Abstract Critical

The Conspiracy Theory Series: a note on the Kinblethmont show

Written by Alan Gouk

Moroccan Pre-dawn, 2012, 198x422cm

Alan Gouk, Moroccan Pre-dawn, 2012, 198x422cm

In a late-ish interview with Charles Harrison in 1984, Clement Greenberg declares that the modern picture cannot accommodate shading, or modelling in tones into depth, breaking the plane of the two-dimensional surface, overlooking the fact that the great modernist pictures are full of lateral shading by way of colour juxtapositions, which, while remaining side-by-side front-on to the picture surface, suggest movement into depth by such qualities as temperature, warmth or coolness, or simply through the effect of the differing organic composition of the pigments out of which colours arise. Place cobalt green, for instance, beside a cadmium yellow and it will suppress the luminosity of the yellow, and cool its ardour; whereas an emerald green tends to sharpen the brightness of the yellow. Here oil paint has an enormous advantage over acrylics; the latter tend to have a uniform plastic “timbre” which can only be modified by adding gels, pumice granules or pearlescence.

Alan Gouk, Le Serpent Qui Danse, 2012, 81x122cm

Alan Gouk, Le Serpent Qui Danse, 2012, 81x122cm

But even here, notice how Morris Louis tempers his yellows and reds by surrounding them with siennas and ochres, a lesson lost on some of our more garish practitioners, and on the lurid horrors of op-art, which mistakes fluorescent op-flicker for colourism, or close valued pastel-milked colour likewise. Matisse’s The Moroccans and Picasso’s Man Leaning on a Table (or Seated Man), 1916, itself indebted to Matisse’s The Piano Lesson I, 1916, are classic examples of lateral shading; still figurative, or on the cusp of abstraction, borderline cases, you may say, but they reveal the extent to which near-abstraction can accommodate dark to light oppositions, suitably modulated with shades of grey, without engendering a brittle surface flatness. “Colour makes its own space” was the mantra of the 1960’s colour-field exponents, but it does so by utilising subliminal qualities of colour-shading that are best left unrationalised, for there is nothing more inimical to successful painting than analysis of the thought processes which arise in the throes of arriving there, or the over-emphasis on conscious purpose.

Alan Gouk, Conspiratorial Shades, 2013, 193 x 422cm

Alan Gouk, Conspiratorial Shades, 2013, 193 x 422cm


Alan Gouk, Dark Oak Conspiracy, 2011, 193 x 338cm

Alan Gouk, Dark Oak Conspiracy, 2011, 193 x 338cm

Rothko’s pictures owe their “art” to precisely this kind of subliminal lateral shading, where colour areas are muted, softly modulated within themselves to enhance their capacity to combine with others remote on the colour-wheel spectrum (and the fuzzy-edged brushing contributes to that end). And Patrick Heron can even create shading when using only “hot” colours, just by juxtaposing or surrounding one orange-red, all the cadmiums, with a slightly deeper red (as in the excellent Two Vermilions, Orange and Red, 1964), and even more so by introducing a touch of venetian red into his cadmiums, an earthier tone which is made to appear greenish-brown in reciprocal influence with the reds. So one goes on, with some such thoughts at the back of one’s mind, without over-determining intention, and the moment one begins to intermix pigments on the surface, submitting to the vicissitudes of the painting process, in other words surrendering to the flow of the medium, the heady intoxication of losing control intercedes. One is immediately plunged into a world for which no amount of rehearsal has prepared one, or is an adequate substitute, though practice and experience, of course, can help.

Alan Gouk, Leap Frogging Reds and Greens, 2012, 76 x 122cm

Alan Gouk, Leap Frogging Reds and Greens, 2012, 76 x 122cm

Not that spontaneity is the ultimate criterion of invention or value in painting. For as Heron also said, to paraphrase, what we need now is a finer deliberateness, a more considered mode of action, which will embrace the more static architectural qualities of painting, at the same time as it allows the immediate and the spontaneous.

Alan Gouk 22nd August 2013

Alan Gouk: Original Perspectives is at the Kinblethmont Gallery, near Arbroath, Angus,  7th – 22nd September 2013, 11am-5pm daily.


