PRINT December 1962/January 1963

British Art Today

THIS EXHIBITION SHOULD BE VIEWED against the deter­mined and planned attempt on the English scene over the last fifteen years to shatter its innate artistic provincialism, and at the same time emulate the American breakthrough from the stranglehold of both the cultural and commercial monopoly of the École de Paris.

Apart from Moore, Hepworth, Nicholson and Sutherland, who were in full and mature possession of their art prior to the Second World War, this exhibition shows the major contributors to, and survivors of, successive shifts towards this ideal of regional cultural independence, culminating in the emergence of a number of important and unique artists. But, just as Joseph Cornell, a key and important American artist, has never been included in the official American export exhibitions to Europe, likewise with this ex­hibition there are notable omissions* and dubious inclusions.

The most powerful and dominating figure in British art is the sculptor Henry Moore, who, for nearly thirty-­five years, has poured out a gigantic body of impor­tant works. Whether or not the two pieces shown in the exhibition compare with the best of his production over this long period of time is unimportant-sculp­turally, he dominates the exhibition. But he also repre­sents a tradition of working totally alien to both the contemporary American and British scene. He em­ploys, like a Renaissance master, a number of young sculptors as assistants to do the rough and tedious work of enlarging his forms from maquettes, which he then personally finishes. Probably for this reason as much as any other, he has had little direct influ­ence on younger artists. Contemporaneous with him and at one time allied to him in her working methods is Barbara Hepworth, but influenced by her associa­tion with Naum Gabo, her forms until recently were geometric rather than anthropomorphic. Her work in wood and stone was always distinguished by an extreme sensuousness of touch, now totally lost in her mediocre bronze images of rough plant-like forms. Probably both these artists reached the peak of their work ten to fifteen years ago but Hepworth, now in her sixties, is nevertheless to be admired for her attempt to enlarge her genre of work.

We can admire these two older artists for the sheer quality of their art; their technique of production does not overtly obtrude. With Chadwick, Butler, Armitage and Frink, anthropomorphized bronze animals reek with commercialism. To compare in any form or way the creativity of these minor talents with the enor­mous wave of powerful American sculptors such as David Smith, Reuben Nakian, Louise Nevelson, Rich­ard Stankiewicz, Chamberlain, Gabriel Kohn or Mark de Suvero (to name only a few on the New York scene), and Wilfrid Zogbaum, Ken Price, Arlo Acton, Alvin Light, Peter Voulkos, Harold Paris, Ed Kienholz, Bruce Conner and Jeremy Anderson on this coast, would be to lose all sense of proportion. The two con­structivist sculptors, Robert Adams and Brian Wall lack plastic wit or inventiveness, remaining line and plane theoreticians in iron.

Dalwood displays political topicality with his O.A.S. Assassins, a blue-colored “R.F.” incised into the cast form and a couple of pink ribbons hanging from the two cast holes in the sculpture. Meadows’ clustered chunky forms show sculptural vitality, but both Wil­liam Turnbull and Eduardo Paolozzi, with the missing Anthony Caro, are probably the three most vital and important younger sculptors in England today.

Turnbull’s idols eschew romantic expressionism and heroic gestures. They are sparse, bare and taut plastic images, without need for bases, stands or podiums. They confront one directly, without a back or front. His purposeful simplicity of structure is a search for the essential expressive relationship be­tween sculptural bulk, surface and content. His sculp­ture is aloof, cerebral and pure, yet at the same time enormously human. Until quite recently Turnbull (born 1921), has never been commercial property, and for a very good reason: he simply has never seen his art as an item of commerce. At the same time, he has played a most important role in helping many younger artists to maturity, particularly in breaking down traditional European barriers of age differences and false notions of artistic rank (still common in certain circles in England and the Bay Area). Paolozzi, better known for his battered bronze “Brut” images, shows two cast metal assemblages very reminiscent of H. C. Westerman, a Chicago artist (who has been in possession of this style for several years). Paolozzi’s shift from the images of man encrusted by the detritus of his environment to an anthropomorphized version of the detritus itself is logical and not surprising and at the same time is purely coincidental to Westerman’s images. He brings to this new image the same power­ful sculptural touch that distinguished his former work, a unique mixture of the primitive and the sensuous.

