Abstract Critical

Alan Davie: Space and Spontaneity

Written by Robin Greenwood

Alan Davie, Insignias Of The Gannet People, oil on canvas, signed, titled and dated '1958' (verso), 82 x 90 ins. Courtesy of the Portland Gallery

Alan Davie, Insignias Of The Gannet People, oil on canvas, signed, titled and dated ’1958′ (verso), 82 x 90 ins. Courtesy of the Portland Gallery

Alan Davie, who died on 5th April, is by coincidence having something of a moment in the London galleries. Of the four displays of his work, all organised prior to his death, the Portland Gallery (until 5th June) and Alan Wheatley Art (until 23rd May) have the best paintings. Over at Davie’s primary dealer, Gimpel Fils (until 23rd May) is a selection of very recent miniature paintings on paper and drawings in biro, showing his natural talents to the last, but I’m not sure they amount to much. The Tate display (until 28th September) is not greatly flattering either, and I don’t particularly warm to any of the major Davies they own. Sacrifice of 1956 is the best of them, but is suppressed and flattened by its blue-sky background and its horizontal symmetry; Birth of Venus, 1955, doesn’t quite get going in the way it promises, being rather overwhelmed by drawing and composition; and Entrance to the Red Temple No.1, 1960, supposedly the star of the collection, has too much of the graphic patterning and pseudo-symbolism that takes over completely in later work. None of these paintings match in quality a handful of works at Wheatley’s and the Portland. At least Davie is now recognised again, as he was in the sixties, as an important painter, though a catalogue raisonné and major retrospective at Tate are, as far as I know, not yet on the cards. The decade 1950-60 (and maybe occasionally ’60-‘65) throws up new surprises all the time (how about Insignias of the Gannet People, 1958 at Portland?) and it would be really good to get a more complete picture. I’d really like to see a full chronology of all the work from 1948-68, at the least.

Alan Davie, Monk's Vision, 1958, oil on canvas, 213.5 x 173.5 cm, signed, dated and inscribed with the title verso. Courtesy of Alan Wheatley Art

Alan Davie, Monk’s Vision, 1958, oil on canvas, 213.5 x 173.5 cm, signed, dated and inscribed with the title verso. Courtesy of Alan Wheatley Art

Works to look out for at Wheatley’s are: Altar of the Moon, 1955; Priest of the Red Temple, 1956 (which may not be on show); Philosopher’s Stone, 1957; Monk’s Vision, 1958. At the Portland Gallery are: Bull God No.5, 1955; The White Magician, undated; Snail Elements, 1956; Game for Girls, 1957; Divination, 1957; Discovery of the Chariot, 1958; Insignias of the Gannet People, 1958. Both galleries have quite a few other paintings of lesser quality, but those are just the main ones that might look good in reproduction. It’s a chance not to be missed (a few at Portland are on loan from their collectors), because there are some wonderful paintings here. In the flesh, in front of the work itself, is when you can and should make your own mind up, but five paintings in this bunch are, as near as damn it, modern masterpieces. Philosopher’s Stone and  Altar of the Moon at Wheatley’s are both excellent. The White Magician is a good place to start at the Portland. It’s as fluid and as embedded in the stuff of paint as a Tintoretto; it shows how to work freely and without restraint, without rules and conceits; it shows how the actuality of art defeats any theory; it shows how to make spaces in painting by changing your mind (more of this later), with large areas of pentimenti painted out by a looming rich ochre soup of great depth. Having arrived at this, you don’t want to change a thing.

Alan Davie, The White Magician, oil on board, 60 x 96 ins, Courtesy of Portland Gallery

Alan Davie, The White Magician, oil on board, 60 x 96 ins, Courtesy of Portland Gallery

Snail Elements is amongst the most dazzling of paintings to stand in front of, continuously riveting to look at, larger-than-life, bold as brass, very different from its reproduction. Perhaps greatest of all is Insignias of the Gannet People, a rather atypical work of great virtuosity, inexplicable in the way it holds itself together in utmost depth and diversity. Lines that appear as drawing in reproduction do not so much separate as connect; spaces open out within other spaces without ever becoming holes in the fabric; the whole hangs in together with no resort to compositional devices or formats. The surface buzzes with activity, but none of it feels the least bit gratuitous – or even gestural. Wonderful painting (it’s a particularly good work to look at after the Gary Wraggs), painted in 1958, bloody hell.

