Abstract Critical

Yes, but I don’t know why

Written by Cuillin Bantock

The realisation that what you are doing is intensely limited, is in itself liberating.
Kenneth Tynan Diaries 2001

I have long been of the opinion that what a painting looks like is actually a matter of complete unimportance.

Geoffrey Rigden, Meeting with Remarkable Men, 2005 acrylic on canvas, 41 x 41 cm PG/5517

For a start, those cud-chewing discussions about possible resemblances to things outside the painting are over. The  brain obliges us to ‘make sense’ of what we look at, even if it is only to deride a painting for looking like “two poached eggs in a sea of snot” (Peter Fuller, in 1980, on a painting by Geoffrey Rigden). To a greater or lesser extent, whatever marks are made, these will always look like something. What matters, beyond this, is the intention of the painter.

The heat has also gone off the depiction/non-depiction debate; painters can now move freely in either direction without invoking the outrage, the charge of betrayal, that Guston’s return to figuration caused in the late 1960s. Likewise de Stael, always angst-driven, who moved in the same direction in the early fifties. Some of the paintings that Patrick Heron made half a century later, after a long career exploring colour, are blithe depictions of rooftops and rose-gardens. A few months before he died last year, John Hoyland quite casually said to me that for him personally, abstract painting was finished as he had exhausted its possibilities.

But when painters deliberately set out to paint non-figuratively, they are at once claiming the right to make any mark they like anywhere on their surfaces and at the same time  accepting the existential dilemma of decision-making in a void, absolutely on their own.

Painters, of course, solve all this by finding a way of working, presumably  in accordance with their own private musings. Each to his own. From a no-holds-barred swashbuckling loftiness to politely shrinking reticence, there are as many ways of using paint as there are painters to use it; anything is possible. And at the end of the day, of course,  painters like their work to be seen. Even though it may not be particularly observer-oriented.

Geoffrey Rigden, Introit, 1998-00 acrylic on canvas, 61 x 81 cm PG/5511

The work of Geoffrey Rigden makes no concessions to observer-comfort. It takes the risk of coming with a skin missing.  There is no attempt whatever to impress, to ingratiate, to seduce with good behaviour, with bravura, chromatic thrills, or even come-hitherness. On the contrary, each work is so singular, so much its own self, it is almost as if it doesn’t like being looked at. The free-standing constructions in particular, feel like people on their own, and uncomfortable with it, at a social gathering.

Yet while the work looks not wholly knowable, secretive, with something held in reserve, it is also almost ‘in your face’, uncompromising, unpredictable, direct.  And the simpler they seem, the more their acquaintance is worth having.  Look, for example, at Introit (1998-2000). At first sight the work seems little more than an almost deadpan terracotta and white pattern that could have been churned out by a machine. But as you go on looking you begin to notice that the work makes sense according to rules absolutely its own and no one else’s. Each of the scoops from the outer white area into the terracotta,  is different, is out-of-sync with the others. One of them used to be black. Likewise the four not quite echoing scoops round the central area, the corners of which are all different. The divided circle in the middle contains colours not found elsewhere in the work. And you realise as instantly as you read the particular behaviour of someone you’ve not met before, that all this is not contrived for your benefit, but just is. In 1994 Adrian Searle rather pertinently described Rigden’s work as “endearingly oddball and cockeyed…like an impeccably dressed person who has put his shirt on inside out.” True enough, but there’s more to it than that. Rigden seems to accept the full consequences of an endemic unknowing, with all the lacunae, hesitations and revisions that this entails. Coochie Dancer (2005) appears to be the only alla prima work in this exhibition, but even here Rigden said: “two days.”

Geoffrey Rigden, Coochie Dancer, 2005 acrylic on canvas, 41 x 51 cm PG/5521

Almost all Rigden’s recent paintings have been worked on for a very long time. And not just in resolving finicky bits of detail, but sometimes in radical recasting. Look at all that over-painted red in Interior (2006), the almost uncomfortable surface in Curium (2000-03), at the same time registering the final forceful resolution of the design. That yellow  band along the bottom of Meeting with Remarkable Men (2005) pulls the whole of this very satisfying work together and repays detailed inspection as to its history. The insistent lack of compromise in all these paintings is made up of a firm simplicity of design, a regular use of extra-coarse pumice and an obsessive use of black.

