Early Works, 1960 - 1981
‘Combining my love of colour and my wish for a painterly way of working was the quest’
From my youth and at art school in London, I learned from the art that I responded to. In working through those influences I eventually found my own way. In the following I discuss my works, my life and some of the influences and events which surround their creation.Click here or on the painting to visit this Gallery
London SE24, 1945 - 1966
I grew up in post war England, in Hern Hill, South East London; attended St Judes Primary School, on Railton Road and Tulse Hill Secondary. A new 2000 boys school, with uniforms, prefects and an art programme in which I enrolled. My teachers were art school graduates and they provided me with introductory studies in art history, painting, sculpture and ceramics. At age 17, I was accepted at London University’s Goldsmith’s School of Art and I continued my studies in painting, sculpture, printmaking and pottery, there from 1962 -1966.
At Goldsmith’s my first adventures in abstract painting and sculpture were at the guidance of sculptors, William Tucker, Kenneth Martin, and painters, Basile Bestie, Bert Irwin, and Andrew Forge. Antony Caro’s sculpture. ‘Early One Morning’, on display at the Tate Gallery had a profound affect on my grasp of modern sculpture. And seeing the paintings of Morris Louis ‘Unfurled’ works at the Kasmin Gallery and Mark Rothko’s paintings at Waddington’s, in London were my first moving encounters with American abstract painting.
I found the sculptural teachings of Martin dogmatic, mundane and predictable. I responded more to Tucker, who’s teachings were wider and led me to consider asymmetric composition as opposed to the symmetry that Martin preferred. The painters, Basil Beatie and Bert Irwin were very supportive but I recall learning very little from them. Andrew Forge was also very supportive, more intriguing but not that revealing.
I was living in New Cross with Trinidadian friends and playing in a band and booking bands as Social Secretary of the Art School. The Who, The Moody Blues, The Kinks, Rod Stewart, Long John Baldry, Julie Driscoll. Brian Auger, and the Graham Bond Organisation were all bands I booked. It was the 60’s and London was live. But I was also spending a lot of time in The National, Tate and Courtauld galleries and taking in the commercial galleries as part of my studies.
My Abstract Beginnings
In 1964 I painted one of my first abstract canvases, Double Spiral, an asymmetric spiral, inspired by the works of Mondrian, Malevich, and the Constructivist’s. It has a simple colour progression informed by my foundation colour studies at Goldsmith’s. Mirror Image 1965, is another example of my early exploration of a more optical illusionistic composition. Followed by a group of works almost POP in character with Rectangles and Squares 1966.
Leeds College of Art, 1967, ‘A Sense of Scale’
In 1967, I spent a Post Graduate year at Leeds College of Art. I painted Square Off in 1968, exploring a larger scale illusionistic shaping of my earlier works. I had become familiar in London with the early work of Richard Smith and John Walker and they influenced my experimentation with combining shaped canvases and atmospheric painting. In sculpture, I was side tracked by an opportunity to work in a small plastics workshop in Pontefract, near Leeds. I ended up making some small modular pieces and learned a lot of the techniques of working with plastics, but it led nowhere for me artistically.
Newport College of Art, Rome, Italy, then Canada 1967 - 1969
Following Leeds, I accepted a Lectureship and I spent a year teaching at Newport College of Art. Inspired by the work of Mark Rothko that I’d seen in London, I tried working colour and a simple flatness of forms. I was only able to paint a few works in this vein before taking leave from my teaching position to spend eight months in Rome. I won an Italian Government Scholarship and worked for a time at The British School in Rome. Grid Study 1969, a paper work, made in Rome, with a few canvases, shows my move to a flatter grid structure, playing with a random placement of an accent colour in an allover grid.
My time in Rome was stimulating but my scholarship paid me hardly enough money on which to live, let alone paint. I was only able to make 4 or 5 canvases and a number of paper works. In order to do so, I had to find pigment and acrylic medium to make my own paint. Acrylic paint, if it could be found, was imported in tiny tubes and exceedingly expensive. But being able to see the art and architecture repeatedly was a revealing experience. I travelled throughout Italy visiting Naples, Florence, Arezzo, Pisa, Sienna, Bologna, Ravenna, and Venice to view the art and architecture.
