Abstract Critical

Alan Davie: The Phenomenon of Expanding Form

Written by Alan Gouk

Alan Davie, Romance For Moon and Stars, 1964, oil on board, 72 x 96 inches. Courtesy of Gimpel Fils

Alan Davie, Romance For Moon and Stars, 1964, oil on board, 72 x 96 inches. Courtesy of Gimpel Fils

An anonymous obituarist in the Times said that Alan Davie in the 1950’s had brought to full realisation the implications of Jackson Pollock’s painting of the 1940’s, fulfilling, or filling out his vision and in the process surpassing it. This is true. Davie’s primary imprinting is indeed on the 1942-43 Pollocks, Guardians of the Secret, 1943, The She-Wolf, 1943Pasiphaë, 1943, and especially Male and Female, 1942-43.

Like them, Davie’s pictures of the late 1950’s take Picasso’s muscular cursive drawing scribble as their libidinous engine, loosen it up, and combine it with the neo-surrealist melding of a cubistic armature and graphic biomorphic signs (which also derives from Picasso), a style which pervades much of British art of the 1940’s. A striking example is Graham Sutherland’s large Twisted Tree Form of 1944. [The large painting on the right hand wall in this installation photo of the British Pavilion at Venice in 1952.]

Davie submits the graphic angularity of Sutherland to a more fluent transmutative plastic rhythm, melting down the armature and letting his gnarled organic “forms” boil and bubble (with or without toil and trouble). If Pollock’s Pasiphaë (1943) were to be placed side by side with Davie’s Birth of Venus (1955, Tate Britain), it would be hard to deny the Times evaluation cited above. Davie’s painterly command is less stiffly staccato, less jerky, its rhythmic movement altogether more plastically wrought, which is to say that it shapes and models an incipiently organic three-dimensional illusion with largesse and opulence, exploiting those qualities which paint alone, and painterly fluidity alone can create. Without specifying or underlining particular organic “forms” in nature, this he does by means of a curlicue scribbling at the edges of forms, and an interior spattering which together suggest volume without inducing the scraped out, hollowed out, cavernous interior spaces in imitation of quasi-sculptural “forms” which cause so much trouble for Peter Lanyon’s Cornish landscapes of the 1950’s. Davie’s intestinal ribbons or columns, towers of exploding tree-forms writhe up close to the surface, and are backed up by shaded planes (as in Pollock’s Male and Female, 1942) which tend to thrust them forward in relief.

Patrick Heron’s 1956 article on Davie (and Frost) should be read in full, but here is one relevant extract:

“… it is a much more cool-headed operation to drop a line of trailing paint, with the calculated precision Pollock achieves, than it is to stab at a canvas with a brush. The beauty of a Pollock of say, 1950, is the beauty of a supremely architectonic, cool, minutely precise design. In all of which he is the opposite of Davie, who is, by comparison, an intuitive romantic. But there are far more specific contrasts between the American and the Scottish painter. For Pollock space is shallow – a shallow uniform gap lying just behind the tangled network of design but just in front of a hard, resistant ground-plane (in one colour) – but for Davie space may be an infinitely deep recession. Pollock’s image of lines and spots is itself almost flat; it exists very nearly in a single plane. But Davie often pushes back or pulls forward the various parts of his composition in just the way that a figurative painter might push the objects of a still life around on a table top. In this respect Davie is nearer to the spatial traditions of figurative painting than Pollock – who is thus the more revolutionary.”

Davie’s Scottish expressionist painterliness, drawing on many aspects of the milieu in which he grew up (he studied with John Maxwell, and imitated his richly coloured style early on) is already more full-blooded than in Pollock’s equivalent formative years. His obsession with a suppressed image of the Crucifixion, which probably existed before he left Edinburgh (The Saint,1948) would remain a subliminal presence throughout his post-Pollock explosion, echoing Pollock’s mildly sexual sadism, and revealing another thinly disguised dialogue / rivalry – one with Francis Bacon (especially Bacon’s Painting 1946 in the Museum of Modern Art, New York). Davie’s Black Mirror, 1952 shows clearly that he has Bacon somewhere in mind at that time.

