Abstract Critical

Francis Davison (Collage Part One)

Written by Sam Cornish

Ochre & White Triangles (HL-48), 1983 Paper collage 15.2 x 22.9 cm. Courtesy of Austin / Desmond

Currently at Austin / Desmond is a show of Francis Davison, who made paper collages for just over thirty years until his death in 1984. Apart from a just-off-grid piece from 1971 (Green, White and Black) most of the works date from the last five years of Davison’s life. Though I had, I think, previously seen only one Davison in the flesh he is an artist I have been interested in since I first saw his works in reproduction; as it turns out, much of their subtlety is not reproducible. The Austin / Desmond exhibition gives a fairly good insight into Davison’s late production (his most important period), though it perhaps does not include his collages at the very height of their structural or colouristic ambition. It is however strong on the small collages Davison made in 1983 whilst recovering from an illness, that one earlier commentator has described somewhat poetically, given their unfolding structure and muted flesh-like tones, as not much bigger than an outstretched hand.

Green, White and Black, c.1971 Collage on paper 94 x 81 cm. Courtesy of Austin / Desmond

The private single-mindedness with which Davison faced and drew on the broad development of abstract art and the slowly progressing formal development that resulted could not be further from the sensibilities which currently constitute the artworld. The contrast is particularly striking because collage is clearly one of the dominant modes or strategies of current art (as has been the case for sometime). Across media the presence of collage can be felt in startlingly inexplicable presentation and dissonant juxtaposition.

Yellow Striped, White & Ochre (HL-33), 1983 Paper collage 20.3 x 25.4 cm. Courtesy of Austin / Desmond

Davison differs in that the separate elements in his collages worked toward coherence rather than dislocation. His aim, aided by the tonal and textural similarity of the papers he worked with, was integration, the creation of total, comprehensible images; instead of suggesting a shocking or unnerving entrance heightened by incongruity and incompleteness, he posited restraint, an ordered and perhaps faintly melancholy withdrawal. This needs qualification: here the oppositions between coherence and dislocation, the comprehensible and the inexplicable, entrance and withdrawal are perhaps not clear cut, each really depending on the other. If Davison’s work signals a withdrawal it is one which is remarkably and compellingly physically present; if his papers are tonally or texturally similar it also appears that he worked against their materiality as much as he worked with it and that they retain a stubbornness which he could never fully overcome; if his aim was integration he did not impose it or reach for a quick homogeny but rather sought it anew within each collage (in contrast to much current abstract art that trades – ironically or not – in minimalist or ‘smuggled’ high modernist aesthetics); and if his work is structurally coherent and comprehensible this heightens rather than lessens the difficulty in fully accounting for it (i).

Yellows, Blue, White Horizontal on White Ground (H10), c.1982-84 Coloured paper collage 41.4 x 47 cm. Courtesy of Austin / Desmond

Braque is clearly important here, though through his later work more than his papier colle (which he invented just shy of a full century ago). It likely not a coincidence that Davison’s life-long friend Patrick Heron wrote on Braque’s work and was himself heavily influenced by it. In the current exhibition the influence is particularly apparent in Davison’s muted palette, in the compressed feel of his intervals and through the manner in which his collages play flat areas of colour against line, with line sometimes delimiting a flat area and sometimes looping free of it. Like Braque, Davison returned ‘continually to the centre’. But where Braque ‘concentrate[d] things’, in Davison’s collages the centre is often left near empty, defined and made potent by implication (ii). The centre for Davison is a focal point around which his parts rotate or toward which they are orientated, as if (and this is especially strong in some of the small collages from 1983) the structure had been formed by the gentle pulling apart of a compact central mass. Even in works which have a strong positive central element (such as Yellows, Blue, White Horizontal on White Ground), this element often seems to gain its strength through its arrival in a place which the rest of the picture appears to vacate. That the collages always define their edges from the inside out, rather than being corralled by the already defined rectilinear edge of a sheet or canvas onto which they are collaged, is another aspect of this centrist orientation.

Pointed Open Ochre Square (HL-59), 1983 Paper collage 21.6 x 21.6 cm. Courtesy of Austin / Desmond

One final thing (though there is a lot more that could be said) on what I have called Davison’s ‘total images’. As a comparison between the work of 1971 and the rest of the exhibition indicates, his work grew increasingly unrestricted (though he still worked within a narrow range) and increasingly complex, able to contain and make coherent a large variety of spaces and structures. However it would be wrong to think of his collages as consisting of a whole, complete space. Rather, here spaces exist on a micro level and variously open up between small number of parts within localized areas of each collage; as our attention shifts (or as we move nearer or further away) different of these local intimations of space are revealed. As wholes the collages remain flat, though it is a flatness that gains force through the way in which its clear design can marshal and make singular the various spaces and complex structures of which it consists.


i. ‘Smuggled’ comes from Sam Rose, Mary Heilmann: Visions, Waves and Roads, Studio International, March 2012
ii. Braque quoted in Douglas Cooper, Georges Braque: the Evolution of a Vision, ‘G Braque’, The Tate Gallery, 1956

