Sunday, 6 November 2016


It ought, I think, to be better known that The World of Interiors has excellent visual arts coverage, with a mixture of book reviews, exhibition previews and well-informed gallery recommendations. So I'd thought I'd gather up my own contributions here (all are  
© The World of Interiors/ Condé Nast Publications)  

Djangoly Gallery, Nottingham 26 Nov- 19 Feb 2017; Pallant House, Chichester 11March - 11 June 2017

The story of many 20th century painters turns on their passage from a relatively conventional representational mode into the mature abstract style for which they become famous.  On the face of it, Victor Pasmore (1908-98) fits the expected narrative particularly well. Born in Surrey, his progress was slowed by the sudden death of his father in 1927, which forced him to earn a living as a civil servant rather than attending art school. Nonetheless, by the time war broke out in 1939, he had established himself on an amateur basis as a painter of assured landscapes, figure and still-life, and was a respected figure in the London art scene focused on the Euston Road School.

Pasmore at the Festival of Britain, 1951

Anne Goodchild, the curator of this survey of Pasmore’s work from the 1930’s to 60’s, says that ‘nothing seemed to suggest the radical change in direction his work was to take’. Yet, though it was very much against the London current of the time, that’s just what we do expect, looking backwards. Who, after all, who would remember Pollock or Rothko had they stuck to their early academic styles? What the 50 works brought together in Nottingham demonstrate is that Pasmore, more unusually, was a significant and original painter both before and after prior to his move to abstraction, and made many of his finest works in the transition. 
Snow Scene, 1944

Pasmore’s 1930’s work is attractive but in thrall to its post-impressionist sources. By 1942, though, he had forged a personal style. Snow Scene, 1944 is typical with its atmospheric calm counterpoised by vertical rhythms without reducing what Patrick Heron called ‘the vital communication: air, light, space’. Pasmore could have pursued such lyrical use of abstract patterning within representation to become a figure equivalent to, say, Sutherland or Piper.  Pasmore could have pursued such lyrical use of abstract patterning within representation to become a figure equivalent to, say, Sutherland or Piper. But in 1948, he discovered a painting made up only of coloured squares by Paul Klee – not essentially an abstractionist – and ‘decided straight away that this was the objective point from which I could start again’.

Spiral Motif in Green, Violet, Blue and Gold: The Coast of the Inland Sea, 1950

 The great spiral motif series of 1948-51 bring full abstraction to paintings organised as if they were landscapes.  These gave way to reliefs constructed from preformed industrial materials, embracing the machine age to ambiguate their space with quiet drama. Still, there’s room for doubt: they are in debt to the Bauhaus and, as John Berger said at the time, ‘remain slightly funny – looking like bathroom fittings’.
Relief Construction in White, Black and Indian Red, 1961
Pasmore’s constructivism was well suited to interacting with architecture (as at the Pilkington Staff Club) or feeding into buildings:  he spent much of 1955-75 designing housing units, road systems and the controversial but celebrated Apollo Pavilion for Peterlee New Town. That became the focus of his innovation: in the art there’s more of a sense of working through the discoveries of his ‘hot period’ of 1943-52 than of striking out afresh; and after moving to Malta in 1966, his paintings settled – perhaps a little too comfortably – into poured or sprayed colour leaning towards organic forms.  Yet that key decade, so evenly balanced between figuration and abstraction, makes Pasmore a significant figure in the history of British art.
Mural Relief 1958 at Staff Centre Pilkington Glass Works St Helens

Georgia O’Keeffe at Tate Modern

My Last Door, 1952-4

Various curatorial agendas might underpin a survey of Georgia O’Keeffe. Does she justify her status as far and away the most expensive female artist at auction (£29m for Jimson Weed/White Flower No.1, 1932)? Are her flowers sexual surrogates – a reading she consistently rejected, but which Alfred Stieglitz influentially asserted on the back of their passion as a couple? Is she making a case for female empowerment? Was she, secluded in New Mexico for her last 37 years and more fêted outside the art world than within it, an outsider artist of sorts?