It is as if Davie is trying in his large two and three panelled pictures to give Bacon a painting lesson, a thorough trouncing on the ground of painterly and experiential sensuality. The world is full of people who can talk a great painting but are quite incapable of painting one – and Bacon is one of them. (Need I name some others?)

Bacon applies paint like an actor preparing for a role, looking into a dark mirror, applying grease-paint in ghostly smears and powdery slicks, insubstantial as paint, in clipped, mannered convex / concave arcs altogether lacking the qualities of sensuality and nervous tension he continuously talks about (including when claiming an outrageous affinity by association with Matthew Smith). It is photography obsessed illustration, a trompe-l’oeil miasma of eyeless eyesockets and gurning putty-flesh, signifying what, exactly? If Bacon’s vision was in any sense true, we’d all be queuing up for Dignitas. Why, oh why is Bacon considered a great painter? and why more highly rated than Davie, who is so much more entitled to the claims of sensuality, finding the image in a spontaneous exploration of painterly means?

To Bacon’s self-mutilating degradation, masochistic fetishism, Davie counterposes the teeming transmutational life of Hindu and Buddhist cosmology, trying for the very difficult marriage of a tumescent cornucopia of phallic signs (male and female) and allusions, with the norms of Western European art.

Rather in the way that Dylan Thomas has strewn down words and images, studding his pages with them, and then struggles to link them in a grammatically coherent sequence, stretching intelligibility to its limits, and sometimes beyond, Davie collects symbols and phallic signs and allusions in the way a magpie collects glittering objects, strewing them across the canvas in an alphabet soup matrix in defiance of taste and propriety, and then tries to situate them in some conceivable spatial relation conformable to some standard of pictorial convention, breaking those norms in the process. (His imagery also overlaps and has common obsessional loci with Thomas.)

The overriding tone of Davie’s art is not one of spiritual anxiety. The teeming profusion of phallic imagery in Davie is more playful and humorous than pruriently sexual, echoing the tasteless profusion of Hindu and Buddhist popular art as well as its naive spirituality.

Alan Davie, The Flower Maker, 1957. Courtesy of Gimpel Fils

Alan Davie, The Flower Maker, 1957. Courtesy of Gimpel Fils

When Davie was coming to maturity, there was great interest in the history of Far Eastern religion, Zen Buddhism, and, through the influence of the Eranos yearbooks, in Carl Jung, who continued the historicist scholarship into comparative religion of the early German Romantics, and their attempts at a fusion of Eastern mystical ideas with Germanic thought.

Jung’s book Symbols of Transformation traces the history of the image of the sun impregnated by the phallus which he had discovered to be a recurring theme in certain psychoses. I am sure Davie was aware of this sourcebook. The Harper Torchbooks, Bollingen Library series, published during the 1940s and 50s, covered the latest research into a wide range of esoteric literatures of different cultures: books like Heinrich Zimmer’s Myths and Symbols in Indian Art and Civilisation, Mircea Eliade’s The Myth of the Eternal Return, 1954, and Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy, 1951 which were of particular interest to artists in these decades, and not just to Davie. Davie himself cites Jung’s Psychology and Alchemy as an influence, one which would stretch through his career – though from the 1970’s onwards it ceased to be entwined with a real painterly alchemy and became merely metaphoric.

The chapter headings alone of Zimmer’s book tell a story: The Wheel of Rebirth, The “Fundamental Form” and the “Playful Manifestations”, The Phenomenon of Expanding Form, The Origin of the Goddess, The Island of Jewels.

