The Brancaster Chronicles are edited transcripts of recorded discussions made in direct response to exhibitions of abstract painting and sculpture. More information here.
28th September 2013, Robin Greenwood’s studio, London.
Those present: Hilde Skilton, Mark Skilton, Anne Smart, Anthony Smart, Ben Wiedel-Kaufmann, Robin Greenwood, Sarah Greenwood, John Bunker, Nick Moore, Ashley West, Fred Crayk, Saul Greenberg, Emyr Williams, John Pluthero, Patrick Jones, Fred Pollock, Sam Cornish.
[Looking at painting No.1, “Sunspots”.]
Ashley West: Fred, one thing for me that I find challenging looking at your paintings is the high key of the colour, the primary and secondary colours, and the fact that I’m used to looking at painting like this that’s primarily all about colour where the compositional structure is simplified to a degree, so that the colour can operate as free from that structure as possible. Do you see what I’m saying?
Fred Pollock: No, I’ve no idea what you are talking about.
Ashley West: Well, if you take geometric abstract painting, like Mondrian or Ellsworth Kelly…
Fred Pollock: Oh, OK.
Ashley West: …but here we have areas of paint that seem to be about the direction and texture of the brushwork, the overlapping of those areas which seem to suggest space, depth, forward and back. I wonder just how crucial the colour is to that, whether it goes against it, or fights against it. We can look, for example, at an area of blue here [in No.1] behind this other colour; and yet see that as defying that expectation and coming forward. So for me it is quite difficult to see how colour and composition and structure work together; or are they supposed to be working against each other?
Hilde Skilton: But look at the other blue above it, the blue of that stripe, what that does that do to the space? I mean, I know it’s been painted on top, and it’s strong colour, and it does come through, which is great… but if you then look at the other colours around it, it gives it it’s space. I mean, this painting is just full of space…
Patrick Jones: Can I just say that this is a really exciting painting. It hit my eye as soon as I came in here. The movement in it, side to side, is tremendous.
Hilde Skilton: In some of the other paintings the colours are so bright, it just tires me very quickly. Whereas this one [No.1] just draws me into it. It’s physical, there’s space, there’s just so much going on in it. It’s a real feast for the eyes. And I think it is because of the way the colour has been changed from just being bright, primary colour.
Ashley West: It’s also the texture isn’t it, the brushwork? In this one, it’s a lot more alive, less flat [than some of the other paintings]. .
John Pluthero: There is something in that colour coding about space, because the blues we are used to them being recessive and the oranges coming to the forefront. And yet clearly in the top middle of No.1 you have these oranges which look further away, and most of the blues are up on the picture plane… so I think it is a conflict you are having to work against, which forces you to recognise that space in the picture. I think that is one of the big reasons why that works. I think that’s a cracking picture.
Fred Pollock: I’m aware of the space in the painting, but I never consciously think about it, or think “I’m going to make a space there or make a space there”, I just put the paint and the colours down… and all of a sudden something happens, and you say “Christ, that’s good, that’s good”, and you know you have got something there, you’ve achieved something. I am aware that this one just happened, and I’m aware that they don’t always come off. Each colour is considered as a colour in itself, in relation to every other colour. Oddly enough, when I came in here today the only part of that painting that I thought could improve is this colour up here [olive yellow, upper right middle]. I just kind of think should be a little stronger yellowish colour – not a bright colour, just stronger – so that it would sit on top of that more. I never noticed it before today. I thought maybe that should be a bit ‘punchier’.
Sam Cornish: One thing that strikes me is that a lot of the other paintings seem to be involved with a movement ‘with the format’ of the painting; that is, if it’s a long painting, there are lots of movements as you go from side to side; and likewise, up and down in a vertical painting. But this one [No. 1, Sunspots] is much more than a sequence of things which move across the picture. For example, in No.4 you are immediately taken on a sort of journey going from left to right – and of course from right to left perhaps. Whereas in No.1 those sorts of relationships don’t count; you can do those sorts of things if you want, but they are much more secondary to the reading of it as all one thing. The first thing you see is the whole thing, but I mean it in a way that I’m not describing very well, in a more particular way, in that the elements are tensed against each other. It has a much more immediate impact. Obviously it’s the largest painting here, which aids that… I think that part of what I am talking about is the scale of the marks; these marks here, the sludgy green and the purple-ish one here, to me this holds the surface at quite a singular scale.
