PRINT December 1998


Patrick Heron

NOTHING IS MORE INSULTING to cultural monists than a successful two-track career. Patrick Heron has gone full steam ahead as artist and critic, thereby suffering nobly the ambiguities that attend the artist who writes. In his introduction to Painter As Critic, which gathers most of Heron’s criticism from 1945 (on Ben Nicholson) to 1994 (on Sam Francis), editor Mel Gooding quotes a 1958 letter to the artist from Herbert Read: “Your tactical mistake was to write so intelligently about painting. . . . It is not done by the real painters—it does not fit in with the public’s conception of the painter as a dumb ox.”

Artists with verbal gifts and sophisticated self-awareness do, of course, remain suspect. Robert Motherwell’s literacy, in the opinion of several colleagues, diminished his art. Muteness is reassuring, apparently, and it also facilitates the public’s indulgence of the artist as someone who is simultaneously superior and inferior, i.e., manageable. The same year as Read’s letter, Heron put the brakes on his art-writing and vowed “never again to write criticism.” When he returned to writing, several years later, he was a critic on a different mission’, of which more shortly.

Painter As Critic, which appears on the occasion of Heron’s Tate Gallery retrospective [see AF Nov. 1998], supersedes his Changing Forms of Art, published in 1955 at Read’s urging. Conflating various pieces on a particular artist or subject, that book offered some of the best postwar thinking on Picasso, Bonnard, and especially Braque; it also made a case for English artists for whom I happen to have had (at the time) a young man’s appreciation: Ben Nicholson, Graham Sutherland, Barbara Hepworth, Keith Vaughan, Victor Pasmore, Peter Lanyon, and others.

The equipment with which Heron serviced his insights at the time is out of fashion now—a canny formalism, an empirical edge, lucid prose, a fellow-tradesman’s knowledge of techniques, a passion , for painting attended by a kind of quasi- moralistic worrying. His equipment was suited to his task: to mediate between the best work he saw and local art, which he judged by the highest (transnational) standards. His recognition of what was important in pre- and postwar French art is almost faultless. No one is better at making fine discriminations in a Braque studio picture, justifying the compositional dissonance in a Matisse, or wrestling with a truculent Picasso. Heron is at his best with paintings, the experiencing of which he sees as dynamic, the eye’s alternating voltages and provisional gestalts opening a picture up to a variety of readings: “an eye-dance that can go on indefinitely, according to the relations your mind and eye are seeking out.” In the historiography of criticism, these judicious and fearless essays have earned a distinguished place, despite their occasional flaws, such as an exclusive commitment to relational painting, a suspicion of symmetry, and the belief that “abstract form is at its most potent when it has in some way incorporated into itself an unmistakable reference to an external object,” as he wrote in 1955.

How remarkable then was Heron’s reaction when he saw, at the Tate’s landmark “Modern Art in the United States” exhibition in 1956, an art that refuted these views. “Stunned” is not an exaggeration. He wrote the enthusiastic review ’The Americans at the Tate Gallery“ in March 1956, not for an English audience but for Arts magazine, at the invitation of its editor, Hilton Kramer, whose reception of the new American art was, shall we say, restrained. In that remarkable essay, Heron chides his London colleagues for their obtuseness, refers to Clement Greenberg’s ”brilliant Partisan Review articles," and exhibits a profound formal astuteness and an unusual ability to rethink his premises.

Twelve years later, when successive waves of American success were rolling across Europe, an irritated Heron wrote “A Kind of Cultural Imperialism?” for Studio International. He had already, in ’The Ascendancy of London in the Sixties“ (Studio International, December 1966), rebuked two young American critics (Michael Fried and Max Kozloff) for their dismissal of contemporary art that was not American. In the ’Imperialism” essay, he couples two critics of decidedly different gifts, Greenberg and Gene Baro, for the purpose of citing their ’pontificating pompousness,“ ”arrogance,“ and ”rudeness" (traits not unknown in Britain during its own period of empire).

Heron was stung by the harsh judgments visited upon a field (postwar English art) he had carefully reaped for thity years—particularly the art of his generation, certainly not a lost generation, but one that was mislaid in the hubbub of the ’60s. His two essays laid the groundwork for a revisionism that found its organ in the English journal Modern Painters. With some ingenuity, English painting was discovered to have preceded (influenced?) American practice (e.g., the work of Lanyon, a delightful man and a gentle artist, was used to diminish the achievements of Mark Rothko). Thereby were such large issues as the relationship between Europe and America, London and New York, reduced to petty antagonisms and condescension.

If Heron was originally a brilliant critic of the avant-garde, advanced art since 1970 remains to him a closed book. A conservative critic? By today’s standards, yes, but not in his attitude toward the writing trade. Gooding reports a comment by Heron: ’I use words to demolish the status of words . . . to that extent verbal consciousness about painting will float right out of your mind." It is a rare scrivener whose just suspicion of his medium inspires him to use words so that they can simply get out of the way of the picture.