PRINT October 1979

The Hayward Annual 1979

THE ARTS COUNCIL OF GREAT BRITAIN began to organize Hayward Annuals two years ago. The series is intended to “present a cumulative picture of British art as it develops,” and the selectors are changed annually. This year the selection procedure was changed too. The Hayward Annual 1979 was really five separately chosen shows in one. It was the best of the annuals so far: it even contained a whispered promise.

I want to look back. The 1977 show I found abysmal, the very nadir of British Late Modernism. The works shown were mostly those of the exhausted painters of the 1960s and their epigones. Even at their zenith these artists could do no better than produce epiphenomena of economic affluence and U.S. cultural hegemony. But to parade all this in the late 1970s was like dragging out the tattered props of last season’s carnival in bleak mid-winter. To my mind, the exhibition on a whole was not enhanced by the addition of some more recent conceptualistic work, or by the fact that four of the exhibiting painters—Auerbach, Buckley, Hockney and Kitaj—each showed at least some interesting paintings. Last year’s annual, selected by a group of women artists, was, if anything, even more inept. It was intended to “bring to the attention of the public the quality of the work of women artists in Britain in the context of a mixed show.” Some of Elisabeth Frink’s sculptures seemed to me to be good, though that was hardly a discovery. There was little else worth looking at.

It was in the face of the transparent decadence of British art in the 1970s, clearly reflected in the first two annuals, that a vigorous critical sociology of art developed. Writers such as Andrew Brighton and myself were compelled by history to develop in this way, given the absence, at least within the cultural “mainstream,” of much art that was more than a sociological phenomenon. We were forced to give priority to the question of where art had gone and to examine the history and professional structures of the Fine Art tradition. We attended to the mediations through which a work acquired value for its particular public. Andrew Brighton emphasized the continuance of submerged traditions of popular painting which persisted outside the institutions and discourse of modernism. I focused upon the kenosis, or self-emptying, which manifested itself within the late modernist tradition itself. This critical sociology of art was valuable and necessary, and it has not yet been completed. Yet it was not, in itself, criticism of art.

The sonorous Protestant theologian Karl Barth used to draw a sharp distinction between “religion” (of which he was contemptuous) and “revelation,” the alleged manifestation of divine transcendence within the world through the person of “The Christ,” by which he purported to be awed. Now I am a philosophical materialist; I have no truck at all with religious ideas, and what I am about to write is a metaphor, and only a metaphor. However, it seems to me that over the last decade it is as if we had been focusing upon the “religion” of art—its institutions and its ideology—not because we were blind to “revelation” but because it was absent (or more or less absent) at this moment in art history.

The problems of left criticism have, as it were, been too easily shelved for us by the process of history itself. During the decade of an “absent generation” and the cultural degeneracy of the Fine Art tradition, the question of quality could be evaded, one gray monochrome being rarely much better or worse than another. Indeed, in the 1960s and ’70s, the debate about value became debased: we saw how the eye of an “arbitrary” taste could become locked into the socket of the art market and the art institutions there, to become blinded with ideology and self-interest while yet purporting to swivel only in response to quality. But these are not good enough reasons for our indefinitely shirking the question of value.

In his book, Ways of Seeing (1972), John Berger distinguished between masterpieces and the tradition within which they arose. However, he has recently made this self-criticism: “The immense theoretical weakness of my own book is that I do not make clear what relation exists between what I call ‘the exception’ (the genius) and the normative tradition. It is at this point that work needs to be done.” I agree, but this “theoretical weakness,” runs deeper than an explanation of the relationship of “genius” to tradition. Works of art are much more uneven than that: often “moments of genius” are crowded with pedestrian and conventional works. But at such crucial points talk of “sociology of art,” “visual ideology,” or historical reductionism of any kind, rarely helps.