Emyr Williams: No.1 has a greater range of darks and lights in the same painting. Compare that with any of the others; in No.1 you’ve got pinks and yellows and limes, a very light blue, turquoises and a whole range of lighter colours and a whole range of darker colours. Also, a lot of changes of direction, which because of the shape of the painting allow you to do that; whereas in No.4, as Sam says, it is sequential, it runs along and the colour is a little ‘softer’.
Ashley West: In No.1 we have areas of colour that are circumnavigating the central area, which seems to suggest landscape, more conscious of the frame and the outer edges of the painting, bringing us into the centre. Whereas, in a lot of the others, they are much more evenly composed.
Robin Greenwood: I think there is some of that ‘surrounding’ business going on in some of the other paintings, like No.3; that has some stuff painted in around the edges.
Fred Pollock: I think that’s possibly true. I think I have always been aware of the top and bottom of the painting. I can see numerous places [in No.1] where I’ve deliberately made these marks, maybe subconsciously too, that squeeze the middle. This kind of movement in the middle is being held by what is on top and what is at the bottom. It is a way to hold it in, like a ‘vice’ sort of thing, to contain it.
Ben Wiedel-Kaufmann: This green patch on the far right and the red on the far left, extend it away from that ‘containment’, they have an outward push that I don’t really see in other paintings.
Patrick Jones: There is a lovely variety in no.1; scraped and flat areas… I am particularly drawn to this almost fluorescent section against a much more inert area and the tension of that. I am in admiration of it.
Nick Moore: I think it has to do with the sensuousness of it. That colour, I have been trying to put my finger on it; there is such a richness of different mark-making and handling of paint. All these passages here where you have multiple bits of colouring are fantastic. It is very different to all the others, which mostly have one colour maybe with another on top of it, but not that multiple application of colours in more than one area. For me it is a very sensuous and sensual experience actually being with this painting. I think something that is missing for me from a lot of other painting is this sensuous quality. To add value, I think there is a lot to be had from the sensuousness of painting – and sculpture, I guess. It is more obvious in painting. I think No.1 has a kind of emotional connection, some kind of deep felt experience that I don’t get from the other ones, except the one with the yellow in the middle of it, No.6. That one, after this, is the one I resonate with the most.
Anne Smart: In your world, Fred, the colour so overriding that you do not actually think about some of the other problems that we tend to talk about when we look at painting. For me, the colour here is ‘it’, and I don’t think I worry about anything else. Does anyone else feel that way?
Ashley West: I find it difficult to look at these and say it’s just about colour. You can’t focus on the impact of the colour without focusing on the rhythm and direction and brushwork and space; there is a whole host of things going on. I suppose what I was trying to say in my opening statement is that I might find it difficult to reconcile all that is going on, there is so much happening with the space and composition and colour. I hear myself saying to students sometimes that a piece of work can’t be about everything. Often you have to choose what it is primarily about. I am just saying that when I look at these, it makes me work!
Emyr Williams: I think it is the colour that sort of delivers all that though; the space, the rhythm – the colour will give you the lot!
Robin Greenwood: That does rather ignore the fact that the colours are presented in all different sizes and shapes and orientations and articulations. So it can’t just be colour…
Hilde Skilton: Why is it that No.6 is better than No.7?
Nick Moore: No.6 has some of the qualities of No.1, the way the paint is put on, all the underpainting, the layers that have gone into it. But also for me there is completely different energy than there is in No.7, which seems like it is more structured. It has got blocks, it’s got verticals and horizontals; and no.6 is much more free floating and one way you could look at it is that all the other colours are coming out of that red background. That could appear to be a red background there. Then all these shapes are milling around…
Anne Smart: I think that’s the thing about the movement, though because it is moving in and out, you could see this red in the bottom corner as ‘locking’, or it could be coming out, or it could be bouncing across this. So not only are you going to get the literal placement of the colours, you feel both the movement and the reality of something… For me this seems so organised, whilst so free at the same time, so you don’t feel any sense of the control that Fred might have imposed on it, it just moves. You can’t say it’s ‘floating’ because everything is double-locked and yet still moving.