I quote from just one paragraph: “The Goddess is red in colour, for she is creative. Red is the active colour… In the throne hall of the island of jewels, the Goddess holds in her hands four familiar weapons or instruments, familiar from her representations as the warlike, demon-slaying divinity. Here they have a psychological meaning and are to be understood on the spiritual level. The Goddess carries, namely, the bow and arrow, the noose, and the goad.”

The wriggling snake-forms, the sickle moon, the motif of crossing sticks, which proliferate in Davie come from this literary heritage, so although his pictures are improvised, they rest on a ground bass repertoire of consciously gleaned symbols of ambiguous “meaning”.

I am not at all convinced by Heron’s “infinitely deep”. Comparing Davie’s Witches Sabbath, 1955, with Arshile Gorky’s masterwork The Liver is the Cock’s Comb, 1944, almost exactly the same size, reveals Davie to be a belated surrealist. Davie’s delineation of these biomorphic signs is bolder, but also clumsier and cruder. Inevitably with one concerned with visibility his “forms” are splayed and spread out in frontal alignment even more emphatically than in Gorky, and only in so far as his pale blue ground betokens sky could it be said that his space is infinitely deep.

However, on a smaller scale, The Flower Maker, 1957 [illustrated above], shows the essential dynamic of Davie’s style. Out of a mottled and textured mid-blue “ground”, a figure like an exploding (Baconish) flying animal, a hare/dog/bird with splaying legs dynamically charges the whole picture space. From its centre, the drawn shapes, outlined and blurred with black tracery, expand outward in centrifugal diagonals toward the four corners of the panel, implying a movement which continues outside its perimeter. This sort of dynamic is implicit in many small paintings of the 1960’s. Dog Leg Egg, 1961, has it with more geometrical diagonals, and the group Improvisations for a Gay Ghost, 1964, are particularly relaxed and expansive.

Alan Davie, Red Parrot Joy no. 2, 1960. Courtesy of Gimpel Fils

Alan Davie, Red Parrot Joy no. 2, 1960. Courtesy of Gimpel Fils

But, and here’s the rub, they are not really abstract pictures (and neither is Gorky). The extended horizontal, Red Parrot Joy No 2, 1960, comes nearest. Just as abstractness is a relative condition, so many great paintings make the distinction between abstraction and representation irrelevant (Matisse’s The Moroccans being the supreme example). Davie’s pictures are, like it, poised on the cusp between abstraction and representation (semi-figurative) and this they do by retaining and evoking such old-masterish methods as shading and modelling of zones which suggest spatial recession, creating spaces within spaces, sub-events darkly shaded, out of which brighter, light suggesting areas shine or burst – the surface asserting areas of brighter colour, often outlined in black serve to energise and enrich by the vigour of rapid-fire brushwork. His use of household and industrial paints and lacquers, his flurries and splatterings tend to disguise the extent to which the pictures create space by traditional means, light and shade, and implicit reference to spatial devices, flying putti in the top corners etc., which Renaissance and early Baroque painters used to create the illusion of depth. (See Titian’s the Rape of Europa).

New Diptych for Crystal Gazers, 1963. Courtesy of Gimpel Fils

New Diptych for Crystal Gazers, 1963. Courtesy of Gimpel Fils

For a few years between 1960 and 1963-4, under the influence, support and friendship of Patrick Heron, he ceased crowding out the entire surface with knotted, gnarled and writhing “forms”, suppressing his tendency to excess and sheer bad taste, and some of his best pictures (in my opinion) stem from that period and that dialogue, chief among them being Red Dwarf, 1962 (Nat.Galls. of Scotland), New Diptych for Crystal Gazers, 1963, Patrick’s Delight, 1960, Prelude for a Bird Dance, 1968,  and the very fine Romance for Moon and Stars, 1964 [illustrated at the top of the article].

