Abstract Critical

Alan Davie and Albert Irvin at Gimpel Fils

Written by Robin Greenwood

Alan DAVIE, opus O.107 Bubble Figure No.1 1954, oil on masonite, 46 x 39 in/ 116.8 x 99.1 cm

Alan DAVIE, opus O.107 Bubble Figure No.1 1954, oil on masonite, 46 x 39 in 116.8 x 99.1 cm Courtesy of Gimpel Fils

It must have seemed like a wonderful idea to put these two old boys of abstract art together; both now over ninety and both still working; would that we should all be as lucky, to last so long. It would have been most pleasant to be able to report on an interesting conjunction of these two painterly sensibilities, but their work is in fact so jarringly at odds that this show adds up to less than the sum of its parts; which comprise three early Davies, three very small recent Davies and half a dozen or so recent-ish Irvins. On the one hand you have Davie, able to conjure at will endlessly inventive and varied assemblages of marks, forms, splashes and drips, spatial motifs and recessions, in and out of the picture plane; on the other is Irvin, with a relentless repetition of flat motifs, flat paint, flat colour. The only parallels I can draw between the two of them rests upon a consideration of their respective careers, since in both their cases their early work is by far their best. As to their particular achievements, they are not remotely comparable; Davie is by far and away the greater figure, a painter who, in the fifties, possessed an immense talent for improvised abstract painting, the traces of which talent are even now still perhaps just discernible, though without the concomitant ambition.

Albert IRVIN, Blue Lion I 2008, acrylic on canvas, 72 x 60 in/ 182.9 x 152.4 cm

Albert IRVIN, Blue Lion I 2008, acrylic on canvas, 72 x 60 in/
182.9 x 152.4 cm. Courtesy of Gimpel Fils

The two paintings in the current show at Gimpel Fils that are to be taken with some seriousness are both by Davie, both early. ‘Bubble Figure No1’ from 1954 is not a great painting, but it is good, and not least remarkable for the scant amount of paint used in the achievement of a whole and plausible space-image. Like most Davies, it is much better in the flesh than in reproduction, and not until you see it thus do you realise that most of the surface is just bare hardboard, with the whole picture scraped on with about threepence-worth of paint. Yet it still convinces. That in itself is quite exhilarating.

The other good work here is ‘Trio for Bones’ from 1960, a large-scale triptych that bears a close relationship to a work previously discussed on this site, ‘Patrick’s Delight’, from the same year. Despite sharing a number of elements, these two paintings are really quite different in result, and if I were to say ‘Trio for Bones’ is nowhere near as good, that would still allow for it to be a very good painting, well worth seeing. It has lots of really interesting and complex stuff happening, and any analysis on one viewing would probably fall down on a second.

Alan DAVIE, opus O.270 Trio for Bones 1960, oil on canvas 84 x 144 in/ 213 x 366 cm (triptych)

Alan DAVIE, opus O.270 Trio for Bones 1960, oil on canvas, 84 x 144 in/ 213 x 366 cm (triptych). Courtesy of Gimpel Fils

‘Trio for Bones’ and Patrick’s Delight’ both come at the end of an extraordinary decade for Davie, which saw a succession of really great paintings (when I say ‘great’ I don’t mean ‘super’, I mean ‘magnificent’), beginning with paintings like ‘Jingling Space’ and ‘Altar of the Blue Diamond’ of 1950. Thus began a period when Davie could do little wrong. His inventiveness seemed to run on endlessly, with a method of ‘drawing-up’ a painting into existence with swirling medleys of biomorphic forms and spattered gestures, set off in semi-architectural structures; ambiguous as to subject matter, but uncompromised in their pictorial endeavour. This direction of travel was of course derived from Pollock and works such as Guardians of the Secret, 1943; no matter, it was a good place to start from, and perhaps even Pollock didn’t possess such unstinting and uncompromised natural abilities.

