abstract art, a systems view

British Abstract Painting in the Seventies: Stagnation or New Possibilities?

with 17 comments

In the seventies abstract painting in Britain was in crisis. At least that’s how it seemed to some. If during the sixties it had become hegemonic that privileged position was on the wane. Peter Fuller would shortly declare American abstraction to be not much more than a CIA plot, within the discipline of painting figuration was in resurgence, whilst outside it performance art and conceptualism were fast becoming the dominant art forms, leading to the stagnation of abstract painting. The exhibition New Possibilities, Abstract Painting from the Seventies, a show of fourteen painters from the period (all still painting today), at the Piper Gallery counters this viewpoint, demonstrating that instead abstraction in this decade was vibrant and varied.


Installation shot (right. Gary Wragg, Carnival, left Trevor Sutton That Swing.4.K). Image by courtesy of The Piper Gallery

In her gallery talk co curator Sandra Higgins introduces Gary Wragg‘s Carnival (1977-79) as the show’s opening statement, as if it were shouting “this is abstraction!” not a representation of the world, rather a celebration within in it, the gestures and colours resonant of graffiti and the detritus of building sites, brimming with the energy and excitement of the city, simultaneous with its squalor and vulnerability.

And if the opening statement is a shout, the next is almost a whisper: Trevor Sutton‘s That Swing.4.K (1979), five foot square, bisected by an off vertical line achieved by joining two canvases black to the left and blue to the right, with the green of the painted edge just showing as a narrow line down the (off) centre.

Turning to the Untitled (1973) geometric painting on paper by Patricia Poullain, Higgins tells the story of her continuing to paint every day in her summer-house, facing the countryside, whilst making ‘pure painting’, both “in nature” and “against nature” at the same time.

In Alice Sielle‘s 3D Blue and Gold Segments (1978), drawing, within a shallow illusionistic space is more prominent. Approaching Op Art, carefully rendered three-dimensional abstract objects (segments) combine together on a grey ground to make an image that is more than the sum of its parts, appearing to generate light as much as reflect it. Sandra Higgins recalls asking her how she managed to paint it with such precision, and receiving the answer “I don’t know”.

The one painting I came here specifically to see was Purple Heart (1979) by Mali Morris. If Carnival is a shout and That Swing.4.K is a whisper then this is a song.

Mali Morris, 'Purple Heart', 1979, Acrylic on canvas, 167 x 165.5 cm. Image courtesy of Piper Gallery

Mali Morris, Purple Heart, 1979, Acrylic on canvas, 167 x 165.5 cm, Image courtesy of Piper Gallery

The purple heart shape of the title takes up nearly half of the canvas, and around it smaller, colour/forms harmonize, mediating, for me, a set of binary oppositions like hard and soft, head and heart, colour and line, form and content, object and image, words and music.

In Graham Boyd‘s Descender (1976) the large canvas has undergone a process of masking and spray painting resulting in a series of subtly gradated narrow bands of rich colour creating an undulating optical space.

The earliest painting in the show, Albert Irvin‘s Glow (1971) has decorative colours that echo the lines of the support whilst also looking virtually formless, the liquid paint poured, sprayed, splattered and at times approaching the condition of a gas.

William Henderson‘s marvelous Funky Black and Catch Me (1978) is as much built as painted. Rainbow bands on a black ground multiplying from left to right, until at the right hand third the space is completely filled, and the space itself seems to bend and deepen towards that side. It is an exciting painting, the visual equivalent of jazz ( be-bop rather than cool). Looking at the painting with me he explains how he achieved the rainbow stripes by loading a brush with contrasting colours and drawing it across the canvas. Either it worked or it didn’t and he would have to do it again.

Perfectly situated at the end of the gallery so it can be seen from many distances is Barrie Cook‘s spray painted Blue, Red and Yellow Grid (1977). As I journey towards it I am unsure how much of what’s happening is optical and how much is physically there.

Installation image by courtesy of The Piper Gallery

Installation image by courtesy of The Piper Gallery

Black vertical stripes are flanked by blue and violet creating an optical central horizontal light blue line – I think.

There’s opticality even in Jeanne Masoero‘s Basis for Light, Series II, no. 7 (1977) the nearest work in the exhibition to ‘systems art’. Comprising built up layers of torn white paper and PVA glue in loosely alternating rectangles of horizontal and vertical lines and resembling ploughed fields seen from the air, the structure is both accentuated and denied by the way the light and shadow is distributed over the uneven surface. Momentarily, I feel sure I see colours on that surface …and then I’m less sure.