My main influences, to this point, had been in the form of structuralist, systemised compositional ideas; and the proportional juxtaposition of colour, found in Mondrian and the more intuitive atmospheric painting of the English painter, John Walker and American, Mark Rothko. Moving from London to Leeds, then to Newport, and on to Rome; and finally immigrating to Canada in 1969, had provided me only short intervals of time for painting. I was looking for a place to settled down and work and knew that North America was where the best contemporary paintings I’d ever seen was from New York City in the work of Mark Rothko and Morris Louis.
From Rome I made applications to North American Universities. I returned from Rome a resigned my position at Newport College of Art, and accepted a Professorship at the University of Alberta, and immigrated to Canada. I spent that summer living in Brooklyn, New York, visiting galleries and viewing collections, especially the works of the Abstract Expressionists and the Colour Field painters. From my studies in England I was aware of the work of NYC artists Donald Judd and Dan Flavin and I was able to visit them both in their studios and see their approach to sculpture. On arrival in Edmonton August 19 ,1969 I was given some rooms in a small house on Campus in which to paint and began work on the Striation paintings.
Edmonton 1969, ‘In Search of a Motif’
Striation 12 1972, is an example of my work which shows my simplification of a compositional motif. This motif allowed me the increased freedom to compose relationships of colour. The magazine, Art in America, published an interview with the artist Kenneth Noland, (one if the Colour Field painters) in which he discussed his approach to painting. He said he would start with one colour, respond and add another, and so on, intuiting his way through, until the painting felt complete, ……..that it had a tension when the colours and the differing proportions visually balanced; or that is what what I took from my reading of it. It confirmed my trust in my judgement, to reach a visual conclusion. Something that the Art Critic, Clement Greenberg might refer to as the presence in a work. Or, as I work now, that all the colours have light. The fundamental principle of colour is that its’ interactions can produce light, ref: ’The Interaction of Colour’, by Joseph Albers was my reference and for the studies I used throughout my teaching career; along with Johannes Itten, ‘The Art of Colour’ which is a more subjective and psychologically based study of colour.
The use of the stripe is a centuries old motif that can be found many cultures. It is the natural form created by weaving and the simplest of compositional forms. Following in Noland’s example this striped motif allowed me the increased freedom to play with colour.
This group of paintings represent my transition to what might be considered a a North American, Colour Field way of painting. The ‘Colour Field’ painters, as they were dubbed, developed principally through the work of Helen Frankenthaler, Morris Louis, Jules Olitski, and Kenneth Noland; and the former generations work of, Barnett Newman, and Clifford Still, not to mention Adolph Gotlieb and Jackson Pollock; all known as painters of the New York School . The term Colour Field, refers to the artists who took advantage of the introduction of the new acrylic mediums in the 1960’s, and the ability afforded to produce large stained fields of colour.
Divisional to Allover
Heller 1973, shows my return to an allover approach, inspired by Jackson Pollock and the contemporary work of Larry Poons and Jules Olitski, I was casting paint across the surface and playing with ways to configure it. Heller has a thick tan poured surface, with scoops down to the canvas with small thin brown puddles, drizzled over the surface. It now hangs in the Edmonton Court House. 1973 was a challenging year; a year of experimentation with mark making using all sorts of viscosities of paint and tools; lots learned, but eventually very few canvases were kept. The inability to keep the light in the colour, during allover painting was problematic for me; a problem that was to reoccur again and again in my attempt to have a clarity of colours within an allover painterliness.