The introduction both of drawn diagonals cross-hatched in black (black line is everywhere in Davie) and the strongly outlined framed areas within the picture space serve to isolate and concentrate focus on detailed spatterings and minutiae. These cause changes in scale, with a disruptive jump as one re-focuses on the bigger picture. Both devices give individual elements an object-character, almost tactile, like in an early Cezanne still-life, against which the multi-glazed foggy surrounding areas and the rectilinear occluded frosted-glass rectangles, although vaguely spatial, also assert a physical presence, especially when on hardboard panel, where the layers of paint are simultaneously pictorial/spatial and as physical as an old painted door; and when a pear-like shape overlaps one of these rectangles, it is projected forward like a living thing. No better example of plastic and spatial realisation can be offered.

Space in painting is relational, and involves the reciprocal pressure of one area on another. If, as Gabo predicted, space is not a conceptual affair only, but a malleable material element, so too with colour. It is reciprocal relationships between colour areas that pushes back or brings forward an area. Following Roger Fry’s distinction, colour is either decorative, where the entire surface meets one quasi-simultaneously and equally, or else it is plastic and spatial, as in Cezanne, Matthew Smith, and Hans Hofmann, where it serves to enhance and induce a quasi-three-dimensional shaping and bending of space.

Davie’s colour confounds such distinctions, or falls between these two stools, or he employs both approaches in cavalier abandon, abhorring analysis or the systematic. Yet since his primary means of creating spatial illusion is by means of a drawing which tends toward overlapped shading/scribbling, using (as all good painters do) one phase of the painting as a springboard for another, stronger and richer, his colour tends to follow suit and augments a drawn conception of space, though as the 60’s wear on he begins to give precedence to bolder colour relationships, especially in his smaller, more informal off-hand pictures.

When in the larger pictures he employs planes as backdrop to his writhing spattered “forms”, he models and shades them in traditional fashion to give them depth, and brushes lighter colour, mostly white, into them to suggest an outdoor setting, or that light is falling on them from an implied light-source outside the picture, a practice fatal in the context of a would-be abstract picture.

And this drawing of Davie’s can border on the cartoonish. Discovery of the Chariot, 1958, recently exhibited at the Portland Gallery, looks as if a sculpture by David Smith, a Wagon, or Voltri XIII, placed in an outdoor setting, were drawn by a cartoonist who had looked at Cezanne and wanted to deck it out with toy cubes standing in for apples. Here Davie’s wheel of rebirth is an actual wagon wheel, the whole image testifying to Davie’s total disregard for canons of respectability, or stylistic unity. And yet on some level it does “hang together”.

Alan Davie, Machine For Witch Watching No. 3, 1963, 48 x 60 inches. Courtesy of Gimpel Fils

Alan Davie, Machine For Witch Watching No. 3, 1963, 48 x 60 inches. Courtesy of Gimpel Fils

Towards the end of the 1960’s the so-called Middle Generation artists, not only Davie but Scott, Frost, Hilton, Lanyon, and Heron, began to feel the unsettling breeze of fashion-time (rather than the real time of artistic dialogue, the conversation between genuine painters which tends to reassert itself over a longer span, as is happening to Davie now). They began to feel superceded by a change in ethos, and to be swayed, their convictions destabilised by the rise and rise of the stylistic changes encompassed on the one hand by the term “post-painterly abstraction”, and on the other by the urban aesthetic proselytised by Lawrence Alloway and the Situation artists. The increasing predominance of these cooler idioms with younger artists on the gallery scene and by critical coverage in the magazines, even led to some of the old brigade being dropped by galleries that had supported them (but not in Davie’s case).

Norbert Lynton, in his excellent book on William Scott charts this influence of the fickle finger of fashion-time. Any painter who lives a reasonable life-span becomes aware of its perpetual domination of the foreground of art promotion, in wave after wave. The Middle Generation were forced to adapt, perhaps unconsciously and no doubt reluctantly to new audience expectations, with very mixed results in most cases.

