Abstract Critical

Alan Davie and the Abstract Imagination

Written by Christopher P. Wood

‘Patrick’s Delight’ by Alan Davie is one of six large-scale works by leading British abstract painters and sculptors currently on show at the Poussin Gallery –see listing and review. The painter and writer Christopher P. Wood, who has been a close friend of Davie for over 15 years, and who recently went to visit the ninety year-old Davie in his Hertfordshire studio/house with the film-maker Steve Gammond to make these three short films, places this important Davie painting in the overall context of a lifetime’s output of some 70 years — and still counting!

‘Patrick’s Delight’, painted in 1960, occupies a pivotal position in the evolution of Alan Davie’s painting, being both the summation of a decade of free improvisation and spontaneity in paint, whilst at the same time anticipating future developments.

It was during the 1960s that Davie’s free improvisations in paint, often inspired by his experiences playing jazz as well his love of poetry, gradually begin to take on a more medative and considered character as images begin to crystallize, forming concrete realities through a creative process of improvisation and intuition. It is this evolving interest in form together with his startling improvisation with imagery that has continued to hold Davie’s attention to the present day when, at the age of ninety, he continues to work prolifically with great energy, invention and verve.

Born in 1920, at Grangemouth in Scotland, Alan Davie underwent the conventional art training of that period learning to paint and draw with great dexterity and craft in an institutional atmosphere which was, as yet, largely untouched by the revolution in visual arts that was tearing away at the conventions, stirring the intelligensia and shocking the public across mainland Europe and especially so in Paris.

The travelling scholarship won during his time Edinburgh College of Art, which was to play such a pivotal roll in the development of his art, had to be postponed for National Service. It was only after the war, in 1947, that he could undertake a tour of Europe and encounter these advances in Modernism first hand, though it was his first sight of the Italian Primitives and his encounters with non-European and ethnic art that especially stirred his imagination and interest during these travels. As a result of this time abroad Davies’s intellectual, spiritual and technical liberation from the conventional approaches to painting was as swift and unequivocal, as was the swift transition from mainland Europe to America under the patronage of Peggy Guggenheim who encountered Davie’s fledgling abstracts in Venice in 1948. Through Guggenheim Davie gained first hand experience of the revolution in painting being pioneered by a younger generation of Americans artists.

Successful shows in this country were followed by further breakthrough exhibitions in New York in the mid-fifties that quickly established his credentials amongst the leading figures of Abstract Expressionism, with whom he now became closely associated. Throughout the 1950s it was this first-hand experience of the dramatic advances in American art which set his work apart from most other British artists of his generation although, at heart, Davie always remained very much a European. Arguably it’s the dichotomy presented by these two epic but distinctive sensibilities that acts as the catalyst for some of the best paintings of the period. The attempt to reconcile, on the one hand, the raw intuitive energy and liquid mark making of American abstraction with the European impulse for coherent imagery on the other, which not only provided the impetus for the innovations he was to forge in his technique but also pushed forward the intellectual and critical discourse (for which Davie has always had a healthy disregard) which now had to widen its perspectives and reference points in order to function alongside. It was Davie’s achievement that he was able to synthesize these two epic approaches within one picture plane, a synthesis that characterizes the success of many of his early abstracts and provided the impetus for the no less radical inventions apparent in his paintings from the subsequent decades.