Jerwood Gallery, Hastings
Until 25th Nov. 2012
In an article written in 1957 and recently re-published by Artnews, Irving Sandler discusses the early abstract paintings of Joan Mitchell and the relationship between her ‘muse’ for the work, provided by landscape or event, and its synthesis as a non-representational image. In particular, he suggests how “…a recollected landscape provides the initial impulse… transformed in the artist’s imagination by feelings inspired by…” very specific places and/or incidents in those places. He continues: “Those feelings which she strives to express she defines as ‘the qualities which differentiate a line of poetry from a line of prose’. However, emotion must have an outside reference [my italics], and nature furnishes the external substance of her work.”
The relationship between subject matter and abstract art continues to confound. Are we discussing a process of abstracting, from figurative subject to abstract object? Or is real abstract art only a process in and of the material? Is all art, including abstract art, necessarily and unavoidably a metaphor; and perhaps most critically of all, is “emotion must have an outside reference” a true statement for abstract art; can we not just emote about ‘stuff’? And do we, in any case, want this sort of emotional entanglement whilst we are looking?
I have just recently been to see the wonderful and first rate show of early paintings by Gillian Ayres (from the late fifties, the exact same period Sandler was writing about Mitchell) at the Jerwood Gallery, Hastings. Writing in the exhibition catalogue, the Director of the Jerwood Foundation, Lara Wardle, seems to me to rather hedge her bets:
“Ayres technique of working straight onto the board…without pre-planning gives her work a directness, which is communicated to the viewer through the paint surface. The splashes and drips can be followed across the surface and the history of the painting’s creation can be uncovered by the deciphering of the layers applied. In this way the paintings encourage the viewer to contemplate the event of their creation; the enjoyment that Ayres had in working on them becomes an enjoyment that the viewer can share in looking at the works and following this process.”
OK, so far so good, as far as abstract painting as process goes, though I don’t personally want to interrogate the surface of a painting in quite this way, at least not any more than is necessary to get at the painterly intent of it. I’m also not sure that we can really have any knowledge of whether Ayres enjoyed making these works at the time, or that we can knowingly share in that experience, even if it were so. Is this yet another fallacy of the emotive content of abstract art, this vicariously felt experience of the act of making?
“The paintings are pure abstract works, which do not require interpretation; instead the areas of bold colour and history of mark-making become the subject of the works.”
Well, that’s pretty unequivocal; process has become subject, a familiar and tired post-modern idea. But hang on; Wardle carries on without break:
“Although Ayres has used ‘Untitled’ to caption some of the works, many others from this period have a title which suggests a subject, place or in some cases a sense of movement, for example: Cumuli, 1959; Unstill Centre, 1959; and Muster, 1960.
Cwm Bran, 1959, and Cwm, 1959, refer to a town in Wales and Ayres… visited Wales on a number of occasions to walk and climb the wild, mountainous landscape. Mel Gooding, in his comprehensive monograph on Ayres, notes that they climbed the mountain, Cader Idris at least seventeen times and he writes, ‘Climbing to the top of Cader Idris it is exhilarating to pass through smoky clouds, mist-blinded, to emerge then into bright sunlight and the rediscovery of colour and look up to see the high cumulus rising into clear blue skies, piling billow upon billow, and down to see the lower mists now disguising ridge and gully, erasing the view of Llyn-y-Cau.’ This translation of an experience of landscape into a painting relates Ayres’s work to artists, such as Turner, Constable and James Ward whose paintings she has admired on visits to the National Gallery and Tate.”
No, no, no. Maybe I have a shortfall in the imagination department, though I suspect not, but I spent three hours with these works and not once was a billowing cloud or towering Welsh mountain evoked for me. I didn’t think of any such thing for even a moment; until, that is, I later came to read the catalogue. Ayres, I’m convinced, in these early paintings, is not creating metaphors or signs; only (I say only!) creating relational entities in a marvellous and comprehensive variety of invention. To see the elements of these works as anything else; to read them as existing as separate translatable items in a catalogue of metaphoric prompts; to see singular parts in literal isolation as being apart from the relational conversation to which they contribute; is to diminish their considerable power as real, abstract, spatial participants in real, abstract, spatial paintings. The remarkable thing about this set of works is how well they avoid both metaphor and depiction, positioning themselves almost perfectly in the realm of the genuinely abstract.
Would our appreciation and comprehension of these paintings in any way be advanced by the evocation of landscape, or Mel Gooding’s ‘billow upon billow’? My resolute view is that if we should immediately see clouds and mists and mountain-tops and valleys etc. when we look at these paintings, we would be immensely misled. But then too, the alternative interpretation of Wardle is just as inappropriate; we would be equally misled to consider this work as being focussed upon process, showcasing the materials and the activities of the act of painting; for indeed, this is just another kind of illegitimate metaphor.
