For all those painters who, like myself, can’t always be bothered to read articles from end to end but want to know the gist straight off... here it is, under four rough headings, (then you needn’t wade in any farther) P.H. :
1. The world-wide dissemination of scandalously chauvinistic, inaccurate, and insanely inflated opinion as to the quality, value or stature of every kind of American art continues to gather momentum everywhere: almost all the younger British contributors to Studio International now stuff their articles with the names of American painters and sculptors to illustrate this, that or the other general point, points which could very often be far more intelligently illuminated by reference to British example and achievement—but to do this would be to jump off the critical bandwagon...And most of them are by now unaware that they’re on it...
2. The increasing American occupation of all the more prestigious exhibition spaces in London continues apace: the height of the summer season of 1969 saw the Tate, the Hayward and the Whitechapel given over to American or American-dominated exhibitions. But this last summer was even worse. Look up the score for yourself—unless you can’t remember, because it seems so natural to you that American painting should hog the London limelight in May, June, July, August each year. And young British critics now preface their reviews of retrospectives by American artists who are themselves still in their early 30s and 40s by suggesting that they have been a long time arriving in London! One reason why these critics’ vocabularies are so dominated by American examples is that London just doesn’t get around to showing British art on anything like the same scale. As far as I know London has never seen retrospective exhibitions by: Robert Adams, Kenneth Armitage, Trevor Bell, Peter Blake, Reg Butler, Patrick Caulfield, Lynn Chadwick, Bernard Cohen, Robyn Denny, Elizabeth Frink, Terry Frost, Patrick Heron, Anthony Hill, Roger Hilton, Paul Huxley, Allen Jones, Justin Knowles, Kenneth Martin, F.E. McWil- liam, Eduardo Paolozzi, Bridget Riley, William Scott, Joe Tilson, William Turnbull, Michael Tyzack, John Wells, Brian Wall or Bryan Wynter. Clearly this isn’t a list dictated by personal taste. But nearly all these artists are older than Frank Stella; all have shown internationally; many have done so with resounding success. How on earth can the younger British artists and critics be expected to know what’s been done in this country in the last twenty years in the absence of retrospectives by artists such as these? Meanwhile the critics all fall flat on their faces in front of Stella—now aged thirty-four. (Did I count no less than four long separate articles in The Guardian on Frank Stella this year? Or was it only three?)
3. An amazing retrospective by Trevor Bell, mounted by the Richard Demarco Gallery last June, seen later in Belfast and finally in six enormous and beautifully spacious rooms at the Mappin Art Gallery, Sheffield this autumn will not of course come to London. But it proved to me that after six years in the wilderness Trevor Bell has achieved a major breakthrough in the field of the shaped canvas and is an infinitely greater painter in every way than Frank Stella.
4. The stainless steel and concrete sculpture with occasional planes painted in white acrylic—in a word the “dimensional painting” of Justin Knowles, seen at the Serpentine Gallery in August (and again soon in a retrospec- tive at the Museum of Modern Art, Oxford and the Arnolfini, Bristol; and both the Knowles and Bell exhibitions have off-shoot shows at the Park Square Gallery, Leeds) is eloquent, fertile and commands a sheerness of image that is absolutely masterly compared with the pompous rhetorical emptiness, the sloppy construction and the arbitrary choice of sheet metal (usually too thin for the job it has to do) of the almost flopping boxes of Don Judd at the Whitechapel. The only hope for Judd’s present idiom would lie in an immaculate perfection of physical realization of idea. But what do we find? Boxes with or without six sides which look as though they are falling to pieces along the edges, having been assembled, it would appear, by the equivalent of an underpaid garage hand who couldn’t care less about any sort of real toughness of construction; and as for “finish,” the mere concept would be laughed out of the assembly shed...(I know—“concept” alone is supposed to be enough; but it isn’t—if only be- cause the concept of the concept isn’t good enough, in Judd’s case anyway).
