It is interesting to note that the huge juggernaut of a show of American art at Hauser and Wirth rumbles on while this more modest grouping of four European post-war abstract painters opens at the Timothy Taylor gallery. All four painters here are obviously influenced by the American breakthrough period of Abstract Expressionism and the ensuing dominance of a US based art world. But their work is far more complex than the myth of a wholesale abandonment of Europe as a site of artistic innovation after the Second World War would lead us to believe.
So while “….the American vanguard painter took to the white expanse of the canvas as Melville’s Ishmael took to the sea….” how did these four artists coming to prominence in Europe during the 50s develop ideas about abstraction on their own terms? That’s a complex question, but what comes to the fore in this show is an emphasis on the material properties of paint, canvas, tools and techniques. There is a drive to record the results of experiments made on these materials as they are transformed by different kinds of physical pressures asserted upon them by the artist.
Tàpies is represented by two of the largest works in the exhibition. They celebrate a base materiality and how it can hold the traces of a human presence no matter how abject. Both of the large pieces contain these ghostly traces of a calligraphic inscription or human footprints caught in sand clad plaster. All his work here feels mischievous with its intimations of both graffiti and mathematical equations sprayed or inscribed into the built up, scraggy surfaces of the work. This gestural dance invoking both human presence and absence means these pieces, despite their size, operate on a more human scale than the other paintings shown here. The shape-shifting clots and signs are deftly handled. In ‘Gran materia amb petjades’, 1992 they have been cleverly tethered by darker horizontal bands of sandy pigment and 4 holes that puncture the canvas towards each corner. Despite the heaviness of these base concoctions a lightness of touch permeates the work. Tàpies is a master of turning the detritus of the ‘make do and mend’ mentality of post-war austerity and trauma into a powerful approach to making art.
Soulages is represented by three modestly sized paintings (all painted in the naughties) in his ‘Ultra Black’ manner. Thick, deep, dark and tar like ridges of black paint are inscribed evenly across their surfaces. On closer engagement we can see the smooth gouges in the paint are quite dexterous, forming interlocking contours. On prolonged looking the two upright works ‘28.02.07’, 2007 and ‘03.10.04’, 2004 are more successful in sucking up the light and catching it on their incised edges. These subtle modulations of light cause their surfaces to throb as one moves towards and around them. In Hartung’s ‘T1976-R39’, 1976, the intense yellow brushstrokes and white ground are split open by rather rigid black and blue columns formed by rollers moved at off kilter angles across the canvas. ‘T1970-H40’, 1970 is more clean-cut but rather brittle with an inky shine giving a flat graphic quality. Despite their dissonance the intense acidic colour contrasts seem strangely inert, though the fractured black columns in ‘T1970-H40′ divide up the canvas in a spatially dynamic way. The Hartung pieces in this exhibition lack the tensions between an expressive scrawling manner and broad singular and sensuous brushstrokes. Both Soulages and Hartung would have been better represented with a greater range from their experimental approach to paint-handling.
But the two paintings by Hantaï successfully give us fascinating snapshots, five years apart, of sophisticated interrelations of process-driven painting with a complex set of global aesthetic influences. What’s more, the results remain surprisingly beautiful- almost spontaneous! Hantaï split from Breton’s post-war Parisian circle because of his growing interest in the work of Pollock. He conceived of an approach to painting that involved applying pigments to canvases that were folded and knotted. He then reopened and stretched them revealing intricate patterns adhering to the canvas’ weave, sizing and folding. We pick up the development of this process with ‘Etude’ of 1968. It looks like an ancient egg yoke monochrome quietly cracking up and revealing delicate white leaf like structures that nestle and twist against the almost mechanically applied paint. These qualities energise the entire picture surface. ‘Blanc’,1973 takes the process a few steps further. This time there are intricate colour combinations of thin blues, reds, oranges and greens forming delicate interlocking spiky forms that seem to dance rhythmically as one over the canvas. Yet these forms remain independent entities corresponding to the incredibly close knit folds in the now stretched and boney white canvas. The beautiful and subtle results stem from unforeseeable permutations of pigment, crease and pattern inherent in the process.
Hantaï’s works, in particular, hint at a step towards a deconstruction of the Modernist obsession with the picture plane but from inside (literally!) the process of making paintings. This approach remains a dominant theme in painting here in the 21st century. It was interesting to review the ‘Painting in the 2.5th Dimension‘ show at the Zabludowicz Collection earlier in the year. The influence of European post-war abstraction seemed to be very much alive and kicking for a group of upcoming young American artists. This show at Timothy Taylor feels full of these visual echoes of different forms of abstraction being thrown backwards and forwards across the Atlantic between the ‘old’ and the ‘new’ worlds. But this process is rapidly becoming more complex. It is constantly mutating under the ideological and societal structures prevalent in many different cultures on a global scale. It now seems that from its inception Abstract Expressionism was a highly complex set of international relationships. They have been developed and passed on from artist to artist in many different directions and between generations – rather than all roads leading back to some kind of miraculous birth in the US of A.
Notes: 1. Harold Rosenberg from “American Action Painters”. Art News 51
Hantaï, Hartung, Soulages and Tàpies is at Timothy Taylor until the 18th of January.