It must have seemed like a wonderful idea to put these two old boys of abstract art together; both now over ninety and both still working; would that we should all be as lucky, to last so long. It would have been most pleasant to be able to report on an interesting conjunction of these two painterly sensibilities, but their work is in fact so jarringly at odds that this show adds up to less than the sum of its parts; which comprise three early Davies, three very small recent Davies and half a dozen or so recent-ish Irvins. On the one hand you have Davie, able to conjure at will endlessly inventive and varied assemblages of marks, forms, splashes and drips, spatial motifs and recessions, in and out of the picture plane; on the other is Irvin, with a relentless repetition of flat motifs, flat paint, flat colour. The only parallels I can draw between the two of them rests upon a consideration of their respective careers, since in both their cases their early work is by far their best. As to their particular achievements, they are not remotely comparable; Davie is by far and away the greater figure, a painter who, in the fifties, possessed an immense talent for improvised abstract painting, the traces of which talent are even now still perhaps just discernible, though without the concomitant ambition.
The two paintings in the current show at Gimpel Fils that are to be taken with some seriousness are both by Davie, both early. ‘Bubble Figure No1’ from 1954 is not a great painting, but it is good, and not least remarkable for the scant amount of paint used in the achievement of a whole and plausible space-image. Like most Davies, it is much better in the flesh than in reproduction, and not until you see it thus do you realise that most of the surface is just bare hardboard, with the whole picture scraped on with about threepence-worth of paint. Yet it still convinces. That in itself is quite exhilarating.
The other good work here is ‘Trio for Bones’ from 1960, a large-scale triptych that bears a close relationship to a work previously discussed on this site, ‘Patrick’s Delight’, from the same year. Despite sharing a number of elements, these two paintings are really quite different in result, and if I were to say ‘Trio for Bones’ is nowhere near as good, that would still allow for it to be a very good painting, well worth seeing. It has lots of really interesting and complex stuff happening, and any analysis on one viewing would probably fall down on a second.
‘Trio for Bones’ and ‘Patrick’s Delight’ both come at the end of an extraordinary decade for Davie, which saw a succession of really great paintings (when I say ‘great’ I don’t mean ‘super’, I mean ‘magnificent’), beginning with paintings like ‘Jingling Space’ and ‘Altar of the Blue Diamond’ of 1950. Thus began a period when Davie could do little wrong. His inventiveness seemed to run on endlessly, with a method of ‘drawing-up’ a painting into existence with swirling medleys of biomorphic forms and spattered gestures, set off in semi-architectural structures; ambiguous as to subject matter, but uncompromised in their pictorial endeavour. This direction of travel was of course derived from Pollock and works such as ‘Guardians of the Secret’, 1943; no matter, it was a good place to start from, and perhaps even Pollock didn’t possess such unstinting and uncompromised natural abilities.
Davie’s creativity flowed without check. The list of first-rate paintings from the fifties would be rather long, but I’d like to recommend a few: ‘Fetish with a Yellow Background’; Bull God No1’, 1955: ‘Fate of the Lovely Dragon’, 1955; ‘Sacrifice’, 1956; ‘Priest of the Red Temple’, 1956; ‘Woman Bewitched by the Moon No1’, 1956; ‘Martyrdom of St. Catherine’, 1956; ‘Game for Girls’, (Davie is one of the few artists who could occasionally incorporate writing successfully into his pictures – unlike, say, Twombly); ‘Blue Bubble’, 1957; ‘Red Parrot Joy’, 1960; any and all of which, with many more, you could justifiably call ‘great’. And so to 1960, and ‘Patrick’s Delight’, which is an undoubted masterpiece that could hold its own in just about any company. It is the culmination of a decade when Davie was without equal as a painter in the UK, possibly in the world.
But then again, also from 1960, is the work in the present show, ‘Trio for Bones’; using many similar devices and strategies for picture-making as ‘Patrick’s Delight’, but not really coming together in such a breathtaking and stately manner, not really pulling all the parts together and working them on into an endlessly compelling whole. More of a puzzle, less of a lucid expression of physicality, ‘Trio for Bones’ begins to show the drift into graphic iconography and cartoon metaphorical imagery that characterises Davie’s work from then on. How he thus far had avoided such difficulties, considering the ‘drawn-up’ character of most of the work, is one of the extraordinary delights of that period. Sheer bloody-minded improvised talent seemed to have kept him blazing through the traps. Maybe using Pollock’s thinking was the key, because as soon as Davie’s own thinking kicked in, as soon as the philosophising and mythologizing and storytelling started, the game was up, pictorially.
And so what about Mr. Irvin? I confess I don’t have much to say. He’s a very nice chap, and it is fantastic that he still carries on; and he did some good work in the seventies, as a recent showing at Canary Wharf demonstrated. Bold, if somewhat limited (but then what wasn’t limited in the seventies?), his paintings then had a real physical touch and a gestural explicitness. Even through the eighties there were some robust moves and quite inventive build-ups. But in the late eighties and early nineties the two motifs which have come to characterise his work for over two decades now, the loosely-painted ‘noughts-and-crosses’ checks and the circular ‘flower-heads’ were developed, and a little later the pale, close-toned colours began to appear. Since then the work has become deeply formulaic (coinciding, of course, with his dramatic commercial success! Good luck to him), and seems to get flatter and flatter (in all senses); its become wallpaper. Seeing these recent Irvins next to a couple of good Davies does them no favours. Irvin’s stripes, splotches and splashes seem stylised and mechanical alongside the real thing; which is what the Davies undoubtedly are.
Alan Davie RA & Albert Irvin RA is on at Gimpel Fils until the 15th of June.