Abstract Critical

“All this tomfoolery about scenery”

Written by Nicholas C Williams

The Cornish landscape has become synonymous with the St Ives artists and is seen as the primary force behind their work. The opening of Tate St Ives in 1993 sealed this connection but may also have given rise to an over-simplification of that relationship; a kind of mythologising that is both agreeable and consistent.

In post-war Britain the landscape was one of the few elements that had remained stable and to former serviceman and ex-prisoners of war such as Terry Frost, the attraction of the Cornish landscape and the horizons that the coastline offered must have been deeply felt. The artists themselves spoke openly about the importance of the landscape to their work. Peter Lanyon, a passionate Cornishman, went further and strived for a more visceral and immersive affinity with the land. ‘While I am moving about the county here with all this history underfoot I find the sky on my back as I climb the hills and the sea behind me, then at my side and it becomes the same thing in my painting….’.[1]

Patrick Heron, Black Painting – Red, Brown, Olive: July 1959, oil on canvas, 96.5 x 121.9 cm, 1959

The soft cornered square/rectangle that appears in a number of St Ives artists’ works is generally understood to be an evocation of the large rocks that pepper Penwith, some of which can be seen from the bay window of Tate St Ives. The geographical intimacy of St Ives and its tight-knit community provided fertile ground for pictorial exchanges, even those of a subconscious nature. So it seems obvious that the artists were responding, conscious or subconsciously, to a strong geological feature, one that lent itself to be used as a robust visual tool. Yet I do not think this completely explains why this particular motif was often employed by Patrick Heron and other artists.

Was there an additional influence at play? One almost acting by stealth? For even then some questioned the newly invigorated relationship with the landscape – Roger Hilton remarked, “All this tomfoolery about scenery”. [2]

In his book ‘The St Ives Artists’ Michael Bird records that Heron’s work changed course from 1956, ‘the chairs, pianos, jugs, coffee pots and human figures that had previously inhabited his work vanished’. Bird continues, ‘the mark-making has picked up an Abstract Expressionist looseness and impetuosity; there is a feeling, too, that the colour is lit from behind, as though from a hidden source of deep delight rather than being reflected off a surface…’ [3]

1956 gave the British public an opportunity to see a major exhibition of Abstract Expressionism ‘Modern Art in the United States’ at the Tate. Heron was fascinated by the work in the show and in the same year moved to Cornwall, abandoned figuration and began the journey to his more spatial works. 1956 was also the year that television was first broadcast in Cornwall. Although there seems to be little or no research on its influence upon the artist colony many paintings speak of its presence.

1955 Bush TV53, © TVHistory.tv

1955 Bush TV53, © TVHistory.tv

Roger Hilton, October 1961, oil and charcoal on canvas, 76.2 x 91.4 cm, 1961

The introduction of a television to the domestic setting must have seemed remarkable, if not magical. It seems logical that this newfangled attention-seeking device, with its soft-cornered screen would have had a powerful impact on a group of artists who were grappling with form. Being black and white, early television also left room for artists to add their own sense for colour.

Peter Lanyon, Lee Grass October 61, oil on canvas, 76 x 121.9cm, 1961

The physicality of television sets during the 1950s offered their own abstract aesthetic. Lozenged shaped, soft-corner screens chimed with the rocks of Penwith and provided another type of window that could be used as a pictorial device. The cabinets that housed them followed 1950s design, incorporating rounded corners, vertical and horizontal bands, smooth surfaces and textured audio panels.

Patrick Heron, Brown Ground with Soft Red and Green: August 1958 – July 1959, oil on canvas, 152 x 213, 1958-59

1950 Pye LV30C, © TVHistory.tv

1950 Pye LV30C, © TVHistory.tv

One experience shared by all committed painters (abstract or figurative) is the understanding that certain passages need to feel right – not just appear right. This feeling that a form, tone or colour feels right could be described as arriving at a sense of familiarity. To successfully achieve familiarity requires that nothing jars the artist’s desired and final effect. With the new, powerfully expressed shape of the television screen embedded in the artist’s mind, becoming ever more familiar, rounding the corners of a square began to feel right, as, perhaps, did applying colour so it appeared ‘lit from behind’.