  1. Alan Gouk said…

    Robin appears to have a bee in his bonnet that no amount of friendly advice can assuage. It is true that since the Matisse/ Picasso Exhibition at Tate Modern in 2002, my pictures have become more insistent in their declaration of frontally and, hopefully, the taut continuum of the two-dimensional surface, though that is for others to decide. But that is because I recognised the superiority of The Moroccans and Piano Lesson 1, to everything else in the show apart from Picasso’s 1907-08 pro to-cubist and African influenced works.
    It has little or nothing to do with the formulations of Clement Greenberg with which I have had a disputational relationship ever since I took up a pen over forty years ago. The whole tenor of my writing has been not to elide painting with sculpture, but to separate out the qualities that ar ” proper ti sculpture” ,constantly to support the aspiration of my sculptor friends for an authentic three-dimensionality with the corollary that sculptural illusionism (for that is what it would be) is improper to painting unless realised through the space-making properties of colour-tone colour- and not by building into depth in the old way, the figurative way. ” Volume is begotten of flatness, not of modelled illusionistic rotundities” ( P. Heron) is as true of Rembrandt’s Conspiracy of Julius Civilis 1661 Stockholm, as it is of Cezanne, who is not nearly as three-dimensional as Robin would like him to be. This is the old argument Heron had with Henry Moore. How deep is the space in the Bridge at Maincy 1879-80 ( Musee D’ Orsay ) or Turning Road ( Boston) 18881 . ITs the simultaneity of 2D and 3 D illusion that makes Cezanne classic, and figurative. Planarity is of the essence of painting, but not of sculpture. This is yet another paradox of Greenberg’s writing He wants each of the arts to be self-defining, except for sculpture , which is free to plunder painting outrageously.
    What was a matter of great moment for Cezanne, here, now, well over a century later with the radical changes inaugurated by the key modernists no longer seems to me to open up possibilities of expression for painting. We have to deal with the cards we are dealt As Heron also said –There is a whole world out there to be explored , in the direction of colour and in no other direction.
    I have had to keep stressing how different my pictures are from one another, which seems to me obvious, ( see Bronze-winged Jacana and Deep Vinaigrish Bottle green) from this year, or Rock-pool Spin-off. So the use of the word “format” in discussing them seems to me thoroughly inappropriate, and inaccurate. ” Format” is a word best applied to those pictures which repeat the same design over and over with variations only in proportion and colour arrangement. My pictures are more diverse the more of them you see. If the assertion of planarity is ” format”, then I’m a flying dutchman.
    “Back to Cezanne” won’t wash. We’ve been there too many times before. Robin doesn’t seem to realise, though I’ve told him often enough, that hankering after plunging depth a la Tintoretto is inescapably representational in implication, as are all his favourite examples, and incompatible with the aims of abstraction. I’d say ” Put up or shut up”, but I wouldn’t want Robin to wate valuable energy on a white elephant.

    • Robin Greenwood said…

      I guess you don’t agree about the bottom of ‘Leap-frogging Reds and Greens’ then! Oh well…

      I agree with a lot of what you say here, especially the business of reconciling/simultaneity of three-dimensions in two. But aren’t you making it a little easy for yourself if you insist upon a frontal planarity right from the off? You can’t reconcile what you haven’t got to begin with. I’m also not sure about what you are actually saying about Rembrandt and Cezanne – that they too are totally planar? How deep is ‘Bend in the Road’? As flat as a painting and as deep as a bend in the road. Didn’t Cezanne often choose these very three-dimensional motifs in order to set up just such a tension/reconciliation?
      I’m far from wanting to play Moore to your Heron, or go back to Cezanne (if back it would be), and your advice to ‘put up or shut up’ is probably wise, given the number of people jumping on my head at the moment. Since I’m immersed in sculpture at present, I’m going to shut up. (Loud cheers)

  2. Robin Greenwood said…

    I’m just waiting for Robert L. to jump in on this (come on Robert) and tell us that Frank Stella has done all this – deep space, shallow space, sticking out forwards into the room…

    So in order to second-guess him completely I’m going to requote this favorite bit of Heron writing:
    ‘Penetrating across the river, and over and across and through the meadows opposite, Constable’s eye proved over and over again to be the most accurate eye in the history of painting for recording recession. Yet always the deep distances and horizons are perfectly accommodated to the picture surface. Never in Constable was profound spatial accuracy disruptive of the most delectably organised surface-design.’