Geoffrey Rigden, Interior, 2006 acrylic on canvas, 61 x 61 cm PG/5512

It is the evidence of a history, discernible in the incomplete obliterations, that constitute touch in Rigden’s work. The fact that the surface hasn’t been cleaned-up ready for a Cork Street party contributes to the vitality of these images. Like the best human faces, these paintings look lived in.

Geoffrey Rigden, Cycladic Violet, 1990 acrylic on canvas, 163 x 144 cm PG/5505

I asked Rigden how he thought his work had changed in the last few decades; he said he had become more self-critical. In the larger paintings of twenty years ago, such as Cycladic Violet (1990) or Off Minor (1985), the paint has been used more transparently, less trenchantly, but the drawing is already off-beam, somehow arresting the eye which might otherwise have slid away in search of something more obvious. Lovely dribbles. The more recent work tends to be smaller in scale, more obsessively worked, and more chromatically unusual. At their most successful, such as Reflexion (2004-08), they achieve a jaw-dropping allure and a dry-eyed stillness which is both beautiful and visceral. Here is release from condescension. I go further; this is a new ecstasy.

In 2009 the philosopher Roger Scruton wrote that a sense of beauty depends at least to some extent on an intellectual construct. An artefact which is purely sensory in appeal, such as a lovely taste or smell, in some way falls short of whatever it is that we sense as beauty.

Geoffrey Rigden, Reflexion, 2004-08 acrylic on canvas, 41 x 51 PG/5518

Rigden, for all his cool, has a razor-sharp awareness of the massive constraints which define a painting, that a painting has only three realities: area (surface plus edge), chroma and facture. The rest is virtual, put there by the eye. Even more, he seems to invite yet further limits, denying himself the luxury of enjoying the infinity of ways in which colour areas can meet. In a Rigden the colours meet head-on. As Stravinsky once pointed out: anything which reduces constraints, reduces tension. It is the very lack of conventional painterly pleasure which gives this work its punch.

Most European painting, say from Masaccio to Monet, has been concerned with trying to persuade the viewer that the painting itself wasn’t really there, that it consisted of a space into which you look, occupied by madonnas and apples and bottles and suchlike.  In other words, the painting contained an image. Residual, uncontrolled illusionistic space still, amazingly, seems to infect a great deal of European abstract painting. It is as though there is a cavalier disregard, or even unawareness, of the picture plane, with the result that the images appear to be full of holes. If a painting is to hang in the mind later, it seems quite reasonable to expect it to be able to hold the wall in the first place, and for you to be able to tell where things, colour forms, in it actually are. Clement Greenberg may not have explicitly stated, but certainly implied, that if a painter is going to go so far in transforming an object that you can’t tell what it is, then surely he is obliged likewise to transform the space it’s in. Rigden purveys a Greenbergian assertion of pictorial flatness. It is this, plus the achieved tautness of design, which gives his work its bristling energy and tension, a far cry from the pseudo-energy of evidential exertions in the handling of paint. In this Rigden is not only ahead of his time, as pointed out by Tim Hilton in 1980, but also harks back to the early Florentines and the Sienese School. Giotto, Duccio and Neroccio come to mind. Like Rigden’s work, with these painters, the painting itself is the image.

This resonance reaches further back still, particularly in the drawings, which unlike the paintings are made swiftly, and the linocuts, to late Neolithic Cycladic art. This shares Rigden’s firmness of line, directness of utterance, and frontality.

Geoffrey Rigden, Omega, 2010-12 acrylic on wood, found objects, 60 x 29 x 16 cm PG/5527

In conversation with Rigden about his constructions, he suddenly and vehemently declared that he abhorred waste, that putting refuse to new use really mattered to him. His constructions mostly recycle bits of boxes, corrugated paper, bottle tops, corks: real garbage. But whereas a lesser artist might be tempted to make some trite point about consumerism, Rigden achieves a radical and total metamorphosis, so that while the starting points are glaringly visible, they are noticed only secondarily. As with the paintings, these works are direct, rough-hewn and unexpected. There is never anything habituated in this artist’s work, no predictable way of working. There are playful echoes of Klee and Gottlieb here; in the recent Omega  there is a distant recall of Braque’s 1950s studio series, not just because of the birds, but in the design and tonality. And who else could incorporate together an old shoe and a weaver’s comb so tellingly?

