Abstract Critical

Hantaï, Hartung, Soulages and Tàpies at Timothy Taylor

Written by John Bunker

Installation image Hantaï, Hartung, Soulages and Tàpies. Courtesy Timothy Taylor Gallery

Installation image Hantaï, Hartung, Soulages and Tàpies. Courtesy Timothy Taylor Gallery

It is interesting to note that the huge juggernaut of a show of American art at Hauser and Wirth rumbles on while this more modest grouping of four European post-war abstract painters opens at the Timothy Taylor gallery. All four painters here are obviously influenced by the American breakthrough period of Abstract Expressionism and the ensuing dominance of a US based art world. But their work is far more complex than the myth of a wholesale abandonment of Europe as a site of artistic innovation after the Second World War would lead us to believe.

Installation image Hantaï, Hartung, Soulages and Tàpies. Courtesy Timothy Taylor Gallery

Installation image Hantaï, Hartung, Soulages and Tàpies. Courtesy Timothy Taylor Gallery

So while “….the American vanguard painter took to the white expanse of the canvas as Melville’s Ishmael took to the sea….”[1] how did these four artists coming to prominence in Europe during the 50s develop ideas about abstraction on their own terms? That’s a complex question, but what comes to the fore in this show is an emphasis on the material properties of paint, canvas, tools and techniques. There is a drive to record the results of experiments made on these materials as they are transformed by different kinds of physical pressures asserted upon them by the artist.

Antoni Tàpies, Gran materia amb petjades, 1992, mixed media on wood 118 x 78 3/4 in. / 300 x 200 cm. T008683. Fundació Antoni Tàpies, Barcelona/VEGAP, Madrid; Timothy Taylor Gallery, London

Antoni Tàpies, Gran materia amb petjades, 1992, mixed media on wood 118 x 78 3/4 in. / 300 x 200 cm. T008683. Fundació Antoni Tàpies, Barcelona/VEGAP, Madrid; Timothy Taylor Gallery, London

 Tàpies is represented by two of the largest works in the exhibition. They celebrate a base materiality and how it can hold the traces of a human presence no matter how abject. Both of the large pieces contain these ghostly traces of a calligraphic inscription or human footprints caught in sand clad plaster. All his work here feels mischievous with its intimations of both graffiti and mathematical equations sprayed or inscribed into the built up, scraggy surfaces of the work. This gestural dance invoking both human presence and absence means these pieces, despite their size, operate on a more human scale than the other paintings shown here. The shape-shifting clots and signs are deftly handled. In ‘Gran materia amb petjades’, 1992 they have been cleverly tethered by darker horizontal bands of sandy pigment and 4 holes that puncture the canvas towards each corner. Despite the heaviness of these base concoctions a lightness of touch permeates the work. Tàpies is a master of turning the detritus of the ‘make do and mend’ mentality of post-war austerity and trauma into a powerful approach to making art.

Pierre Soulages, 03.10.04,  2004, acrylic on canvas, 36 1/4 x 28 3/4 in. / 92 x 73 cm. T009121 Copyright, Pierre Soulages; Courtesy, Private collection / Timothy Taylor Gallery, London

Pierre Soulages, 03.10.04, 2004, acrylic on canvas, 36 1/4 x 28 3/4 in. / 92 x 73 cm. T009121 Copyright, Pierre Soulages; Courtesy, Private collection / Timothy Taylor Gallery, London

 Soulages is represented by three modestly sized paintings (all painted in the naughties) in his ‘Ultra Black’ manner. Thick, deep, dark and tar like ridges of black paint are inscribed evenly across their surfaces. On closer engagement we can see the smooth gouges in the paint are quite dexterous, forming interlocking contours. On prolonged looking the two upright works ‘28.02.07’, 2007 and ‘03.10.04’, 2004 are more successful in sucking up the light and catching it on their incised edges. These subtle modulations of light cause their surfaces to throb as one moves towards and around them. In Hartung’s ‘T1976-R39’, 1976, the intense yellow brushstrokes and white ground are split open by rather rigid black and blue columns formed by rollers moved at off kilter angles across the canvas. ‘T1970-H40’, 1970 is more clean-cut but rather brittle with an inky shine giving a flat graphic quality. Despite their dissonance the intense acidic colour contrasts seem strangely inert, though the fractured black columns in ‘T1970-H40′ divide up the canvas in a spatially dynamic way. The Hartung pieces in this exhibition lack the tensions between an expressive scrawling manner and broad singular and sensuous brushstrokes. Both Soulages and Hartung would have been better represented with a greater range from their experimental approach to paint-handling.