    It’s that last bit, the reconciliation of three-dimensions with two, that Stella can’t get. Without it, he’s just literally jumping about, backwards and forwards, in ‘illustrations’ of space.

    • Robert Linsley said…

      Now that you mention it, a lot of what you say about space strongly recalls Stella’s words in Working Space, though he wouldn’t say the same things today. I suspect that he discovered something which I also discovered, and which I’ve recently found confirmed in Anton Ehrenzweig’s now thirty-five year old book, The Hidden Order of Art (a forthcoming review will be my last commissioned piece for abcrit) – namely that it doesn’t do any good to talk about the space you want to see in pictures. Ehrenzweig feels that great art is recognized precisely because it gives a vivid impression of space, yet that space can’t be planned or constructed. It’s a by product or a secondary effect of a more fundamental process. I find that convincing because I’ve noticed that if I try to contrive a space the resulting picture is always bad. It either happens or it doesn’t, and I’ll extend that to say that whatever kind of space is possible today will happen today and no one can dictate what kind of space should be made, or will be made. We, meaning the collectivity of painters, at this point in history, have to work with a strong sense of surface, and that’s how we get vivid spatial sensations. But having said all that, especially on this web site, I’ll do some second guessing myself and say – don’t ask me to define or explain anything about pictorial space, because I don’t have a clue. I only know it when I see it, and I love it when I get it in my work, but I don’t know how. Well, not quite true – but let’s say I know no consistent method.

      I share your dislike of atmospheric effects in painting, usually brought about by fuzzy edges and indistinct forms.

      About the relative success or failure of Stella’s work, you might be right, but what matters most to me is that he has a knack for making work that’s hard to take at first. It’s dissonant. It needs time to be really seen. Violent negative reactions are a good sign in his case. And that is wholly admirable.

  3. Robin Greenwood said…

    Thanks for all that – and good luck with the painting. I like Hitchens, but I don’t really think he is ever fully abstract. In the illustration you give as a link there are quite a few perpective prompts, are there not? Does that matter? Not in the least, in terms of quality.

    My question is a bit unanswerable really. I remain a little unsure whether it is even possible to have such a thing as ‘abstract’ space in abstract painting, or whether in fact any depth that we read into it reads that way because it is some sort of representation of space in the real world. What else could it be?

    If that is the case, and if therefore to be fully abstract you have to flatten painting off, then I’m not sure where that leaves us, or what I think of abstract painting, other than feeling slightly relieved that I’m a sculptor.

    What do you think of Alan’s idea about abstract painting coming out forwards into the room?

    • jenny meehan said…

      I’ve just written quite an extensive answer, and promptly lost it because I closed the tabs without meaning to! (This may be a blessing!) Briefly…

      Like idea of painting coming out forwards…(and sideways!)
      In “Upper Room” I played with space, see this, (painting to the right of the home page)… The neat pure cobalt pigment (no filler at all, just pigment and acrylic binder) really does hit you in the eye when you see the work in the flesh! It has punch. Gave me a bruise last time I looked at it!

      Perspective, yes, relates to external space, and also to emotion in an emblematic kind of way I think (ie radiation/concentration).

      When I visit galleries I nearly always find the sculpture more interesting and exciting than the painting. Maybe this is partly because of the greater impact of the tensions in space which it creates?

      I wish I was a sculptor sometimes, but I am just crazy about paint; just can’t leave it alone! This space in painting matter is interesting though, will explore for sure.


    • Noela said…

      You seem to be allowing the possible limitations of painting something completely abstract get in the way of the immense enjoyment [for want of a better word] one can get from the act of painting. When you say you are slightly relieved to be a sculptor is it because you enjoy and prefer working in that dimension or is it just due to the fact that it is the only way you feel you can create something really abstract?
      If you really enjoy painting but stop yourself because your abstract principles aren’t fulfilled , that seems a shame.
      A painting that comes forwards and out at you can be a fine thing. I feel an abstract work that works can be more engaging on some levels , should ‘speak’ out off the wall. Figurative work in a way operates more within itself if you understand what I mean. there may not be many earth shattering changes in abstract work, but there are always small differences.

