Alan Davie, who died on 5th April, is by coincidence having something of a moment in the London galleries. Of the four displays of his work, all organised prior to his death, the Portland Gallery (until 5th June) and Alan Wheatley Art (until 23rd May) have the best paintings. Over at Davie’s primary dealer, Gimpel Fils (until 23rd May) is a selection of very recent miniature paintings on paper and drawings in biro, showing his natural talents to the last, but I’m not sure they amount to much. The Tate display (until 28th September) is not greatly flattering either, and I don’t particularly warm to any of the major Davies they own. Sacrifice of 1956 is the best of them, but is suppressed and flattened by its blue-sky background and its horizontal symmetry; Birth of Venus, 1955, doesn’t quite get going in the way it promises, being rather overwhelmed by drawing and composition; and Entrance to the Red Temple No.1, 1960, supposedly the star of the collection, has too much of the graphic patterning and pseudo-symbolism that takes over completely in later work. None of these paintings match in quality a handful of works at Wheatley’s and the Portland. At least Davie is now recognised again, as he was in the sixties, as an important painter, though a catalogue raisonné and major retrospective at Tate are, as far as I know, not yet on the cards. The decade 1950-60 (and maybe occasionally ’60-‘65) throws up new surprises all the time (how about Insignias of the Gannet People, 1958 at Portland?) and it would be really good to get a more complete picture. I’d really like to see a full chronology of all the work from 1948-68, at the least.
Works to look out for at Wheatley’s are: Altar of the Moon, 1955; Priest of the Red Temple, 1956 (which may not be on show); Philosopher’s Stone, 1957; Monk’s Vision, 1958. At the Portland Gallery are: Bull God No.5, 1955; The White Magician, undated; Snail Elements, 1956; Game for Girls, 1957; Divination, 1957; Discovery of the Chariot, 1958; Insignias of the Gannet People, 1958. Both galleries have quite a few other paintings of lesser quality, but those are just the main ones that might look good in reproduction. It’s a chance not to be missed (a few at Portland are on loan from their collectors), because there are some wonderful paintings here. In the flesh, in front of the work itself, is when you can and should make your own mind up, but five paintings in this bunch are, as near as damn it, modern masterpieces. Philosopher’s Stone and Altar of the Moon at Wheatley’s are both excellent. The White Magician is a good place to start at the Portland. It’s as fluid and as embedded in the stuff of paint as a Tintoretto; it shows how to work freely and without restraint, without rules and conceits; it shows how the actuality of art defeats any theory; it shows how to make spaces in painting by changing your mind (more of this later), with large areas of pentimenti painted out by a looming rich ochre soup of great depth. Having arrived at this, you don’t want to change a thing.
Snail Elements is amongst the most dazzling of paintings to stand in front of, continuously riveting to look at, larger-than-life, bold as brass, very different from its reproduction. Perhaps greatest of all is Insignias of the Gannet People, a rather atypical work of great virtuosity, inexplicable in the way it holds itself together in utmost depth and diversity. Lines that appear as drawing in reproduction do not so much separate as connect; spaces open out within other spaces without ever becoming holes in the fabric; the whole hangs in together with no resort to compositional devices or formats. The surface buzzes with activity, but none of it feels the least bit gratuitous – or even gestural. Wonderful painting (it’s a particularly good work to look at after the Gary Wraggs), painted in 1958, bloody hell.
Is any of this work abstract? Between 1950 and 1960, when Davie was making some of the very best paintings by anyone anywhere, including his more celebrated American peers, the question presents itself, because of certain contradictions, as moot. Maybe it’s a question of no consequence – paintings either work or not – but it continues to intrigue me. There are two issues: the first is about the space in a painting, and whether it is possible to make “abstract” space (I think it is not); and the second is the business of a spontaneous reworking of a painting by the partial or full obliteration of one impulsive plastic expression by a succeeding and conflicting one (or more), which is a wholly abstract methodology. These two contradictory conditions are bound inextricably together in early Davie.
Space is space; we can surely only read space in a painting as representational. How else do we know it as spatial, other than through our physical/visual knowledge of the three-dimensional world, its proximities and its distances? Can a spatial painting ever be wholly abstract? The natural interest and specificity of painting’s figurative spatiality can be substituted for by a more ambiguous materiality of paint and canvas (as in, say, the works in Enantiodromia, in extreme example, and especially the often rather handsome Simon Callerys, which tend to be non-spatial and rely upon the appeal to minimal-object aesthetics of their carefully deconstructed materiality), and/or the interest of complex and subtle-but-powerful colour relations (painters like Alan Gouk and Fred Pollock, who make spatial works through coloured planes in parallel before and behind the picture plane, work which tends to revert to a known and simple compositional format in order to carry colour without dominating it). But not to create significant and complex spaces in painting seems to me a loss that has yet to be fully compensated for by privileging either materiality or colour, or any other newer concerns.