Hilde Skilton: A very strong thing about No.6 is the way the red has been brought in all round the edge – normally you would think “hang on a minute, why are you bringing all this red in”, but the way that it plays with the slightly more orangey colour that is more in the centre, it is creating a lot of tension and the space is happening.
Anthony Smart: Isn’t it that the red is more red, the blue more blue? You are particularising the redness; it’s not red just out of a tube. Abstract painting, abstract sculpture, have to have a reality, create their own reality and these reds are particularised by their shape, by their interference, and they become more red than just red. They become that very special red which sits with that very special ‘tuned-up’ green, so what you are seeing is the integration of colour, shape, texture, torn edges etc, the whole panoply of what you could do with paint and the tools you put it on with. You see the whole thing ‘tuned-up’, all in the name of colour.
Fred Pollock: Colour is the motivation of everything else in the painting and it’s a question of how complicated can you make it and still keep everything in its place and working together. All these marks, these blues, suddenly started appearing bluer than they had been before, this whole area suddenly appeared as a kind of unit, and these colours here on top of this yellow…
Robin Greenwood: Do you see sequences of colour coming together into bigger passages?
Fred Pollock: Yes, something happens and I think “Oh Christ, look at that”, that mauve with that yellow, with that pale green, with the white-ish green, all become very important in the painting.
Hilde Skilton: Fred, is that why you have a colour coming in from the outside that holds the whole thing, because you have done it in quite a few paintings, but in this one [No.6] it works particularly well, and that one [No.7] doesn’t work for me.
Robin Greenwood: Well, I’ll put in a good word for this [No.7]. This green patch in the left hand side of this section which is really moving into the painting, over the top of this, I think that’s great, and actually makes that a very particular spatial thing.
Anne Smart: Maybe…
Hilde Skilton: But Fred, answer my question about the ‘coming in’.
Anne Smart: I think that before Fred explains it, one of the things about this is that there is an incredible naturalness about Fred’s painting. In a sense we are all privileged in being told by Fred how he works, but I don’t think we really need to know, because if you look at these for long enough you realize what’s happening. Sometimes we talk about how you get a painting to be a whole thing, and it is certainly big on my agenda, and for a lot of people here, talking about the whole thing.
Hilde Skilton: I don’t disagree with you, I’m just interested because I notice in Fred’s paintings that he does this; I just want to ask him… it is very specific what he does. So Fred, would you like to say something about what I asked?
Fred Pollock: Yes, yes. As the painting developed I realized that if I made more of this red it would help what’s in the centre to hold together better, isolate all of these different parts and make them just hold together, so that you feel that you can’t move anything without destroying the picture. There is nothing there that I feel I could take out, it needs that yellow in the middle there which helps to keep the rest of it working in the way that it is working.
John Pluthero: It’s interesting that you say that, because that is obviously a very ‘Hofmann’ notion – only keep what is absolutely necessary – and I see that as very ‘Hofmann-esque’ picture. It is quite a traditional painting, in a way.
Fred Pollock: I am not worried about that. Well, you just paint in the way you do. I am me, and I know Hofmann very well!
Hilde Skilton: Hofmann never did that, never did red coming in from the outside.
John Pluthero: He did that… and then he did that yellow on green…
Hilde Skilton: …never mind the yellow on green…
John Pluthero: …it makes up two thirds of the picture…!
Hilde Skilton: The whole thing comes together because of this red.
John Pluthero: Absolutely; but the red is a background.
Hilde Skilton: It’s not, no way!
Nick Moore: It runs both ways, you can see it as a background or…
Hilde Skilton: …no…!
