Theatrical

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.

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