Both Paolozzi and Turnbull took part in a series of meetings in London starting in the early fifties when certain other key artists such as Richard Hamilton, the Smithsons (both architects), Reynor Banham, the architectural critic, and Lawrence Alloway, the art critic (now curator at the Guggenheim Museum), met regularly to thrash out the central problems facing the British artist in relation to the content of his art. It was probably within the context of these meetings, as much due as to anything else, that Lawrence Allo­way gained his penetrating insight. (If Harold Rosen­berg, already a noted writer, was sucked almost acci­dentally, as it were, into art criticism by his fortuitous friendship with some of the best New York painters, Alloway instead deliberately chose to be at the source and linked himself up with some of the best artistic minds in England.) He completely reversed the role of the art critic from that of the critical onlooker, attempting to evaluate by limited standards, to active interpolator of source ideas. Time and again his clarity of insight, active intervention at crucial mo­ments and encouragement helped many younger art­ists to attain their goals. He was the only English critic who received the New American Painting on its initial tour with high critical acclaim and esteem as against complete hostility by the remainder. If there is a new quality to British art in this exhibition, in comparison to its post-war provincial look, if there is a strong excitement in England about being an artist in the mainstream of world art today, it is due as much to this man’s dedicated efforts as to those artists who also shaped its direction and content.

There is one British artist who is known and strongly admired by artists of all persuasions on this coast­––Francis Bacon. But in British art he is an exceptional and eccentric figure whose traumatic psychological obsessiveness with horror, death and sex teeters on the edge of an insane vision. To compete with this kind of hysterical and morbid art on any genuine level requires an equally unbalanced mind––a good enough reason for any lack of followers on the British scene. His important influence on other artists is his use of contemporary photo journalism from mass media in a context of fine art, a precedent quickly picked up by later pop artists.

Victor Pasmore (born 1908), is a contemporary of Bacon. In the late forties, he abandoned his beautiful neoimpressionist, but carefully structuralized poetical evocations of landscapes and inhabited interiors for a series of lyrically painted abstract spiral motifs. Peculiarly, it was the influence of an American odd­ball figure, Charles Biederman, whose A_rt as the Evolution of Visual Knowledge_ thrust Pasmore into the constructivist camp rather than the obvious example of Ben Nicholson’s white-on-white reliefs. Pas­more, very respected as a performing artist, is taken somewhat less seriously among English artists for his didactic theories on constructivist art. His work is al­ways plastically witty, somewhat grubby, and his con­structions, notwithstanding clumsy carpentry, are very elegant and almost never match his verbalized or written theories.

Alan Davie, onetime jazz musician and jeweler, is a Celtic-Zen-guru. His obsessive art has all the mad virility of those peculiar Scotsmen, who, dressed in skirts and bonnets, still frenziedly dance over crossed broadswords mouthing shrill screams in Celtic to the weird background noise of bagpipes. Davie is an intriguing artist notwithstanding his obvious derivation from Pollock’s “She Wolf” period. He exploits this area of Pollock’s art with a passion and intensity that is utterly convincing. His paintings are loaded with anatomically visceral elements, Zen prayer wheels, Celtic stelai, childlike scrawls and a host of primitive and archaic signs and patterns structuralized by a nervous, frenetic black outline. His passionate ex­ample of art as a form of ascetic guru-ism (no smok­ing, no alcohol, no meat), as well as a mystical aban­donment of self for the purpose of self-enlightenment also has no followers on the British scene.

Ceri Richards (born 1903), is a classic example of a “weather vane” painter. Whatever he periodically does, it is always well done. But he has had as many styles as the years he has lived, which makes it diffi­cult to take him at all seriously.

William Scott (born 1913), is a difficult artist to place. The combination of his rich, sensuous paint derived from the École de Paris, plus occasionally doubling as a designer of chi-chi fabrics has alien­ated him from the respect of the younger London artists, who find the decorative element in his art too intruding.

A number of painters, Peter Lanyon, Patrick Heron, Brian Wynter and Trevor Bell live in Cornwall, which, in comparison to the English landscape’s perpetual look of a tidy oversized green garden, has a rugged grandeur somewhat similar to the rocky coast of northern California. London artists facetiously refer to this group as “the painters-by-the-sea,” probably a parallel of New York artists’ contemptuous concept of San Francisco softies basking in the sun instead of roughing it in New York cold-water flats.