This in itself is not enough to explain the changes which took place in Davie’s pictures from the late 1960’s onwards, and it is perhaps unfair to cite it here; there were no doubt internal evolutionary causes too, but for someone who apparently said “I am working in a realm of my own”, the coincidence of similar stylistic changes in the art of those painters listed above bears some explanation.

Another comments by Davie sheds light on the problem. Around 1968 in self-confessional mode he wrote to James Hyman explaining recent changes in his work: “large works are no longer painted on the floor (there is a more contemplative, meditative mood) and there is no longer the crazy, relentless urge, which necessitated working fast with liquid paint”. This cuts to the heart of the problem – Davie has become removed from his medium, from the alchemy of paint within which his hodge-podge of symbols had been fused together into something greater than the sum of their parts.

In the early 60’s Davie curtailed the modelling drawing of his 50’s work in favour of flatter patterning, outlined in black linear scaffolds. By the late 60’s, divorced from the excitements of paint’s materiality, this had degenerated into the placement of “symbols” in flat areas of unbroken colour. Much of what made his earlier work so exciting, daring and challenging (especially to painters working now) was lost, and what took its place challenged more for its clumsy cartoonish pastiche of diverse idioms drawn from the popular art of different world cultures (like the eclectic fusion of “World Music” today). It is hard to justify on any terms a painting like Barbaric Tales No 2, 1968-74, in which, in front of a folded screen spotted with dolly-mixtures, an extraordinarily crudely drawn fish-eye on a stalk (no wonder John Bellany painted a “selfie” with him) lunges out of a fidgety hedge of scribblings that have lost all their wristy fluency of before, and in front of this hedge a pair of diamond shaped, Noland-ish colour charts encased in chevrons, and to left and right of this ungainly prominence, two ugly targets, again outlined in crude black lines. Also included are two flying gnostic ankh signs, and a crescent moon. What is all this about? And more importantly, what does it amount to artistically? I’m blessed if I know, or, for that matter, care. What has happened here to one of our best painters? A painter who rightly, it has been claimed, is (along with Matthew Smith, Nicholson and Heron) one of our few painters of truly international stature (before being of international stature ceased to mean anything positive at all).

This should be a warning to any painter who considers that they are “working in a realm of their own”. It is no doubt unfair to turn an artist’s statements against them, but I am struggling to account for the demise of Davie’s talent, and the apparent blindness of those who extol these later works. One cannot and should not allow oneself to drift into a self-enclosed vacuum in which the responses and critiques of others are discounted or unheard. It is all the more paradoxical in Davie’s case, since he embraced such a wide range of influences from “world culture”, albeit often lifted, untransformed.

One needs rivals, one needs the abrasion which comes from competing with other painters one admires or fears, and this Davie had in his formative years in full measure. Once that plateau has been reached in which one no longer feels the pressure which comes from a sense that there are those out there who are better, and whose achievements dwarf one’s own, an awareness which usually comes from knowledge of the great artists of the past, and should continue to do so, awareness of the Cezannes and Monets and Matisses out there, a perpetual goad to drive one on, without all that, the likelihood is to ossify, and to luxuriate in a false sense of mastery.

The disastrous division of the Tate’s collection into British and international art (not to mention the isolation of Tate St Ives) means that the sturdy life-enhancing painting of the mature Davie cannot confront the fake simulacra of spontaneity currently enshrined in Tate Modern. We cannot directly compare the sensuous world of Davie’s best paintings with the scabrous, tortured morbidity of a Basquiat or the street-slumming feyly fused with poeticised academe of a Twombly. This will continue to set back not only appreciation of Davie’s stature, but the whole development of painting in Britain for a long time to come.

  1. anthony seymour said…

    Still thinking about all this:

    Perhaps people respond to the later Davie partly because its not messy(!)paint, which seems a bit silly, but also because his work continues suspended definitions and even his earlier and I reckon better painting in the Fifties/Sixties, is sort of composed of fragments. They are made in a way with a promiscuous ambience, protecting secrets in a crowd of perceptual constellations.

