‘His disposition of spirit appears to me to be that of a great easel painter who decides to yield his vision to a field vast enough—imposing enough—that it embraces the world. A cosmic vision, shall I say [..]’ Andre Masson (1)
During the 1950s, the reputation of the late works of Claude Monet was resuscitated by a conjunction of critics and curators in the United States. During this time, MoMA acquired a number of his late works. The diffused, all-over quality of Monet’s surface, in addition to the ‘prettiness’ of his colour, had previously placed him outside of the trajectory of modernist painting. But the acquisition of these late Monets initiated a critical re-evaluation which was neatly summarised in Clement Greenberg’s essay ‘The Later Monet’ (1957). Viewers should not be put off by Monet’s prettiness, Greenberg remarked. The sweetness of his work concealed a more radical rethinking of the possibilities for easel painting. Greenberg remarked that the pictorial space in these late works—a space constructed through subtle modulations of hue, rather than the armature of modelling implicit to Cubism—suggested new possibilities for abstract painting. Further, Greenberg noted that decorative surfaces need not imply lack of substance. In his conclusion, he wrote that ‘In Monet […] we enjoy a world of art, not just a vision, and that world has the variety and space, and even some of the ease, a world should have.’ (2)
The works on display on Colour/Boundary at Gallery North inherit the tradition outlined in Greenberg’s essay, which laid the groundwork for the Color-Field Painters of the 1960s. The late Monets opened up the possibility of a painting which gives itself over to colour as the foundation for pictorial structure.
In the catalogue essay, David Sweet begins with a reference to Apocalypse Now (1979), which created a disjunction between sound and vision through its innovative use of ‘split surround sound,’ which created the effect of audio sounds emanating from different parts of the room. Sweet sees this distinction between sound and vision as an apposite one. In reference to painting, Sweet makes a distinction between what he calls the ‘terrain’ and the painting’s chromatic system. ‘Terrain’ for Sweet signifies the ‘rhythmic mass’ of limbs and tangled bodies in a Poussin, for instance. The chromatic system on the other hand, floats independently of the terrain, creating a ‘colour world’ which, for all its abstractness, maintains its own richness and solidity. Painting’s ability to create a ‘colour world’ is analogous to, but not coterminous with, the visual world, and the paintings in the show grapple with this pairing to varying degrees.
Sweet notes, however, that the notion of abstract painting denoting fullness or plenitude seems counter-intuitive, since ‘common sense’ would suggest that abstract art lacks certain qualities to be found in representational painting. Drawing upon the analogy to music, Sweet wonders why it seems unusual that we should not let painting aspire to music. After all, although music is auditory, we do not find it wanting in the experiential pleasures that it affords us. Perhaps the problem is a cultural one. Our capacity to appreciate music seems to be more hard-wired than our enjoyment of painting: even without any technical knowledge of music, one can enjoy it. In fact, research has shown that respondents can even recognise ‘bum’ notes in compositions they have not previously heard. Painting, however, and especially abstract painting, seems to require a more concerted attempt to attune oneself to its particularities. One needs to spend time looking in order to see painting, to judge relationships, intuit the ‘rightness’ of certain decisions. And all of this seems out of step with the immediacy of our spectacular culture.
Sweet’s paintings are characterised by a certain modesty: the unmauled surfaces of his paintings, in conjunction with their delicate colour (this is so even when Sweet uses primaries), create the sense of hovering and weightlessness which Greenberg had ascribed to Color-Field Painting. Like Noland, Sweet often favours the diamond format which accentuates this sense of weightlessness, allowing the colours to do the structural work. Any-Angled Light II (2012) would be perfectly symmetrical without its use of colours. However, the warm violet quadrangle at the top left ‘pulls’ the structure into a anti-clockwise ‘rotation.’ Radial (2012), because of its conventional rectangular format suggests a glimpsed edge, and builds the structure not only through variations of colour, but also through the variations of surface treatment: the grey and lilac areas are applied thinly and relatively evenly, while the maroon segment is more thickly applied, containing residues of the painterly gesture.
