In a late-ish interview with Charles Harrison in 1984, Clement Greenberg declares that the modern picture cannot accommodate shading, or modelling in tones into depth, breaking the plane of the two-dimensional surface, overlooking the fact that the great modernist pictures are full of lateral shading by way of colour juxtapositions, which, while remaining side-by-side front-on to the picture surface, suggest movement into depth by such qualities as temperature, warmth or coolness, or simply through the effect of the differing organic composition of the pigments out of which colours arise. Place cobalt green, for instance, beside a cadmium yellow and it will suppress the luminosity of the yellow, and cool its ardour; whereas an emerald green tends to sharpen the brightness of the yellow. Here oil paint has an enormous advantage over acrylics; the latter tend to have a uniform plastic “timbre” which can only be modified by adding gels, pumice granules or pearlescence.
But even here, notice how Morris Louis tempers his yellows and reds by surrounding them with siennas and ochres, a lesson lost on some of our more garish practitioners, and on the lurid horrors of op-art, which mistakes fluorescent op-flicker for colourism, or close valued pastel-milked colour likewise. Matisse’s The Moroccans and Picasso’s Man Leaning on a Table (or Seated Man), 1916, itself indebted to Matisse’s The Piano Lesson I, 1916, are classic examples of lateral shading; still figurative, or on the cusp of abstraction, borderline cases, you may say, but they reveal the extent to which near-abstraction can accommodate dark to light oppositions, suitably modulated with shades of grey, without engendering a brittle surface flatness. “Colour makes its own space” was the mantra of the 1960’s colour-field exponents, but it does so by utilising subliminal qualities of colour-shading that are best left unrationalised, for there is nothing more inimical to successful painting than analysis of the thought processes which arise in the throes of arriving there, or the over-emphasis on conscious purpose.
Rothko’s pictures owe their “art” to precisely this kind of subliminal lateral shading, where colour areas are muted, softly modulated within themselves to enhance their capacity to combine with others remote on the colour-wheel spectrum (and the fuzzy-edged brushing contributes to that end). And Patrick Heron can even create shading when using only “hot” colours, just by juxtaposing or surrounding one orange-red, all the cadmiums, with a slightly deeper red (as in the excellent Two Vermilions, Orange and Red, 1964), and even more so by introducing a touch of venetian red into his cadmiums, an earthier tone which is made to appear greenish-brown in reciprocal influence with the reds. So one goes on, with some such thoughts at the back of one’s mind, without over-determining intention, and the moment one begins to intermix pigments on the surface, submitting to the vicissitudes of the painting process, in other words surrendering to the flow of the medium, the heady intoxication of losing control intercedes. One is immediately plunged into a world for which no amount of rehearsal has prepared one, or is an adequate substitute, though practice and experience, of course, can help.
Not that spontaneity is the ultimate criterion of invention or value in painting. For as Heron also said, to paraphrase, what we need now is a finer deliberateness, a more considered mode of action, which will embrace the more static architectural qualities of painting, at the same time as it allows the immediate and the spontaneous.
Alan Gouk 22nd August 2013
Alan Gouk: Original Perspectives is at the Kinblethmont Gallery, near Arbroath, Angus, 7th – 22nd September 2013, 11am-5pm daily.