Hans Hartung, T1970-H40,  1970, acrylic on canvas, 40 1/8 x 51 1/8 in. / 102 x 130 cm. T009110. Courtesy, Foundation Bergman Hartung, France; Timothy Taylor Gallery, London

Hans Hartung, T1970-H40, 1970, acrylic on canvas, 40 1/8 x 51 1/8 in. / 102 x 130 cm. T009110. Courtesy, Foundation Bergman Hartung, France; Timothy Taylor Gallery, London

But the two paintings by Hantaï  successfully give us fascinating snapshots, five years apart, of sophisticated interrelations of process-driven painting with a complex set of global aesthetic influences. What’s more, the results remain surprisingly beautiful- almost spontaneous! Hantaï  split from Breton’s post-war Parisian circle because of his growing interest in the work of Pollock. He conceived of an approach to painting that involved applying pigments to canvases that were folded and knotted. He then reopened and stretched them revealing intricate patterns adhering to the canvas’ weave, sizing and folding. We pick up the development of this process with ‘Etude’ of 1968. It looks like an ancient egg yoke monochrome quietly cracking up and revealing delicate white leaf like structures that nestle and twist against the almost mechanically applied paint. These qualities energise the entire picture surface. ‘Blanc’,1973 takes the process a few steps further. This time there are intricate colour combinations of thin blues, reds, oranges and greens forming delicate interlocking spiky forms that seem to dance rhythmically as one over the canvas. Yet these forms remain independent entities corresponding to the incredibly close knit folds in the now stretched and boney white canvas. The beautiful and subtle results stem from unforeseeable permutations of pigment, crease and pattern inherent in the process.

Simon Hantaï, Blanc,  1973, acrylic on canvas, 100 3/4 x 99 1/4 in. / 256 x 252 cm. T009159, Courtesy, Estate of Simon Hantaï; Timothy Taylor Gallery, London

Simon Hantaï, Blanc, 1973, acrylic on canvas, 100 3/4 x 99 1/4 in. / 256 x 252 cm. T009159. Courtesy, Estate of Simon Hantaï; Timothy Taylor Gallery, London


Hantaï’s works, in particular, hint at a step towards a deconstruction of the Modernist obsession with the picture plane but from inside (literally!) the process of making paintings. This approach remains a dominant theme in painting here in the 21st century. It was interesting to review the ‘Painting in the 2.5th Dimension‘ show at the Zabludowicz Collection earlier in the year. The influence of European post-war abstraction seemed to be very much alive and kicking for a group of upcoming young American artists. This show at Timothy Taylor feels full of these visual echoes of different forms of abstraction being thrown backwards and forwards across the Atlantic between the ‘old’ and the ‘new’ worlds. But this process is rapidly becoming more complex. It is constantly mutating under the ideological and societal structures prevalent in many different cultures on a global scale. It now seems that from its inception Abstract Expressionism was a highly complex set of international relationships. They have been developed and passed on from artist to artist in many different directions and between generations – rather than all roads leading back to some kind of miraculous birth in the US of A.

Notes: 1. Harold Rosenberg from “American Action Painters”. Art News 51

Hantaï, Hartung, Soulages and Tàpies is at Timothy Taylor until the 18th of January.


