British Abstract Painting 2001
Flowers East, London, 14 July 2001 – 8 September 2001.

In his essay for the catalogue that accompanies this show, Matthew Collings comments that ‘The climate at the moment is fine for sensational art about issues, but less favourable for abstract art, particularly abstract painting. It seems impossible for a modern fashionable audience to find the idea of an aesthetic type of art excitingÖ’ Collings has his own way with fashionable art-criticism. The jaw drops at the brazen contradictions involved in the idea of a type of art that is not aesthetic. There is nevertheless something untimely about a major group show devoted to abstract painting in London. Publicity surrounding recent art in London has been dominated by Saatchi hype and a focus on neo-Dada objects. But even artists such as Damien Hirst have continued to produce paintings, often with a kind of pop nostalgia for abstraction. Julian Stallabrass’s recent book High Art Lite: British Art in the 1990s (London: Verso, 2001) provides a helpful attempt to puncture the uncritical celebration of knowingly lite art. There is nevertheless an evident crisis in the status of abstract painting and its criticism.

It comes as something of a surprise, then, that Flowers East can muster work by nearly seventy artists for this substantial show without exhausting the range of painters currently active. Some painters with long-standing reputations are represented, such as Gillian Ayres, Terry Frost, John Hoyland and John McLean. The paintings by these four artists reflect their established styles, though Gillian Ayres has perhaps made the most decisive attempts to surprise her admirers. Their respective oeuvres provide each of them with a relatively autonomous context of reception. Hoyland’s painting ‘Night Walk’ offers orange-pink contrasts in acrylics that have a volcanic, neon-luminosity redolent of artificial flavourings and poisonous e-numbers. Seen in the light of Hoyland’s work as a whole the painting is deliberately contemporary, even if his painterly idiom evidently reflects earlier developments and the articulation of a painterly career.

The more youthful painters in this show lack this historical context and struggle to generate a sense of significance. Their work appears more untimely and forced to develop styles in the face of the organised amnesia and indifference with which contemporary painting is received. In a sense, the conflict is between nostalgia for earlier, more heroic stages in the development of abstraction, and the uncertainty of contemporary painting. This uncertainty leaves some paintings torn between blithe indifference to their loss of contemporaneity on the one hand and an ironic quotation of what now seems historical on the other hand. The Mobius-strips come infinity-eights in Michael Brick’s untitled painting might be seen as affirmations of Zen-like meditations or as a reductio ad absurdum of Rothko-style ponderousness. Trevor Sutton, the painter who has curated the exhibition with the gallery, has been associated with Buddhist tendencies rather than with humorous pastiche. Such associations suggest that the show as a whole claims a certain gravity and seriousness rather than reflexive irony. Many of the paintings have a painstaking laboriousness which celebrates a conceptually organised materiality. The way many of the paintings almost ostentatiously cite idioms derived from Mondrian, Rothko, Frank Stella or Ellsworth Kelly nevertheless seems comic. The theatrical dimensions of Allan Boston’s painting entitled ‘Two by Three’ – 150 x 90 x 30 cms – are laughably geometric, for example, rather than conceptually adventurous. But it is hard to tell whether the slap-stick of size is deliberate. Derrick Haughton’s painting positions paint droppings at neat intervals like turds straight from the tube. The way these blobs stick out from the slick sheen of the canvas cannot but seem like a comic contrast between technical artifice and paint’s excrementality. But there is an awkward proximity between gimmick and cheeky conceptuality.

The surest way to avoid inadvertent whimsy is to stylize a minimalist geometry or optical reflexivity that is technically insulated or antispetic. The most beatific example of this tendency is provided by Ian Davenport’s circle-in-square painting which manages to be both Euclidean and joyous. Less lovable are the paintings by Douglas Allsop, Sue Arrowsmith, James Hugonin and Marc Vaux which highlight technical parameters that reprise the ends of op art and painterly conceptualism. Douglas Allsop’s ‘Reflective Editor’ does justice to its title but is not much more charming than a darkened mirror. Its material description – ‘Computer driven milling on acrylic sheet on aluminium section’ – points to the limits of ‘painting’ as the show’s generic concern.

The ongoing work of Bridget Riley, whose work is not represented in the show, reveals ways in which such tendencies might claim a distinctively ‘British’ quality. Estelle Thompson’s ‘Here and Now’ vibrates with a muted elegance that suggests affection for Riley’s work. A different kind of ‘British’ quality is displayed by the odd quirky title, like Andrew Bick’s ‘Nerd Theory (A)’ or Jane Harris’s ‘Bloody Mary’. Matthew Collings comments that a number of the paintings in the show remind him of brightly coloured tabelcoths from the late 70s and early 80s. More evident is the absence of connection with the idioms of contemporary design and visual culture. The dominant and productive influences are provided by New York painting from the 40s to the 60s. Michael Ginsborg’s ‘Collection’, for example, works both as a homage to de Kooning’s black and white paintings of the late 40s and as an independent world of lines, object and domestic tools. Gary Wragg’s ‘Blues, Red and Yellow’ evokes a later stage in de Kooning’s work, but also has its own specificity and restraint.

If the more heroic American abstract paintings go beyond the terms of hand and easel, many of these paintings are relatively domesticated. Many are simply not abstract enough, offering insufficiently determinate negations of nature, history and culture. The temptations of crass pastoralism and cosmic Platonism are more often toyed with than articulated. If the show as a whole is disappointingly eclectic and patchy, the variousness on show succeeds in showing the untimely conditions of contemporary painting and the lack of shared purpose in contemporary perceptions of abstract painting.

Michael Fried’s book Art and Objecthood (1998) offers a fascinating retrospective on his own experience of the impasse reached both by painterly abstraction and by art criticism in the early 70s. Many of the paintings in British Abstract Painting 2001 suggest that it is possible to continue making substantial paintings without quite addressing the historical crises involved. The generously illustrated catalogue for this exhibition cannot quite hide the loss of critical tension evident in the difference between Fried’s seriousness and the fashionable ironies of Matthew Collings. There is still a commerical market for abstract painting, and the curious can explore the price of these paintings and some illustrations on the website of Flowers East. This generates a new public space for abstract painting, despite the ironic loss of paint’s materiality. The availability of the virtual gallery as a market raises suspicions regarding the uncritical affinity between tasteful formalism and corporate avoidance of art’s loucher pleasures and social discontents. Such suspicions motivate some of the deliberately scandalous or sensationalist tendencies in recent art practice, even if the dialectics of modernism’s historicity are misunderstood by much playful conceptualism and student theatricality. Some of the most engaging paintings in this show, such as Basil Beattie’s ‘The House of Here and There’, are evidently figurative and painterly. The unavoidable moral is that painterly relish can best be sustained by embracing the traditions of studio-painting, rather than fleeing such traditions in favour of social and technical abstraction.


Copyright 2009, Drew Milne