Leon Kossoff

Anthony D'Offay

Leon Kossoff’s first solo show in London since 1984 trod some familiar territory: there were images of friends sitting, resting, and sleeping, and observations of the Kilburn area of northwest London, where Kossoff lives. Familiarity, though, was no cause for disappointment, since it is precisely this insistent reworking of subject matter that marks the vitality of Kossoff’s art.

Included in the show were a number of studies of Christchurch, Nicholas Hawks-moor’s impressive Baroque structure opposite Spitalfields market in East London. Kossoff grew up in this area, and although he has been aware of the church’s powerful presence since his youth, this is the first time that he has painted it. It is seen in close view and in three-quarter profile, the all-but-monochromatic rendering of the building’s mass broken chiefly by the leaves of a nearby tree which crowd up into the sky behind. The time it has taken for Kossoff to come to this image, to find a way of bringing it into his art, appears entirely in keeping with the almost obsessive quality of his painting.

There is the temptation to speak about Kossoff’s work in terms of painterly “heroism.” In a sense it seems his paintings parade difficulty; the intractable problem of coming to terms with subject matter, of getting it right, can be seen time and again in the buildup of pigment. The outcome is often an image wrenched from unforgiving material. Yet, for all the over-painting, there is little that is gratuitous in Kossoff’s art. The difficulties that attend the discovery of a theme are not played up as painterly anguish, and the surfaces, although labor intensive, are rarely decorative, their substance allowing space for some delicate drawing.

What is satisfying, in fact, is the shift in drawing style across the range of Kossof's subject matter. In Portrait of John Lessore, 1987, the left hand consists of four darker lines gouged out of a flesh-toned mass, yet it rests on the right hand with a lightness of touch that belies its seemingly brutal genesis; in Peggy Resting, 1987, the head sinks back with an echo of Bernini’s Saint Teresa. A Street in Willesden, 1985, is, by contrast, almost a piece of naive documentary; people walk up and down a tree-lined street which recedes into the distance, a man sits to one side. The perspective, which is fairly conventional in the center of the scene, flattens out in the foreground, spreading movement across the canvas until the dog in the lower-righthand corner becomes no more than a two-dimensional template.

The railway which runs through Kilburn out into what John Betjeman described as “Metroland” has been a recurrent theme over the years. It resurfaces here in two studies of Kilburn underground station and a series of works under the general title “Here Comes the Diesel,” which show the trains themselves as they pass by at the bottom of the garden. Here Comes the Diesel, Early Summer, 1987, captures the right softness of light, but because the atmosphere is so powerful it points up the one feature that detracts from these paintings’ impact: the skeins of paint that Kossoff trails across some of his surfaces, which produce a distancing effect and air of artifice that, in softening the works’ impact, ultimately sweetens their tone. In this respect they can appear almost too indulgent. The lightweight web which sits in front of an image (particularly in the diesel paintings and the studies and portraits of Chaim)seems to have little to do with its subject matter or, indeed, the fundamental way in which that subject matter has been treated. It is, rather, a kind of painterly knack, a show of technique and facility, which tends to obscure the better aspects of the work. Attention is directed from the painting itself toward the activity which produces it, and in this way heroism is invited to return as a parody of its Modernist self.

Michael Archer