I would like to see criticism starting all over again. It should try to detach itself from promotion and from the vast distortions of what might be called “received status values.” The English newspaper critics are so superbly sensitive to the “status value” they are intended, subliminally, to “receive” in the case of American artists that they hardly ever get it wrong! But real detachment is of course not quite possible in the final analysis. Nevertheless, instead of assuming that Motherwell is a far greater painter than, say, Roger Hilton—which he is not, though he is a very good one—or instead of assuming that De Kooning is a great world master and Peter Lanyon is just a nice Cornish landscapist—criticism should really compare; it should also try to remember the facts. British critics dismissed Peter Lanyon (who was perhaps a great painter) at his memorial retrospective at the Tate some years ago as a mere imitator of De Kooning; whereas the facts were that Lanyon’s Tate show was painted before Lanyon or anyone else in Europe had even heard of De Kooning—or indeed of any American painter except Pollock. Again, to judge by De Kooning’s Tate retrospective (and its catalogue), De Kooning did not seriously turn to landscapes until immediately after Lanyon’s first major one-man show in New York—and even then he at first used Lanyon’s colours of the period; i.e. dirty green, dirty white and dirty Cornish cerulean—so that I once thought, in New York, that I had come across some rather over-relaxed Lanyons, when I was in fact looking at some new De Koonings.
One more doubtless troublesome observation: those later muddy Olitskis at Kasmin’s had edge-conscious de- vices deriving directly from English middle-generation gouaches (the whole edge-consciousness of Michael Fried, Olitski and Noland derives from the English middle generation of course, an historical fact I will enlarge upon sometime); but in particular there was a single wobbly chalk line, very English, drawn wanderingly down from top to bottom of the canvas just inside the right-hand edge in one Olitski; and a sort of pale wedge-shape—a wedge with its tip broken off—obtruded horizontally inside and along the top edge here and there (English gouaches again), but no certainty of feeling; no spontaneous authority.... All in all I think the time has come to recognize that the values inherent in the most successfully promoted American art today are fundamentally at variance with those which inform the best British painting and sculpture of the present time. Perhaps many will have noticed that most of those British painters and sculptors who have recently gained the support of New York are artists whose visible links with established Americans are most obvious; that is to say, what the Americans support amongst the British are idioms which can be related to American prototypes—but always related in such a way that they appear to have derived in large measure from American sources. So, in giving them support, American critic-promoters are achieving two objectives at once: they are encouraging near-disciples over here and thus colo- nizing whole areas amongst the British; they are also establishing enormously effective bridgeheads for the further expansion of the reputations of their own artists (whose status as world masters they are now trying very hard to establish, don’t forget) and in effect dominating the future development of younger British artists. In all this what they are really doing, of course, is creating a new international academicism based on New York. When a leading American critic observes that today the avant-garde has “taken over” what he charmingly calls the “foreground of the art scene,” what he should of course be realizing is that the kind of art he has lately been guilty of promoting is not avant-garde at all—but academic to the core. Only an academic and to all appearances a mass-produced art could possibly succeed in appearing in the foreground of the international scene in such a massive way, quantitatively speaking.
What are the characteristics of this new American-promoted international academicism? How does it differ from the most important productions of our own artists at this moment? Can it be that the Americans—as they are trying with much success to brainwash us all into accepting— really do have a monopoly on the new, the ad- vanced and the forward-looking in the art of the present time? Is it true that the best painting and sculpture in Britain is always inevitably “behind” whatever it is that the Americans happen to be doing and promoting— at a given moment? Or is the reverse of this frequently the case? Have there in fact been numerous silent occa- sions when the British have taken the lead in various respects—a lead which has gone unheralded over and over again? Has the inventiveness of British artists been capitalized by the Americans at the very same time as it has been ignored by those in Britain whose business it should be to spot it and shout about it? I am afraid that I am convinced that whereas the British at this very moment excel in creative inventiveness (I have strong views about the present condition of British art schools: to me they are seething with the most brilliant activities and achieve- ments; a whole new generation in this country is demonstrating a potential in all the visual media simultaneously which has no equivalent anywhere else in the world—but this is another question) what the Americas excel in is organizational power on an unprecedented scale in the sphere of cultural promotion. What British artists are up against at this moment