Los Angeles

“New British Painters”

Feigen/Palmer Gallery

Many years have passed since Washington Irving could refer to “the indiscriminating bigotry with which some of our countrymen admire and imitate everything English, merely because it is English” and Emerson feel the need to attack the timidity of the American who had “listened too long to the courtly muses of Europe.” Although American Anglophilia is not entirely a dead issue in certain literary circles, its counterpart, the satellitic single-mindedness with which young English artists now look to the United States as the arbiter elegantiarum, is the current scene. The remarkable impact of the 1956 Tate exhibition, “Modern Art in the United States,” the Pollock retrospective at the Whitechapel Gallery in 1958, and, most important of all, the 1959 Tate showing of “The New American Painting” is ancient history in Anglo-American relations. Or so it seems. Pop, optics, and “post-painterly abstraction” have traveled much more quickly than their antecedents, and the repercussions have been immediate. Cross-Atlantic visits of such artists as Richard Smith, Peter Blake, David Hockney, Anthony Caro; exchange of American and British critics; the vocal presence in London of American born R. B. Kitaj; exhibits such as the Institute of Contemporary Arts “The Popular Image” and the widely attended Rauschenberg show at Whitechapel; and, bien entendu, the omnipresent force of mass media—all have contributed to rapid English assimilation of current trends. A much-noted exhibit of twelve of those young painters adopting the various post-abstract expressionist stances was organized by Bryan Robertson and the Peter Stuyvesant Foundation at the Whitechapel Gallery earlier this year; entitled “The New Generation,” it was described with no little humility by Robertson as “the most brilliant and important show of contemporary artists ever seen in Britain.” Members of the New Generation have been showing increasingly in New York and on the continent, have had the dubious distinction of a Time Magazine spread, and, now, are being given a Los Angeles exhibit. Included are examples of work by Derek Boshier, Gerald Laing, Richard Smith, Allen Jones, Bridget Riley, Peter Phillips, R. B. Kitaj, David Hackney, Phillip King, and William Tucker.

Boshier’s non-rectangular paintings exploit some of the possibilities of optical illusion. He creates three-dimensional effects through irregular shaping of the canvas according to perspective lines determined by the imagery used; he also tries for optical stimulation through reversible figure-ground relationships. In  Vegas, for example, a rhombic form is punningly superimposed over a “background” rectangle patterned in red and yellow zig-zags. His other large untitled canvas uses horizontal wavy bands of red and blue, which alternately become figure and ground, and which contain ropelike verticals swirling downward. Although Vegas comes on as mathematics, its overall effect is no less romantic than that of the wavy untitled painting. The surfaces of both are mat; the colors, supposedly influenced by a stay in India, are curiously muted, given Boshier’s apparent intentions. These paintings neither seek nor achieve the formal clarity and presence of the best American optical painting, but they do have an easy vitality. Boshier’s is an amusement park world, a funhouse geometry, even if he is finally not with it.

Bridget Riley’s austere black and white paintings, on the other hand, are more purely optical. One thinks of Bauhaus and Vasarely. Stretch, a square with geodesic longings and patterned in herringbone, is an impeccable exercise in rhythm and space. Hidden Squares cleanly presents checkerboard and polka dots in energetic interrelation. Though Miss Riley’s aspirations are modest, her paintings, within the formal limitations she sets, are highly satisfying.

Allen Jones’ two large paintings, Red Girl and Woman fail somewhere between soft Pop and Hard-Edge abstraction. His gynecomorphous imagery and sweetly attractive colors function less successfully in purely plastic terms than they do as Pop content; but the size of his canvases and the distortions employed force one to consider them in abstract terms as well. In Woman, for example, the blue, hard-edged shape which forms the backdrop for the female figure is uninventive and compositionally weak; the sexually allusive Jenkinsian forms within have a certain bravura art nouveau success, but no connection to what goes on without. The Leger legs of the Red Girl are another instance of forms that effectively startle as content, but offend in plastic terms—i.e., the sporadic illusionistic treatment of space has no formal justification. Jones’ lively series of prints, “Concerning Marriage,” is broadly comic in the Henry Fielding-Kingsley Amis tradition (the last print like the punch line of an old joke), the satire something less than Hogarthian.

During the early weeks of the show, only one small painting and two drawings by David Hockney (recently referred to as “Top Pop” in England) had been received. The painting, Wilshire Boulevard, Los Angeles, is charming in an artless way, but the two drawings demonstrate a superb feeling for line and an interesting wittiness. Peter Phillips’ involuted drawings stay closer to Pop, as do the NASA astronauts of Gerald Laing’s silver, red, and white postcards from American outer space.

This is a timely show, if not, unfortunately, a timeless moment in British art. The excitement of experimentation is too often tempered by imitativeness and a lack of virtuosity. Perhaps the New Generation is ripe for a British Scholar Address.

Nancy Marmer