Commenting on Heron’s post-1957 paintings, Brandon Taylor wrote, ‘they succeed in animating space through thinly applied colour alone; the worst, that they resonate not a little with the visual shapes of a TV culture just then new in Britain’. [4] This is the only reference I have found which connects the round cornered motif with television. Taylor’s criticism, however perhaps misses the full significance of the coincidence between television and Heron’s shapes – Heron had departed from the language of landscape and had introduced a form associated with the Modern Age. In a most subtle and unexpected way, had popular culture touched the St Ives artists, in tandem with the birth of Pop art?

The danger of course is one of literal interpretation. That of associating any distinct form with an object from reality, rather than allowing it to exist on the terms set by the artist. It is also reasonable to assume that some artists chose not to own a television (classified in 1957 as ‘Abstainers’ by the anthropologist Geoffrey Gorer), although this would not have shielded them from ever seeing a television or from seeing the motif developing in the works of their fellow artists. [5]

Roger Hilton, Untitled, 1961, oil on canvas, 53 x 25cm

In 1950 there were 350,000 television owning households. Four years later this had risen to well over three million. [6] Many of the St Ives artists were in the position to acquire the first television sets and those artists who were involved in London life would also have had every chance to be exposed to television pre-1956. The impact of television on the St Ives artists should perhaps be viewed as a contributing factor in the development of their work, alongside landscape, Abstract Expressionism, the close community of St Ives and the rocks of Penwith. As such it deserves further consideration.

 

1. Peter Lanyon, letter to Roland Bowden, April 20th 1952. TGA 942.1
2. Lambirth, A. (2007) Rodger Hilton, The Figured Language of Thought, p.117
3. Bird, M. (2008) The St Ives Artists, A Biography of Place and Time, p.128
4. Taylor, B. (2005) Constructivism In The West Country, essay, exhibition catalogue,
Elements of Abstraction: Space, Line and Interval in Modern British Art, p.71
5. Moran, J. (2013) Armchair Nation, p.112
6. BBC Story. Online (Accessed:12/01/14)
http://www.bbc.co.uk/historyofthebbc/resources/factsheets/1950s.pdf
7. Indebted to T.Genova, Television History – The First 75 Years,
http://www.tvhistory.tv/index.html. Due to lack of brightness pre-war sets required
dark viewing conditions. The technology improved into the 1950s although many
continued to watch in low light for sometime.

  1. marcelle hanselaar said…

    What a lovely thought, i really like the notion that imagination is like a playful vacuum cleaner full of odd shaped dust-bunnies, or like a squirrel who cannot find most of the nuts he squirreled away and which will then become seedlings instead,thanks for this Nick

  2. Alan Gouk said…

    Furthermore, and finally I hope, Ebrillade of Pegasus and The Bawd of Boddin [mine], are I would say, definitive statements which cannot be “gone beyond” except by repetition, variation or complication, which is just what I want to avoid. And I’d say that Mare Fecunditatis and some of my most recent pictures, not yet exhibited, are definitive statements too, but of a very different order, and all the better for it. The last thing I want is to repeat myself. Their resemblance to any painting of the past falls away when you really begin to look at them without bringing a baggage of false expectations to them. And this resemblance is invariably after the fact, and read into them by those who cannot see beyond the presumed derivations to what is really presented.

    • Robin Greenwood said…

      Quite so, and not a telly to be seen amongst them. But then, it wasn’t about you. When did you say the train to Scotland was?

      • Robin Greenwood said…

        “…until the reappraisal of Matisse/Picasso which began in the 1980′s (…), rendering the whole American intervention almost irrelevant.”

        Alan Gouk 29th April 2011, Poussin Gallery catalogue essay.

  3. Alan Gouk said…

    Really must bring this to a halt, but you certainly made great play with “cooker-hobs” in What Paint Does last year. I know you prefer the paintings I did 20 years ago to the ones I’m doing now, but I’ve moved on to new and different challenges , and ones which do not chime with your obsessions.
    If the 19th century had been disallowed to Matisse, he would not have been able to absorb the influences of Manet, Cezanne, Rodin and Gauguin, on which his art is founded more solidly than by any other painter, nor to buy paintings by Courbet, Cezanne and Renoir so that he could learn from them and surreptitiously imitate them. Your model of artistic development has curious gaps in it. We can learn from Constable and Turner and the above mentioned 19th century greats, but we should ignore all future developments,[Matisse apart] ?