Lawrence Alloway’s introduction to the exhibition refers to this Cornish group as aiming to synthesize the style of international abstract art with an indige­nous sense of place and space, but one can hardly accept the word “international” in the context of these painters’ work, since the “international” style that Alloway refers to is too blatantly American. Lan­yon borrows the gestures and clothing of abstract expressionism; Patrick Heron, formerly a devotee of Braque, now substitutes Rothko; Wynter interpolates Tobey; and Trevor Bell, a younger painter, synthesizes all these naked derivations of style. (His two paintings shown in this exhibition demonstrate his latest ad­vance in decorative triviality.) While Lanyon brings a certain quality of performance and vision to his Ameri­canized art, and while Heron expresses (only) admira­tion for Rothko, Wynter only embarrasses. The great­est problem of these painters is that they belong to their times through borrowed techniques rather than subject matter or content. The same can hardly be said of Ivon Hitchins, whose landscapes are uniquely personal and genuine in their synthesis of the new with English tradition, via Turner.

One of the finest, yet most English of painters in this exhibition is Henry Mundy whose gentle, quiet art is made by scrabbling loose and ruled charcoal lines veiled by thin washes of paint interlarded with a few sparse but large ovoids of shiny lacquer paint. Mundy, in his middle forties, arrived at his art slowly and cautiously, doubting each step. In London each year is an exhibition called “The Young Contemporaries,” in which a large number of the new products of the innumerable British art schools annually exhibit. It is paradoxical that each year important dealers would take on some of these young artists, while Mundy until about three years ago, was unknown and unable to obtain a gallery.

Married to Mundy is Gillian Ayres, who had recognition much earlier than he. A forceful young painter, she ably demonstrates the impact of the mainstream ideas of American art on what, twenty years ago, would have probably been flower paintings.

The Hard Edge movement in England contains an important and strong body of painters. In comparison to Los Angeles, San Francisco totally lacks both a tradition of, and feeling for, this kind of art. Hard Edge art should not be confused with geometric art since the final work can be mysterious, and need not have precise edges, but generally tends to exploit simple, large shapes, saturated colors, perceptual am­biguity, symmetry, illusion and, to quote Lawrence Alloway, “ . . . leads to the definition of the painting as a single visible skin, rather than, as in earlier geo­metric art, a container of diversified elements, like a game board.” It entirely divorces itself from the act of leaving a continuous record of the process of modi­fication or gesture as man-sized handwriting. The process of modification is buried instead of being the public spectacle. Stroud, one of the best painters in this group, uses a structure of raised symmetrical channels painted in closed tone saturated colors. The channels form color shadows, the paint has been ap­plied thinly, coat after coat, and the color, mysteri­ously and vibrantly, has a unique quality of throbbing from within.

John Plumb is more ebullient; he uses both ready­made paints and thin plastic colored tapes. Turnbull’s paintings of simple color fields create vectors, and Richard Smith is consciously influenced by the color photographs of Harper’s Bazaar. His work is rather sweet compared to either Plumb or Stroud. Probably the greatest single influence on these artists has been Barnett Newman. (London continuously has exhibitions of American Hard Edge painters, including the Los Angeles school, who were shown there several years ago.) The Hard Edge movement operates within a continuous tradition, and is capable of absorbing, as it has done, certain mainstream shifts from America without being buried under borrowed mannerisms.

Parallel to the distorted image of American life that Hollywood movies give to English eyes would be any attempt to decode American art via the art journals or any number of carefully selected and exported exhibitions. The younger American artist is not only in furious reaction against the values of his mass, consumer society, but also New York’s venality and cor­ruption; deeply moved by life around him as he finds it, his approach to “pop art” is through savage satire. The British, living in a more socially conscious society, are as yet barely touched by the prolonged effects of dehumanization and cruel commercialism that seem to march, hand in hand, with a strongly mechanized, merchandising society. American pin-ups from Esquire may appear more endearing and sexy to British eyes than home products, but the horrible and desperate depersonalization of American women has to be ex­perienced at first hand to be qualitatively and quantitatively understood. Peter Blake’s delightful The Girlie Door, with its pasted pin-ups, is witty and amusing, but Marilyn Monroe’s image thereon evokes to American eyes the same tragic quality that caused her to end her life. The British, without the American sense of surfeit of the good things of life, without the American sense of the fantastic coordination between money and consumption which makes everything here unreal, can afford to play games, which Peter Blake along with Allen Jones and Peter Phillips, do excellently.

John Coplans



*Anthony Caro, a sculptor of high importance; John Latham, an excellent assemblage artist; Richard Hamilton, the first English “pop” artist; R. B. Kitaj, an American émigré artist who has had a strong effect on younger English artists; John Ernest, another émigré from the U.S. and a constructivist; Francis Souza, a curious and powerful figurative painter of Indian origin.