is not the competition of a school of American artists of overwhelming brilliance; but a gang of American art promoters whose Madison Avenue techniques of publicity, whose ruthless cultural chauvinism and whose positively Wall Street financial resources combine to form a giant steam roller in front of which the gentlemanly scholarship, the fair-minded openness to persuasion and the congenital predilection for backing foreign products first of what we must crudely refer to as the English critical establishment renders British art totally defenseless...defenseless in all but the most important respect: that is, the evidence of their actual work. But those works do have to be seen, not once but many times. Hence the crying need for all those retrospectives. Today one notices also that very little writing about American art, coming from the Americans themselves, is now devoid of promotional content. Take William S. Rubin’s catalogue for the touring Frank Stella show: the highly ingenious arguments, all apparently impersonal, objective, not to say pseudo-scientific, are in reality highly promotional, undisguisedly pompous and fatuously over-documented; there is a spurious weightiness about this exceedingly elaborate production (176 pages!) put out by the Museum of Modern Art, New York, all of which seems to stem from a desire to suggest to the world at large that the natural comparison in discussing the artist, who as I say is still only thirty-four, would be none other than Henri Matisse! Amongst the endless pages of notes one finds remarks like this: “Motherwell’s work was first drawn to Stella’s attention by Darby Bannard.” Speaking as one who helped to draw the world’s attention to Motherwell in the mid-fifties, I can’t help wondering how the youthful Stel- la had failed to notice the existence of one of America’s tiny handful of truly masterly painters without the help of his friends! There have even been certain American commentaries on Matisse lately which rather imply that that great painter’s ascendency is a sort of byproduct of current American thought and practice, rather than the other way about. If certain arguments are repeated over a sufficiently wide area, and if the works of certain artists are reproduced in thousands of publications in the western world (and timing is the essence of such operations) de- gree of general acceptance of both is generated with such effectiveness that, especially in the minds of the younger generation, both the works and the arguments simply appear to be facts of nature; and the arguments are there, of course, to give the verbal credentials which insist upon the values which it is intended we shall all attach to the works—works without the arguments might not make it alone. So one reaches the appalling conclusion that the efficiency of the modern machinery of art promotion is now so great that the physical objects chosen to become the subject-matter of the promotional exercise may be selected with something approaching total arbitrariness. Anything can be successfully promoted now... but only for the time being, I firmly believe.
One of the most important painters working anywhere today is Trevor Bell, and Bell’s first experiments in what we now call shaped canvases began in the late fifties. The truly remarkable canvases which floated on the walls of the six large rooms at the Mappin Art Gallery have recently been very slowly but consistently arrived at. As far as I am concerned they are far and away the most original and successful shaped paintings—which remain paintings— to have been produced anywhere. But the task of justifying this judgement and of explaining, even to myself, the reasons for their very great power and beauty is daunting in the extreme, because so much about their construc- tion, their literal appearance and colour is unique and therefore outside existing terms of formal comparison and analysis. And here again one reflects that Stella, like so many Americans, is not only not difficult to describe in verbal terms of extreme precision, but those terms, one feels, have actually preceded, in Stella’s case, and that of other Americans, the painting of the works they are used to describe. American painting seems, quite simply, to be the materialization of concepts, both geometric and verbal; British painting continues a European tradition that is utterly opposed to such ratiocinative domination of the visual—in a word, it remains based in intuition and sensibility. Only through intuition can we discover those ‘new unities in asymmetric and diverse complexity’ to which I referred just now and which alone confer on the art of painting its vast importance as a means for extending our visual consciousness in an age that is oppressively dominated by all-too-wellunderstood pseudoscientific techniques. Although there was a short time, just before and after 1950, when American painting occupied the vanguard of pictorial discovery with the emergence of an ‘open’ and large-scale idiom in which the radical and the inventive were still fused with intuition and sensibility (and I and my friends were the first Europeans to recognize and proclaim the fact) the British middle generation and their younger British successors long ago took over the leading role in western painting, leaving most of that first generation of New York moderns going merely ‘into production’ (only Newman, Motherwell and Rothko surviving as truly masterly painters) and the younger New York generation skipping from gimmick to gimmick, or falling into the deadly academic colour painting which I am in part discussing in this article.