In Davie’s work both materiality and colour are amply utilised, but they frequently remain secondary to his search for a viable spatiality, which is where his invention and discovery is in greatest abundance and diversity. For example, Philosopher’s Stone, 1957, can be read as a picture-space of a pair of fabulous and complex paint-falls (they really are wonderful!) cascading out of billowing net curtains in front of and through a blue pond/box which has a red sail-boat/kite in the middle; all set in a green landscape with a horizon-line. There is a giant’s hand coming in from the right… whatever! It all works. And it is not really any of those things. Davie loads his pictures from this period, especially after 1955, with things that look a bit like parts of the real world – amoebas and plant-life, writhing bodies and dragons, pseudo-organic life-forms with and without shading, often set in orthogonal architectures that may or may not be conventionally modelled. His range of invention is dazzling, unmatched. How does he get away with it all, I’d like to know! Sheer talent and judgement? On the whole he falls on the right side of reconciling all these crazy things in space with the two-dimensionality of surface, and that takes some doing. Sometimes they fail; they become too flattened on the picture-plane and lose the space. Such weaker paintings are often much less worked, born of far fewer gestural impulses, being somewhat “thrown-off”, and are often the most non-representational – for example, Rabbit Moves, 1964. By contrast, the later symbolist works, after about 1965, like Fairy Tree No.5, 1971, go the opposite way. They too represent imaginary things in made-up representational architectures, but by then the surreal symbolic imagery has all but taken over and all reconciliation between imagery and painting is forgone. Not to put too fine a point on it, I think, like many people, that by 1965 Davie has lost the true knack.
Such a reconciliation of two and three-dimensions is a delicate balance in painting. We’ve had some discussion on abcrit lately about layering (in Gary Wragg’s work, particularly); painting is literally composed of it, one layer of paint over another. But it can be more; paint’s greatest potency and appeal to me is its ability to wrest three-dimensional form from two-dimensions without compromise to the latter. It is not just one layer behind another, it is one complex “thing” behind another, seen from a viewpoint (despite the claims of Cubism). The resounding force of the layered patch of paint that makes the light that defines the thumb of the right hand of Rembrandt’s Saskia in Arcadian Costume (National Gallery) breaks open and elaborates the three-dimensionality of the whole figure, and so demolishes but then simultaneously re-establishes and re-defines the two-dimensionality of the canvas on which it is painted. Behind the pressure of the thumb is the tip of the forefinger; behind the forefinger is the gnarled wooden staff; beyond which is the straightened little finger; next to the staff, but a little set back, is the material of Saskia’s sleeve. And between and behind the staff and the sleeve is space. We know and believe in the continuity of these things, even when we can see only a fraction of their total. And we know it as a far richer, more complex thing than just layering. That knowledge seems crucial, and enables us often to read even the least-modelled of Matisses as much more than a picture plane. We believe in the dual reality of both the three-dimensional space and the two-dimensional painting. Abstract painting struggles to derive value from this dual property of paint that figurative painting takes easily in its stride, and sometimes to the highest levels.
There is a painting by Davie called Look In 2, 1955, which I saw at the London Art Fair a couple of years ago, which comprises some sort of rounded opening hanging between heavy billowing curtains (velvet this time, not net!), and in the opening are slashings and scrawlings of all sorts in black, red, blue and yellow. This immensely lively and spontaneous onslaught of insect-head scratchings quite obviously continues behind the black outline and under the grey surround, suggesting space behind and beyond or through something. There remains a vestige of this continuation of splatter in the undefined small circle that pins the hole / head / stitched-baseball-thing to the curtain on its left-hand side. Then you begin to notice that the splatterings are both under and over the black outline; particularly the yellow on the right, which disappears behind at the top and overlaps at the bottom. So too the orange on the left seems both behind and in front. This is a little more complex than just layering. Or, if it’s a layer, it’s three-dimensionally warped, no longer just in parallel to the picture plane. Warped, spatial, yet it remains in touch with its two-dimensionality. But figurative..?
Well, the space might be figurative, but the methodology is all abstract. This is testified to by the massive amount of underpainting visible in a lot of the best paintings. Go see the amount of it in Altar of the Moon or The White Magician. It’s also demonstrated by the film of him at work, now showing in the display at Tate Britain, where you can watch him re-invent a picture, layer after layer, time after time, working fast in one burst after another, totally immersed (the film veers towards self-parody at times, but we are in 1961, a little past his very best). Such destruction and rebuilding, such complex layering of changing intentions, are a true part of the anti-programmatical methodology of real abstract art, and antithetical to not only figurative art (yes, even including Matisse, the great re-configurer), but also to the more conventional (I’m tempted to say “academic”) processes of “abstraction”, which tends to stick to and develop, often through simplification, the more fixed and singular compositional arrangement or format that they began with.
Davie’s best paintings don’t simplify, they gain complexity as they go; they mutate significantly; they don’t start with their “figuration”, or the “image”, if that’s what it is; no, it’s where they end up, having started from nothing, with random splurges and splashes, dabs and spatters to get things going. True, they do go into a final phase of consolidation, wherein forms are picked out with lines, sometimes solidified and surrounded by backgrounds, but to varying degrees the original complexities remain to inform the final vision, and to make it supple and resonant. And it’s important to remember that when the first scramblings of paint were put onto works like Philosopher’s Stone or Look In 2, no conception of the finished form of the work was in place. These paintings remain to the last deeply spontaneous works; the action, the reaction, the resolution, all grasped in a moment, yet the result of many, many moments. Maybe this complexity is why I relate to the best early paintings, despite their figuration, as if they matched in some quite precise way my own anticipation of a fully abstract art.