“This period led to a crucial realisation for Kidner; the belief that art based on rational procedures had the capability to solve personal and social problems. In this belief he was at one with the Russian Constructivists and German Bauhaus among others. It was in the overlapping fields of optical effects and systemic structure that he was to find the creative substance that was to inform his whole career.”
Flowers East Press Release 2012
[Op]…. ‘is quintessentially twentieth century: technology oriented, disruptive, “about perception”, naïve, superficial, and, by most accounts, a failure.’
Ross Bleckner. ‘Failure, Theft, Love, Plague, in Philip Taafe (New York: Pat Hearn Gallery, 1986)
It might be easy to get caught between these two historical readings of Op or Systemic Art. Here, nearing the end of 2012, it is interesting to note how aspects of ‘Op’ have been assimilated by the following generations. We only have to look as far as the 80s to see Op invaded, upturned and emptied of all its post-war optimism or utopian pretensions. It is interesting to question how far the irony of the eighties return to Op was part of a positive drive to attempt to disentangle abstraction from a history of ideas and theories that now seem utterly untenable but were, paradoxically, essential to the development of abstract art. This spiritual or religious streak would start with Malevich’s ‘Mystic Rays from Outer Space’, to Mondrian’s Theosophy and then through to art which proclaimed ‘rationality’ with the extremes of a religious fervour.
I expected to see Kidner, an early Op artist and later a founder of the Systems movement, as a maker of rhetorical art of this latter ilk. However, what makes this show of Kidner’s early paintings so interesting is that we get a real intimate sense of an abstract painter coming to artistic maturity and grappling with a whole new way of approaching his work. We see him actively trying to create meaning, rather than just supplying it. Fascinating to anyone interested in looking at and/or making abstract art.
On the ground floor, I’m immediately struck by all the different ways he has applied the paint to the deceptively simple forms on these canvases. Take ‘Circle After Image’ 1959-60 for instance. The paint has been almost scrubbed into the surface, creating a dry airy lightness. Then the paint is thickened up around where the blue circle abuts the red ground. These paintings are not just austere graphic ‘one-liners’ relying on flat blocks of high keyed colour for effect. This particular piece has an elusive painterly presence – vulnerable even, in a way that has little to do with science or the rational.
There is a palpable sense of play, subtlety and openness in all the larger works. ‘Blue, Green and Grey’ 1963 even has something of a Mary Heilman about it! ‘Raindrops’ 1960 with all the influence of a lyrical colour-field approach (he had spent time in St Ives with Patrick Heron) is countered in the same year by ‘After Image’ 1960 – a more austere circle spliced and split into dark blue and orange across a hard ground divided diagonally into pink and black. Looking at the two paintings we can see he is questioning his own personal ‘handwriting’. He is coming to terms with the limitations of paint handling in the quest for the ‘pure’ colour of the after image. This process also takes him into relief works such as ‘Blue, Green, Violet and Brown Relief’ 1966. The 3 dimensional work parallels his on-going interest in the wave forms that are captured beautifully in the rhythmic striations and the subtle graduation of hues forming the yellows, pinks and blues in the painting ‘Butterfly Wings’ 1966.
The show brilliantly highlights his need to integrate the visual rhythms instilled by rational, mathematical procedures with the plastic limitations of his medium. As such there is a clash between the particularity of each picture and the broader utopian programme he saw them as part of. We are allowed to see Kidner (who only seriously applied himself to his art in his 40s) as he obsessively jettisons and then returns to particular forms or high keyed colour sequences. This process is wonderfully played out in the large collection of small works on paper in the upper gallery.
Aside from ideas of utopia, the questioning of the ‘self’ as site of all meaning that is implied by the use of mathematical sequences must surely be the radical backbone of the Op or Systems approach. Scientific thought was used as a means of transcending the limitations of one’s own habitual thinking. This seems to me to still have useful possibilities. Here it gains power from the way the objective is in tension with an improvising subjectivity, seen in the process of trying to construct each work.
A further tension it may be interesting just for a moment to consider is the status of Op, as Hal Foster had it, as the ‘first mass-cultural sign of modern abstract art in general…” (1). I guess it’s the shop front dummies of swinging London’s west end decorated in bastardised versions of Bridget Riley’s art that come immediately to mind. Op was only one letter away from Pop. And it is hard to see that and scientific utopianism getting on very well. How this sits alongside the tension between personal and the programmatic aspects of Kidner’s art might be a question for another day…
Ugo Rondinone currently showing at Sadie Coles is an example of a contemporary artist using obvious signifiers of the history of abstraction (a la Bleckner) as part of a very personal set of symbols that combine many different media and approaches. It appears that the courting of mystery, spirituality and personality driven art are now the cosy norm rather than part of a serious questioning of Modernism, ‘progress’ or where abstract art might go next. Refreshingly modest but also direct and open, Kidner’s involvement in this questioning is what makes this show both fascinating and revealing.
The exhibition Michael Kidner: Dream of the World Order: Early Paintings, is on at Flowers East until 20 October. More images from the exhibition can be seen here.
1. Hal Foster, Signs Taken for Wonders, Art in America, vol.74, no.6 (June 1986).