  1. John Pollard said…

    I visited this exhibition yesterday and the best piece for me was Tapies’ ‘Balcony in front of lit room with escaping adulterers’ footsteps on wall’ (my title). It works as an abstract image and I like its sculptural aspects. The added humour (well, my interpretation of it) improves the experience, the story it tells me. The story doesn’t make it a good painting of course but adds to ‘my’ experience of it. The other two Tapies I didn’t like at all.
    I thought the Hartung’s were okay, so much better than in on line photographs, although simple bright yellow, contrasted with black and a little blue is a bit cute in a paradoxically dull way. The bigger painting is a bit more interesting with some subtleties in the rollared stripes. Soulages’ black paintings did next to nothing for me.
    Hantai’s work was at least interesting: although heavily repetitive in pattern there was some lovely subtleties where the canvas/fabric had been creased. The yellow painting I found much more interesting. The slightly vague ‘dirty’ yellow colour working with the creased marks really well. This one had more variation in shapes as well. But I still wasn’t that moved by them.
    This exhibition did not compare well with the Lanyon mural studies we had just visited. Lanyon’s contrast, complexity, use of colour variations, interesting mark making/drawing, provoking much more engagement and enjoyment. I wonder how much this is down to plain hard work, high standards, and ambition?

  2. CAP said…

    Too bad the show didn’t include some Wols cas well – he too overdue a reassessment.

    • Sam said…

      Perhaps is happening in US http://abstractcritical.com/note/wols-retrospective-at-the-menil-collection/ (from memory show was pretty widely reviewed as well).

      • CAP said…

        I suppose the difference is Wols died in 1951 (pretty much suicide) just when ‘Post War abstraction’ is kicking in, whereas Taylor’s four examples are all survivors. Hartung at least reached a ripe old age. And I viewed the show pretty much on these terms, rather than as some counter version of Abstract Expressionism. It’s interesting to see just where they take their concerns with materials and technique over a lifetime rather than between Biennales or monographs.

        My impression was they mainly get slicker and bigger but this too is a way of confirming the value of their fifties work. It wouldn’t look as good if they hadn’t done their later work.

      • Sam said…

        And with their movement into the slick and bigger sit much more comfortably with the other abstract painters shown at Timothy Taylor. What was that show with Christopher Wool about a year ago?

  3. Robin Greenwood said…

    I think it would be interesting to examine Tania’s comment below that Hartung’s “simplicity is not weak, the bright fluorescent yellow streaked with black accompanied by blue-greys of T1970-H40 brought to mind flashes of cars, ambulance sirens, the experience of urban living.”

    Without wishing in any way to denigrate her associations and feelings, or indeed intimidate, I want to ask: is this really a good way to think about abstract art? It is a very common one, and is especially common in the case of abstract art, where many people seem to think that because the art does not depict anything specific you can therefore impose or elicit any meaning you like, giving rise to a purely personal level of “interpretation”. It gives free rein to the idea that any and every personal interpretation is as good as any other – or are we supposed to all make similar interpretations? If it is a free-for-all, then I can see that the simpler and indeed cruder the abstract art the better, because it allows anyone to think just about anything, to see any old “pictures in the fire” and load the work with their own baggage. In other words, we are back in the realms of total ambiguity, a place supported (apparently) by a number of contributors to this site. The more ambiguous the abstract art, the less specific, the more widely it can be interpreted; and, I guess, the more people can say they get enjoyment out of it.

    This puts the artist under no obligations whatsoever, since anything and everything can and will mean something to someone, somewhere, so validating it. But is that true? I think it is a lazy and, ultimately, destructive way to make, look at, and think about any art, abstract or not.

    Is abstract art a discipline that we can progress, with a set of evolving criteria? Does it possess credibility for its participants, and are they able to strive for objective assessments of their achievements? Or do we give up everything for the sake of ambiguous, personal, subjective interpretations? It is an important debate, as far as I am concerned, because it is a question of whether an onward movement of abstract art can make a clear direction for itself which distinguishes it from the general slop-bucket of contemporary art production and discourse.