Alan DAVIE, Fate of the Lovely Dragon opus O.125, 1955, oil on board, 66 x 75 in 167.6 x 190.5 cm

Alan DAVIE, Fate of the Lovely Dragon opus O.125, 1955, oil on board, 66 x 75 in 167.6 x 190.5 cm. Courtesy of Gimpel Fils

Davie’s creativity flowed without check. The list of first-rate paintings from the fifties would be rather long, but I’d like to recommend a few: ‘Fetish with a Yellow Background; Bull God No1’, 1955: ‘Fate of the Lovely Dragon’, 1955; ‘Sacrifice’, 1956; ‘Priest of the Red Temple’, 1956; ‘Woman Bewitched by the Moon No1’, 1956; ‘Martyrdom of St. Catherine’, 1956; Game for Girls, (Davie is one of the few artists who could occasionally incorporate writing successfully into his pictures – unlike, say, Twombly); ‘Blue Bubble’, 1957; ‘Red Parrot Joy’, 1960; any and all of which, with many more, you could justifiably call ‘great’. And so to 1960, and ‘Patrick’s Delight’, which is an undoubted masterpiece that could hold its own in just about any company. It is the culmination of a decade when Davie was without equal as a painter in the UK, possibly in the world.

Alan Davie, Patrick's Delight, 1960, oil on canvas, 213 x 366 cm (3 panels) Courtesy of Poussin Gallery

Alan Davie, Patrick’s Delight, 1960, oil on canvas, 213 x 366 cm (3 panels) Courtesy of Poussin Gallery

But then again, also from 1960, is the work in the present show, ‘Trio for Bones’; using many similar devices and strategies for picture-making as ‘Patrick’s Delight’, but not really coming together in such a breathtaking and stately manner, not really pulling all the parts together and working them on into an endlessly compelling whole. More of a puzzle, less of a lucid expression of physicality, ‘Trio for Bones’ begins to show the drift into graphic iconography and cartoon metaphorical imagery that characterises Davie’s work from then on. How he thus far had avoided such difficulties, considering the ‘drawn-up’ character of most of the work, is one of the extraordinary delights of that period. Sheer bloody-minded improvised talent seemed to have kept him blazing through the traps. Maybe using Pollock’s thinking was the key, because as soon as Davie’s own thinking kicked in, as soon as the philosophising and mythologizing and storytelling started, the game was up, pictorially.

Albert IRVIN, Sunray 2009, acrylic on canvas, 72 x 60 in/, 183 x 153 cm

Albert IRVIN, Sunray 2009, acrylic on canvas, 72 x 60 in/, 183 x 153 cm. Courtesy of Gimpel Fils

And so what about Mr. Irvin? I confess I don’t have much to say. He’s a very nice chap, and it is fantastic that he still carries on; and he did some good work in the seventies, as a recent showing at Canary Wharf demonstrated. Bold, if somewhat limited (but then what wasn’t limited in the seventies?), his paintings then had a real physical touch and a gestural explicitness. Even through the eighties there were some robust moves and quite inventive build-ups. But in the late eighties and early nineties the two motifs which have come to characterise his work for over two decades now, the loosely-painted ‘noughts-and-crosses’ checks and the circular ‘flower-heads’ were developed, and a little later the pale, close-toned colours began to appear. Since then the work has become deeply formulaic (coinciding, of course, with his dramatic commercial success! Good luck to him), and seems to get flatter and flatter (in all senses); its become wallpaper. Seeing these recent Irvins next to a couple of good Davies does them no favours. Irvin’s stripes, splotches and splashes seem stylised and mechanical alongside the real thing; which is what the Davies undoubtedly are.

Robin Greenwood
May 2013                                

Alan Davie RA & Albert Irvin RA is on at Gimpel Fils until the 15th of June.            