1973 also marks the year in which I was able to secure a 3000 sq. ft. studio in Kelly Ramsey block in the centre of Edmonton, on Rice Howard Way. The building was a former Eatons store and before me the offices of the Workman’s Compensation Board; pale green walls with brown linoleum floors, covered with dirt and pigeon droppings, with old metal windows and cast iron radiators; it had been empty for some years. Al Pyrch, a collector, investment broker, and President of the Edmonton Art Gallery, put me in contact with the agent and I will always be indebted to him. It was an amazing space,11ft. high ceilings and huge 40’ wall of windows at one end. I now had a serious studio in which to paint and I worked in that building for the next 32 years. When I left, I held 7600 sq ft.of space, which allowed me the space to work on a large scale and store a large inventory I produced. The building was destroyed by fire in 2008, three years after I was forced out by high rents. The Enbridge office tower now stands in its place with the original facades of the Kelly Ramsay buildings replaced. I relocated to a 4000 sq. ft. space in the Dorchester Building on the edge of downtown Edmonton in 2005.
Return to the Motif
Ring Jolly, 1974 shows a return to the divisional colour circular motif. I needed to regroup following months of experimentation which had not led to a sustained direction. By returning to a motif I was able to employ all the mark making I had developed but this too was short-lived group of works as, in late 1974, inspired by the brush work of the Group of Seven, I made some large scale works with mark making using brooms and squeegees; but once again the colour became muddy, and dissatisfied by the outcome, few, if any of these works remain.
My love of the colour in Matisse, the Fauves and the painterliness of Monet seemed like a paradox of approaches. Developing painterliness, (the impasto brush handling) tended to mute or muddy colour, or at least, that was a problem I encountered. If I used a motif, a division of areas, like Matisse, or Noland, it allowed my colour to remain clear. How could I combine clarity in colour with the painterliness I desired? I had many notions but it would not be until 1982 that I would find a way to combine colour in allover painting.
New York Connections
I met Clement Greenberg in 1974, in Edmonton when he visited to lecture, and again in New York, at his invitation; for years I would see him for drinks at his Central Park West apartment New York and he made several visits to my studio over the years . Sculptor Micheal Steiner, who led a 1973 artists workshop in Edmonton, introduced me to Larry Poons. For a few years after I would visit with Larry and I stayed with him. I became familiar with his painting practice and I cropped ( the selecting of compositions from rolls of painted canvas) for for his 1976 show at Lawrance Rubin Gallery. Greenberg and Steiner had apparently come and viewed the selections I’d made and only changed one. Larry told me I had a good eye and asked if I would stay in New York and be his assistant. As Micheal was quick to point out, Larry, also referred to affectionately, as crazy Larry, was known to tire of his assistance and turn on them. There was no way I was giving up my studio and moving to NYC, as flattered as I was by the offer. Larry took me to Olitski’s studio and I got to see his working practice too. Poons own way of working, of cascading paint down the canvas hung around the wall, captured everything about a way of working, that I desired. The freedom he had to choose compositions out of a painted canvas length and how the cascades paint could produce a clarity of colour, was brilliant. I learnt a lot from those encounters. I consider Poons to be the leading figure of his generation, (with his Cascade paintings of the 1970’s and 80’s). Poons with Frankenthaler, Noland and Louis, they are the pioneers of ‘process abstraction’ By process abstraction I mean ways of working in which the forms are generated by nature and handling of the material itself, as opposed to the more traditional methods easel painting and or the brush work. This is the approach to painting to which I respond the most and have attempting to further.
It all comes back together
Pillars and Fans 11, 1975 was the beginning of a very successful group of larger works in which the prior explorations with mark making are employed again in a banding motif, as in the Striation paintings . These paintings were proceeded by a suite of paper works entitled the Marlboro Suite, painted in 1975 at a summer stay in Marlboro, New York. The colour and drawing (mark making) in these Pillars and Fans retain their spontaneity and clarity of colour. The bands or stripes are combined with a new painterliness with stained and impasto surfaces. Although the banding motif eco’s that of Morris Louis’s Fan paintings, this group of works unleashed many possibilities and a sustained period of work followed.
The Memorial Suite
Redhill Booker, 1976. My father died suddenly of a stroke that June, when I was in England. The paintings that followed were so titled Memorial Suite. The larger paintings have titles associated with my father. Redhilll was his birth pace, and Booker was his Mother’s, my Grandmother’s, maiden name.