One of the most extraordinary things about Trevor Bell’s great shaped canvases at Sheffield was the way they hovered flat against the wall in spite of the fact that their silhouettes are apparently somewhat sculptural and are also almost invariably irregular and asymmetric— and in spite of the fact that there was probably not more than one pair of right-angles or one horizontal canvas-edge in the entire show. Obviously a shaped canvas dominated by verticals and horizontals, among its bounding edges, will seem tied to the wall that supports it. This sense that the plane of the work’s surface lies parallel to the wall can always be partially secured by vertical and horizontal edges and even by such variants as 45-degree edges. One also knows that an irregular silhouette, such as a torn piece of paper may have, can likewise be made to feel parallel to the wall if the divisions between the colour-areas upon its surface are themselves rectilinear in formation, imagine a tartan configuration on the torn paper. But Trevor Bell’s shaped canvases not only indulge in a very great variety of angles of edge (including curves of all kinds and curves made up of jointed straight lines) so that the total silhouette of a piece such as Wight 1968 (acrylic on canvas on board, 72 x 182 in.) is both ‘organic’ and extremely subtle; but the divisions between colour-areas within the total silhouette are also almost invariably in the form of diagonals converging, and are productive therefore of attenu- ated wedge-like divisions of the surface which, as everyone knows, are the strongest symbols for three dimensional perspectival realities—and as such the sort of shapes most destructive, one would have thought, of the flatness of the painting’s surface. Yet the fact remains that none of Bell’s wedges fails to lie flat. What one can say with certainty is that had such perspectival ‘wedge shapes’ been organized symmetrically in any way, then the surface of the canvas would have heaved up and down like a relief map. The organization of the divisions between the colour- areas and of linear divisions within those colour-areas has been adjusted by the subtlest intuition so that they balance (and it must have been unforeseeable until it happened in each case) in a state of perfect equilibrium and stillness. Equilibrium and stillness, it has always seemed to me, are prime attributes of the greatest painting which, for instance, always resolves signs and symbols connoting literal movement and thrust (for example all acute angles, such as abound in Trevor Bell’s work) into designs which are in themselves majestically motionless and flat.
Another way in which Bell seems unique lies in his overcoming the very great divergence of style and feeling which would have seemed to exist between the sharply drawn silhouettes of the canvases and the extremely rich and soft textures of the painted surfaces themselves. Bell has always been able to handle the painter’s traditional media with an authority, fluency, subtlety and power that the greates of Abstract Expressionists would have envied. He is, as they used to say, a born painter—the most gifted, in this sense, of his generation. It has taken him years to achieve a personal vehicle for combining what used to be called painterliness with structural interests of the most radical kind. But the present series of shaped canvases are the brilliantly original evidence of his success in achieving this amalgamation of apparent opposites.
The sculptural element in Bell’s work is really reduced to a matter of silhouettes—only a handful of the smaller works project more than a few inches from the wall and in all the larger ones, where his main achievement lies, the only literal three-dimensional reality is in the depth of the stretcher as revealed by its edges. And here also there is an innovation in certain works, the canvas edge consisting of a bevelled plane slanting back inwards against the wall behind the canvas, this bevel being painted a bright color in contrast to a dark picture surface. The bevel is therefore invisible and one’s only awareness that it is there comes from the unexpected reflected glow which it casts on the wall behind and around the painting—a fairly perceptible halo of coloured light. There are other instances of this kind of inventiveness. A sort of juggling with the silhouettes takes place, for instance, in Split Jet, 1970 (acrylic on canvas, 89 x 172 in.) where a gigantic Concorde-like dart is sliced vertically, somewhere to the right of centre, and the longer nose then placed on top of the shorter tail; the line where it was cut now continues the slightly less than vertical edge which was the back of the tail. Or there is the great red Folded Painting, 1970 (acrylic on canvas, 67 x 214 in.)—acquired by that enlightened establishment, the University of Stirling—where this juggling with sliced darts is taken still further. It is as though two darts of unequal lengths were joined back to back; the right-hand one having been cut vertically somewhere to the left of centre, the nose-end seems then to have been folded back along the top of it: the slightly smaller left-hand dart has merely had its tip snipped off and similarly folded back along the top edge (the direction of each point now being reversed). But it is only by con- sciously setting out to analyse the physical construction of this highly asymmetrical total image that we even realize the facts outlined in the above physical information, because what assails our consciousness is not a sculptural form at all but a great floating irregular unified silhouette, internally structured in terms of bands and expanding wedges, both wide and narrow, of red, together with two distinct blues. Our eyes, starting over and over again at the fold-like crack running down the canvas’s centre of gravity—which is not literally the centre of this painting—continually explore, to right and left, the always unequal and asymmetric wedges, measuring them against each other endlessly in a sort of compulsion to disprove the cunningly suggested threat of the boredom of pure symmetry breaking out here or there. It is a remarkable and tantalizing balancing act that keeps our eyes moving perpetually over and across and around the truncated dart-shapes, or the double cantilevered wedges, or the twin mirrored joined polygonal shapes (Copper, 1969, acrylic on canvas, 120 x 137 in.) in which, though equivalent sides were the same in length, the twin wings of the piece seem asymmetric because all those radiating lines cre- ated on the twin surfaces, by being painted there, are irregular in their placing and differ in width and texture, each from the next.