Rigden was part of that emergent consciousness in British painters of the 1970s who were discovering what was being done in the States. These earlier paintings of Rigden are often Hofmann-hot, loosely painted, with tube-squeezed swirls and a somnolent chromatic complexity. They seem very much of their time but in no way tired. They are very easy to like. Gottlieb is the only New World artist whose work  still relates naturally to Rigden’s, particularly his pictographs. Both artists are protean, yet instantly recognisable, without habituated trademarks, without recourse to obviously affective mark-making. Neither are particularly genial. And just as Greta Garbo made the others look suburban, do not Gottlieb and Rigden somehow make so much else seem a little schmaltzy?

Geoffrey Rigden, Composition with Gourd, 1996 acrylic on canvas, 51 x 61 cm PG/5509

In the early 1960s the bass singer Paul Robeson had a bet with Laurence Olivier, that he, Olivier, would never be able to play Othello as his voice, a tenor, was too high-pitched. In light-hearted vein Olivier accepted the bet, underwent a gruelling training to lower his voice by an octave, and his Othello opened at the Aldwych in the mid-sixties. That his interpretation was more Afro-Carib than Venetian Moor was maybe beside the point; it was still a major tour de force. One night he gave the performance of a lifetime: out of this world, unrepeatable. He finally ran off the stage and locked himself in his dressing-room. They all came down…stage hands…Desdemona…”Larry, Larry…what’s up?…you were marvellous” Eventually he opened his door. Almost in tears he muttered: “Yes, but I don’t know why.”

It is probably the lot of the truly great artist to be unable to ‘explain’ his work. Rigden, while never failing in insight over the work of others, a trait which made him beloved of students, is curiously diffident, almost inarticulate, about his own. Does it matter? Braque once commented that the only thing that mattered about a painting was what couldn’t be put into words. Bacon, more abrasively, said it was useless talking about painting: “you just talk round it.” Hoyland commented several times that paintings “weren’t meant to be understood, only recognised.” Understanding implies verbalisation; recognition is something more subtle, more indefinite, harder to reach.

I commented earlier that what a painting looked like was unimportant. Like people, it is what they are like rather than how they look that matters. It takes courage and practice to ‘feel’ a painting with the eyes. One doesn’t ever really understand other people, but kindred souls can be recognised. We all know that paintings are a form of self-portraiture; you get to read them without verbalisation and most emphatically without the art psycho-babble which sometimes passes for insight. You arrive at silence. In the end, maybe all one can ever say of a painting that one responds to is to reaffirm Olivier’s bafflement.

February, 2012

Geoffrey Rigden: Paintings and Constructions 1975 – 2012 is on at Poussin Gallery from the 6th to the 30th of June, 2012. More images by Ridgen can be seen HERE



  1. Julia Schwartz said…

    Thank you so much for this. Although in another part of my life I actually make a living using my words, when it comes to my paintings I find myself increasingly inarticulate– ‘unworded’ maybe?
    The idea of ‘trying’ is one that is problematic for me, because whenever I am trying to do much of anything it pretty much mucks things up, meaning makes the work stale or dead.
    After the Japan earthquake and tsunami my work did become more abstract, but you will see figurative elements in there too. I appreciate the license to just paint without needing a passport or label- is this abstract or figurative? It’s painting. I don’t need a passport to move from state to state.
    Your last two paragraphs are stunning; wish I could have written them. Thank you.

  2. Seamus Green said…

    There have been some great points made here. I completely agree with Cuillin when he sweeps away boring arguments about figuration/abstraction. I don’t think it matters where you find yourself on the scale; it is the intention why you end up there which is important. However I do think we owe it to ourselves as artists to dig deeper and as Robin said we should understand this stuff. Painting isn’t easy, so if you decide to make abstract paintings you have be aware of what the work looks like and what you are putting across. In regards to Rigden’s work, all I have to experience it is what the paintings ‘look like’, his intentions are probably far removed from what I can gather. For me (please forgive me but I haven’t seen his work in the flesh) Rigden’s work appears quite stale, static and simple. All of which may not be bad intentions but the look of them lacks visual inventiveness because of their hold on wonky patterns and simple divisions of space. For my tastes the work is too graphic, clunky and ridged, the paintings feel like they shuffle rather than dance, and for those reason I don’t feel ‘the punch’ that Cuillin feels is there. However I do really like the way they are made and the way Cuillin describes the work, but it is ‘the look’ that gives me my impression so I have to agree with Robin and emphasis how important it is.