Tate looks to put all that aside in favour of the question that matters: how good a painter was she? That hardly any of O’Keeffe’s pictures are normally in Europe underlines what an exceptional chance this 125-work retrospective provides for Britons to make a broad judgment. O’Keeffe had a long and productive life: 1887-1986, covering 17 US presidents. Yet she remains famous mainly for a small minority of her 800-odd canvases: flowers and animal skulls, with their surreal aspects open to erotic or existentialist interpretations. Those, though, are just two among many subjects that resonated with her, and which she abstracted in order to isolate their essence. Indeed, she pushed that agenda much further with her less familiar motifs: desert landscapes, the pelvis, views from an aeroplane (e.g. Sky with Flat White Cloud, 1962) and 20 versions of a wall with a door in it and paving stones in front (such as My Last Door, 1952-4).

Sky with Flat White Cloud, 1962

O’Keeffe said that she actually bought her rambling home in Abiquiú, New Mexico ‘because it had that door in the patio, the one I’ve painted so often. I had no peace until I bought the house’. That suggests the critical importance to her of an observational starting point, of working from the outside in – as opposed to her fellow New Mexican isolate Agnes Martin, who worked from inside out to distil the feeling of a place. The catalogue makes much of the anticipations in O’Keeffe of Abstract Expressionist and Colour Field painters, but one can see why Clement Greenberg didn’t buy into what he called her ‘pseudo-modern art’: O’Keeffe was coming from a different place. The same place, pretty much, as Ellsworth Kelly, as she herself acknowledged. But where Kelly dispensed with surface effects to investigate the painting as sculptural object, and pushed on to a point at which his works’ origins in the world became fully hidden, the mature O’Keeffe retained both painterly inflexions and explicit and eponymous subjects.

Pelvis I (Pelvis with Blue), 1944
What all those near-empty subjects lend themselves to is the projection of infinity, and the effect is reinforced by the way in which O’Keeffe moves directly from foreground (the bone of the pelvis, say, in Pelvis 1, 1944) to distance (the sky seen through the gap in the bone) with no middle ground. Where the flowers pitch us into a vortex, the more abstract works open out our perceptions. For all their differences in approach, much of O’Keeffe’s best work turns out to arrive somewhere not so very far from Rothko and Martin.

GEORGIA O’KEEFFE runs until 30 Oct, Mon-Thurs, Sun 10-6, Fri, Sat 10-10 

Dan Flavin in Birmingham

There’s something of a paradox at the heart of Dan Flavin’s work. He’s famous for arrangements of commercially available fluorescent light units in four standard lengths and ten standard colours -  pretty much all he produced from 1963 to his death in 1996, and all you’ll see at Birmingham’s Ikon Gallery (13 April – 26 June). Flavin insisted on his work’s literalness, saying – as cited by the show’s title –  ‘It is what it is and it ain’t nothing else’. And yet, in spite of his simple and consistent means, complexities accumulate.  

Pink out of a corner (to Jasper Johns), 1963
 First there’s the sheer variety of effects Flavin was able to generate once liberated – as it seems – by self-imposed constraints. For example, Pink out of a corner (to Jasper Johns), 1963 uses just one unit to disrupt our perception of space by eliminating the darkness from a corner. That contrasts with the chromatic riches of untitled (in honor of Harold Joachim) 3, 1977, for which the corner placement gives Flavin the room to mount six vertical fixtures facing back onto six horizontal fixtures facing forward, so that hot pink and yellow stands against a cool penumbral glow of blue and green – while both colour zones bleed to the side. Differently again, the comparatively austere series dedicated to the utopian revolutionary spirit of Vladimir Tatlin explores the many possible configurations of seven white units to build architectural effects.  

untitled (in honor of Harold Joachim) 3, 1977

Then there’s the matter of pinning down exactly what we’re looking at. Is it sculpture, drawing, painting in light, installation or just the functional means of illuminating the surrounding space? The primary aspect varies: untitled (in honor of Harold Joachim) 3 has many of the qualities sought by colour field painting, whereas Untitled (to Dorothy and Roy Lichtenstein on not seeing anyone in the room), 1968, shows Flavin as one of the first artists to think in terms of whole room installation: it illuminates a space from which we are barred, deflecting our attention to the architecture, and to the play on Lichtenstein’s 1961 painting I can see the whole room! ….and there’s nobody in it! The voyeurism of Lichtenstein’s man looking through a spyhole transfers to us.  