I believe neither that the problem of esthetics is soluble into that of ideology, nor that it is insoluble. Trotsky, thinking about the esthetic pleasure which can be derived from reading the Divine Comedy, “a medieval Italian book,” explained this by “the fact that in class society, in spite of all its changeability, there are certain common features.” The elaboration of a materialist theory of esthetics for the territory of the visual is a major task for the left in the future: such a theory will have to include, indeed to emphasize, those “biological” elements of experience which remain, effectively, “common features” from one culture and from one class to another. In the meantime, I cannot use the absence or crudity of such a theory as an excuse for denying that certain improbable works-with which, “ideologically,” I might be quite out of sympathy—are now beginning to appear in the British art scene that have the capacity to move me. When that begins to happen, it becomes necessary to respond as a critic again, and to offer the kinds of judgment which, since Leibnitz, have been recognized as being based upon a knowledge that is clear but not distinct, that is to say, not rational and not scientific.

Let me hasten to add that the 1979 Hayward Annual seemed to me no more than a confused and contradictory symptom. Nothing has yet been won. It is rather as if an autistic child whom one had been attending had at last lifted his head only to utter some fragmented and indecipherable half-syllable. But even such a gesture as that excites a hope and conveys a promise out of all proportion to its significance as a realized achievement. This was an exhibition which I am not inclined to reduce entirely to sociology: it was an exhibition where some works, at least, seemed to be breaking out of their informing “visual ideologies.” It was an exhibition where those “moments of becoming” which I have been ridiculed for speaking of before could, perhaps, be seen to be coming into being.

The five loosely labelled component categories of the exhibition were “painting from life,” “abstract painting,” “formal sculpture,” “artists using photographs” and “mixed-media events.” I want to deal briefly with each of these categories.

“Painting from life” consisted of the work of six artists chosen by one of them, Paul Chowdhury. Now it is easy to be critical of the style that dominated this section. Chowdhury’s selection looked like an attempt to revive an ebbing current of English painting on the crest of the present swell toward “realism,” i.e., in this instance, pedantic naturalism. Most of these artists have links with the Slade’s tradition of “objective” empiricism and, particularly, with that peculiarly obsessive manifestation of it embodied in the art and pedagogy of Sir William Coldstream. This tendency has its roots deep in the vicissitudes of British history, and in the peculiar complexion of the British ruling class. These things have not proved readily exportable, so I must ask my American readers to take my word concerning them. I do not wish to engage here in an analysis of the style: despite their affinities, the paintings of these artists did not comprise a homogenous mass. Indeed, the section was so uneven that one could only suspect that Chowdhury (who was certainly in the better half) sometimes allowed mere stylistic camaraderie to cloud his judgment.

Let me first clear the ground of work that failed. At 47, Euan Uglow is on his way to becoming an elder statesman of the continuing Slade tradition. This is hard to understand. His paintings were much more frigidly formalist than anything to be seen in the adjacent “abstract painting” room. In works like The Diagonal, Uglow de-cathects and depersonalizes the figures which he paints; to a greater extent even than Pearlstein, he degrades them by using them as excuses for compositional exercises. He seems so divorced from his feelings that he has not yet proved able to exhibit a good painting. Uglow, at least, has the exactitude of a skilled mortician. By contrast, the work of Norman Norris is silly and sentimental, using the trademarks of measured Slade drawing as decorative devices. In a catalogue statement Norris writes that he hopes to discover a better way of coping with the problem his drawing method has left him with. “For this to happen,” he adds, “my whole approach will have to change.” That much, at least, is true. Patrick Symons studied with the Euston Road painters; he is the oldest painter who was represented in this section, and his optic is also the most resolutely conservative. But, despite its extreme conventionality, his painting exhibits an amateurish fussiness and uncertainty even after all these years.

So much for the curios. There was really little comparison between them and work of the stature of Leon Kossoff’s. Kossoff is, as I have argued elsewhere, perhaps the finest of post-Second World War British painters. He springs out of a specific conjuncture, of postwar expressionism and a Bomberg-derived variant of English empiricism, which enabled him partially to revolve, or at least to evade, contradictions that destroyed Jackson Pollock. Kossoff’s sheer durability may come to exceed Pollock’s. But Kossoff transcended the conjuncture that formed him: his work never degenerated into mannerism. Outside Kilburn Underground for Rosalind, Indian Summer, 1978, is in my view, one of the best British paintings of this decade.