      • Noela said…

        I am referring to Robin Greenwood’s comments .

      • Robin Greenwood said…

        Of course it is true that there is great enjoyment and pleasure in both looking at and making abstract painting of all sorts of different kinds, and I have no wish to diminish or restrict that. I think my clumsily expressed ‘disquiet’ about abstract painting stems from what I see as its inherent difficulty at the moment in extending the discipline into really new territory that has some kind of original ‘spatiality’ to it. Not everyone feels this way, or thinks that this is important, but I do. Maybe Gouk’s ideas suggest a way forward…?

        By contrast, I feel that abstract sculpture has a huge amount of new territory recently opened up before it – I think this current batch of Brancaster Chronicles will demonstrate this beyond doubt – over and above what could be done in figurative sculpture. That feels really exciting. But I don’t have the same feeling about painting; as I have suggested, abstract painting feels more like a closing down of some of the spatial possibilities of the best figurative painting, or at best an oblique reiteration of them.

    • Noela said…

      Robin , I have just re read Alan Gouk’s comments on gradation of colour giving atmospheric depth, in regard to Pete Hoida’s work in particular, which seem to be very pertinent in addressing spacial qualities in abstract work.
      I was wondering what you think of Pete Hoida’s work especially since Alan Gouk seems to greatly admire it.

      • Robin Greenwood said…

        I haven’t seen Pete Hoida’s work for some time, and wouldn’t like to comment on the new work. In principle I would have to say that I’m often dubious about ‘atmospheric’ depth and I tend not to like that kind of engendering of space much even in figurative painting – but I wouldn’t make a rule out of that if a painting works.

        But Alan seems to be talking about an ‘atmosphere’ out in front of the painting, though even he seems unsure whether what he calls ‘presentness’ is a reality for abstract painting:

        ‘The big question about “presentness” is whether it is founded on objective fact, or a delusion of the observing subject’.

    • jenny meehan said…

      What looks like a browny kind of caput mortum colour on the left of the image on the artnet link is far more alizarin crimson (which makes a great deal of difference) and this is also true for the three areas which diminish in size on the right hand side of the image. The area in middle is a pure yellow ochre. This makes a huge amount of difference too, shame I cannot offer you a better image, sorry!

  4. jenny meehan said…

    Hi Robin, how do I add this comment as a reply to yours?

    Quite a few of Ivon Hitchen’s paintings do this for me, I am just looking at Iping Trees (1945) but maybe you would not define this as abstract, rather figurative. It has very deep space. Removing the knowledge of the title, which kind of has it’s own sway in the looking, I think it stands on it’s own two feet if read in a non-figurative way, which due to the looseness and highly selective definition of form, does (to my mind) make it in an interesting, and amazingly beautiful abstract with depth. I cannot find an image but hopefully you may be able to google it and locate in on the internet. Let me know what you think.

    In response to your interesting response, I feel very tempted to try and paint a non-objective painting which fits your comment and serves as an example. I will put it on “my list” and try, and post up the example as soon as I can (which may be some time due to the domestic bliss of life, but will do!) It quite excites me the thought of exploring this. I have been looking at my own painting and thinking myself that the space, while there, is restricted, and wondering if I might play with ways of suggesting it more deeply,I have skipped away from form, feeling this better expressed in sculpture itself rather than painting, but it may be a mistake to disregard it. I will ponder-in-paint the matter!

  5. jenny meehan said…

    Thank you for this excellent read Alan, I am so glad I popped into read it this morning…I feel fortunate be read it.

  6. anne smart said…

    In response to your raising the question of the “format” in Alan Gouk’s new paintings [which we have raised together with Alan some years ago ] we feel there comes a point when the pendulum must swing back in favour of the artist who will if he has any sense and has a conviction in his own vision fly in the face of reason and argument and do whatever they think fit. History will decide. Hopefully in front of the actual paintings.
    It is not logical or healthy for artists to become part time critics and assume because of their “inside” knowledge of the subject they can make the “Call” against the flow of the artists own work. As fellow artists we speak on each others work often with an assumed insight into the others vision. Vision is precious. Formats can change tomorrow but surely only when the artist is ready.
    Tony and Anne Smart

    • Robin Greenwood said…

      We’ll have to disagree on that one. I can’t think of anyone more suited to being a part-time critic than another artist; it seems both logical and healthy, and in fact necessary. I completely agree that vision is precious, but that does not forestall commentary on or criticism of (or encouragement for) some of its outcomes – as you well know. “Visions” are mutable, formats are not.

