives us the feeling which we express by saying that it is beautiful, but when by means of sensations our emotions are aroused we demand purposeful order and variety in them also, and if this can only be brought about by the sacrifice of sensual beauty we willingly overlook its absence… Thus, there is no excuse for a china pot being ugly, there is every reason why Rembrandt’s and Degas’ pictures should be, from the purely sensual point of view, supremely and magnificently ugly.” Roger Fry, 1909.


Juan Uslé Ocho Incompleto 1994

“Of course, space is very important and, in general, functions as an active and complex ingredient—both perceptually and psychologically. In some of my works, layers are superimposed with images that are almost the central protagonists. But you could also say that some works have an atmospheric quality, a certain ambiguity, even though they might start with grids and almost geometrically divided space. In general, my use of geometry “trembles,” this makes the space in the paintings become increasingly mutable. I seek density and surprise, but sometimes I arrive at density or complexity through different paths, through the process-based simplicity of black or gray marks, as in the S.Q.R. paintings, or through the complex grids, spaces, and juxtaposed gestural marks of my interminable Rhizomes.” Juan Usle in conversation with Shirley Kaneda, July 1, 2014.

In the 90s Juan Uslé’s abstraction was nearly everywhere in New York City.  His small graceful paintings have inspired a great many of the Abstract Mannerists over the years. These works are Postmodern, mannered and highly structured. And like the other painters of this time his process is concentrated on the brushstroke. But these paintings aren’t a critique. They are concentrated on human experience. Uslé paints these geometric patterns to evoke personal narratives of time, space, heartbeat and touch.  

“Uslé has taken the brush imprint that represents nothing but itself – an invocation of the great historic longing in painting for the absolute absence of mimetic reference, for pictures that do not imitate anything – and turned it into a sort of painterly cardiogram, a work that reflects and responds to the history of painting and may at once be read as a self-portrait in a very elemental sense.” [Stephen Berg]



Fiona Rae Nunnery 1996

“Duchamp’s use of objects is similar to the way I might incorporate different painting languages. He’s not just quoting a urinal when he changes it to an art object. The urinal comes loaded with its own set of cultural, psychological, and functional meanings which Duchamp exploits, but with the new context he provides, generates further meanings. It certainly seems to go beyond quotation. Similarly, I use fragments from Disney, high art, mail-order catalogues, or whatever as visual stimuli which I bring forward into a new context. It’s this process of upheaval, from old to new, that gives new meanings. This is use, or usage, as distinct from quotation. It may be more enlightening to imagine painting as a fluent language with new words and new uses of words engendered all the time. It’s not necessarily quoting to imbue familiar phrases with new meanings. Each mark or shape I use has a part to play in the painting as a whole, which outstrips its possible role as a quote.” Fiona Rae in conversation with Shirley Kaneda, October 1, 1994.

Fiona Rae paintings feel like stealth Mannerism. They sneak up on you. So many Modern Era techniques, styles, ideas and images all floating through a loose Postmodern Landscape. There’s never a ground, never a solid foundation where the Modernism she appropriates can rest. Every image, every stroke is morphing into the next thing. And in typical Postmodern fashion if you try to pull the meanings together or if you try to look for an emotional experience you’ll lose the thread. Instead you just have to look, to follow the movement, take note and watch the show unfold before your eyes.  

“The paintings of Fiona Rae lay out on canvas the chief contradictions and polemics of the post-modern condition of painting. The dynamic push and pull of Rae’s work, its assured hesitancy, its rehearsed spontaneity suggest an oxymoronic tension at the core. Rae has sometimes been described as a cynical appropriationist who, having digested post-modern theory on the death of the author, has constructed her painting as an illustration of the impossibility of unmediated, pure expression. The anxiety that this interpretation reveals may derive in part from the fact that the suggested sources do not have their origin in the mediated or constructed images of advertising or photography, but in the painterly productions of great twentieth-century painters: Picasso, Matisse, Guston, Picabia, to name a few. High art is not being taken seriously. But no one has been offended or enraged by Rae’s other image banks: Krazy Kat, Little Nemo, Tintin or Fruit Crate Art. The forces demanding that painting remain the last bastion of the expression of the human soul see nothing but emptiness in Rae’s work, because she has dared to question the notion of originality.” Emma Dexter on Fiona Rae, 1994.