  4. Robin Greenwood said…

    Still here, Alan? Speaking, as we are at the moment, about comparisons between abstract and figurative painting, there was (still is?) a room at Tate Modern (!) with a Turner seascape, a Nolde seascape, and a few early abstract expressionist paintings (Rothko, Newman I think). Can’t recall what the curators were up to, but I was, I confess, embarrased for abstract painting (and it wasn’t even a particularly great Turner).

    Gottlieb? He’s awful, isn’t he? Not a good advert for your TV blobbies. Most of Rothko too, I’m afraid. His show at Tate of “late” paintings was really dire.

    Still here? You might want to (also) revoke the attribution to me of the notion that shapes in Heron’s paintings are influenced by cooker-hobs. I didn’t say that.

  5. Terry Ryall said…

    For many abstract painters who choose to work on a conventional rectangular ground (and that covers the majority of painters who currently and historically have featured on this website) the rectangle and its’ variants seem, quite understandably, to be almost irresistible default shapes to work with and through. A quick glance around our homes, places of work, the managed landscape, leisure/sports venues etc. will confirm that we basically like to organize and be organized in a rectilinear way. In short the rectangle is both practical and comforting. Against that background it seems to me wholly reasonable that Robin Greenwood should promote the view that abstract painting, unfettered neither by the need for practicality or the satisfying of the comfort-seeking, allows for the imagination to seek ways of arriving at shapes, forms and relational entities that, although maybe housed within a rectangle, need not necessarily be ‘of’ the rectangle.

  6. Alan Gouk said…

    And if you were to put up in sequence Frankenthaler’s Hotel Cro-magnon, Ayres’ Muster, which you like so much, and my Deep Vinaigrish-bottle green, or Bronze-winged Jacana, you might begin to see that there is a certain advantage in a firmly declared planarity in achieving an “architecture”. [I am speaking only of painting, by the way.

  7. Alan Gouk said…

    Robin—-

    I can’t find the comment you made about the frontiers of sculptural space having analogy with the frontiers of science. Perhaps you can?
    But you have just called a whole tranche of the best painters of the 20th century “stupid” because they used a shape that you don’t like— to begin somewhere, Rothko, Gottlieb, Hofmann, De Stael, Scott, Heron, Hilton; though I’ve pointed out that their usages all have different spatial implications, and different representational associations, since I thought everyone now accepted that there is no such thing as non-referential colour, no such thing as abstract volume, or abstract space, and I suspect, no such thing as “abstract content”. I suspect that “abstract content” is as much a hypostatising of abstract nouns as Fried’s “presentness”‘ and just as elusive.
    What is “stupid” is attributing the shapes in Heron’s paintings to the influence of cooker-hobs, or whatever. Those particular pictures came from an admiration for Ben Nicholson, perhaps forgivably, since Heron had taken over Nicholson’s studio in St Ives.
    To return to Beethoven’s “fate motif”— what he did was to isolate, foreground, and dramatically stress a motif which others had “invented”. Some might see an analogy with the way Gottlieb stresses his four orbs in The Frozen Sounds ,1952, [Albright Knox Gallery, Buffalo,] or in Eclipse, 1952, but I couldn’t possibly comment. O.K.– this is all 20th century, “old-hat”, but Constable and Poussin are even more irrelevant, right?.
    I can’t wait to get back to Scotland, so I won’t have to read this stuff.

  8. Alan Gouk said…

    And if artists are disallowed from using shapes or figures that have been used before, Beethoven would not have been able o write the “fate motif” of the opening phrase of his 5th symphony, since the same motif, with marginally different emphasis, had been used by both Haydn and Mozart before him.
    And it is illegitimate in criticism to isolate “forms” or shapes from their specific material embodiment, in the medium- specific context in which they are found. A softly brushed rectangle [a la Rothko] with rounded corners, with a halo of smudged paint around it [as in Gottlieb], is just not the same as one which has been tightly enclosed by a solid layer of opaque paint [as in Gottlieb in a different context] and so on.
    A pictorial space in its “abstract content” might well be as far removed from the everyday perceptual habits of space, as the spaces of modern physics is from the quotidian world in which we live and move, but [as in sculpture], it will still have to manifest itself in a ‘form’ that we can apprehend with our eyes and minds in a specific medium, and in painting that means adapted to the reality of a plane surface.