    • Tania said…

      Hi Robin

      Firstly, thank you for quoting me in your comment. In response I would write that an emotive, even visceral, response to an art work is valid. When I mentioned that Hartung’s painting T1970-H40 brought to mind the urban experience through the artist’s choice and application of certain colours in a certain arrangement I was not attempting to impose (on) or even elicit a ‘meaning’ from the painting. It was a purely lyrical response, neither an ‘interpretation’ nor an explanation of the artist’s own intentions for the work. I would add that any process of interpretation, explaining works of art, inevitably alters the experience of the work. For example, I much admire the work of indigenous artists, particularly those of aborigine and South Pacific origin. When, however, the work is interpreted for a Western audience it undoubtably loses something. Appreciation of the work risks being weighted down with (an arguably Western European) need to explain, categorize and classify; classification can lead to hierarchies and all the trouble they bring. I appreciate this point of view can be used to validate fraudulent mysticism and I agree that ‘ambiguity’ can lead to vacuous and empty work. Its a difficult subject!

      I ‘discovered’ Hans Hartung whilst researching recent artists not afraid to use colour in their work. By accident I came across the work of Carla Accardi who, when I researched her a little, referred to the influence and support she had received from Hartung amongst others. This made me want to know more about the European experience of abstract art, particularly after WWII until today; indeed, I dutifully trotted along to see the Burri exhibition which I enjoyed. Perhaps it was my personal experience at art school but I seemed to have missed out on a whole area of abstract art – the main debates always appeared to centre around American practitioners, critics and theoreticians.

      May I ask about the issue of ‘progress‘ as I agree with you that it does feel as if a clear direction is needed. Could you expand on this a little?!

      • Robin Greenwood said…

        Hi Tania.
        Thank you for your reply. As you say, this is a difficult subject to talk about, and we are none of us very clever at it, but your participation is very welcome.
        I think, on the subject of progress, that if we tried more and more to look at what abstract work “does”, rather than what it reminds us of, or generally “looks like”, or even how aesthetically pleasing it is, then such an interrogation would impact back into what we make, in a healthy feedback loop; we would want to make our abstract work “do” yet more and more still. This appears to me to be a rather strong raison-d’être for abstract art, and who knows where it may lead. I wouldn’t want to be prescriptive about what the “does” comprises of, in any case, other than to suggest that it should strive for an objective and overt reality, physically based in what is available to the eye, rather than any hidden or subjective allusion to things extrinsic.

  4. barbara roche said…

    Visual beauty exists in its own realm and does need to be explained or defended. Can’t we just let it “be”?

    • John Holland said…

      No, it can’t.
      Because ‘visual beauty’ doesn’t exist in ‘it’s own realm’ as if it were oxygen or gravity, it’s a human idea, and like all human ideas it can be, and needs to be, discussed and challenged.

  5. Julia Cooper said…

    Thanks for interesting debates. I wonder though whether we should have more a Francis Davison’s attitude, make with no label. (Just reading his new book) I wonder if abstract debate defeats what abstract art is. Does that make sense or am I talking out the back of my neck.

    • John Bunker said…

      I’m intrigued by this kind of position because I wonder where it really leads.There was a great quote tweeted by @AbCrit today by JJ Charlesworth who, while considering the revelatory insights of Mr Perry’s Reith lectures, said this.

      “For all their strangely vacuous self-regard and jovial, droning circularity, Perry’s lectures nevertheless encapsulated something of the current predicament of contemporary art in the public sphere. Criteria, manifestos, definitions, values – all these things are too disruptive, too divisive, too associated with conflict. And who wants all that?”

      Well I guess I do want “…all that”. When it comes to abstract art I can’t help but think that a lot of the time, the waxing lyrical about self revelation and the cosmos is just a bit of good old fashioned boho self obsessed thumb twiddling and painterly noodling. And fits nicely into self-important aerated rhetoric in vacuous gallery press releases and reviews too….

      I say all this as some one who has hit new heights in “vapidity” when writing reviews myself…. But I don’t mind taking a good trashing if I think there is something to be learned from the process. That’s why I think Abstract Critical is so important.