Tess Jaray‘s Petros (1979) indices a different kind of uncertainty, the muted colours at times only just distinguishing the repeated architecture based motifs from the ground on which they seem to hover.

Rush Green (1977) by Frank Bowling is arrived at through the pouring of paint, more gravitational than gestural, the flow of paint looking gentle and slow. The verticality of the image elicits figure associations, and the richness of colour leads me to relate to it as if it were a mummy or possibly even the Turin Shroud.

Frank Bowling, Rush Green, 1977, Acrylic on canvas. Courtesy of the artist and Hales Gallery, 1977,

Frank Bowling, Rush Green, 1977, Acrylic on canvas, 167.6 x 71.1 cm. Courtesy of the artist and Hales Gallery

Whilst Bowling achieves an ‘all-over’ anti-composition, by contrast C. Morey de Morand‘s masking tape rectangles in There is Always More (1978) are deliberately placed in four colour groups against a shifting red ground.

Finally, six Desmond Rayner gouaches offer yet another version of abstract painting: Art Deco inspired geometric patterns that could be mistaken for screen prints if it weren’t for the uniqueness of the colour mixes. Interested in invention rather than personal expression he sees the works as entertainment, encouraging us to “relax and enjoy (them) at surface level”.

Installation shot, Desmond Rayner Gouaches, Courtesy of The Piper Gallery

Installation shot, Desmond Rayner Gouaches, Courtesy of The Piper Gallery

Seeing the diversity of these works I find agree with Sam Cornish who, in the catalogue essay, argues that this exhibition shows that

The break up of the Modernist consensus and the rise of the expanded field did not result in abstraction stagnating but rather in a period of complex, even frenetic experimentation, of new possibilities.

But what of continuing relevance? In the same essay Cornish brings attention to Mali Morris’s “materiality and touch”, which reminds me of the recent article by David Sweet at Abstract Critical where, questioning the relevance of  “the kind of average lyrical abstraction of the late colour field period” and highlighting the importance of detail in the era of high-definition he partially equates touch with detail. Commenting on a 2012 painting by Morris he describes her intelligent handling of the “resolution that detail brings”.

And glancing up at my HD TV whilst writing this, I am distracted by a programme about the popular singer Tony Bennett, suggesting that his refusal to update his material was later interpreted by younger audiences as “cool” leading to his recent return to popularity. Could it be that Patricia Poullain also remains relevant but this time through her persistence, doggedly following her very specific, repetitive, line of enquiry?

Patricia Poullain, 'Untitled' 1973, Acrylic on paper, 50 x 50 cm. Courtesy The Piper Gallery

Patricia Poullain, Untitled 1973, Acrylic on paper, 50 x 50 cm. Courtesy of The Piper Gallery

In suggesting that Morris’s work stays relevant by updating itself and Poullain’s by staying the same I am no doubt having my cake and eating it, so let me suggest a third way in which these abstract painters may continue to be relevant. Advances in the field of cognitive science made since the seventies could make some of these paintings more contemporary now than they were then. Barrie Cook’s work for example has affinity with experimental findings made recently into how we construct colour, findings that challenge some of what we thought we knew from Sir Isaac Newton, the philosophical implications of which are explored by Donald D. Hoffman in his book Visual Intelligence, How We Create What We See.

Indulging in these closing speculations I find that I am making a claim not only for the vitality of abstract painting in the seventies but also for the new possibilities abstraction may yet have in store.

New Possibilities: Abstract Painting From The Seventies is on at The Piper Gallery, 18 Newman Street, London until 21 December 2012.


17 Responses

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  1. As always Andy a really great post and review. Thought provoking and a really nice walk through the show – thank you.

    Terry Greene

    December 6, 2012 at 10:46 pm

  2. I remember a lot of these geezers from back then – a bit surprised that Stephan Buckley didn’t get a cap here… Could have been a useful sub for Wraggsie, who, as you know, tend to lack a bit of stamina in the second half.

    But I really wanted to point out that Fuller’s rants were never taken seriously because 1) He is hostile to abstraction irrespective of Amerika. 2) Amerika’s cultural wing equally embraced Pop Art and peripheral figures like Rivers, Rauschenberg and Johns. Those guys get the big global push as well. So it wasn’t that the CIA was especially dedicated to abstraction – they were sold on any Amerikan brand that showed current market prominence. I agree with Fuller it was unquestionably Amerika Uber Alles (or Allies) culturally but this really does little for the Abstract V Figurative debate.