Far from concentrating upon their own materiality, I very much like the fact that these works are really quite modest and meagre in their use of paint, judicious in the means of manufacture, and refreshingly sparing in their use of colour. The varied thinness of the paint is one very keen factor in their spaciousness; it is undoubtedly this quality of spaciousness which is the key attribute of these works. It is a spaciousness which at its best is not born of depiction or descriptiveness, but of an intentional and progressive abstract-ness. What makes this not only a very good show, but also a very interesting show, is the fact that you can follow the nurturing of this quality, and the subtle but distinct shift of Ayres accomplishments as a painter which over a two or three year period brings it about; from the Hampstead Mural of 1957 through to perhaps the best two works in the show, untitled and Muster, both of 1960.
And it is not that I would particularly want to disparage the earlier work here; the ‘Hampstead Mural’ is not perhaps her finest Tachiste painting from the fifties, but it really is still very good (for absolute confirmation, compare it with the dreadful Katie Pratt from the Jerwood permanent collection intruding into the show from the next room). But it perhaps suffers just a little from the commonplace, in as far as it is hard not to read the large dark areas of blue, black and purple in the larger panels as figurative ‘voids’, in front of which hover, rather too insistently and optically, the white and coloured blobs, splurges and whorls of a slightly overstressed ‘foreground’. The white in particular seems to jump about a little too ambiguously. I’m probably saying here that they are too tonal, yet I’m conscious of the fact that the highest colour in the whole show is in these works. No doubt some painter can straighten me out on this point.
(I am reminded that extremes of this rather dubious spatial descriptiveness in abstract painting exist in the late work of, for example, John Hoyland and Jules Olitski, both of whom at the end of their careers turned from making good, if limited, abstract paintings, to making rather awful pictures resembling planets, galaxies, nebulas and such like – attempting the spaces of ‘the abstract sublime’ by way of Star Trek. Dennis Bowen was another prime example of this tendency. Ayres avoids these fancies altogether.)
The biggest painting in the show, the double vertical panel of ‘Cumuli’, 1959, shares just a touch of the Hampstead Mural’s overwrought spatial deliberations; its vertical lift, for example, is for me a little too insistent. In the rest of the show the elements of the paintings start to sit into the spaces they create much more easily and naturally (and no, I don’t mean they were easier to paint). In ‘Cwm’ and ‘Cwm Bran’ the colour/paint is so integrated into the spaces of the work that one is hardly aware of it; variety is everywhere, nothing repeats, somehow a complex unity is wrought out of a great diversity. ‘Untitled’ and ‘Muster’, take this even further, with areas of wonderfully modulated and varied spatial blacks and dark greens being used as far more than open backgrounds against which other elements disport; they are fully active participants themselves within the spatial structure as a whole. One of the things that struck me looking at these paintings is how little they make one aware of a picture plane; how very unflat they are; how very un-graphic in every sense; and yet, how true to the integrity of the painted surface. The spaces herein are not wrought out of illusionistic ambiguities, but from plastic certainties.
So how good are these works? For me, they are the best of Ayres’s career. It would have been interesting to directly compare them with slightly later works from 1961 to 1965, such as Scott and Lure, both 1965, where perhaps the influence of William Scott and Patrick Heron is noticeable (and which clearly develop out of works like Muster) and where the elements become more separated and dispersed upon and across what is more decidedly a (usually white or canvas) background, perhaps more of an overt picture plane. The best works in this present show I think make both Scott and Heron (even in his best late-fifties phase) look flat-ish and over-careful, almost over-designed, a little static. That is to exaggerate for the sake of the comparison, but I do want to stress how good these works are. Look, for example at the almost-modelled, roundish-pinkish-thing with ochre and black surround which kind of revolves in from the left of the picture in Muster. Heron never made anything so visual/physical as that. I’d be confident the best of these works would hold their own against any Pollock or Mitchell, though Ayres achievement over her full career comes nowhere near to matching theirs. It is in fact a shame that this zenith is so brief. Nevertheless, she did them, and you can’t take that away from her. They present to me as fine examples of the potential of abstract painting to provide a genuine spatial and plastic experience.
So what about the emoting over our landscape muse? I suspect we will argue endlessly about this, but speaking for myself, I can well do without it. Does an emotional response to art require an outside reference? Perhaps, yes; except to say that the outside reference, for me, is the abstract painting itself. It is outside of me, it is not me, just as a landscape or a life-event is not me. Why can we not look at abstract art, or any art, freely and without the imposition of our own false emotions? In any case, when we look at a mountain or cloud or ocean, do not these things evoke great feelings in themselves? And why do we feel these feelings? Are we seeing mountains as metaphors too? For those who see everything as representing something else, where does that ridiculous chain of association end, or rather, begin?
I think not. I think the opposite. I think that if we are visual people, we can get a big emotional hit out of what is in fact the abstract-ness of a mountain or cloud; and that those mountains and clouds are not personal to me or anyone, they have for the most part no special associations for me or anyone; and yet for all that they are still meaningful to us. Similarly, with art, you can get the real emotional stuff out of the abstract-ness, not the literalness; with the added bonus that art has over nature that it is wrought out of material by a human hand under the sway of a human imagination. The humanity of it communicates naturally, if it is good; you don’t need to load it up with any other baggage.
And by the way, you won’t get this experience from reproductions. I haven’t seen a reproduction of these works anywhere, and especially not in the catalogue, that gets near to properly ‘reproducing’ their genuine achievements. Get to Hastings!