    • Tania said…

      Yes, Abstract Critical is good but it can be a bit intimidating…for example, I made a special trip to see this exhibition as I’ve read something about Hans Hartung and overall I enjoyed his paintings despite the shock of going into Mayfair for the first time. This was also the first opportunity I’d had to see work by these artists (with the exception of Tapies) for real. For anyone interested in post-war art, and painting in particular, it must be a good thing to have access to work by European artists of the period. I admire a great deal of American post-war abstraction, particularly Helen Frankenthaler and Joan Mitchell*, but the debate seems lopsided – its as if European artists simply didn’t exist. The concern is that this is driven by politics; Hartung was German after all, despite fighting for the Allies during WWII. For me his simplicity is not weak, the bright fluorescent yellow streaked with black accompanied by blue-greys of T1970-H40 brought to mind flashes of cars, ambulance sirens, the experience of urban living. I actually found Hantoi’s work more problematic and hope he acknowledged batik as an influence on his pliage technique.
      Debate, difference of opinion, even conflict, yes agreed, it prevents the whole thing becoming stagnant, making for a lively read, though it can become problematic when there’s a bit too much jargon….!

      *not sure if Mitchell is strictly ‘American’ at this stage though….

      • Tania said…

        oops misspelled Hantoi, should read Hantai…

      • John Bunker said…

        When I was writing this review I got to thinking about the debate around the big post-war cultural PR campaign (covert and overt) instigated by the dominant USA in the UK and mainland Europe as the Cold War developed. As David Anfam has pointed out in his essay ‘Transatlantic Anxieties, Especially Bill’s Folly’ Greenberg’s publication of ‘American Type Painting’ seemed to run off the back of the US’s bloody humiliation in the Korean War. Irvin Sandler’s ‘Triumph of American Painting’ was being written during the disastrous Vietnam war and published in the shadow of the Kent State killings. Great texts declaring high cultural achievements in the US of A. But they also played their part in Cold War point scoring and acting like cultural skin grafts covering over the carnage created by covert and deeply suspect US Gov policy decisions both home and abroad in the post war years.

        It is not so well known that the first generation of Abstract Expressionists were highly politicised (if disillusioned) and deeply connected to their, mostly, European roots both artistically and culturally. Still and Pollock are different, granted, but Pollock was renowned for his anti chauvinism when it came to talking about the influences on his work. Still can sound like a deranged Presbyterian preacher in comparison. But they had all cut their teeth as artists in the Great Depression years. Did they feel pretty alienated from the post- war boom era and rapid commercialisation of practically every aspect of a new modern America?

        How did the European abstract artists feel about this cultural US attempt at world domination and how abstract art might have fit in it? What had changed during the war years? How was their outlook, priorities and politics different from their American peers? I would love to hear from someone on mainland Europe about this subject.

  6. Patrick Jones said…

    Thank you Robin ,Nicely put,particularly about Gillian Ayres.Im still interested in any cultural differences that explain such variety of content from artists probably operating under similar conditions,other than personal ambition.I imagine they were looking at Pollock and other New York School painters,altho for some, Paris after the war seems to have been very flat for Abstract Art.Picasso,Matisse and Braque were going from strength to strength but seem to belong to a different era.Kelly had a great show at the Tate,altho he like Mitchell was an American in Paris.

  7. John Pollard said…

    From an admittedly uneducated viewer it seems that Robin’s preference is for complexity – of colour, relationships, etc etc. (I’d be interested to know if there are any relatively non-complex painting you like?) I too, like a variety of colourful blobs and shapes that come holistically together so am often in agreement. However, while I’m not a fan of ‘pattern painting’ I also like gritty, textured, dirty, simplistically coloured painting, perhaps with some drawing, when it works (I might grow out of it who knows).
    And for me although a lot of Tapies’ work is dead, some of it works ( I particularly like some of his prints) and I’m not going to be able to explain very well why and I certainly wouldn’t appeal to some cod philosophy which takes us away from, and often excuses, the actual work. I think it is both hard to do something special, with not a lot, as well as with lots of complexity.

    • Robin Greenwood said…

      That’s interesting John, but my thoughts about complexity are more to do with a strong desire to see abstract painting and sculpture move on from the simplistic beginning that are shown here, and less to do with my personal likes and dislikes. I like some Louis and I like some Noland and I like some early Stella, but so what? It’s no good doing it all again, thinking that is the only territory where abstract art belongs. I’d rather see more ambitious stuff being developed, trying out new things, even if I don’t like it. We don’t know what we (individually and collectively) are going to like in the future.