    Also I wanted to say it always bugs me whenever Bacon comes up! So I feel like defending him against detractors but then I argue with his fans as well!

    Curious that whilst Heron was not keen as a critic on Bacon at all, he was kindly disposed towards Bacon when he was in St Ives.

    Interesting that when Roger Hilton told Bacon his painting was no good at Heron’s house, Bacon proposed doing joint paintings with Hilton!

    Bacon was potentially receptive to learning from abstract painters and often said in interviews how he wished in many senses he could have had more help and advice with his art, but perhaps the abstract painters were just too negative towards him or could not take him seriously, (too melodramatic as Hoyland would complain to Hirst).

    The only painter according to David Sylvester who agreed to do paintings with Bacon was Karel Appel, albeit as Appel himself revealed in a later interview the problem was that whenever he met up with Bacon to do this they ended up inebriated and so the paintings never happened…..

    On another note and referencing Gouk’s regret about British painting being set back, I wonder what would happen if Hirst had the sense to look at Davie instead of only John Bellany and Bacon?

  2. anthony seymour said…

    Strong writing & engaging comments – a good read.

  3. Robert Linsley said…

    Very good discussion of Davie, strengths and weaknesses. I can see the spaces you talk about but can’t get enthusiastic about them.

    • Sam said…

      This says something that chimes with my recent experience of Davie at the Portland. I got v excited about him because of Patrick’s Delight, but there is something unconvincing about some of his structures, you can see them but not feel them.

      • Robin Greenwood said…

        I’d like to hear more on that (from both of you), with maybe some specific instances in Davie, and maybe examples of more felt (?) spaces by others? Do you mean the space is “illustrated” rather than really made or built? Too figurative?

    • Robert Linsley said…

      Sometimes one sees space in a picture and it’s a great pleasure, sometimes it isn’t. I wouldn’t know how to give a reason, because it may be partly me. Receptivity is variable. And a lot depends on accidents of vision. For instance I recently saw a Beckmann triptych reproduced in black and white, and it had more space than I remember it having – I guess the values were more obvious and not complicated by the colour. There’s a certain magic that may not be amenable to explanation, and I suspect that it may be unwise to make too much of a conscious thing of it – but could be wrong. Stella says “Space is part of the spirit of the thing, but it’s secondary…The question of space is an inherent one, not the subject matter.” It sounds to me as if he believes that space is of the essence of painting, but that he doesn’t labour over it or focus too directly on it. But I’m not sure about any of this and my own feelings about space in my watercolours is changing, so don’t want to set limits. With Davie it seems (from a mediated distance, not in front of the works) that the effort to see space doesn’t give much of a pay off.

      • Pete Hoida said…

        This is a beautifully clear article, Alan must be one of our best writers, on painting, succinct, and dare I say it, poetic. I think the esteem enjoyed by Bacon is due to innate English prurience, we “love to be shocked”, as if concentrating on the subject matter gives the painting gravitas. Not that there is anything wrong in his chosen subject if he can make art of it, but as Alan says, the painting is pretty thin, conventional and photographic (even if grease or worse smeared). Philip Guston took fairly crude biographical material and made painting out of it, in contrast to Pop, which again never ever got beyond literal presentation, in an admiring, if tongue in cheek way, of crude commercialism. Of course these late Gustons were absolutely not abstract, and looking at his earlier work you can see why he threw the towel in with that, and more praise to him for that. But I’m not suggesting we all take to the cartoon. Alan’s own painting is a prime example of how abstraction can be made interesting, expressive, personal and, like Davie, about in the world. Haven’t we had enough of anodyne academe and its “programme”. As for the Latest Grand Pretender, New Old Master, progressing himself up the ladder, busting onto the podium, elbowing his way into the hallowed halls….. is everyone going to fall for it ?