The edges of the colour zones in Sweet’s paintings never abut too neatly, which avoids geometric associations and prevents the colours from being seen as secondary to the structure. One also finds subtle glimpses of references to 1960s US abstraction. The quadrilateral shapes of violet and blue on either side of Any Angled Light II let a series of parallel striations shine through, suggesting the paths of colour in Frank Stella’s early paintings. Elsewhere, there is even a ghostly suggestion of Jasper Johns’ Flag (1955). Moulin Rouge (2013) is a more explicit homage to Henri Matisse’s L’Escargot (1953), although the fiery swirl of Matisse is translated into a more orderly clockwise rotation around the canvas. Here Sweet uses three primary colours, which he admits do not relate to each other, but their modulation, offset with soft grey, prevents them from seeming jarring or discordant. In the catalogue, Sweet admits to having added glitter to the central square: he seems almost apologetic for having done so, for it goes against the restraint which characterises his work.
Sharon Hall’s work is also strongly related to this tradition of ‘weightless’ abstract painting, calling to mind Kenneth Noland’s ‘chevron’ paintings especially. Her work adopts more evenly-applied zones of colour as an armature. Unlike Sweet, she does not vary the texture of her brushmarks, and her zones of colour neatly abut one another. Consequently, each area of colour takes on a more significant role. Some of the most successful works by Hall make use of asymmetrical arrangements: these allow the colours to function in structurally surprising ways. The quietly luxuriant Untitled (Orange Fan) (2009) is built upon a rational division of diagonally-subtended wedges of colour which radiate outwards from the centre of the canvas. Neither the division of the wedges, nor the colours used, are divided symmetrically: this decision gives the impression that the canvas ‘swings’ across the surface in a semi-clockwise movement. However, the strong cadmium red. which is just off-centre, prevents the painting from swinging too wildly off-kilter, ‘holding’ the composition together in a fragile equilibrium.
Hall also works successfully within the tondo format. This was rarely used in Western painting as it was difficult to reconcile with representational pictorial space. Abstract painting is more amenable to the format, but it poses its own challenges. Hall utilises a small scale, but the tondo format is successful in lending the work a sense of weightlessness. Tondo with Linen (2011) consists of six segments varying sizes. The upper half consists of three larger variations of grey, while the lower half consists of smaller segments of dull orange, ochre and grey-blue. Again, the zones of colour vary depending upon the ‘weight’ of the colour: the cooler segments requiring a larger zone in order to balance the smaller zones of warmer hues. Hall’s rectangular formats pose more of a difficulty in that the zones of colour are ordered in a more symmetrical fashion. In works such as Not Titled (Yellow Diagonals) (2011), Hall offsets this by utilising very closely-valued zones of lemon against the bare canvas, to lend the work a subtle radiance. However, the more assymetrical works create more pictorial interest for the viewer.
Caroline de Lannoy’s paintings are perhaps the most restrained of the five on show. Each painting is built around subtle gradations, often using the same hue. Her work favours a particularly small scale appropriate to the intimacy which her paintings evoke. She also favours a square format which is largely avoided by painters, since its inherent symmetry and inertness makes it difficult to deal with. De Lannoy deals with the symmetry of the square by utilising quadrilateral lozenges of colour which initially suggest oblique glimpses of objects partially viewed. However, the angles of each area of colour are never neatly aligned, nor do the edges of each lozenge tend to run parallel with each other. In doing so, her paintings avoid the geometric. More so than either Sweet or Hall, her work is more evocative of conventional pictorial space: the ‘terrain’ mentioned by Sweet. One is reminded especially of interior spaces and refracted light, which are also suggested by some of the titles. De Lannoy tends to favour a cool range of hues, but Re-echo (Red) (2013) exhibits a quiet sensuousness, the warmth of the varying red zones suggesting bodily openings and tactile surfaces.