    In response to your response Robin (forgive me if I get the wrong end of the stick) I really admire your dedication to abstraction and your search to invent completely new things and new forms as an honest engagement today rather than a pastiche of yesterday. However I find it interesting that you argue so strongly that abstraction should strive to be self referential and should eradicate representation because, for me, it feels like you want that in your own work. The titles you use reference a place or environment which I then begin to see in the makeup of your brushstrokes, for example ‘Crooked Blue House’, 2008. This feels like a romantic approach to painting as a tool to reflect a place, environment and your own expression through the material, you subvert a direct representation but there is a sense of it in the work. I’d be interested to know how you feel about the titles you give to your paintings in response to your ideas about abstractions direction (general overview, I understand not all your work acts in such a way as ‘Crooked Blue House’)

    Overall, I think as a young painter I can take valuable points away from both Cuillin and Robin. I do believe that abstract painting as John Hoyland is quoted as saying “weren’t meant to be understood, only recognised.” I certainly don’t think you need to be pompously articulate about ‘meaning’ to make good paintings, on the other hand I do think it is dangerous to just go about painting a picture with no regard for a critical stance. I feel it is letting ourselves down to give up on a struggle to find new valid statements within abstract painting. But I wonder today whether abstract artists use esoteric fuelling as a means of finding purpose to motivate themselves in the studio rather than actually finding something interesting to say beyond the visual sensation. I think the difficulty in abstraction is to accept the feeling of being lost and making mistakes but to also find confidence in your intentions without letting them constrain you so much that you don’t find freedom.

    (Sorry if I have waffled on about a load of rubbish)

  3. Robin Greenwood said…

    My subject matter came a little loose there, didn’t it. Another illiterate post (John Holland).
    What I forgot to mention was this beautifully polished old chestnut: ‘To a greater or lesser extent, whatever marks are made, these will always look like something. What matters, beyond this, is the intention of the painter.’
    Anyone know what Cezanne’s intentions were? No, me neither, so I guess its no use looking at Cezanne.

    • Sam Cornish said…

      A quibble maybe but… this PS is surely a (perhaps willful?) misunderstanding: surely what Cullin meant was that it is what artists do with their marks (representational or not) that counts, not that we need to ask them what they mean. Intention here seems pretty obviously the same thing as your ‘big imaginative vision’.

  4. Robin Greenwood said…

    I think this is a very well written essay with lots of interest, lots of delightful and attractive and tempting views about art, but ultimately I agree with very little of it. Where to start?

    Well, I do think it matters what a thing looks like. In fact, I can’t think what could be of more importance. I don’t think it is just a cud-chewing exercise to discuss resemblances. It’s important to understand this stuff, and if you are committed to abstract art, to acknowledge and remove inadvertent association as and when it happens. I think it is important that if you decide to be an abstract artist (and of course there is no compunction to be one, other than a belief that one might share, of it being the best way forward), that you try very hard to be ‘properly’ abstract, you try to exclude things from your painting or sculpture that throw up obvious or even slight resemblances. Difficult, yes, but who said abstract art should be simple? (Well, a lot of people did, actually, including Greenberg, who wrote some great stuff, but I don’t agree that painting should be flat or simple. Anything but. The more complex and spatial the better. More of that later.)