    • Robin Greenwood said…

      Re: “fate motif”, as I recall, Beethoven didn’t make a career out of it, and went on to more inventive things.

      Even if I accept your account of the nuances separating Rothko’s and Gottlieb’s rectangles (which I don’t really have much interest in), that was then and this is now. This rectangular stuff is surely played-out. Or is it our “fate motif” to be stuck with it forever in abstract painting?

      Still waiting for an answer to my other question… about pointillism of atomistic space!!! What???

  9. Alan Gouk said…

    I am afraid we have a real problem here. Robin’s exhortation to painters is becoming increasingly phantasmagorical. It should start from nothing, use nothing in any way recognisable, have no shapes that in any way echo the shape of the support, or assert the surface, and which at the same time rival the particularities of the creation of deep space by the masters of figurative art, whilst at the same time creating “abstract content”, whatever that is. The only image that even vaguely comes to mind is a kind of pointillism of atomistic space as conceived by physics, which I seem to recall is the kind of model Robin does offer us painters , though not recommending it to sculptors.

    What ever such a vision might entail, it would certainly not include colour, since as I tried to explain in my video of 2012, colour needs surface area in order to function at anything like full strength, and amorphous blobs or ragged-edged washes soon bleed into one another and create area-shapes which assert the surface just like any other applications of colour. Specificity of “abstract content” requires firmness and clarity in the end, “clear, demarcated, out there, resistant to the eye” [Adrian Stokes] [and many others.]

    I repeat, unless robin can lead us by example into this new world, he would be better to stop haranguing us about our supposed shortcomings, even though many of his targets deserve censure.

    • Robin Greenwood said…

      Where have I urged upon abstract painters “a kind of pointillism of atomistic space”?

      You query my term “abstract content”, then proceed to tell us what it requires to be specific. And I agree. I could give a few examples of your own work which surpass the shortcomings of drawing, shape, flatness etc.

  10. Robin Greenwood said…

    This is indeed a stupid essay, but then so is making paintings based upon stupid shapes. Regardless of whether those St. Ives painters did it with or without television sets, making paintings that are configured with rounded-corner rectangles as their main event is banal, and why should we care who first thought of it (OK, I admit to having done a couple myself). The same goes for “cooker-hob” paintings (see my essay “What Paint Does”), or any supposedly abstract painting that can be construed as something graphic and simplistic. I don’t dispute that Heron and a few other made some rather beautiful and tasteful paintings out of that particular manner of working sixty-odd years ago, but it almost immediately became formulaic. It is another indictment of the over-reliance by abstract artists upon aesthetics and good taste.

    Go invent something new. With abstract content. That is the job of abstract art now. And whilst I’m here, I may as well state that the other feed about “Drawing in Abstract Painting” is a dead duck too – the one or two examples of paintings that have actual drawing in them probably don’t even scrape home as real paintings, never mind abstract. I may not really know what “abstract” is exactly, but I certainly know what it’s not, and it’s not arrived at by drawing rectangular shapes (rounded or not), or defining little perspective boxes as per Alice Browne, or sketching cleavages [!?!] as per Mark Stone; or anything else recognisable. Mostly, that’s called figurative art. In fact, it’s called bad figurative art.

    All of which restates that other question left hanging on the Turner/Frankenthaler feed – can you make preparatory drawings for abstract art? Of course you can’t. Let’s be clear – we should no longer muddle real abstract art and “abstraction”. They are now wholly distinct. In abstraction, you start with something figurative, more or less, and you mess about with it, often by drawing, until it becomes unrecognisable, more or less. In abstract art you start with nothing, and… off you go… discovering… So, what on earth are you going to draw before you start? It’s an impossibility. I can tell you categorically that it is a double impossibility for abstract sculpture. If, that is, you want to make real abstract art.

    • Sam said…

      This ban on preparatory drawing still doesn’t really make any sense – it is just dogma (and at least in part 1950s dogma at that).

      Are artists allowed to think about or imagine their work before they start? Is one painting (by them or anyone else) allowed to in anyway be a beginning or a prompt to another painting? To be consistent surely these sort of beginnings should also be banned (or declared “impossible”).

