Pamukkali University, Denizli, Turkey
Lecture Abstract, June 2010

MODERNISM - the last century: The Western Tradition & Present

Frontiers in Abstract Painting

Pamukkale University, Fine Arts Department. Inaugural Colloquy and Workshop, June 15 –July 5 2010, Denizli, Turkey (29th June 2010 Lecture Abstract)


I am going to speak as an artist influenced by Modernism.

These are my observations on the major influences which have guided my work.  My focus will be on the processes and innovations that I perceive in the development of abstract painting over the last 100 years.  And while these observations are generally historical and include many of the major artists of this time, art history is not my focus.

Rather I will focus on the evolution of pictorial motif’s with the objective of giving you an insight into the art that stimulates my work; its significance in advancing my perceptual understanding, and the potential it may offer for future innovation.

To do this I will be showing slides of well-known painters works, which demonstrate what I determine to be the leading characteristics of Modernism and discuss its influence on my work.  I hope to do this with some insight, which may be helpful to the student and artist alike.

I will speak about the legacy of Modernism and the primarily the European influences of Monet and Matisse, and the art which followed in North America, highlighting some of the major innovations which have evolved in the past 100 years.  I will conclude by discussing New New Painting, a group and influence of a present generation of North American painters and finally show a short selection of my work and discuss my objectives in making prints at the first Pamukkale Artists’ Colony.

I will stress how the art and the artists’ innovation by new forms of pictorial organization; new drawing, colour and surface, set them apart as major figures in the development of Modernism.  Modernism, which I would suggest as being the disposition of an artist towards the creation of new and original forms.

Although my discussion will focus on the so called ‘formal’ aspects of painting as articulated so well by the American art critic, Clement Greenberg, I do not believe that form can be separated from content, and that there are as many stories to be told as there are artist to tell them.    But I also believe paintings speak for themselves and do not require verbal explanations and must use a visual language to achieve this.

I have spent over 40 years working with students in academic institutions.   I have found that by looking at formal innovation, and understanding the visual principles behind what is a creative language, that this develops perception and frees the an artist to attempt coherent expression.  In the West we refer to this education approach by courses with names such as basic design, visual dynamics, fundamentals or foundations.  If done well I believe this is the soundest approach, to providing the artist with a visual understanding of this perceptual language.

This is a centuries old approach to common principles that has been passed down from master to student through apprenticeship, as a basis for creative learning.  The classical tradition of study by copying from the masters persists in France and Italy today.  In contrast, the Bauhaus, Germany, in the 1920’s and 30’s refocused an approach to art teaching.  It had a profound influence on art education internationally and brought about changes in the British Art Schools’ approach to teaching.  My introductory experience as a student in 1962 at London University’s, Goldsmith College of Art, in the first year of a new Visual Fundamentals program, embraced many of the Bauhaus ideas.  Today many schools have however returned to ‘agenda based instruction’ where the ‘ideology’ of the ‘school /instructor /artist/ student’ may overshadow the teaching of these basic principles.  Students may be encouraged take on idiosyncratic causes and identify with social issues or personal beliefs.  Not that such ‘content’ is not useful as inspiration, but it can obscure the perceiving of  ‘visual content’ that makes a work ‘art’. 

Abstraction, which has often been wrongly dismissed as a purely formal approach to art, has often been shunned by the educational institutions as hedonistic, lacking in content and social relevance.   Many artists today argue for their work in texts and even go as far as excusing themselves of the need for their art to be visually resolved, stating that the work is not important in itself, that it is only the ‘hook’ to articulate their ideas.  This, in my opinion, reduces their art to a didactic experience, or signage.  Not something I generally find that interesting visually engaging or useful when it comes to art. 

That said, one must be careful not to rule out anything, for in the end it is the ‘art’ that speaks for itself, whatever the route the artist may take to making it.

Great art though, has for centuries told stories by the use and power of the perceptual language, so why not now?  But that makes for another discussion!

Part One 

Scale and the actual size of paintings have always been both an artistic challenge and a way of creating visual impact that artists have used to engage the viewer.  Like many artists from past centuries Matisse and Monet both gradually enlarged the scale of their paintings but did so in a radically new way, making them increasingly frontal, decreasing perspective, obtaining a ‘flattening the picture plane’ and articulating surface unification.  Monet’s late water lilies and Matisse’s Dance and The Snail, are late examples of this departure and show these two major figures of the 19th Century taking two new yet radically different approaches to ‘drawing, colour and surface’ into the 20th Century

Monet creates a thick ‘allover’ surface of closely modulated colour making one’s eye drift from area to area, without emphasis or distinct interruptions or contrasts.  In his most radical works the ‘image’ or pictorial emphasis slowly emerges out of this ‘allover’ synthesis and pictorial unity.