    It’s true, as Cuillin says, that painters are free to move in any direction, towards more or fewer figurative references in their painting, as they wish; of course, and many younger artists are really mixing it up, as well as older painters like Rigden, blending the boundaries, quoting and combining. I’ve yet to see this produce results I find convincing as a way of advancing (Rigden’s paintings being somewhat ‘vintage’ in their results, and I accept that Rigden is a semi-abstract painter), but maybe I should get out more. I’d personally like to go the opposite way and make my art more rigorously abstract – in fact, that has for a while been a quite distinct ambition for me, to really try to separate the abstract from all else, from what I have defined as the ‘literal’. This seems to be exceptionally hard (particularly in sculpture), and for me involves the idea of inventing completely new things, new forms. This is the most dazzling and exciting prospect that art holds out at the moment, and only abstract art has this on offer, the discovery of completely new, strong, complex yet coherent form – and that out of nothing (!), out of only the manipulation of material under the sway of a big imaginative vision. Invent something completely new! How good would that be? Nuancing modernist clichés doesn’t do it for me, no matter how exquisite the sensibility (and Rigden’s is exquisite); nor does any kind of formula; least of all does any kind of ‘simplicity of design’, no matter how taught or refined. Painting is not design.

    The trouble is, I can’t define ‘abstract’, and I only have a rather crude notion of some kind of ‘abstractness’ which applies to all art, figurative or non-representational. Nevertheless, I think it is important to try to winkle out the things in abstract art that allow progress towards something more real, and those that impede it (like, for a big pair of examples, metaphor and metaphysics). It seems to me part of the job, to do that winkling out. The late declarations of Heron, Hoyland etc. have no bearing on this whatsoever, good painters though they both were in their prime. As for the ‘Greenbergian assertion of pictorial flatness’, this is a worn-out mantra which has long held back progress in the painting of a lot of good artists, in my opinion. Try applying it to sculpture (as Greenberg absurdly did), and you will get a better glimpse of the huge black hole that continues fifty years on to suck the life out of abstract painting. To suggest that ‘the painting itself is the image’ is the ultimate dumb circular argument. It arrant nonsense to propose that works which do not fulfil that condition (which appears to include Titian, Tintoretto, Goya, Velazquez, Constable, Delacroix, etc.) deal in ‘residual, uncontrolled illusionistic space’. I’ll have a bit of that thanks, if that’s what those guys are dealing in. All painting is illusion. Great painting is great illusion. This kind of great illusion is a lot more real than flat design.

    Of course, of course, yes, yes, yes, it’s really difficult to analyse and discuss visual art, and abstract visual art is even harder (perhaps), but is that a reason to retreat into subjective complacency? I repeat, what a painting looks like is of supreme importance; ‘how they look’ is critical, because how they look tells you what it is that they do. Content, Cuillin old boy, content. Loose the subject matter, find the content.

    • Sam Cornish said…

      As you say abstract art is the only way to create new form did ‘Titian, Tintoretto, Goya, Velazquez, Constable, Delacroix’ simply repeat what had gone before them?

    • Robert Linsley said…

      Like you I endorse the moral/ethical effort to hold the line against the “semi-abstract.” Frank Stella was once very eloquent on exactly that. I enjoy taking that stance in the studio, but sometimes relax and let resemblance and figuration have their way (as does Stella nowadays), and that also can give good results. Maybe we don’t know yet exactly what we mean by abstract, but “no resemblance” is not entirely it. Partly it.
      More important are your remarks on originality. For myself, I would not allow lapses into figuration if the results were unoriginal, banal or desultory, or if images weren’t helping me to figure out what is meant by “abstract.” Something out of nothing…absolutely.

    • cuillin bantock said…

      Well you see, the words ‘what’ and ‘looks’ both have several meanings. In view of the ‘difficulty’ of Rigden’s art, I deliberately chose an opener which was both ambiguous and contentious. Hook, line and sinker.

      This is getting all a bit like an end-of-term fourth form debate, which has already been aired, more elegantly, elsewhere. But to say yet again, the whole development of European painting concerns different ways of representing space. Think of Cezanne’s “I have discovered that painting is not sculpture” and Patrick Heron’s 1950s agonising over Matisse’s Red Studio: “how flat it is” followed by “how spatial it is.” I made no suggestion whatever that there was anything wrong with the way Constable et al painted space, in fact Constable’s space is so firmly painted you could put your hand round his distant tree trunks. What, however, seems to me to be insufficiently thought-through is the current tendency to combine literal, illusionistic space with non-literal, non-illusionistic form. Likewise energy – not at all the same as exercise. Evidence of the latter is not proof of the former.

      I think it was Shelley who said “when critics disagree, the artist is in accord with himself.” He said also “critics are lice in the locks of literature.”

      So from one louse to another, Robin, let’s hope that Rigden is happy.