As for Volley and Chowdhury, they were the youngest artists in this section, and their work intrigues me. In Chowdhury, a lack of confidence in Slade epistemology is not just a repressed symptom; it openly becomes the subject matter of the paintings: if we do not represent the other in this way, Chowdhury implies, how are we to represent him or her at all? He exhibited eight striking images of the same model, Mimi. His vision is one in which, like Munch’s, the figure seems forever about to unlock and unleash itself and to permeate the whole picture (Chowdhury has realized how outline can be a prison of conventionality). In his work subjectivity is visibly acknowledged: it flows like an intruder into the Slade tradition, where it threatens (though never successfully) to swamp the measured empirical method. The only point of fixity, the only constant in these “variations on a theme,” is the repeated triangle of the woman’s sex. Both in affective tone and in their rigorous frontality, these paintings remind me of Rothko’s “absent presences,” (although Chowdhury is not yet as good a painter as that). In Chowdhury the fleshly presence of the figure is palpable, but its very solidity is of a kind that, particularly in Mimi Against a White Wall, seems to struggle against dissolution.

Volley, a “painterly” painter; is at the opposite extreme from Uglow. In his work the threat of loss is perhaps even more urgent than in Chowdhury’s. Over and over again, Volley paints himself, faceless and insubstantial, reflected in a mirror in his white studio. Looking at his paintings, I was reminded of how Berger once compared Pollock to “a man brought up from birth in a white cell so that he has never seen anything except the growth of his own body,” a man who, despite his talent, “in desperation . . . made his theme the impossibility of finding a theme.” Volley, too, knows that cell, but the empirical residue to which he clings redeems him from utter solipsism. He is potentially a good painter.

The “abstract painters” in this exhibition were chosen by James Faure Walker, who also exhibited his own work. Again, the five painters chosen had much in common stylistically, although the range of levels was almost equally varied. These are all artists who in one way or another have been associated with the magazine Artscribe, of which James Walker is editor. Artscribe emerged after the waning of Studio International, which was once the leading British modern art journal but which has progressively fallen apart since the departure of Peter Townsend in 1975. Much of the critical writing has shown a narcissistic preoccupation with style. Recently Ben Jones, one of the editors, organized an exhibition principally of the work of these Artscribe artist-writers, under the title “Style in the ’70s,” intending to confine his survey “to painting and sculpture that was uncompromisingly abstract—the vehicle for pure plastic expression both in intention and in execution.” Now this might be felt to be a wretched milieu within which to work and paint, and, by and large, I suspect it is. However, some artists—not many, but some—are looking for value in relation to experience.

Take the five artists in the Hayward show. Again, it is easy enough to clear the ground. The work of Bill Henderson and Bruce Russell seems to me the mere slipping back of a bit of slickly indeterminate illusionism into pedantic, dull formalist paintings. James Faure Walker himself is certainly better than that. He works with a confetti of colored gestures seemingly dragged by some esthetic-electric static force flat against the undersurface of an imaginary glass picture plane. The range of colors which he is capable of articulating seems disconcertingly narrow, and his adjustments of hue are often mechanical, as if he were working from a chart rather than allowing his eye to respond to his emotions. Nonetheless, the results are vaguely reminiscent of lily pools, Monet, roseate landscapes, Guston and autumnal evenings. Walker’s work is without the raucous inauthenticity of either Russell’s or Henderson’s.

The remaining two painters in this group—Jennifer Durrant and Gary Wragg—are much better. They are not formalists: just compare their work with Uglow’s, for example, to establish that. I do not get the feeling that they are stylistic opportunists or tacticians either. They have no truck with the punkish brashness of those who want to be acclaimed as the new trendies in abstraction. In fact, I do not see their work as being abstract in any but the most literal sense at all: they are concerned with producing powerful works which can speak vividly of lived experience.