In Angular Notation (2012), De Lannoy places together four closely valued fields which range from lilac to grey-green, like the unfolding of a fan, or a bellows. The work initially seems less successful than the smaller pieces, since the larger scale makes it more difficult to prevent the zones of colour from seeming inert. DeLannoy allays this by the irregularity of each area: the kinks between each colour zone militate against viewing each as simply coterminous with its neighbour. Further, the two zones on the right-hand-side are subdivided again into two, which allows the colours to alternately recede or project outwards.
Mali Morris’ paintings are more ebullient in their use of colour and surface. Rain in Durango (2013) is the most luminous piece in the show. The work is split into twelve square segments, arranged three by four. Each compartment contains variations of colour and gesture. Broad, thinly applied swatches of colour act as partial ‘frames’ which reveal flatter areas of colour underneath. The effect creates a series of apertures offering a variety of glimpses. The luminosity derives not only from the colours used: accents of turquoise, orange and lime are set against the predominantly reddish-earth swatches, but the contrasting viscosity of the application offsets each colour to its advantage.
Morris’ colour also works well in small scale: Second Act (2007) uses a series of vertically stacked circular hues—blue, yellow, green and magenta—which seem to cut through the earthy ground. Here the small scale is less suggestive of intimacy: instead the intensity of the colour evokes a larger scale. Other works are less sensuous and more suggestive of raw matter: Swingback (2013) utilises a grid constructed through dragging red strokes across a damp white ground. Here, however, the process is not an end in itself, but serves as a structure within which various circular discs float: these discs also occupy a distinct space by dint of their different facture.
Clyde Hopkins’ work stands out most prominently from the five. Although his work deals with colour, his work partially derives from a different tradition of abstraction. Hopkins’ canvases are far more ‘busy,’ and his colour palette is warmer and more exotic than his fellow artists. Irregular, interlocking shapes wander across the surface of his paintings, suggesting the legacies of Surrealism and biomorphic abstraction which are not evident in the other works on show. The more densely packed nature of his paintings is more immediately suggestive of the ‘world’ outside, the ‘terrain,’ to use Sweet’s term. But like his colleagues, colour is still essential to the success of these paintings. However much the suggestive shapes suggest drawing, it is colour which is decisive. Hopkins favours a warm palette: reds, oranges and mauves set against earth colours, lending his canvases a warm earthy richness (rather than Morris’ luminous dazzle). Though busy Hopkin’s surfaces never seem cluttered or over-worked, despite the relatively modest scale which he adopts.
As Sweet suggests in the catalogue, the richness of his surfaces suggest precious minerals, and they are further enlivened by stipples of colour which add to their radiance. Further, stray lines of gold glitter against these broader areas of flat or stippled colour. The blue fruit-shapes which wriggle along the top right hand corner of Albion’s Bounty (Bindweed) (2012-13) recall the fruit laid out in Matisse’s Red Interior: Still Life on a Blue Table (1947). This is a more explicit reference to the influence of Matisse which is evident elsewhere in the show. Further, the painting’s evocation of leaves, fruit and other kinds of vegetation create a more associative pictorial space, suggesting that Sweet’s two notions of ‘terrain’ and ‘colour world’ can co-exist in painting, without abstraction ceding to a more overtly pictorial notion of space.
The viewer leaves refreshed by the coolness and sensuality of the work on show. The catalogue also does justice to the paintings, which reward the slowness of repeated looking which painting demands. Nothing could be further from the anarchic violence of Apocalpyse Now; instead, one is reminded of Greenberg’s words: these paintings evoke a world of colour, but further, they evoke the ease a world should have.
Stephen Moonie, January 2014
(1) ‘Monet le fondateur,’ (1952). Cited in Romy Golan, ‘Oceanic Sensations: Monet’s Grand Decorations and Mural Panting in France from 1927 to 1952,’ in Paul Tucker et al, Monet in the 20th century (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000):87.
(2) Clement Greenberg, ‘The Later Monet,’ in John O’Brian Ed. Clement Greenberg: The Collected Essays and Criticism vol. 4 (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1993): 11.