  1. Robert Linsley said…

    Sam, I almost regret that I made that opening comment, because the discussion has got into abstract generalities about the art world. What I respond to in your last comment are “formal strength” and how the works create “their own formal universe.” The former no doubt derives from the latter. With those qualities the work is autonomous and doesn’t have to answer any questions from the art world about where it fits in; it has its own place, self-created. And I think it could appear in any kind of exhibition space. But I still think that originality is important. Many modest and quiet works are dull and unoriginal, so those qualities are not necessarily the important ones. But then Davison does have a good quantity of originality, which again is consequent on that autonomy you see. Many works choose to inhabit someone else’s formal universe, or adopt someone else’s formal strength, but not, apparently Davison’s. But as always, further acquaintance might lead to further qualification. Perhaps I’m overvaluing the work now, but my initial hesitation was likely unjustified.

  2. jenny meehan said…

    Great exhibition, I was surprised by how much I got from it. Giving the work time, the decision making processes become clearer and more interesting. I LOVED the larger work with colours, and the WAY he used the paper is really interesting. Ultra jagged and sharp edges combined with soft, soft melting away whispers. I was convinced he had used some paint on one of the pieces..But NO! Just paper. Magic. Go and see it, and learn! Amazing!

  3. John Holland said…

    Apologies for the many mistakes in the previous post.
    It was written in a hurry. By an illiterate.

  4. john holland said…

    Thanks, Sam, for an interesting article about an artist I’d never heard of before.

    Robert’s question relates to the discussion about Nicholson earlier, and the the link to TJ Clark’s article about the ‘minor’ note of British modernism.
    Davison’s collages look lovely (I haven’t seem them for real), but it’s obvious that they would never be regarded as ‘major’ or ‘important’ art. This is partly a question of the continuing influence of the Modernist paradigm of newness, of the next stage in the unfolding narrative- Modernism’s Oedipal Complex. But also, and this comes back to Alan Gouk’s (re)assesment of Nicholson,and the the cult of the extreme. Major artists are supposed to be like snowploughs, pushing a new path for others to follow, stripping down to essentials, rigourously persuing ideas to their brutal conclusion. Clark maintains that the English are, for various reasons, simply too conciliatory to make major art. Too Bourgoise, in fact.

    So how is someone like Davison- subtle, intelligent, but essentially dealing with questions the writers of the avante-gard story consider to have long since been answered- to be judged? I would say, as a lot more ‘relevant’ than he no doubt is. The energy of Modernism was pushing against an educated but conservative middle-class. The picture forced its way out of the ‘window’ and into the room, into the space of the viewer- it was an aggressive act
    That resistance, that enemy class, no longer really exists; institutional spaces are built for nothing BUT the exploded dynamic and confrontational object, the curators and collectors are neophiles, and yet the notion of the avante-gard won’t go away. The result is a merely theatrical radicalism, a constant re-enactment of a battle that’s been won (a Phyrric victory, maybe).

    Perhaps a period of semi-stagnation, of refinement, of introversion rather than extroversion, may not be a bad thing.
    Some of the sensibilities that the Modernist critics valued the least might be valuable right now.
    (Having said that, one look at the Tate room with Nicholson placed against Picasso does make abundantly clear what TJ Clark is talking about. It may be a cliche, but Nicholson is revoltingly tasteful.)

    • Robert Linsley said…

      John, stagnation, or semi-stagnation sounds like fun. It makes me think of Venice in the 18th. century, a good time and place for art. But seriously there will have to be positive criteria if we want to give Davison and others like him the credit they may deserve. It’s a difficult question, and I don’t know if it gets any easier if we find that it’s a general present day dilemma. No moralizing distinctions – good/bad, constructive/destructive, progressive/conservative – are stable. The deplorable can be revalued into the adorable, and vice versa, and will be very easily. Some would say there can’t be an affirmative art in a society that doesn’t believe in its own values anymore. I really don’t know what position to take.
      Maybe other criteria are already operating, and I asked the wrong question.

      • Sam Cornish said…

        As is clear I like Davison because of their withdrawal, because of their quiet (but not, I think too tasteful) aestheticism, because they assert the need to create their own formal universe, however much it draws on, as Robert says ‘what is already cannonized’. A quiet withdrawal seems to mark much abstract art by younger artists, though, without Davison’s formal strength (and here is the need for quality?). That work such as Davison’s is banished (would even make little sense) within what John calls spaces built for the ‘exploded dynamic and confrontational object’ is perhaps unarguable. Does this mean we want different spaces? Would the alternative be that abstract art has to confront and defeat these spaces and somehow turn their explosions and confrontations into positives? I’m not sure what that would look like, or if it already exists – Richter?

  5. Robert Linsley said…

    Sam, Davison is clearly a remarkable artist; his works are excellent. I’m charmed. You are touching on some important matters; I’m particularly interested in your remarks about the empty centre and the composition that grows outward from the middle rather than derives from the frame. But the most difficult thought that occurs to me is – how do we place an artist who is so good at performing what has already been canonized? I admit the question is painful. At this moment of renewed interest in abstraction perhaps very much so. What is quality today?