Wragg’s large, crowded paintings present the viewer with a shifting swell of lines, marks, and patches of color: his canvases are illusive and allusive. Looking, you become entangled in them and drawn through a wide range of affects in a single painting. “Step by step, stage by stage, I like the image of the expression—a sea of feeling,” he writes in the catalogue. He seems to be going back to Abstract Expressionism not to pillage the style—though one is sometimes aware of echoes of de Kooning’s figures, “dislimned and indistinct as water is in water”—so much as to attempt to find a way of expressing his feelings, hopes, fears and experiences through painting. His work is still often chaotic and disjunct: he still has to find himself in that sea. But Morningnight, of 1978, is almost a fully achieved painting. Wragg’s energy and his commitment are aimed not at contingencies of style, but onto the real possibilities of painting. He is potentially a good artist.

The look of Durrant’s work is quite different. Her paintings are immediately decorative. They hark back, sometimes a little too fashionably, to Matisse. But the paintings are more than mere pleasures for the eye. I am certain that these pictures are redolent with affective symbols, not just in their evocative iconography but, more significantly, through all the paradoxes of exclusion and engulfment with which their spatial organizations present us. There is an indulgent looseness in some of Durrant’s works, and she must become stricter with herself: paintings like Surprise Lake Painting, February–March 1979 seem loose and unresolved. However, I think that already in her best work she is a good painter: she is raising again the problem of a particular usage of the decorative, where it is employed as something that transcends itself to speak of other orders of experience, a usage that some thought had been left for dead with Rothko.

Painters like Durrant and Wragg manifest that openness which is necessary at the moment. Like Chowdhury and Volley, they are conservative in the sense that they realize the necessity or reviving or preserving certain traditional conventions of painting. But they are all prepared to put them together in new ways in order to speak clearly of something beyond painting itself. Lévi-Strauss once explained how the limitation of the bricoleur—he who uses bits and pieces, remnants and fragments that come to hand—is that he can never transcend the constitutive set from which the elements he is using originally came. All these artists are, of necessity, bricoleurs: Lévi-Strauss has been shown to be wrong before, and I hope they will prove him so again.

Something similar is also happening in the best British sculpture. You can see it most clearly at the Hayward in Katherine Gili, where the debased conventions of welded steel have taken on board a new (or rather an old) voluminousness, in a struggle toward expressiveness. Imagery is flooding back. Such work seems on the threshold of a real encounter with subject matter once more, and quite a new kind of “figuration” may yet burst out from this improbable source.

The other two sections in the Hayward Annual, “artists using photographs” and “mixed media events,” seemed to me irrelevant to that flickering, possible awakening within the Fine Art tradition. The “mixed media events” were a waste of time and space.

There is just a chance that we may be coming out of a long night. Immediately after the last war, some British artists—most notably Leon Kossoff and Frank Auerbach—produced powerful paintings in which they forced the ailing conventions of the medium in endeavoring to speak meaningfully of their experience; as a result, their work was good. Some younger artists, just a few, now seem to be going back to that point again, and endeavoring to set out from there once more. They cannot, of course, evade the problem of the historic crisis of the medium. Whether they will be able to make the decisive leap from subjective to historical vision also yet remains to be seen.

But if what one is now just beginning to see does indeed develop, then, with a profound sense of relief, I will shift further away from “sociology of art” (which certain work has demanded, if it has demanded anything more than indifference) toward the experience offered by particular works, and the general problems of esthetics that such experiences raise. I hope that I will not be alone on the left in doing so. The desire to displace the work by an account of the work (which I have never shared) can only have any legitimacy when the work itself is so debased and degenerate that there is no residue left within it strong enough to work upon the viewer or critic—when, in short, it is incapable of producing an esthetic effect.

Peter Fuller