    Secondly, you have to remember by the 70s, even American champions of Minimalism were running out of steam. Greenberg couldn’t really embrace Stella or later painters of the same stripe (so to speak) such as Sean Scully or less disciplined linear digressions like Brice Marden. Then again Fried only succeeded in tying himself in knots with his misguided pitch for ‘theatricality’ – especially once the natty traditional motifs of Stella get steadily developed by following P&D painters. Fried can’t face the conclusions to his own aesthetic at that point and retreats to forlorn claims for nothing more than ‘personal taste’.

    And yet another closet fascist was thus outed…


    December 7, 2012 at 3:24 am

    • Thanks for commenting Gerry, you have a point about Fuller not having been taken very seriously. I mention him only because his position was possible in the seventies (well, 1980 actually) when it would have been much less likely a decade earlier. Also it might depend on who it was that was doing the taking seriously or not. I knew people on the left who did take him seriously and gave up painting partly as a result of it. Back then, I think I found Fried’s theatricality or literalism vs absorption quite convincing, less so these days. I am expecting to read an interesting discussion in your “Depiction and Painting”, which I started reading a while ago and then put on hold when I got very busy with work. Now I am having a little holiday I hope to get back to it.

      Andy Parkinson

      December 8, 2012 at 1:25 pm

      • I’m slow getting back to this Andy – I’d actually quite forgotten I’d even commented here!
        But a bit tangentially, I’ve also written about how the critical support for abstraction later in the 70s creates problems for our recent art history generally – and not least for a flagship publication like Artforum –
        Also, apart from that, it’s chapter nine in D&P you’ll be especially interested in.
        Cheers, Gerry


        December 16, 2012 at 2:56 am

  3. I was in art school in the late 70s here in Vancouver during a ‘painting is dead’ cycle – it was all photography, video and performance. Since then I’ve experienced several turns of the wheel and recent exhibitions indicate a return to post-painterly abstraction alongside neo ‘action painting’ – everything old is new again…


    December 7, 2012 at 9:01 am

  4. Great review Andy…it’s good to see you tracking down all these shows…but isn’t it a pity that very few of our major ‘flagship’ regional galleries ever show work with this kind of historical perspective? I’m struggling to think of a decent abstract painting survey show (from any period) outside London since the ‘Indiscipline of Painting’ at Warwick. It’s odd really that spaces such as Nottingham Contemporary/MK Gallery/Walsall etc. that are ideal for displaying such material are much more often contorted by the demands of video/installation/photoworks etc. but I guess that’s the ‘zeitgist’ at work. I’m always reminded (when getting onto the subject of abstract painting…is it dead etc.) of the great Dave Hickey’s quote about non-representational painting being rather like Jazz “The people who are interested in it know where to find it – no-one else gives a shit about it”!

    David Manley

    December 7, 2012 at 11:14 am

    • Hi David, thanks for commenting. That’s a great quote. Sam Cornish ends his catalogue essay with the words: ” ..the variety of the exhibition is… perhaps an accurate, if necessarily limited, reflection of what went on in abstract painting in Britain in the seventies. If it leads to a larger, perhaps public venue presenting a more comprehensive survey, then so much the better.” Here, here!

      Andy Parkinson

      December 8, 2012 at 1:32 pm

  5. Warm greetings my blogging friend – I have nominated you for ‘Blog of the Year’ award. All details on my latest post which will appear later today. I hope you will accept but understand if not – walk on…


    December 8, 2012 at 12:40 pm

  6. Excellent post Andy, enjoyed the read.

    Molecules of Emotion

    December 8, 2012 at 10:23 pm

  7. Love the post. Thanks for allowing me to view the show here!

    Paul Behnke

    December 9, 2012 at 3:22 pm

    • Thank you Paul, I attempted say a little about each work and show just enough pictures to give someone from another continent (like you) a sense of having been there, and at the same time, to to lure those near enough to visit to go and see it in the flesh. I am glad I achieved the former (not sure if I managed the latter for anyone). PS I am a fan of your blog and your paintings which as yet I have only seen online and looking out for the next UK appearance.

      Andy Parkinson

      December 12, 2012 at 7:51 am

  8. […] ongoing exploration. Remembering that I saw a remarkable painting by Sutton in a show last year, Abstract Painting in the Seventies, higher in colour than these at HMS, I make comparisons in my head and note the “continued […]

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