Alan Davie, Snail Elements, oil on board, signed, titled and dated '56' (verso), 48 x 60 ins. Courtesy of Portland Gallery

Alan Davie, Snail Elements, oil on board, signed, titled and dated ’56′ (verso), 48 x 60 ins. Courtesy of Portland Gallery

Is any of this work abstract? Between 1950 and 1960, when Davie was making some of the very best paintings by anyone anywhere, including his more celebrated American peers, the question presents itself, because of certain contradictions, as moot. Maybe it’s a question of no consequence – paintings either work or not – but it continues to intrigue me. There are two issues: the first is about the space in a painting, and whether it is possible to make “abstract” space (I think it is not); and the second is the business of a spontaneous reworking of a painting by the partial or full obliteration of one impulsive plastic expression by a succeeding and conflicting one (or more), which is a wholly abstract methodology. These two contradictory conditions are bound inextricably together in early Davie.

Alan Davie, Priest of the Red Temple, 1956, oil on canvas, 183 x 244 cm Signed, dated and inscribed with the title verso. Courtesy of Alan Wheatley Art

Alan Davie, Priest of the Red Temple, 1956, oil on canvas, 183 x 244 cm
Signed, dated and inscribed with the title verso. Courtesy of Alan Wheatley Art

Space is space; we can surely only read space in a painting as representational. How else do we know it as spatial, other than through our physical/visual knowledge of the three-dimensional world, its proximities and its distances? Can a spatial painting ever be wholly abstract? The natural interest and specificity of painting’s figurative spatiality can be substituted for by a more ambiguous materiality of paint and canvas (as in, say, the works in Enantiodromia, in extreme example, and especially the often rather handsome Simon Callerys, which tend to be non-spatial and rely upon the appeal to minimal-object aesthetics of their carefully deconstructed materiality), and/or the interest of complex and subtle-but-powerful colour relations (painters like Alan Gouk and Fred Pollock, who make spatial works through coloured planes in parallel before and behind the picture plane, work which tends to revert to a known and simple compositional format in order to carry colour without dominating it). But not to create significant and complex spaces in painting seems to me a loss that has yet to be fully compensated for by privileging either materiality or colour, or any other newer concerns.

Alan Davie, Game For Girls, oil on board, signed, titled and dated 'APR 57' (verso), 40 x 48 ins. Courtesy of Portland Gallery.

Alan Davie, Game For Girls, oil on board, signed, titled and dated ‘APR 57′ (verso), 40 x 48 ins. Courtesy of Portland Gallery.

In Davie’s work both materiality and colour are amply utilised, but they frequently remain secondary to his search for a viable spatiality, which is where his invention and discovery is in greatest abundance and diversity. For example, Philosopher’s Stone, 1957, can be read as a picture-space of a pair of fabulous and complex paint-falls (they really are wonderful!) cascading out of billowing net curtains in front of and through a blue pond/box which has a red sail-boat/kite in the middle; all set in a green landscape with a horizon-line. There is a giant’s hand coming in from the right… whatever! It all works. And it is not really any of those things. Davie loads his pictures from this period, especially after 1955, with things that look a bit like parts of the real world – amoebas and plant-life, writhing bodies and dragons, pseudo-organic life-forms with and without shading, often set in orthogonal architectures that may or may not be conventionally modelled. His range of invention is dazzling, unmatched. How does he get away with it all, I’d like to know! Sheer talent and judgement? On the whole he falls on the right side of reconciling all these crazy things in space with the two-dimensionality of surface, and that takes some doing. Sometimes they fail; they become too flattened on the picture-plane and lose the space. Such weaker paintings are often much less worked, born of far fewer gestural impulses, being somewhat “thrown-off”, and are often the most non-representational – for example, Rabbit Moves, 1964. By contrast, the later symbolist works, after about 1965, like Fairy Tree No.5, 1971, go the opposite way. They too represent imaginary things in made-up representational architectures, but by then the surreal symbolic imagery has all but taken over and all reconciliation between imagery and painting is forgone. Not to put too fine a point on it, I think, like many people, that by 1965 Davie has lost the true knack.