      As I think I said before, this may hold true to your own experience but to suggest it is generally, and necessarily true is absurd. I have a lot of sympathy with the desire to see different forms of abstract art, but I think the extermism (and inconsistency) of this position both slightly unreal and likely self-defeating. If you don’t know what abstract art is, how can you so strongly deny a possible approach to it?

      • Robin Greenwood said…

        It’s a free country. There is no ban. Artists can do what they like. Your exaggerations are the absurdities.

        Still waiting for examples… or are you defending Browne and Stone as good abstract art derived from drawings?

    • Sam said…

      OK, you haven’t the power to ban it, but you have declared it can have no place in “real abstract art”, that it is “impossible”, even a “double impossibility”.

      I don’t think there are many examples – as working it all out on the canvas (which I’d imagine Browne and Stone also do) has long been a central part of a particular tradition of abstract art (“real” or not!). My initial suggestion was just this was potentially a handicap. I’m sure there are problems with the suggestion but I don’t think it is “impossible”.

      • Robin Greenwood said…

        Mmm… of course I wouldn’t need to ban something that was impossible. “Ban” and “dogma” are very emotive words to sling my way, especially since you are now admitting there is next to nothing to your suggestion. Your position looks more dogmatic than mine, since you have no evidence and I have. I would feel truly handicapped to have to draw something before starting a sculpture and then try to work from that drawing, and I don’t know of any abstract artist who thinks differently. But maybe someone will pipe up to defend the idea.

      • Sam said…

        My position isn’t dogma simply because you don’t agree with it. I’m not sure it is even really a position, just a suggestion about increasing the range of how abstract art works (in response to your comparison of Frankenthaler with Turner). I’m not saying that working it out on the canvas should be completely abandoned. But I think it is difficult to argue that (you more or less admit it by saying you don’t know any artists who work differently) abstract artists have long adhered to the idea that there is no other way to work than to work it all out on the canvas (it is dogmatic in this sense of a repeated formula). Of course as you say it is free country and if artists say that is the only way they can proceed then obviously that is fine (and I will happily engage with the results). But when you raised the comparison with Turner, Constable etc., it occurred to me that it was a handicap. In a general sense if one wants – as you do – a radical change in abstract art then it seems logical to change some of the main ways in which it functions. I admit this is – to an almost ludicrous degree – an easier thing to say than to do!

      • Sam said…

        The sentence in the middle should read:

        “But I think it is difficult to argue with the fact that (you more or less admit it by saying you don’t know any artists who work differently) abstract artists have long adhered to the idea that there is no other way to work than to work it all out on the canvas (it is dogmatic in this sense of a repeated formula).”

      • Noela said…

        I think it is very difficult to reproduce the qualities in a drawing and transfer them into a painting. I feel a drawing is a different animal. A drawing is a drawing and a painting is a painting. Mapping out a composition is a different process too, and is more relevant when making more controlled pieces of work.

  11. Alan Gouk said…

    Sorry — its St Francis in the Desert , in the Frick. See also Mantegna’s Calvary in the Louvre, and the Master of St Bartholomew’s Descent from the Cross, also in the Louvre.

  12. Alan Gouk said…

    And if you want to go down that road, the St Ives artists are more likely to have been subliminally influenced [if at all] by the front faces of Roberts radios, with their decorative cloth covers to their speakers, which these T.V. sets mimic, or those radiograms with inbuilt cocktail cabinets, [no doubt Roger Hilton had one of those], and when did they come in ?. The design of radios has its own story to tell, but for these painters I maintain that the decisive point about 1956 was that that they were obliged to take note of the vertical stacking in paintings by Rothko and Gottlieb on display at the Tate.

  13. Alan Gouk said…

    P.S. —-

    I’m reminded of the vogue for electronic keyboards in the jazz-fusion phase in the 1960′s and 70′s, when Herbie Hancock, chick Corea, Keith Jarrett, Joe Zawinul, George Duke switched from acoustic pianos, in order to create the magnification of sound needed to fill vast stadia, and capitulating in the process to enormous pressure from the manufacturers of these new toys.
    And what happened ?.— ONe by one they all [or nearly all] came back to acoustic grands, because the disconnect between percussive hands-on touch and the disembodied tinkling sounds of electronics actually diminished the impact of the sounds, an aetherial tintinabulation lacking the power and the percussive and expressive range of the acoustic version. [A similar journey was taking place in "classical" music too." Some like this disconnect, and consider artificiality and distance to be characteristic of modernism in one of its aspects. And some people like dismembering bodies and passing them through a mincing machine.

