Last week I went to talk to Albert (Bert) Irvin having recently enjoyed a mini-retrospective showing of his paintings in the Canary Wharf offices of Clifford Chance. In the course of an enjoyable hour or so we covered a range of topics including his annual celebration of Turner’s birthday, how a younger British artist (currently being honored with a much criticized retrospective) bought a number of paintings from his last exhibition, the Hockney merchandise currently being hawked at the Royal Academy and his daily ‘schlep’ across London to the Stepney Green studio he has worked in for the last forty years.
Like so many artists of his generation Irvin was profoundly influenced by the exhibition of American painting put on by the Tate in 1956, and he remembers the experience of seeing the Abstract Expressionist pictures there as ‘like a bomb going off’, the impact primarily being their scale, that is the paintings’ ‘real scale as opposed to just their size’. He had previously worked in a figurative manner and he showed me a number of small and very early copies he had made after Rembrandt; an artist whose rich dense browns seem very far away from the bright palette with which Irvin is now associated but whom he still values immensely for the ‘physicality’ of his brushwork. Through the fifties Irvin gradually worked his way toward the abstract, at first attracted to Willem de Kooning, whose use of the figure seemed to offer a halfway house, but then increasingly excited by Franz Kline, in particular by the way in which ‘brush marks make up the elements of his language’.
An important jolt along the way was provided by meeting Peter Lanyon in St Ives in the late fifties. It was through talking to Lanyon that Irvin became convinced that abstract art could stand in meaningful ‘relation to your own perception, you could move across a canvas in a way that you move through the spaces of the world… notions of space like proximity and distance could be revealed by moving across a canvas with a brush’. Instead of an abstract art being nothing more than a ‘decorative series of relationships’ he began to believe that it could ‘vitally parallel your experience of being in the world’. Later as we talked he commented that though he knew that his paintings often fulfilled ‘a decorative function’, particularly within private collections, he hoped that they would go beyond this and offer some ‘human content’. Similarly he described his coming over to abstraction as connected to the feeling that it could have an immediate impact, that there was ‘no need for interpretation, like music’ and that you ‘could reveal something of the human condition’ in paintings which did not have ‘bits of humans in them’.
Speaking very broadly, Irvin’s route through abstraction began with an emptying out. Through the late fifties and into the sixties and seventies the size of his pictures increased whilst the elements of which they were comprised became larger, fewer in number and physically lighter. His marks slewed off any sense that they carried literal weight, or that they were bonded together, limited in the way that we understand objects in the world to be (and which figurative painting attempts in a huge variety of ways to mimic). Instead of describing objects (even abstract objects) the elements of his paintings often suggest, to me at any rate, an arrival or a bringing to attention. Sometimes this seems to occur slowly, with the gradual blooming of a cloud of colour. More frequently though I think it is as if something previously tensed, coiled or restrained had been unleashed so as to it fall into the picture’s space or had, at just the moment in which we see it, pressed itself flat against the picture-plane, or at least advanced toward it. At around the beginning of eighties this sense of arrival or bringing to attention was increasingly accomplished through marks which corresponded to the movement of his hand or the flick of the brush, and the paintings filled up again, with marks arranged in angled grids and formed into basic signs; ‘V’s, crosses, circles, stripes. More recently these have been joined by more complex shapes loosely transcribed from things seen in the built environment; quatrefoils, windows or the arches of bridges.
There is perhaps something theatrical about the way in which Irvin’s marks address the viewer, their sheer drama, and the way in which the force of their making carries over into a suggestion that they have been created or revealed just as we look at them, and perhaps specifically for us. Painting as dramatic entrance is common to much of Abstract Expressionism and its progeny; the ‘arena’ which Harold Rosenberg wrote about action painters working in is perhaps a stage as much as anything else (Robert Linsley has recently written about this). For Michael Fried, writing in the (long) wake of the Abstract Expressionists, theatricality had negative connotations. For him it stemmed from the ‘primordial condition’ that ‘paintings necessarily imply the presence before them of a beholder’. As far as I understand it, what Fried saw as theatrical paintings played on this condition, and made a direct appeal to the viewer, one which made the viewer self-conscious about his or her status as a viewer and so broke the spell of their ‘absorption’ in the painting. It was better, Fried felt, that works of art ‘treated the beholder as if they were not there’. If a work of art could create the ‘illusion’ that it existed only for itself, that it was completely ‘absorbed’ in its own workings, then this would, somewhat paradoxically, allow the viewer to themselves become completely ‘absorbed’ in it. The viewer would be able to achieve a state of ‘rapt attention, being completely occupied or engrossed or absorbed in what he or she is doing, hearing, thinking, feeling’.
There is something compelling about Fried’s discussion of theatre, particularly in our age of distraction (which as a melodramatic cliché of my epoch I often feel as a personal affliction, though this is likely an excuse for nothing more than laziness). But beyond the – potentially large – problem of returning to words which are so weighed down with meaning, thinking about Irvin’s work (particularly that of the seventies) it occurs to me that I would like to try and begin to reclaim ‘theatrical’ as a positive word in painting. Not positioning it as Fried did within a theoretical scheme covering the whole of modern painting but simply in a limited sense, as a positive adjective suggesting drama, an openness to life and to sensation and an achieved and striking display of bravado.
Sam Cornish, April 2012
All the quotations in the first 3 paragraphs are from my interview with Bert Irvin, April 2012. Those in the penultimate paragraph are from Fried’s Absorption and Theatricality: Painting and Beholder in the Age of Diderot, The University of Chicago Press, 1980