Alan Davie, Philosopher's Stone, 1957, oil on board, 152.5 x 198 cm, signed, dated and inscribed with the title verso. Courtesy of Alan Wheatley Art

Alan Davie, Philosopher’s Stone, 1957, oil on board, 152.5 x 198 cm, signed, dated and inscribed with the title verso. Courtesy of Alan Wheatley Art

Such a reconciliation of two and three-dimensions is a delicate balance in painting. We’ve had some discussion on abcrit lately about layering (in Gary Wragg’s work, particularly); painting is literally composed of it, one layer of paint over another. But it can be more; paint’s greatest potency and appeal to me is its ability to wrest three-dimensional form from two-dimensions without compromise to the latter. It is not just one layer behind another, it is one complex “thing” behind another, seen from a viewpoint (despite the claims of Cubism). The resounding force of the layered patch of paint that makes the light that defines the thumb of the right hand of Rembrandt’s Saskia in Arcadian Costume (National Gallery) breaks open and elaborates the three-dimensionality of the whole figure, and so demolishes but then simultaneously re-establishes and re-defines the two-dimensionality of the canvas on which it is painted. Behind the pressure of the thumb is the tip of the forefinger; behind the forefinger is the gnarled wooden staff; beyond which is the straightened little finger; next to the staff, but a little set back, is the material of Saskia’s sleeve. And between and behind the staff and the sleeve is space. We know and believe in the continuity of these things, even when we can see only a fraction of their total. And we know it as a far richer, more complex thing than just layering. That knowledge seems crucial, and enables us often to read even the least-modelled of Matisses as much more than a picture plane. We believe in the dual reality of both the three-dimensional space and the two-dimensional painting. Abstract painting struggles to derive value from this dual property of paint that figurative painting takes easily in its stride, and sometimes to the highest levels.

Look In, Oil on board, 1955, 122 x 152cm, Mexico 1960 and Kenya 1961. 108 Fine Art 'Four Score And Ten' 2000 & 'A Diamond Romance' Harrogate 2012. Image courtesy of 108 Fine Art.

Look In, Oil on board, 1955, 122 x 152cm. Image courtesy of 108 Fine Art.

There is a painting by Davie called Look In 2, 1955, which I saw at the London Art Fair a couple of years ago, which comprises some sort of rounded opening hanging between heavy billowing curtains (velvet this time, not net!), and in the opening are slashings and scrawlings of all sorts in black, red, blue and yellow. This immensely lively and spontaneous onslaught of insect-head scratchings quite obviously continues behind the black outline and under the grey surround, suggesting space behind and beyond or through something. There remains a vestige of this continuation of splatter in the undefined small circle that pins the hole / head / stitched-baseball-thing to the curtain on its left-hand side. Then you begin to notice that the splatterings are both under and over the black outline; particularly the yellow on the right, which disappears behind at the top and overlaps at the bottom. So too the orange on the left seems both behind and in front. This is a little more complex than just layering. Or, if it’s a layer, it’s three-dimensionally warped, no longer just in parallel to the picture plane. Warped, spatial, yet it remains in touch with its two-dimensionality. But figurative..?

Alan Davie, Discovery Of The Chariot, oil on board, signed, titled and dated '58' (verso). 48 x 72 ins. Courtesy of Portland Gallery

Alan Davie, Discovery Of The Chariot, oil on board, signed, titled and dated ’58′ (verso). 48 x 72 ins. Courtesy of Portland Gallery

Well, the space might be figurative, but the methodology is all abstract. This is testified to by the massive amount of underpainting visible in a lot of the best paintings. Go see the amount of it in Altar of the Moon or The White Magician. It’s also demonstrated by the film of him at work, now showing in the display at Tate Britain, where you can watch him re-invent a picture, layer after layer, time after time, working fast in one burst after another, totally immersed (the film veers towards self-parody at times, but we are in 1961, a little past his very best). Such destruction and rebuilding, such complex layering of changing intentions, are a true part of the anti-programmatical methodology of real abstract art, and antithetical to not only figurative art (yes, even including Matisse, the great re-configurer), but also to the more conventional (I’m tempted to say “academic”) processes of “abstraction”, which tends to stick to and develop, often through simplification, the more fixed and singular compositional arrangement or format that they began with.