    The sounds produced by the ancient instruments, cat-gut on strings, long tubes of brass, ram's horns, bassoons, timpani stretched with animal skin etc. have a dynamic and expressive range greater than any electronic mimicry [as does paint on canvas] , not to mention the human voice. Imagine Liszt’s Transcription of Beethoven’s 9th played on an electronic keyboard— what a mickey-mouse mess that would be. Yes, ” IMAGINE”. And now we have Justin Bieber and “auto-tune”. How about auto-tune provisional painting?.

  14. Alan Gouk said…

    And would Anon kindly identify him or herself, so that we can laugh at their gullibility.

  15. Alan Gouk said…

    Alan Gouk says—-

    I have resisted commenting on this note, hoping that someone else might do it for me, but no such luck. It is indeed a very silly piece– a case of putting the cart before the horse. The only reason the front face of a T.V. set can be seen pictorially is because it chimes, or rhymes with the shapes in paintings, not the other way round.
    The ovoid shape, or rectangle with rounded corners has a history which goes back initially to the cloud-shapes in some of Matisse’s window views, followed by Miro in the 1930′s, then by Rothko’s early Multiforms of 1947-48 and then by Gottlieb’s Frozen Sounds, Eclipse and Nadir, all of 1952, and thence via De Stael’s Les Toits and Honfleur, also 1952, to William Scott and Heron, Hilton and Frost after 1956.
    It was prompted by an antipathy to the sharp corners of the geometric abstraction of the International Style of the 1920′s and 30′s, an antipathy no doubt shared by the designers of these T.V. cabinets, accommodating the filament-screen with its rounded edges via a plastic collar to the framing plywood surround.
    Did Mr Williams bother to check whether these St Ives artists even had T.V. sets in the mid 1950′s? From what we know of the life-style of Roger Hilton, at any rate, I’d say, most unlikely.

    Here again what we are witnessing is the relentless drive to promote “the screen” as an up-to-the-minute alternative, superceding painting in the “puerile utopias” of the “technological flux”. Painting is only superceded for those who have no eyes for it, and the screen and painting are not in competition with one another for any prizes worth having.
    And to step sideways into an adjacent Note, the Hadron Collider offers nothing for pictorial art. [A cross-section of the H.C.?-- Bernard Cohen has already been there--- or with added butterflies--Oops!-- I've just given someone a terrible idea]. I know this isn’t quite what Mr Pocaro meant, but the frontiers of science, mathematical physics, since they cannot be visualised except by way of their hardware, likewise have nothing to say to the art of painting. The idea was scorned by Braque and Picasso over a hundred years ago, though some theorists continue to make the claim.
    And the latest frontiers of computer-generated imagery have created nothing of pictorial space that was not fully in evidence in Italian paintings of the 15th century–Fra Filippo Lippi, Mantegna, Giovanni Bellini. Consider Bellini’s St Francis Preaching to the Birds, in Washington [ I think]. It’s just that today’s dress-sense is more machine-age. Enter the Daleks— the folly that to be modernistic you have to imitate the paraphenalia of technology, or that technology generated imagery is de riguer for aspiring avant-gardists.

    The “untrue metaphor” in this instance being not “to hold the mirror up to nature”, but to hold the mirror up to technology’s artifacts, or to look through them instead of your own eyes. Look at the roof structure of the Westfield Centre or any modern stadium. Is that what you want paintings to look like.
    Disney’s Fantasia, one of the earliest animated films to essay abstract imagery, is more imaginative than anything produced in the digital age, because it relied on draftsmen who were aware of the visions of modernist painting.

  16. Joe Morris said…

    This appears to be an exetremely plausible theory,the television set could have easily settled itself into the subconcious minds of these artists and inspired their aesthetic by stealth. It would be interesting to hear the opinions of surviving family members about this.

  17. Anon said…

    Very uncanny resemblances, difficult to rule out in my opinion. The suggestion of further research could be one worth following to further this so far, well founded enquiry.