Untitled (to Dorothy and Roy Lichtenstein on not seeing anyone in the room), 1968

Those examples also illustrate the role played by Flavin’s titles, which alternately refer us to possible parallels, suggest meanings personal to Flavin, or make dedications to other artists which hover between homage and dry self-awareness of the potential for overblown comparisons. After all, Flavin’s style of “monument” – hence the quotation marks round those to Tatlin – has inbuilt impermanence: they can be turned off at any time and their parts need regular replacement. Is there also a spiritual aspect to Flavin’s eloquence? Light has a central symbolic role in the history of art, and even if he hadn’t trained as a priest before taking against religion, one can read Flavin as evoking ecstatic or transcendental states, whether divine, meditative, trippy, or even – as Pink out of a corner may suggest - sexual. 

"monument" for V. Tatlin, 1964

Is Flavin’s art, then, so straightforward? The Ikon provides a chance to decide whether we go along with his self-assessment - and the show’s own curatorial emphasis, or would sooner advance the counter-cliché ‘wishing doesn’t make it so’.

Phaidon's Ellsworth Kelly Monograph

Yellow with Red Triangle, 1973

This timely doorstep of a monograph (Phaidon £75, 368 pages, 350 colour illustrations, five contributors, 3 kg) provides a comprehensive overview of the painting and sculpture of the late Ellsworth Kelly (1923-2016), known for a 70 year production of rigorously colourful forms which brought him fame without ever quite placing him centrally in the story of art. Lead author Tricia Paik, assisted by Kelly’s collaboration and the availability of his archive, lucidly explains his development and critical reception over four chronological periods (leaving a quartet of renowned writers to focus on themes).  Her account of 1923-48 sets out Kelly’s background as a shy, stuttering boy from New Jersey, keen on bird-watching and drawing, who spent 1944-45 in the ‘Ghost Army’ of camouflage experts which deflected the German intelligence through such ruses as inflatable tanks. 1948-54 saw Kelly remain in France just as the New York art scene was taking off, facilitating the development of an independent style which came to maturity in New York City, 1954-70. Recognition was slow, but substantial by the time – in tune with his love of nature – he then moved upstate.

Blue Curve, 1994

Kelly has often been miscast as a follower of Mondrian or as a minimalist.  Yet Grünewald, Audubon and Picasso meant more to him. With none of Mondrian’s spiritual bent, the wellspring of Kelly’s art was always the world from which he abstracted shapes with the aim of catching the essence of an ‘already-made’. “My paintings don’t represent objects,” he said, meaning that he avoided graphic depictions of what he saw, “They are objects themselves and fragmented perceptions of things.” That’s the logic of multi or joined panel works, such as Yellow with Red Triangle, 1973; and fits how , for example, the relationships of form and colour in Kelly’s snapshot of a paper cup squashed underfoot can be traced to the typically voluptuous Blue Curve, 1994.

Spectrum V, 1969

Three main achievements emerge. First the sensuous derivation of abstraction, while avoiding the expression of the artist’s own hand which one might expect to go with that, is Kelly’s own. Second, he has a way with clarion colours. There isn’t a system (“I don’t know what I want”, he said, “ my eye does”) but as Richard Shiff points out in his essay, Kelly seems unusually able to ensure that his colours reach uniform saturation within such works as the Spectrum series or Yellow with Red Triangle, with its equal colour values. Third, as Gary Garrels explains, Kelly took masterful account of how his paintings engaged with the wall which formed their ground, and with their setting as a whole. That led him increasingly into sculpture and majestically-scaled intersections of art and architecture.

