Make your way to the rear of the Royal Academy, where the absorbing Jasper Johns retrospective has recently closed [who would have thought there were so many shades of grey?] and, amongst the extension work in progress along Burlington Gardens, worm your way to the entrance to Pace London, which is hosting Impulse, a small – 13 pieces – well displayed, interesting and enjoyable show of post-painterly abstraction. [A journey almost as tortuous, perhaps, as getting to the end of that sentence – language as metaphor? Enough!]
Dating back to the 1960s and 70s, and seen as coming out of, as well as in opposition to, the first generation abstract expressionist work of Pollock and DeKooning, there’s an oft-told story of the moment that this later variation of (mostly) American abstract painting – also known as Colour Field painting – was born. The critic Clement Greenberg had taken the artist Helen Frankenthaler [they were at item] to Jackson Pollock’s studio to see him at work, and, inspired by this, Frankenthaler adapted what she had seen to her own ends.
“The method I used developed and departed essentially from Pollock. I did use his technique of putting the canvas on the floor. But in method and material, Pollock’s enamel rested on the surface as a skin that sat on top of the canvas. My paint, because of the turpentine mixed with the pigment, soaked into the woof and weave of the surface of the canvas and became one with it.”
Helen Frankenthaler in an interview with Gene Baro, Art International, 1967
The first notable result for Frankenthaler of using this technique was the 1952 painting, Mountains and Sea, which was, in turn, instrumental in the two leading Colour Field artists, Morris Louis and Kenneth Noland [both present in this show] changing artistic direction – a Saul-to-Damascus moment engineered, once again, by Greenberg [well, he’s the person telling most of the story].
“The first sight of the middle period Pollocks and of a large and extraordinary painting done in 1952 by Helen Frankenthaler, called ‘Mountains and Sea’, led Louis to change his direction abruptly. Abandoning Cubism with a completeness for which there was no precedent in either influence, he began to feel, think, and conceive almost exclusively in terms of open colour.”
“The more closely colour could be identified with its ground, the freer would it be from the interference of tactile associations; the way to achieve this closer identification was by adopting watercolour techniques to oil and using thin paint on an absorbent surface.”
Clement Greenberg: “Louis and Noland” 1960
‘Tactile’, that’s the key word here, along with ‘interference’: this is a movement away from those vigorous lines that skipped across a Pollock canvas, those mostly deliberate, semi-instinctive whirls and splotches that engendered energy and rhythm, they’ve had their day. The new art, Greenberg decreed, shall be the art without artist, without the artist’s tangible, visible presence made plain though his or her marks; somehow, it will be “purely visual” and open and “relatively anonymous” in its execution. A visual experience that is somehow purer and more all-encompassing.
Both Louis and Noland are represented here at Pace London, Louis with two pieces including, centrally, his vast 1958 work Plentitude [shown in the both installation views above] and Noland with the two smaller pieces seen immediately above, both from a period in the late 70s when he was experimenting with abruptly angled canvases. Indo, from 1977, is quite mesmeric in its central grounding of mauvish blue, bordered and accentuated by thin strips of brighter, contrasting colours.
Frank Bowling, a British artist born in Guyana, moved to New York in the late 60s, whereupon his work moved increasingly towards abstraction; but, for me, the most interesting of his three pieces here is the beautiful 1978 At Swim Two Manatee, which leans back towards his earlier, more figurative work, and takes on, in its borders, an almost Pre-Raphaelite delight in intricate decoration.
For me, though, the most impressive artist on show is Sam Gilliam, whose work I came across for the first time [shame on me] in the groundbreaking Tate Modern show, Soul of a Nation, which also featured Bowling and the fifth artist showing at Pace, Ed Clark.
From the late 60s, apparently, while still working on canvas in a regular way, Gilliam had begun soaking canvasses in paint and then folding and hanging them to make work that was part-painting, part-sculpture [Think Eva Hesse, think Barry Flanagan]. The three-dimensional nature of After Micro W, exhibited here, and Carousel Change, from Soul of a Nation, is such that you want not just to look, to soak up, as it were, the glorious movement and agglomeration of colour, but to reach out, if one were allowed, and touch. ‘Purely visual’, but ‘tactile’ too.
Noland had linked his practice and that of his fellow abstractionists with that of jazz musicians such as John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman and Thelonious Monk – “what was new was the idea that something you painted could be like something you heard.” An idea taken up and progressed by Mark Godfrey in his essay, “Notes on Black Abstraction” from the Soul of a Nation catalogue.
“These artists may well have sensed that Coltrane’s ability to take apart the conventions of melody and rhythm found a parallel in their own interest in abandoning stretcher bars, flat surfaces and brushes. To put it another way, what Coltrane did to ‘My Favourite Things’ and ‘Chim Chim Cheree’ equals what Gilliam and Loving did to Morris Louis and Frank Stella.”
The other piece of Gilliam’s on show that I love and kept returning to is Onion Skin from 1975, a large canvas which seems to reach back towards the abstract expressionism of the late 50s and early 60s, while having a progressive sense of rhythm and colour that is its own. There’s more than a hint of Jackson Pollock here, and in its organic use of line and colour you can see something, I think, of Sam Francis, but it’s a satisfying whole and Gilliam through and through.
[In his excellent review of the show for Wall Street International, William Davie, describing this piece, draws a comparison with the paint-splattered floor of Pollock’s studio, and, fearing I’d stolen the idea, had to go back to my hastily scribbled notes to find a scribbled ‘artist’s floor’ in the margins. I don’t have that many vaguely original thoughts, I can discard them willy-nilly]
Impulse at Pace London finishes on Friday, 22nd December.