Frieze Masters 2022
Essay by Martin Gayford
Read the essay from writer and art critic Martin Gayford, who collaborated with Marlborough London for the upcoming Frieze Masters 2022 booth, ‘Modernist and Mavericks’
September 29 2022
David Hockney’s response when asked to characterise the London art scene in the 60s was ‘abstraction ruled’. In some ways that is correct, but as Hockney’s contemporary at the Royal College of Art, Allen Jones, observed, he and his generation found it very hard to ‘dump illusionism’.
This was the basic division in British art of those years, as I discussed in my book Modernists & Mavericks. But there was not a ‘hard border’ between abstract and figurative art, more a fuzzy, permeable frontier zone. Many artists crossed from one side to the other and a few preferred to linger in the fertile zone in the middle.
Young Frank Auerbach noticed that certain artists, such as Kandinsky, seemed at their best at the moment of passing from figuration to abstraction. So, he concluded, “It’s the process of abstracting that makes for the tension and excitement. So I thought the thing to do is to cross that border again, and again and again”. David Landau Seated, 2002-2003, with its combination of vehement, gestural brushstrokes and close observation from a living model, is right on that dividing line where a picture of nothing mysteriously morphs into an image of something. There is a similar maelstrom of paint in Leon Kossoff’s A Street in Willesden No. 2, 1983, applied to a subject from mundane reality. An artist, Kossoff remarked, is supposed to make a world of their own.
Euan Uglow, who invariably worked, slowly and meticulously, from life – often naked models posed in accordance with Euclidian geometry – acknowledged that if pictures are not abstract in ‘the sense of a thing living in itself’, ‘they’re no good at all’.
On the other side of the figurative/non-figurative division, Gillian Ayres – an avowedly abstract painter – nonetheless found that, willy-nilly, affinities with landscapes and objects appeared in her pictures. Works such as Scud, 1961, and Untitled (Scatter), 1969, might put one in mind of a list she made of her favourite things, including: ‘jelly moulds, Mrs Beeton’s ice cream and cakes, finials and crockets, lichens and seaweeds’.
Victor Pasmore, Ayres’s old teacher at Camberwell School of Art, long adhered to a crisply geometric, constructivist idiom after dramatically ‘going abstract’ in the late 40s. But he too was attuned to the changing times. The large, rounded forms of works such as Brown Development No. 3, 1964, have a distinct connection with Ayres’s paintings of the period.
By the early 60s Francis Bacon was internationally acclaimed. Nonetheless, he too remained alert to the rapidly shifting art scene. It was at this point that Bacon borrowed the strong, bright colours and sharp lines of 60s ‘hard-edge’ abstraction - and continued to use them for the rest of his life as a backdrop to his dramatic, loosely painted and expressively distorted figures. In this way he combined abstraction and figuration in one work such as Study from the Human Body - Figure in Movement, 1982.
So too, in a very different idiom, did Pauline Boty. Her Cuba Si from 1963, uses images from a documentary of the same title by the French director Chris Marker. But Boty so to speak collages her imagery, including a film still, into a setting of bold circles and colours which could easily belong in an abstraction.
Indeed, much of the best British work of the period was done on the abstract/figurative boundary that Auerbach described. The beautiful strong blue of Patrick Caulfield’s Girl on Terrace, 1971, for example, might have been lifted from an Yves Klein monochrome. But here Caulfield has also played brilliant games with the paradoxes of representation. With a few lines, a patch of black and a spot of white, and – hey presto! – he conjures up a figure at a table.
Similarly, Joe Tilson’s wooden relief Zikkurat 5, Stairway to the Stars, 1967, is very nearly an exercise in hardedge geometry except it also quite clearly has the shape of a Mesopotamian monument. This points to another artistic dividing-line which also was frequently crossed by artists in these years: the one between two- and three-dimensional art, painting and sculpture.
In First Step, 1966, and similar works, Allen Jones was determined to break the rules set by some modernist critics whereby a painting should be as ‘flat’ as possible – that is, with no illusion of space or form. In rebellion, Jones aimed to produce ‘something very tactile and grab-able’. This painting of a pair of female legs is determined to stride out from the canvas, in fact its picture is attempting to become a sculpture.
Frank Bowling was a contemporary of Boty, Caulfield, Hockney and Jones at the Royal College of Art and for a while a member of Bacon’s circle. During the 60s, his journey took him from powerfully expressive figurative pictures such as the early Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, 1961, to pure abstraction, then finally into three dimensions, a development which makes him one of the emblematic artists of the period.
The mid-20th century was an exuberantly creative moment in British art and one about which there is still much to discover. As we move into the future and look back from a fresh vantage point, its contours change. Unexpected affinities emerge, once overlooked figures reappear. That’s one reason why, to quote Hockney again, ‘good art is always contemporary. We keep on seeing new things in it.
Martin Gayford, 2022