      • John Pollard said…

        Thanks for this Robin. I think this raises for me something I don’t grasp which is your own notion of innovation, newness, ‘progress’ I suppose. I can see why you like a lot of the work you like, but I don’t understand how it is that different, in ‘style’ (differences in quality, yes). I guess I wonder how radically different abstract art, in the present and future, can ever be? Each individual painting is obviously unique in one way, but then we can see derivation, influence etc, to varying degree, in anything, can’t we?
        So what might this new abstract art look like? Of course, as you said, we don’t know, it hasn’t happened yet.
        I’m very happy to absolutely leave open the door of possibility and innovation but at the moment for me it is about strong abstract painting that stands on its own but this doesn’t mean its going to look like its from a ‘completely’ different world. So, in a sense it’s about the quality of the individual piece for me, regardless of whether its a bit like this or that? Even patterned! I like the philosophical idea that we don’t create out of nothing, that we have a heritage etc, and that it is all about how we appropriate the past in a free and creative way.
        Having thought a bit more about this it may be that you have spent so much time creating, looking, thinking about art, that you see much bigger variations in style, for want of a better word, than I do/can, with a much more limited experience.
        And perhaps you’re much more optimistic, in a way, about progress.

      • Robin Greenwood said…

        Hooray, somebody thinks I’m an optimist, instead of the miserable old git I’m generally made out to be. I guess I’m convinced abstract art has just started and that there is loads more stuff to come that we can’t at the moment imagine. But rather than changing styles or tweaking aesthetics and taste, or deconstructing yet more theory about art, it will happen through hard graft applied to the problems of how abstract art might really work, what it really might do, and applying a certain kind of “logic” to those problems. Surely we can raise the ambition above the level of the work in this show and much else from the recent past? Well, I think we already have.

  8. Patrick Jones said…

    Hands up ,I havent seen any of these shows.Robin you were much more enthusiastic about Joan Mitchell who must have been in Paris at the same time as these artists.Sam Francis[whose inspiring work I saw there in 1969,as a student,before he discovered the white ground]and Ellsworth Kelly who got some sort of G.I.scholarship to live there .The Hartung has some painting ambition,however slight,in his picture of black ,yellow and sprayed blue.So what makes the crucial difference between Mitchell and say Gillian Ayres,whose early work you also liked,against this bunch.Is it some sort of emotional rawness,as opposed to picture making?

    • Robin Greenwood said…

      The simple answer to your question, Patrick, is in my previous comment. Nothing to do with “emotional rawness” or anything so romantic. It is to do with how much effort goes into the work to provide a substantial amount of (abstract) content. All the work in this show is mind-numbingly, simplistically boring and lacking the effort to provide such content. Mitchell, for at least a part of her career, makes a reasonable attempt, though constrained by a certain kind of tastefulness which often overtakes her better motivations. Ayres in c.1959 is genuinely ambitious in what she brings to the work – relationships are complex, inventive, numerous and diverse, and in her best efforts she achieves some kind of wholeness of form. I repeat my silly little mantra – form is unity in diversity. The greater the diversity, the greater the achievement of unification, when and if it happens. Real simplicity is a complex business.

      In the Hartung, a couple of black and blue boring stripes on a yellow background make the job of unification just too easy. Actually, I’m not sure he even manages that much. Hantai, whose work is a little more complex, makes patterned Christmas wrapping paper – I’ve seen better down the road.

  9. Robin Greenwood said…

    I wonder just how long your “prolonged looking” at the Soulages went on for, John? It’s repetitive texture, in black. How interesting can that be?

    Here is yet another show (and yes I have seen it) of what purports to be abstract painting of some historic importance which is characterised by a complete absence of even minor interest, never mind significance. Nothing happening, nothing achieved, nothing even attempted. Nothing to see. Piss poor. You and Dan are rapidly becoming experts in talking-up vapidity.