  1. Ashley West said…

    Well I just popped down to this show and thought I would take in Paul Feiler at Redfern and Bernard Cohen too. I also popped into the Barbara Rae show at Adam’s Gallery, among others. In the morning I was practicing drumming in my studio, surrounded by work. I’ve been exploring free-form jazz with a few others of late and there are obvious connections with improvisation in painting. It reminded me of a visit I made to Alan Davie’s studio in the early seventies. A drum kit was set up there ready for Tony Oxley to accompany Davie on sax and flute. At my relatively young age he represented something of a hero – a shaman of sorts. In front of Trio for Bones today I found that I was probably content to spend much more time ‘sitting with it’ than I was capable of then. I don’t think it was out of adulation, as his later work never struck a chord – and given that so little that I see these days stops me in my tracks, I was pleasantly surprised or reminded by such a painting. There was little need for equivocation about what I was looking at – unlike the Irvins, not that the latter were particularly bad – they were just ‘standard’ (an awful generalisation), and they were alongside the Davie. Trio for Bones simply had so much to respond to – so alive, full of movement, intense colour, gesture, deep spaces, architecture – it isn’t just formal – about painting, but a medium through which a full blooded drama about relationships can take place. It had shocking spontaneity (it looks as fresh as the day it was painted), and yet the control is there, the discernment. Like good free jazz, it isn’t haphazard, or a free-for-all. And it doesn’t look at all American. I suppose you might say, in a corny way, that in such a painting as this, Matisse meets Pollock, in Britain. As with Diebenkorn, there’s no room for niceties or fussiness – only for what is essential. As with free-jazz, you can’t sit on the sidelines and work out what you’re going to do – you have to get in there, get physical and work your way around. What a contrast this was to what I saw later. I was looking forward to the Feiler show – I hadn’t seen many pieces in the flesh. I really wanted to enjoy these images of sun-like disks held within geometric frames, but they seemed to me, to be fussy, all about packaging, with layers of perspex and inhibited strips of colour mounted in more perspex – mechanical, decorative, not pushed far enough (much like Carol Robertson’s work). I didn’t enjoy the Cohens later work either – I couldn’t help wondering why someone would want to spend so much labour creating something so ‘removed’, akin to the Frank Stella up the road at Waddingtons. A few downstairs, that were simpler and looked liked aboriginal paintings were lovely though – much more poetic, human. I’ve seen Barbara Rae’s work before, and I like the direction of the work (of course they are landscapes, but use interesting mark making, colour and surface) but when I tried to find one piece I could live with, I simply couldn’t. On the train home I was reading ‘No Sound is Innocent’ by the British free drummer and founder member of AMM (a group dedicated to purely improvised ‘abstract’ music). I thought this passage, which could equally be applied to abstract painting and my experience of the day, very poignant: (here he is responding to the minimalist composer LaMonte Young’s injunction to “Draw a straight line and follow it”) ‘For the improvisor the ‘straight line’ is integrity – it marks the musician’s determination to remain constant. The moment ground is shifted, to accommodate another practice or another ethos, then individuality is diluted and thereafter identified with an alternative set of values. The measure of this new identification will reflect as much a disappointment with improvisation as success with an alternative form ….persistence is required because improvisation …(is)not an easy task master. Maintaining an ethos of heurism and dialogue is very much counter to the expediency and social atomism of our times.’ Sorry about the length of this comment, but it has been a while! Back to the paradiddles!

  2. Bill Hare said…

    While I am not inclined to challenge Robin’s scenario of the Rise and Fall of Alan Davie, I would like to draw attention to another side of the story. This time from the artist’s point of view ( see Notes by the Artist,1958). Davie has always stressed that for him painting has never been an end in itself, but a means to satori, or spiritual enlightenment. A Jungian rather than a Greenbergian, the ritual of paintng is his chosen strategy for tapping into the Collective Unconscious and releasing, from comic into pictorial space, the symbolic manifestation of universal archetypes. While many may agree that the 1950s was his “great decade” before “the drift into graphic icongraphy and cartoon metaphysical imagery” took over his later work in “decline”, the artist may feel very differently. Davie has always seen himself as a shaman rather than a conventional artist-like Bert Irvin for example. A much more intriguing coupling would be those two great British mystic/artists- Alan Davie and William Blake.