In these works I once again returned to allover painting but this time with thick glazed transparent colours on an opaque ground, which remained clear. A large group of works followed in blacks and browns with a large range of mark making; all in search of a new way to draw. These works referenced Old Master Drawings and Abstract Expressionism, but did not arrive at a truly new way to draw.
The Screen Paintings
>Rumaz and Untitled, 1977 show a new technique of my pouring colour on the flat surface and screening over with a rake and or broom in one direction, drawing the colours together. Like the Memorial Suite, the use of solid colour grounds with transparent top colour but this time drawn down in one direction allowed for greater colour clarity.
Fissures and the Discovery of Crazing
Ease 1981, shows a screened ground with poured transparent, acrylic puddles in which fissures occurred showing the colour below. These fissures I thought could be a key to a new way of drawing. • Could I make a fissured surface with contrasted colours? • Could this allow for allover, under and over colour contrasts ? •˜Could the fissures be enlarged such to allow for great compositional possibilities ?
When I visited New York from the mid 1970’s until the mid1990’s I would visit with frequently with Micheal Steiner, Larry Poons, and Clement Greenberg , occasionally Dan Christensen, Randy Bloom, Stanley Boxer and Peter Bradley; and with Greenberg’s introduction was able to visit the David Smith Estate; his studio where I was left to look through portfolios of his drawings, paintings on paper and see remaining sculptures on site. I met with Kenneth Noland Friedel Dzubas, Stanley Boxster, Joyce Wienstein, James Walsh, Willard Bepple , Robert Goodnough and James Wolf in their studios; all which helped me gain insight and inspiration for my own work. Most significant, at that time, was my meeting with Kenworth Moffett, then Curator of 20th Century Art at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, at the Emma Lake Artist Workshop in 1980. He was a workshop leader together with painter, Daryl Hughto, who were accompanied by their wives, painters Lucy Baker and Susan Roth. Moffett championed my endeavours and that was the beginning of friendship which lasted until his death in 2016. I visited with him in Boston, Stanford, Fort Lauderdale, where he was Director of the Museum, and in New York when he retired. We travelled and toured studios and galleries together and he introduced me to painters Roy Lerner, Irene Neal, Steven Brent, Bruce Piermarini, John Gittins, Jerald Webster, and sculptor Tom Fertig; artists that Moffett also championed, together with fellow Canadian, Joseph Drapell. We were all subsequently formed as the New New Painting group by French art dealer Gerald Piltzer, and we debuted in an exhibition, held n Paris, in 1989. A book New New Painting with essays by Kenworth Moffett and Belgian Philosopher, Marcel Paquet (1947 - 2014) was published to accompany the exhibitions and many exhibitions were to follow in Europe and the USA over the next decade and more.
Spring Breeze 1, 1981 shows my first attempt at a crazed all over fissured surface… the notion of making a crazed surface with the fissures showing the colour below.
I had been painting on long 25 foot lengths, sometimes 4 lengths of canvas, 2 on either side of my Kelly Ramsey studio. I was throwing, scraping and pouring paint and cropping out compositions, much of which had not met with long term success. Over the years many yards of canvas were destroyed in the process of experimentation.
But in 1982, the second attempt at a crazed length of canvas was a success. Ken Moffett, Lucy Baker and painter Doug Haynes made a studio visit at that time and were the first to see these new unstretched canvases. We played with cropping and orienting them and determined they worked best when hung on the diagonal. A squeezed diagonal aided to the dynamic movement in the work and countered the evenness of the patterning produced in the small scale crazing. This first length of canvas pointed the way and resulted the a group of diagonal paintings entitled Polo. Their ultramarine blue on white pallet resembles the colour found in the Chinese ceramics which explorer Marco Polo brought back to Europe, hence their names.
This was the beginning of the Early Crazed Paintings that gave me my own way of drawing by crazing that allowed me to keep light in a range of colour in allover painting: the colour and allover painterliness I’d been seeking to combine, brought together by layering process, which has opened the door to the last 38 years of work.
GP April 2020