Why, then, do these shaped canvases of Trevor Bell’s, which have been shaped with a vengeance indeed, escape so completely from the offence I described earlier on—the offence of fruitlessly involving the spectator in a useless search for that formal significance in the surrounding walls which alone would complete the experience the canvases themselves give promise of—but only a promise? I should say, by the way, that in a photographic reproduction, where the necessary expanse of surrounding wall-space is omitted from the plate, the qualities of flatness and saturation, and of a hand-manipulated density of image, which give these works their feeling of strength and self-sufficiency, doesn’t altogether come over, of course. I think Bell’s canvas image, dominated by triangles, and almost devoid of the vertical and horizontal edges which implicate the surrounding architecture, succeeds in con- taining within its own silhouette all the architectonic energy which it generates. The canvas itself is of course the total image. It does not reach out to the architecture for support. For its full meaning to be enjoyed no section inside each of these canvases— no line, no colour-area, no curve or point— needs to be echoed or reinforced (or contradicted, for that matter) by such extraneous formal elements as the horizontal line above, which is produced by the wall meeting the ceiling; or by the vertical, away to the left or right, which is where the wall comes to an end by meeting another wall. The great formal equation, which each work is, is already solved within the edges of its own image. Bell’s shaped canvases are thus describable as centripetal images, in contrast with all the best-known shaped canvas images produced so far, which , as I have already suggested, are centrifugal in their action. But in addition to this there is a further reason for their great self-sufficiency as images (meaning their ability to hold the eye, and keep it satisfied, instead of causing it to wander off into the corners of the ceiling), and that is in their quality of surface. Those surfaces are hand painted—and by a masterly hand. I have myself always be- lieved—through a decade of spray guns and rollers and other methods of applying paint so that it was clinically impersonal, literally dead flat in quality—in the handstroked, hand-scribbled, hand-scrubbed application of paint, putting paint on a flat surface with a brush is just about the greatest possible pleasure I know. But no two artists can overlap in their nervous brush-writing. Further, hand-done paintwork—meaning the covering of areas, large and small, in paintings—is an infinitely powerful and subtle means for giving a colour-area its precise spatial function; you can manipulate space in dozens of different ways by the varied ways in which you paint-out an identical area-shape with an identical color-mixture. The mere brushwork of an area endows it with differing kinds of space-creating power. You can weave it thick and tight, dense and opaque, in mutually self-obliterating heavy loops, for instance, which force the plastic plane which we sense in the skin of color back on to the canvas—back right through it perhaps. Or the pigment can be semi-transparent, more lightly and rapidly applied, full of nerv- ous flicking movements which seem to pick up the colour-area as if it were a blanket and hold it (illusionistically of course) a fraction of an inch in front of the actual surface of the canvas. The actual scribble of the application can be infinitely varied; and can have (must have) a thousand differing effects, laterally, as a formal force influenc- ing the apparent shape of all adjacent areashapes in the painting. There is the incredible pull or push one can exert on a flat area-shape by the way one’s brush—yes brush—churns a uniform colour-mixture in an adjacent area. Again, one may find one has induced a sort of life or vibration, in itself pretty unanalysable, in an apparently flatly painted, apparently uniformly smooth paint-area by a paint application which vanishes when dry, except that the brush-scribbles remain semi-visible in relief only. Last year my fifteen- foot canvases, involving sixty or more square feet of a single colour, were painted (in oil paint) from end to end with small Chinese water-colour brushes. But one doesn’t handpaint for the sake of the “hand-done”; one merely knows that surfaces worked in this way can—in fact they must—register a different nuance of spatial evocation and movement in every square millimetre.... This digression was intended to illustrate the point that Trevor Bell’s hand-painted surfaces hold the interest of the spectator in their own right as painted surfaces; and that this is another reason why one’s eye is detained indefinitely within the shaped canvas itself in Bell’s case. This is the role of sheer quality; it detains the eye and induces that lingering of the gaze, that visual meditation which all fine painting compels.
Two Cultures - from Studio International, December 1970, vol. 180, no. 928