Ailanthus Leaves I from Suite of Plant Lithographs, 1966

That third achievement points to a limitation of this volume, as illustrations tend to make Kelly’s paintings look more like the minimalist works they aren’t. The spatial encounter with Kelly can’t be fully captured on the page, of course, though a higher proportion of installation views might have helped, plus perhaps a section on the plant drawings. Those, which Kelly made for over 60 years, provide a parallel history of how looking fed his simplifications. This book, then, is no substitute for the work - but if you want to make the most of experiencing that, here’s how.

Alexander Calder at Tate Modern 

The work of Alexander Calder (1898-1976) has rather disappeared in plain view: we’re used to the fact that every major museum has one of his famous mobiles, but find it easy to pass by without feeling particularly challenged. Tate Modern’s new show seeks to remind us of the radicalism behind making the sculpture move for us instead of us moving round the sculpture. It excludes the static ‘Stabiles’, which feature monumentally in many public squares, and the vibrant gouaches. Nor are there any films or re-enactments of how Calder employed his sculptures in dance and opera. The focus is determinedly on work interacting with the viewer: a substantial selection of Calder’s 200 mobiles, and the wire sculptures which led up to them.
The Brass Family, 1929

Calder was born – in Pennsylvania – into a lineage of sculptors, but delayed following in his father’s and grandfather’s footsteps, training as a mechanical engineer before something of an epiphany on a naval voyage to Guatemala in 1922: the sight of the sun and moon rising and setting simultaneously on opposite sides of the ship started him painting, and he enrolled in art college in New York. That awakening stayed with him; the basis of his work, he said, remained ‘the system of the Universe’, in that ‘the idea of detached bodies floating in space… some at rest, while others move in peculiar manners, seems to me the ideal source of form’. 

Red and Yellow Vane, 1934

Calder’s second source of fascination, arising from a journalistic sketching assignment in 1925, was the spectacle and choreographed action of the circus. He re-enacted its sequences through the 70 models of Le Cirque, 1926-30, which he housed in a suitcase to facilitate travelling performances.   Calder had begun using wire to bring his drawings of animals into space: Le Cirque uses this technique within its mixed media, and separate, larger works employ just wire. The Brass Family, 1929, is typical of those, both for wittily exploring the analogies between the balance of acrobats and the balance of sculptural weight, and for an erotic edge which led Calder to describe himself as ‘more ‘Sewer-realist’ than Surrealist’
Triple Gong, 1948

Those two inspirations meshed with the influence of the artists he met in 1920s Paris: Miró and Arp played a part, and Duchamp proposed the term ‘Mobile’ – but it was a visit to Mondrian’s studio in 1930 which led Calder to turn his love of motion and play towards abstraction. Now, too, his feeling for the interaction of the skies returns to temper those ludic instincts with an intimation of elemental energies. There is a long tradition of sculpture in movement – in religious processions, for a start – but Calder was the first to make sculptures perform by themselves. The restless mutability of his mobiles might stand for the experimental approach driving his art as a whole, which varies immensely across an oeuvre of 16,000. The most celebrated mobiles are delicate metal structures suspended from the ceiling, painted in primary colours and designed to move gently with the airflow like clouds drifting by (as there are no fans, the curators have taken pains to ensure that visitor movements will be sufficient to create the right degree of draught*). Other mobiles, though, are fixed to the wall or mounted on bases – such as Red and Yellow Vane, 1934, which is also simpler than most. The Tate’s show, then, is a chance to assess afresh the variety of spatial and kinetic effects Calder achieves through his universal circus of orchestrated movement over and around us.

* This was a preview: as it turned out, Tate failed miserably in this aim, delivering an embarrassingly static show

© The World of Interiors/The Condé Nast Publications 

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About Me

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Southampton, Hampshire, United Kingdom
I was in my leisure time Editor at Large of Art World magazine (which ran 2007-09)and now write freelance for such as Art Monthly, The Art Newspaper and Border Crossings. I have curated five shows in London during 2013-15 with more on the way.Going back a bit my main writing background is poetry. My day job is public sector financial management.