PRINT March 1968

Recent British Paintings at the Tate

THE TATE GALLERY’S DECEMBER EXHIBITION of recent British paintings from the collection of the Peter Stuyvesant Foundation provided an excellent opportunity for studying and evaluating at least one side of England’s movement during the past ten years toward the center stage of contemporary artistic developments. For those of us in the United States who have followed artistic events in England from a distance and seen their products in isolated (and often fragmentary) form, this exhibition was part revelation, part disappointment.

In terms of individual paintings or painters the exhibition contained few real surprises. Owing to the deep-rooted and frequently ludicrous anglophilia of many American museum directors and private collectors, most of the artists represented in the Stuyvesant holdings have appeared both singly and in groups in exhibitions all over the United States. Beyond this, British artists and/or critics have been regular visitors to the major American universities. Consequently, one can hardly say that the Tate’s exhibition presented any unknown quantities (or qualities), but what it did provide was a sense of both scope and perspective.

This sense of scope and perspective results from the program of the Stuyvesant collection as it was set up in 1964 and as it has been executed over the past three years by its purchasing committee, which includes Lilian Somerville, Director of the British Council’s Fine Art Department, Alan Bowness, Senior Lecturer at the Courtauld Institute, and Norman Reid, Director of the Tate Gallery. This committee was formed for the purpose of making a collection of “recent British Art.” Its initial decision was to restrict the collection to paintings and to concentrate on works from the late 1950s to the present. This restriction enabled the committee to include virtually all of the important painters who have emerged since the end of the Second World War, but more important, it permitted a concentration on the period of greatest productivity and interest—that of the past decade.

As one studied the exhibition, appreciation for the scope of the collection passed quite rapidly, yielding to the realization that one was viewing an already capsulated history, documented by a “memorial” catalog and presented as a “representative” survey. Criteria of qualitative importance appear to have been largely suspended by the committee as they set out with the meticulousness of stamp collectors to gather a complete set and fill out the spaces in an album; or, in their own words, to chart “major changes of style inside a formative period” for each artist. This documentary attitude pervades the collection as a whole but it appears most markedly in the paintings of the last five years or so. Speaking of these, Mr. Bowness makes the following apology in the closing section of his introductory essay to the Stuyvesant catalog: “. . . it would be rash to disentangle the comparative importance of minimal art, the shaped canvas, systematic painting, etc., on an international plane of the moment, let alone try to do justice to new talent on the British scene.” Perhaps it would be rash for Mr. Bowness to determine successes and priorities on these issues, but critics on both sides of the Atlantic have been spending their intellectual blood for several years making and articulating such determinations. Surely Mr. Bowness and the others on the Stuyvesant committee could be expected to evaluate the critical arguments, if not the paintings themselves.

It can, of course, be argued that the collection fulfills the aims of the foundation that financed it, and that the committee was bound by these aims. According to Michael Kaye of the Stuyvesant Foundation, who provided the foreword to Mr. Bowness’s catalog, the aims were to encourage artists by purchase of works and to form with these purchases a collection representative of its period in British art. With these aims in mind a committee, rather than a Ruskin or a Roger Fry, was appointed in order to assure that purchase selections would be arrived at democratically rather than determined by any strong individual convictions. Granting the conditions, the absence of discrimination and vitality that characterizes the whole enterprise is not so difficult to comprehend. Clearly the Stuyvesant people prefer the short term gratifications of funding the paintings division of the welfare state to the more distant prospect of giving to England at some later date a collection of masterpieces worthy of standing beside the Wallace Collection and Courtauld holdings.

Looking at the whole enterprise from a more positive angle, the opportunity which the Tate provided (albeit grudgingly to judge from the blinding horrors of the installation) for viewing the Stuyvesant pictures constituted a challenge to anyone wishing to sort out the various characteristics of recent British painting. Further, the very lack of selectivity and emphasis in the collection literally forced the viewer to discriminate quality (both relative and absolute) as best he could. The experience was roughly comparable to a visit to one of the Royal Academy exhibitions of the last century, in the sense that the ratio between the representative and the important strongly favored the former. The number of works by each individual painter (no more than three per artist and in several cases only one) indicated nothing in the way of quality and frequently favored painters whose work had over the past decade been most erratic. Those who, for example, had shifted with or without apparent reason (or conviction) from one sort of procedure to another were blessed with two or three purchases, while those who worked in a more consistent mode had to settle for one or two. There were, to be sure, a few exceptions to this rule, but only a few.

Accepting the indiscriminate breadth of the collection and putting aside for a moment the deviousness of whatever principles of selection may have been involved, what could one extract in the way of appreciation, or more important, what could one learn from the exhibition?

First of all, it was evident that British painting, even when working against the odds which this exhibition set, does deserve a great deal of the international attention it receives. Taking heart from the early successes of Sutherland and Bacon, it has demonstrated a self-confidence which is both supported and emphasized by its recent contacts with American developments. More than any other country in Europe, Britain has benefited from its recognition of the unique importance of the last twenty five years of American painting. This has meant, on the one hand, that she has produced more second-hand American-type painting than any other country, but on the other, that she has in the work of several of her artists made positive statements of her own, not all of which follow exactly along American lines.