  3. patrick jones said…

    Robins scalpel hits the mark yet again.I still feel the tremendous pressures really good artists are under if they are to survive.I thoroughly recomend Hyperallergics “Beer with a painter”,where John Walker talks about painting in England.When he left John Hoyland had to carry on alone .Davie is a special case.

  4. Peter Stott said…

    Prey to God these visions never come true.

  5. Emyr WIlliams said…

    Bubble Figure Number 1 reminds me of Rothko’s “Personage Two“. His work at turn of the decade to the sixties seems to be an about turn from Pollock’s allover-ness and looks back to more traditionally painted paintings with antecedents such as Matisse’s extraordinary and monumental “Bathers by a River“. I know you have an opinion on this: could “Patrick’s Delight” be the pivotal painting in this change of direction? It is enlightening to see this move, one against the tide, so to speak , away from ‘process’ determined outcomes, back to regular easel painting, but with a whole lot of stuff in there to stir things up.

    • Robin Greenwood said…

      I don’t think it was Pollock’s all-over paintings I had in mind as influencing Davie, more the earlier semi-figurative ones, like my example “Guardians…”, though of course the paint spattering is from Pollock too. And I suppose you could say some of those early Pollocks, which are my favourites, are kind of ‘all-over’ in a way, just not (boringly) the same all over. ‘All-over-different’ seems good to me, and even “Trio for Bones” has some of that. As for “Patrick’s Delight” being pivotal, I think it is the zenith before the decline.

      • Sam said…

        Though he got in before me I was going to post something similar to Emyr about Davie’s relation to Matisse. Patrick’s Delight works with a tension between the concrete limits of a room and a much more expansive space, though one still defined by a plane; and that when he begins to more directly illustrate rooms as a place for his symbols his works lose a lot of their power. (and perhaps, though the truth is more ambiguous, could we say that Matisse moves from ‘reality’ to abstract, and Patrick’s Delight works in the opposite direction?).

        I guess I personally find what Emyr identifies as traditional easel painting more satisfying (though I wouldn’t at all extend that to a desire to just see that approach). Obviously it would be more useful to fully unpick what this satisfaction comprises and what it implies. It is interesting that Pollock’s spaces form the basis of Julie Mehretu’s work.

      • Sam said…

        at least the reproductions seem to imply that

      • Sam said…

        Perhaps as artists or viewers there is a choice (or a unchangeable prejudice) as to whether we are drawn to the flat plane of a localised architectural space (Matisse, Patrick’s Delight); or the expanded, decentralised space implemented by Pollock, that tends to create a dispersed vision of infinity, and that can be seen on the site in Bernard Cohen’s paintings and Julie Mehretu’s work.

  6. jenny meehan said…

    Mmmm, they don’t look like they would hang well together. I love Alan Davie’s painting and am very excited at the thought of whizzing along to that exhibition! Will take a look and see if I change my mind!

  7. Iain Robertson said…

    I would pretty much agree with this being an odd pairing apart from age and gallery affiliation. Always inspiring I would say for any painter to see some Davie’s from that great outpouring that you rightly talk about Robin , late 50′s early 60′s even if they arnt the best ones, even the not so good ones are pretty great !

    The difference for me is that Alan has always continued to search and investigate abstract space and imagery and to try to present new knowledge through his work even if it didnt always come off it was the searching that mattered and Bert ‘s work though always consistent and respect for still doing it dosent reall move beyond the surface. Possibly his prints work better for me for this reason

  8. Peter Joyce said…

    It does seem an odd choice to pair these two together by Gimpels. Maybe Ayres with Davie, or Hoyland or Walker, in fact, whichever pairings I consider (to tell the same story)I still struggle to find a reason to include Irvin. He never has been in same league.