Anne Smart: …if it is a background, surely this thing would be more of a figurative…
John Pluthero: No.6 is less abstract than No.7, but I would hardly call it figurative… What I wonder about, in your work Fred, is using these very high key colours – they become quite difficult to handle…
Fred Pollock: Well, I don’t find them difficult at all. [Laughter] I don’t see them as acidic. They are controlled. Yellows, greens and oranges… it’s something that your eye can absorb quite easily. I see them as strong. I like to go into a gallery and see paintings that are ‘woof’, and think “Christ, look at that, how did he do that?” Actually, that’s what keeps me going – these primary colours, and purples and violets and pinks to go along with them.
John Pluthero: You do recognise that you are at one end of the scale in terms of uncompromising in how vivid your colours are to our taste?
Fred Pollock: Yeah, yeah!
John Bunker: Talking about notions of taste, something is coming up a lot on discussions on Abcrit. Ben wrote a really interesting piece on Pete Hoida, and in that essay, towards the end, you suddenly realize that abstract painting can be incredibly accessible and exciting and immediate, and I think Fred’s painting goes some way to saying “Yeah, why not”. You say you are juggling with difficult things, but I think it’s a language of excitement and energy that is specific to adding colour as a force in abstract painting, which is about colour and its intensity, vibrancy and the way it articulates… and that’s what I get from being here this afternoon with these paintings.
Anne Smart: So are you saying that it’s not difficult?
John Bunker: Exactly right. I am saying that it’s not difficult. They are making me work obviously incredibly hard, but in terms of receiving the paintings, if you let go of a series of various kinds of notions that we have about what we are actually looking at, it’s blissfully easy! Maybe it’s an important quality in the painting that it glides through those things, it knocks those things out of the way. I’m thinking that a lot of the paintings do that.
Fred Crayk: The achievement is that these are entirely abstract paintings.
Anne Smart: Yes!
Fred Crayk: Somebody said landscape… it’s obviously not!
Anne Smart: Yes!
Fred Crayk: There is no space in them, there is just this thing sitting there…
Hilde Skilton: You say there is no space in them!?!
Fred Crayk: No, I don’t think there is; I think that it is Fred’s achievement, they are entirely flat; that’s not pejorative…
Fred Pollock: I can’t agree with that. I don’t think any of them are flat, but the colour and everything is within range of everything else, and that’s what makes them ‘solid’. You get a ‘solidity’ from the painting.
Fred Crayk: Yes, I don’t feel as though I’m going into the painting, or out of it – the painting kind of comes towards you, it pushes out into your space. I think they all do, I think that’s strong in all of the work; they all invade my space!
Robin Greenwood: That’s not flat though, is it, coming out towards you, as opposed to going behind the picture plane?
Patrick Jones: In this picture [No.6], which is much more heavily worked, I battle with having to look at the picture through the accrued acrylic build-up. Obviously in this painting [No.7] it is much fresher, because you ‘hit it’ much earlier. So the sense of struggle in the picture, is it an important ingredient? Would it be important for you to do that painting again on a fresh surface? Could you do that Fred?
Fred Pollock: No, I could not do that…
Patrick Jones: Would it be better in oil paint? Would it give you a more rich surface…? Thick oil paint is very attractive, whereas thick acrylic is difficult, it’s just a difficult surface. I just wondered if you battled the surface at any time?
Fred Pollock: I think the surface is fine.
Patrick Jones: Do you actually like the bumps and things you are going over?
Fred Pollock: Yes, absolutely. In fact, I love that painting [No.6]. It’s got a history, all of this stuff, and all the stuff going on underneath. For a period towards the end of the painting, I couldn’t decide the colour. I just felt something inside – that needs this, that needs that, and it needed these greens. One of the first things that made me aware of the painting were these three areas of green. But it wasn’t a case of let’s try an area of green here, a green up there – I wanted these three greens to be different greens, then to work on top of that and see what happens, to actually find out what would happen when I did that. It was something I had not considered, I’d never thought of it before.
Patrick Jones: It is wonderful to hear a painter of your experience talking about painting, where you still want to find out what would happen ‘if’… that is so exciting to me, as an abstract artist. You are in your prime, but you are still moving forward in your work with a sense of excitement. It’s tremendous and I think it gives value to the work.
Fred Pollock: It’s a motivation for painting isn’t it? Saying “What will happen if I do this…?”