Comparing the broad spectrum of works which the Stuyvesant collection contains with a hypothetical cross-section of American painting from the same period, several important differences emerge, and these differences go a long way toward explaining some of the central characteristics of recent British painting. To begin with, late Cubist and Constructivist tendencies, deriving from Mondrian and Gabo have enjoyed a long, probably too long, life in England. These tendencies are quite explicit in the works of Ben Nicholson, Kenneth Martin, Mary Martin, John Wells, Victor Pasmore; and more recently in the constructions of Anthony Hill. But more important, a prevailing belief in “design” has spilled over into the greater part of recent British painting. This belief in “design,” and by this I mean a measured formal arrangement of basic lines and shapes in two dimensions, manifests itself in different forms depending upon the particular kind of image a given painter develops. But, whatever form it takes, it tends to make British painting in general seem closed in format—that is to say, strained by references to the shape of the canvas. Rarely do British paintings appear to generate a particular size or shape of format from the process of growth and development in the images they project. Compared to British examples, the most designed of American pictures, those of Robert Motherwell or Helen Frankenthaler, seem very loose and capable of being read as achieved rather than determined compositions.

The most devastating consequences of British “design” appear in the works of Patrick Heron and William Scott, two pioneering abstract color painters. Heron in particular should certainly have been one of the most important artists of his generation. His handling of color, in terms of both hue and value, can be as surprising as it is skillful, but Heron never seems able to trust in color alone. His color is always compressed and at times nearly obviated by the elaborateness of his way of composing. He seems to fear that color alone is incapable of guiding and concluding a picture, so he persistently finishes up with “design” in a way that is late Cubist in origin and academic in effect. The result of Heron’s superimposition of loose, open color and over-elaborated design is an invariable wrongness of scale in his pictures and a constant sense of pictorial compromise.

The types of images in which one would, on the basis of American developments, expect “design” to yield less compromising results are those which utilize direct references to signs and symbols of popular culture. Johns, Warhol and Lichtenstein all seem to rely on definite, if simple, compositional props in order to consolidate their images. However, compared to R. B. Kitaj and Peter Blake, the Americans seem to combine things (both images and media effects) with a marvelous lucidity and directness. Where the British seem to join together multiple parts and then zone them off with gratuitous compositional divisions, the Americans benefit from their contact with the more loosely articulated structures of American abstract painting, and as a result they accomplish their combinations and division without compromising the impact of their images as whole pictorial units.

The most interesting British developments from the past six or seven years indicate that several painters have tried in one way or another to break out of the strictures of “design.” Generally speaking they have worked with one of two alternatives. Robyn Denny, Bridget Riley, Tess Jaray, Ian Stephenson, Peter Sedgley, Derek Boshier and Anthony Donaldson have chosen to deal with centered and frequently symmetrical images. Their images, like many of those of Sutherland and Bacon, attempt to generate plastic or spatial pulses which derive from a definite linear or coloristic source inside the picture rather than from designed relationships between the overall format of a picture and the shapes which that format contains.

Of the painters who have chosen to work with this first alternative Denny is certainly the most interesting while Riley is the most accomplished. If Denny had been willing to risk a little bit more in his color (and to give up some of its palling handsomeness) and if he could have weeded out some of the mannerisms of his emblematic drawing he just might have become an artist of real significance. Bridget Riley, on the other hand, might profitably abandon those square formats which the British so love—there are nearly thirty of them in the Stuyvesant collection, three of which are Miss Riley’s. Were she to do this for a prolonged length of time, she would, I think, discover how much of her optical slickness is qualitatively viable and how much is simply propped up by the perceptual ease with which one takes in a square format. Better painters than Miss Riley have shied away from square formats, knowing that the square shape can be made to contain almost any sort of formal manipulation, but that it requires truly heroic efforts to establish a formal complex which is notably better than the unpainted format itself.

The group of painters who have pursued a second alternative to British “design” seem to have looked directly but cautiously toward America for guidance. This is not to say that they have imitated any specific American achievement, but rather that they have chosen to work on the basis of certain formal developments which have taken place in American painting over the past decade. The most important of these painters, Harold and Bernard Cohen, John Hoyland and Michael Kidner, have worked somewhat erratically by American standards (Hoyland less so than the others) but their efforts have been consistently interesting. Taken as a group these painters differ in their use of either drawing or color as a primary agent of formal exploration but they are both determined and successful in their attempts to keep their pictures open, to emphasize the lateral integrity of the painted field which they create, and to achieve by oppositions of large, formally similar or repeated pictorial units, an image which is diverse in terms of traditional composition but unified by its comprehensibility as an optical whole.

