22nd September - 15th October 2005
Mainstream Abstract Painting from the Seventies
Mainstream Abstract Painting from the Seventies
"Modernist art continues the past without gap or break, and wherever it may end up it will never cease being intelligible in terms of the past." Clement Greenberg, Modernist Painting, 1960
By the time that the abstract painters Douglas Abercrombie, Alan Gouk and Geoffrey Rigden came to be engaged in producing the work in this exhibition, the fashionable end of the art world had moved on several phases from where they were picking up on it. Abstract Expressionism in America had run its course by the end of the Fifties, and its off-spring of Post-Painterly Abstraction and "colour-field" painting, the scene to which these painters were most closely drawn, had no primacy in the art world. The idea of a "mainstream" in art was pretty much sunk. Through the Sixties and Seventies, first Pop, then Op, Minimal, Conceptual and Performance Art held more sway, and by the mid-Seventies things were moving in all sorts of directions at once. In such a pluralistic context, abstract painting was rather out of it in terms of real influence, particularly amongst young artists and art students, where such things have true leverage on the cutting edge. In 1987, Robert Rosenblum in Art & Design magazine retrospectively summed it up thus:
"…the heyday of Modernism is long behind us. The whole sense that art is linear or progressive, or that groups of artists were pointing in the same direction, that myth of a forward artistic march, has been shattered since the Seventies, if not earlier."
Nevertheless, against this tide of diversification, a small group of painters based in London, which included Abercrombie, Gouk and Rigden (as well as John McLean, Fred Pollock, Paul Tonkin and others), were addressing a shared interest in the work of Hans Hofmann, Adolph Gottlieb, Clifford Still, Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock and other younger Americans. They ignored the trivialisation and fetishism that buzzed around the contemporary art scene, and concentrated only on what they saw as the way forward for painting, which by the mid-Seventies they had identified as an intensification of colour values and an increased plasticity of handling.
In 1975 they began exhibiting their work alongside sculpture at Stockwell Depot studios in south London, a venue which provided them with a crucial critical forum. The focus and dialogue of these annual shows became for the artists concerned, then in their thirties, an important experience of collective creative energy. In the context of the art scene as it was, they could have become insular in their attitude, but instead sought out direct contact with those whom they considered to be the best practitioners and critics of abstract art around at the time. This meant Americans, and a friendship with the sculptor Anthony Caro connected them directly with the scene centred around critics Greenberg and Fried, and painters such as Noland, Olitski, Bush, Frankenthaler and Poons. For a time a dialogue was established, and views upon the favoured practices and directions for painting were exchanged. Then, as the individual identities and canons of the British group continued to develop, so the group itself began to show distinct ambitions. They assimilated and eventually discarded – in degree according to the individual – certain restraints on methodology which were beginning to be endemic to the American scene, restraints which were engendered by a creative mythology based on a brisk spontaneity and a certain literalness of thought. Abercrombie, Gouk and Rigden were tailoring what they saw as the core concerns of abstraction to suit a more cumulative process of decision-making as had existed in the vanguard of European painting back in the early part of the century. In other words, they re-connected to European roots, and in doing so, broadened and re-invigorated for themselves the largely American-nurtured art of abstract painting. Whilst they shared an ambition with the Americans to defy the conventions of European easel painting, their instinct was also to honour them. Both despite and because of its precedents in American painting, their work had sufficient originality to give it a unique identity and direction. They were not painting quite like this in America.
In 1976, the eminent Abstract Expressionist Robert Motherwell had written to the New York Times to claim that his generation had taken the last significant step in abstract painting, and only footnotes were left for a younger generation to add. History will be the judge, but meantime if we might surmise that abstract painting, in the terms by which we are now engaged, is still an emergent development of modern painting, then we can have no prior knowledge of where and how far it can go, or whether it is over or just begun, not least because it is not an art of ideas or illustration, but of construction. The work in this show is realised from plastic, spatial, and, most importantly, visual impulses, one upon another, in pursuit of synthesis. If Modernism starts with Manet, these paintings fully embrace Modernism; yet far from being a stylistic footnote, the tone of this work is purposeful and auspicious. Even without the direct link which was established with American Abstract Expressionism and Post-painterly Abstraction, these artists have a qualitative claim to be linked to the painterly, pictorial and colouristic lineage of Picasso and Matisse, out of Manet, Cezanne and Monet, and via Pollock, Hofmann, Louis, Noland and others. You don't have to believe that this is the exclusive direction that visual art must take to nevertheless acknowledge it as a very fine one.
Their seriousness of approach, and what was perceived by some as an aggressive single-mindedness of ambition for their work, set these artists apart from their contemporaries. In 1979 they held their last mixed show at Stockwell Depot, but by then the directions of their respective careers had been established. Twenty-five years later, and we might ask: just how good are these paintings? The answer is that they look even better than they did, particularly in comparison with what latterly has passed for expressive and progressive painting. Perhaps they may look even better than the artists thought at the time. They are both vivid and lucid, and there is no evidence anywhere of an attempt to proscribe the terms by which painting can be made, only confirmation of an increasingly articulate and trenchant engagement with the medium. These paintings, many of which are of the very highest quality, offer us a chance to re-engage with an important visual mainstream in art.
Robin Greenwood 2005