Davie’s best paintings don’t simplify, they gain complexity as they go; they mutate significantly; they don’t start with their “figuration”, or the “image”, if that’s what it is; no, it’s where they end up, having started from nothing, with random splurges and splashes, dabs and spatters to get things going. True, they do go into a final phase of consolidation, wherein forms are picked out with lines, sometimes solidified and surrounded by backgrounds, but to varying degrees the original complexities remain to inform the final vision, and to make it supple and resonant. And it’s important to remember that when the first scramblings of paint were put onto works like Philosopher’s Stone or Look In 2, no conception of the finished form of the work was in place. These paintings remain to the last deeply spontaneous works; the action, the reaction, the resolution, all grasped in a moment, yet the result of many, many moments. Maybe this complexity is why I relate to the best early paintings, despite their figuration, as if they matched in some quite precise way my own anticipation of a fully abstract art.

Robin Greenwood
May 2014


  1. Robert Linsley said…

    When I was younger I also admired Alan Davie, and like everyone prefer the earlier work, but it’s all symbolic/mythic, and never really abstract in any of the stronger ways. I like your suggestion that abstraction is improvisation, but your discussion of space in Davie’s work is disappointing—or better say that after reading your descriptions of space in historical works it’s surprising that you can find enthusiasm for this stuff. I couldn’t believe what you said about the piece called Philosopher’s Stone. An horizon line? With a slab stuck across it to make space? That’s the slackest, most feeble and energyless kind of space that any artist, or art student, can make—and  it happens all the time. I’ll take anything cubist over that mechanical and schematic effort. To be fair I’m not in front of the work, but if it really gives you a hit I’ll bet it’s more an effect of scale than space. Space is like all the qualities of art—it comes about through the combined effect of the others. The feeling of space might give the greatest pleasure, but a too conscious manipulation of it at the artist’s end spoils the magic, something which your friends Alan Gouk and Fred Pollock have both suggested on this site. And if there’s no central quality how can there be a central effort? Improvisation, revision, a living process is better for abstraction than pursuit of a preset goal, and you seem to be coming round to that, but there’s still something not right, because why Davie or Gary Wragg and not Stella? Stella is all motion. In fact Wragg’s piece Eddie’s Cafe, in the Collings conversation, looks just like a Stella—without the space! Abandonment and Doubt, in Dan’s article, is Stella meets Hoffman, though Hoffman is so present in Stella anyway that it seems unnecessary. Your rhetoric is strong but recent bad choices bring your whole position into question.

    • Robin Greenwood said…

      Sorry Robert, Ive only just seen this comment. I kind of agree with what you say, and I thought the article tried to deal in some way with the contradictions I feel about abstract painting at the moment. But I have never championed a pre-set goal for individual abstract artworks, even though a broader “vision” of some kind is probably needed.

      What you say about “Philosopher’s Stone” is true, it is “naff”, but it still hangs together better than any Stella. Maybe you’re ahead of me and maybe one day I’ll come round to Frank too. But maybe it’ll be a cold day in hell before I do.

      And yes, my position is certainly in question… isn’t yours?

      • Robert Linsley said…

        My first thought would be that the need to have things “hang together” would be your downfall. Time hangs everything together eventually. Try to make a work that doesn’t hang together. Just try. Can’t be done. Agreed that what matters is the particular way of hanging together in each case.

      • Robin Greenwood said…

        That’s bizarre! I make things all the time that don’t hang together. Then I chop them up and try again. This is back to our old argument about wholeness… you say everything has wholeness, I say very few things.

  2. John Pollard said…

    Just got to see the Portland show. I thought that five or six paintings were excellent, including the rather wild ‘Insignias Of The Gannet People’. Teetering on the edge of a chaotic mess I agree that it holds together superbly and quite intriguingly. Quite an achievement.

    ‘The White Magician’ is another very individual painting, quite mad (subject wise and formally) but again provokes thought, dialogue, and a lot of looking. Quite noticeable that I am still questioning myself in terms of what I really think about these two paintings. They certainly stand out for me in terms of doing something that looks and feels quite different, challenging, and provocative (all in a good way).

    I also really enjoyed ‘Moon’s Nest’ a masterful, small painting on what looks like brown wrapping paper, and a couple of colourful slightly later works that still had some complexity (‘Romance for Moon and Stars’, ‘Horse Laughter’ and ‘Prelude for a Bird Dance).

    A full retrospective would no doubt be quite a mixed bag but surely deserved by the standard of these earlier works.

    A compare and contrast with Gary Wragg is worthwhile.