The paintings of Kidner and Harold Cohen establish the opposing positions within this group, but there are evident similarities of method which tend to make apparent differences less significant than they first appear. Both painters tend to work in terms of definite problem-solving; that is to say, they seem to decide in advance of painting on the exact range of pictorial elements which they plan to develop through processes of contrast and superimposition.

In Kidner’s work the pictorial elements tend to be serial units of colored bands or patches which, as a result of this particular scheme of placement and repetition, begin to imply latent color images, or in the case of warped formats, an illusion of flatness. For the most part Kidner’s effects do come off, but their impact is compromised by the turgid fussiness of his individual pictorial units and by the oppressively small scale of his formats in general—not that Kidner’s paintings are small in any absolute sense, but they are small in terms of the scale required by their effects.

This question of the scale required in order to develop a particular type of effect (or range of different effects) comes up again in Harold Cohen’s paintings. Cohen is probably the most permissive abstract painter around in the sense that he excludes almost nothing in the way of drawn or colored units from his arsenal of form. At the same time he remains, like Kidner, one of the most methodical problem-solvers. The combination in Cohen’s work of widely differing formal units and carefully, usually too carefully, developed arrangements of these units, often fails to yield a convincing relationship of scale between image and format and vice versa. Looking at Cohen’s work from the last four or five years, one is constantly reminded of the problems that Kandinsky faced in his work after 1920. It is tempting to conclude that free unit abstraction, and by this I mean work which openly combines units of line and color which are either regular or amorphous in general aspect, may be a permanent dead end. The less congested of Harold Cohen’s paintings argue as effectively as possible against this conclusion, but his more complicated efforts tend to reinforce one’s suspicion. Whatever quality Cohen achieves derives from his success in making free units of color or line appear to be part of a single expanding image. Close color values or continuous linear textures provide Cohen with his most dependable means for resolving such oppositions. But even when values and textures accomplish the task, Cohen’s paintings can seem futile and even pointless. When they succeed, they succeed as demonstrations rather than as paintings. Stated differently, this means that Cohen spends his efforts on the suppression of incoherence and disunity, rather than working from the start with broad unifying devices and pushing these devices to a point of pictorial tension and focus.

Bernard Cohen’s work of the past few years has developed in a way that recognizes similar problems and conflicts but which fails to offer any very promising solutions. His elaborate linear webs with their shaded tracery and periodic clusters of dotted color suggest an obsession with suppressing the incoherence of multiple free units that parallels the work of his brother, Harold. However, Bernard Cohen’s most recent work, to judge from the Stuyvesant’s large white picture from 1966, throws up all the linear complications and presents instead monochromatic fields with minute color incidents in the corners toward the upper limit of the canvas. Ideally, these pictures should represent an important alternative to the self-defeating complexity of the work of both brothers. But the new pictures remain just alternatives. They are weak, groping, and unable to introduce any effective sort of pictorial emphasis which might raise them above the realm of demonstration.

John Hoyland’s paintings are, in fact, the only really promising statements in that part of recent British painting which parallels American work. One is tempted to moderate one’s praise of Hoy-land’s work in writing for an American magazine for fear of compromising his reputation in England, but it is impossible to ignore the fact that in the whole of the Stuyvesant collection, Hoy-land’s paintings, and particularly his 21/2/66, stand virtually alone. They promise major quality even if they fall just short of achieving it. They are stronger and more self-assured than any other work in the collection with the exception of the one really excellent Sutherland.

Hoyland works on a large scale with patched runs of color in close values set against contrasting fields. At present his color choices tend to be rather safe (complementary contrasts, etc.) but they manage to sustain and consolidate their formats, and they do this without apparent compositional props. The drawn character of the edges which separate one color from another in Hoyland’s work may over the long run be dangerous. The effect which these edges can have in reinforcing or suppressing the interaction of the color itself is unpredictable and it seems already to have broken the pictorial confidence of one important English colorist, namely Heron. But, for the moment, Hoyland has everything working in his favor, and his results are impressive to say the very least. His paintings would hold their own alongside the best recent American color painting. In Hoyland the English have, whether they like it or not, a figure of potential international importance, and it is a fortunate country indeed that can offer the promise of a painter like Hoyland and the fulfillment of a sculptor like Tony Caro.

To conclude these comments on recent British painting, one other name deserves at least passing mention, that of Jeremy Moon. Along with Richard Smith, Moon is involved directly with issues of the moment in American painting, but unlike Smith, Moon has yet to emigrate artistically to America. Smith’s work has become a regular part of critical discourse in America, so it hardly requires analysis in the present context. Moon’s, on the other hand, is somewhat removed from the sources it imitates and the issues which it confronts.

At present, judging from his work in the Stuyvesant collection, Moon is not a successful painter, but he appears to be a serious one. His work is largely dependent on Noland, Stella and Poons. It tends to compound issues of color, format, shape, geometrical scale and cadence rather than to shed any new light on these issues. Nevertheless, Moon’s ambitious efforts are to be commended and encouraged, in the same way as one would have encouraged Denny’s six years ago.

Kermit Champa