Patrick Heron

Tate Modern

Patrick Heron is at heart a modernist in the tradition of Roger Fry and Clement Greenberg: the seventy-odd pictures on view at the Tate Gallery charted a logic of space, color, and rhythm evolving over six decades. There was no postmodern irony here, no heavyweight subject matter, not even a hint of concerns beyond the two-dimensional arena of the canvas itself. It is this attitude that allows Heron to assert in the catalogue accompanying the exhibition that the decorative is “the height of art.” The painter’s entire enterprise represents a struggle to keep alive Matisse’s vision of art meant to soothe the eye and mind. The question that remains is whether Heron hasn’t just reupholstered Matisse’s proverbial armchair.

If the Tate’s show failed to reveal an artist whose work established him among the international giants of postwar abstraction, David Sylvester’s wise selection nevertheless made the best possible case for the painter’s talents—a major provincial figure who has created many works of great beauty and skill. While this outcome paled in the afterglow of recent London exhibitions devoted to Bonnard and Braque—two figures who have meant much to Heron—it still provided many old-fashioned visual delights in a climate too often dominated by joyless Damien Hirst take-offs.

The first room of canvases, beginning with the deft Cézanne-inspired Orchard, Lower Slaughter, 1936, covered Heron’s student years at the Slade (1937–39), the landscapes and still lifes resulting from his visits to Cornwall in the mid ’40s, and the quasi-figurative scenes executed during the early ’50s. Partly because their debts to Braque, Bonnard, and Matisse are disarmingly frank, partly for their display of painterly virtuosity, these pictures were among the most satisfying of all. Bogey’s Bar, 1937, is a remarkably sophisticated piece for a seventeen-year-old that outpaces the Euston Road School before it got underway by the time of Girl in Harbour Room, 1955, Heron had absorbed the School of Paris well enough to find his own voice.

The images that followed, apparently deriving from Heron’s confrontation with the New York School from 1956 on, are more contentious. Unquiet ghosts lurked about—echoes of Rothko’s rectangles, Newman’s zips, and Sam Francis’s ameboid patchworks. The artists’s polemical attitude toward Abstract Expressionism and Color Field painting—a debate over who did what first—has not helped us to see his achievements more clearly. The “stripe” series of 1957–58 may predate that of Louis—but the point is that the paintings don’t resemble Louis’s. Having first welcomed the New American Painting, Heron railed against its chauvinism during the ’60s, claiming New York had stolen the idea of British art. Yet in trumpeting the artisanal quality of his own methods by comparing them to Greenberg’s “academic” stable, Heron has just tended to highlight the extent of his own anxiety of influence.

In midcareer, roughly from 1961 to 1971, Heron came into his own. No matter what influences linger in Blue Painting, 1961–62—perhaps a marginal orange he from Still, an open rectangle from Motherwell—the stylistic authority of the picture is beyond doubt. The various blues assert a color space that is neither flat nor deep but has a pregnant quality, as though the format were almost too small for the charge of hue that it holds. The same applies to the stencil-like compositions in hot oranges and reds that continued into the ’70s. Judged alongside transatlantic rivals like Kenneth Noland, Jules Olitski, and Ellsworth Kelly, Heron’s style seemed organic and vulnerable. The discs and incurved shapes hover in the air like resplendent fruits, leaves, or rocks in a metaphysical landscape. In the mural-scale 1972 Big Cobalt Violet, the climax of this phase, Matisse’s cut outs seem to have collided with the Cornish coastline. and the marriage is a dazzling affair.

Had the retrospective ended here, it would have produced a settled (if incomplete) sense of Heron’s overall career. As it was, the final sections cast a question mark over where the painter’s work is headed. Personal crises took their toll on his output—the hiatus meant that not a single work from 1973–83 was represented—which in itself might be considered the typical juncture that signals the onset of an artist’s “late” style. In almost too pat a way, it did. Heron’s approach during the past fifteen years has involved a set of new departures. Figuration returned in the “garden” pictures. Large primed white areas appeared too, as did calligraphic patterns, while his palette shifted toward quirky pairings of lilac, lemon, and turquoise. At one level, the changes suggested an effort, rather like that of the late de Kooning, to remain fresh. On another, one suspects that Heron was taking stock of the neo-figurative tendencies of the ’80s, looking even to David Hackney’s California landscapes, for example, in the panoramic sweep entitled 19 July–12 August, 1994, 1994. If so, these belated maneuvers are an odd finale for the grand old man of British abstraction. But Heron’s long and fascinating route to that privileged place in a setting sun remains the real subject of this show.

David Anfam