  7. Saul Greenberg said…

    ‘Take that out…’ and replace with what?
    The top of your hand?

  8. Robin Greenwood said…

    I think these are abstract paintings of the highest order (of the moment, that is). I think that Gouk’s colour has subtly but distinctly matured even further (though I’m judging only on photos at the present), and it always was very good indeed. Perhaps it is to do with the shading…? What disappoints, to greater or lesser degrees, according to each work, what stops them for me becoming ‘great’ rather than just ‘good’, is their dependence upon format, and the consequential flattening of the space that results. It is all the more galling because it seems so unnecessary. It’s as if one more push could turn some of these works into something amazing, but that the last step is withheld – for the sake of what; the picture plane, the integrity of the surface, or some such dubious property that it is considered necessary for abstract painting to cling to? Or is it just a fear of difficulties yet to arise if the orthogonal shapes that (tediously) echo the canvas are dropped…?

    Here’s an example of what I mean: ‘Leap-frogging Reds and Greens’ has some really great things going on, explicit and spatial; the differences between the two halves of the painting are great; the colour is great; the movement (leapfrogging?) is great. What kills the painting and the space (for me) is that pale amber smear right across the bottom (with the violet corner); unnecessary and literal, it re-emphasises and underlines the painting’s flat and formulaic ‘design’, reasserting its picture-plane. For what? Take that out and the painting leaps out, becomes properly charged with three-dimensionality, begins to live. It could even begin to fulfil Gouk’s own stated aims for painting: ‘the picture contributes to sensuous architectural spaces, opening out the wall-space, reflecting and enhancing the proportional harmonies of the architectural spaces of rooms and galleries’.

    Gouk’s theory about the way abstract painting could effectively operate in a manner differentiated from figurative painting – namely that the painting opens outwards and forwards from the picture plane, into the viewer’s own space – is as yet the only half-decent justification I know of for why the hell to do abstract rather than figurative painting, when the latter remains so compellingly more brilliant in all departments, especially spatially. Abstract painting’s inability to convincingly deal with both deep and shallow space and reconcile them with two-dimensionality, and its seeming incapacity to forgo an obsession with ‘surface’, are for me the big issues of painting at the moment; they are so near, and yet so far, from being addressed by Gouk in these works.

    • jenny meehan said…

      Sorry, I don’t quite “get” this…

      “Abstract painting’s inability to convincingly deal with both deep and shallow space”

      please exapand?

      • Robin Greenwood said…

        Can you think of an example in abstract painting where the full range of ‘depth’ of space is dealt with convincingly, the maximum possible scope of space is explored, and then reconciled with two-dimensionality, to an equivalent degree as you find in the best of figurative painting?

    • jenny meehan said…

      I have googled for Ivon Hitchen’s “Iping Trees” 1945 to no avail, which is annoying. I have a rather shoddy printout of it right opposite my computer and I look at it every single day as it’s one of my favourite paintings, along with Clevedon Night 1964…Lanyon said of the series “crazy, quite invisible,victorian and unsaleable”…which makes me like them more!
      Anyway, back to the Ivon Hitchen’s…maybe “Movement of Autumn” 1957 is a good example…If that’s not locatable on the net then I will send a digital image for reference/discussion purposes.

      • jenny meehan said…

        Well, blow me down, three images for Ivon Hitchens’ “Movement of Autumn” 1957 on the net, and none of those images of the painting. This link shows it though. How the hell anyone is meant to learn anything about painting when deprived of fine examples on the net of Ivon Hitchens’ work I will never know (mini-rant). The colours look much bluer in the image on this link than they do in “Ivon Hitchens” by Peter Khoroche, which is a shame, as not nearly as effective. I could send an image but I am not sure if able to take and then send due to copyright matters???