    • Sam said…

      As a start I would say Wragg’s colour is better. There is a dullness which for me holds Davie’s most exciting paintings back.

      • John Pollard said…

        Sam, I think both their best are pretty comparable but obviously quite different. For me, you have to start comparing a painting with a painting to get very far on the question of ‘better’. Perhaps some of Davie’s colour is ‘subdued’ rather than dull, perhaps other elements take over in his paintings and take precedent; perhaps bright colours can get in the way of other elements in a painting? Dull doesn’t necessarily mean poor quality? It is quite impressive that some of Davie’s 50/60s paintings look as unique as anything….

  3. anthony seymour said…

    Very good to read this essay and reminding me of Davie’s old retrospective here in Bristol at the RWA and trying to talk about it in London with Patrick Heron after he came back from Australia.
    Sorry I have missed the Wheatley show, but must try and see the Portland…..
    Maybe though people at large are more likely to warm to John Bellany?

  4. Patrick Jones said…

    Well Done Robin,Its nice to witness your enthusiasms and see you putting your cards on the table face up.The article is full of your extraordinary claims [space not abstract][best figuration showing abstract painters the way]etc.which I dont comprehend but am looking forward to questioning you about at the Brancaster chronicles.Thank goodness you are not using sculpture to define painting space, as they are utterly different.I am at a disadvantage re/Davie as viewing these shows isnt possible yet.However some of your comments chime curiously Greenbergian,who also thought figurative art superior,and famously said no such thing as flat painting.I know J.Pollock was obsessed with his painting having no holes ,affirming the picture plane.I dont see this under and over situation in Alan and Freds painting as being sacrosanct,its just how their work operates.Probably doesnt occur in Rothko at all as his skin is softly permeated with absorbing colour,no layers visible ,no afterthoughts.The beauty is about the new abstraction is we dont know what it will look like ,except it will be made by individuals breaking through self-imposed barriers.Great colour in painting is so rare because its so difficult to master and needs a very long apprenticeship[Albers]

  5. John Pollard said…

    Very thought provoking Robin. Still grappling with this idea of space as you describe it, but I enjoyed your description of what you like, and don’t like, about Davie’s paintings. On his later, cleaner, more overtly symbolic work, the shapes often become annoying due to the way they take precedent over the whole structure; and simply there is not so much going on as in his earlier work where your often viewing a slightly chaotic, but full-filling visual complexity. Davie’s best, like Gary Wragg’s, are complex characters that draw you in but take a while to get to know as there is so much going on within them (a bit like people I guess).

    As I haven’t been to the Portland Gallery yet I won’t write anything much more now but your description of “complex layering” as a possible part of “the anti-programmatical methodology of real abstract art” has mileage, certainly if you want some depth and complexity (as in variety) in your abstract art. This methodology has interesting connections with existentialism and even anarchism. Of course the methodology doesn’t guarantee good work, skill and critical judgment are needed as well, but perhaps we are getting closer towards a necessary part of the process of creating good complex abstraction?

    Even though I would never want to get too prescriptive!

  6. ken pammen said…

    Hi Robin thought provoking article aptly titled ‘Space and Spontaneity’ about Davies paintings circa 1950s-60s. I too have wondered a lot about his own forms of abstraction and their appeal. I cant make up my mind if it is the quasi anthropomorphic doodling almost of forms that you call the “imaginary things in representational architectures” or the handling of spatial “awareness” for want of a better one that makes Davies painting so intriguing and certainly the best of it e.g. Snail elements, Philosophers stone, etc. When you look at this stuff for the first time you get the impression that the “imaginary things” are all in a state of flux or movement to some other world and that the work is just a snap “the resolution grasped in a moment. Its matter of some kind but does it matter that I understand what it is or why its there? There are a few paintings that I haven’t seen before and as you suggest this is what gives the paintings of this period their power to go on engaging us. I would like to believe there is more to this than just trite novelty at work here. After all Davie does seem to pretty much “own” this arena as an creative image making goes looking at this sheer variety of what he has produced. A last note on that space, isn’t Bacons spatial set-up just as ambiguously “abstract” where the stuff within pulses and mutates-sorry about the imagery but the link is a new one!! I was going to mention Pollock and this thought about anthropomorphic shapes but perhaps that isn’t a new one and just a footnote to this whole notion of what is meant by your own take on spontaneity in Davie’s painting at this time. Again, Bravo for the crit.