Matisse, in his The Dance and The Snail contrasts thin surfaces of colour, spread out flat, creating a visual balance of large shapes of distinct colour areas or ‘divisions’ reunited by their counterbalance and relative importance in achieving a pictorial unity.

These two quite seemingly opposite approaches to pictorial composition have become fundamental discoveries or paradigms of the 20th Century, particularly when it comes to Abstract Painting, which is the focus of my slide lecture.

The Monet/Matisse ‘Allover’ as opposed to the ‘Divisional’ approach, which are terms I use to address them, with the three elements of painting, Colour, Drawing and Surface. I refer to these as the ‘Trinity of Painting’. They the inescapable 'principles' of painting all artists must reconcile in producing, at the very least, a successful work of art. This perhaps seeming obvious formal deduction is simple, yet offers immense possibilities for expression, as I hope my slides will show.

For those that have attempted painting, it is natural to experience colour at first as clear and bold, and as we paint, find that colour becomes increasingly muted, and generality begins to prevail over bold, clear areas.  These experiences result in almost opposite possibilities, which are inherent ‘processes’ of painting.  These two differing approaches became the focus of Monet and Matisse’s in their late work. 

It is not difficult to see how the late water lilies of Monet may have inspired Jackson Pollock and are still relevant in the ‘allover’ work of many artists today.  The 1954 painting the Snail by Matisse, painted in the last year of his life, looks totally current with the geometrical abstraction that followed in the 1960’s and 70’s and is still relevant today.

As Monet progressed his daubing of paint, enlarged his paintings beyond human scale, and simplified both his subject and composition, he discovered a vocabulary of form that was new.  One of his last works in 1926 which hangs in the Musee Marmottan, Paris is a medium size rectangle made from a scrawling brush marks in a linear web that is so forward looking that it anticipates the possibilities that were realized by Pollock in the 1950s, and again is still relevant today.

Matisse, with his lyrical reduction and spreading of colour and shape allowed him the freedom to adjust shape and colour without literal figurative restrictions allowing the form to carry the expressive content in a simple spiral composition, as in the Snail of 1954

I hope to show how the inherent processes in materials under the artists’ command, and by their understanding and innovative use of their mediums, they have discovered new forms and unique expressions.

While the medium may carry the message, and new paint mediums, especially the invention of acrylic paint mediums, and new pigments, the past century has given rise to a widening of the colour palette; the possibility of new surface applications, allowing for new drawing and forms of painting to emerge.

I refer to artists’ who use and allow the paint to draw as engaging in ‘Process Painting’ and of ‘The Fluid School’.  Starting with Jean Miro, such innovation through process has projected abstract painting to the forefront of contemporary expression.  First in Europe and then migrating to United States of America in the later half of the 20th Century. Their influence has produced several generations of innovations in Britain, Canada, and the USA.  The New New Painting group, a largely Canadian /American group, have from the 1980’s continued this modernist pursuit and focused a spiritual and lyrical content in abstract terms.

These innovations of the New New Painting group are is in stark contrast to the popular forms of literal expression, which are often accompanied by text explanations arguing their message as more important than the artwork itself.  I would simply counter this assertion by saying, “anything can have content but that does not grant that it has aesthetic form, that takes an ‘eye’ of an artist to achieve.  If visual reference is to be used the creator has an obligation to attempt perceptual coherence.

At the same time there can be no aesthetic form devoid of content and reference.

Form cannot exist is isolation without reference.  Abstraction does not remove association and reference it just makes those references in a less literal and figurative way.  All forms are relational and are contextually associated in our perception, be they figurative or abstract.  All art stems from the same visual language.

The ‘allover’ expression of late Monet and the ‘divisional’ expression of late Matisse, at the end of the 19th century and into the 20th Century had a major impact and influenced subsequent generations in the 20th Century.  This influence has been profound and provides, I would submit, the basis for most if not all of the painting that has followed.  Let us look at the slides as I highlight my inspiration in looking art some of the art that followed.

The Slides

In Europe Picasso and Braque at the beginning of the 20th Century begin to embark on muted tonal palette allover painting through Cubism.  Leger prefers a somewhat bolder contrasted palette with his cubist allover geometric reduction 

Mondrian after his allover tree based paintings evolves in the USA to divisional balance of discrete areas of colour.

Hans Hoffman after many battles under the influence of Matisse’s mid career works influence, finds his way to his mature style of the ‘Slab’ paintings, following his arrival in the USA.  He too then is finally able to untangle his Cubist influences and addresses the frontallity of the picture plane.  His compositions plays with a combination of Matisse like shaping and Monet allover fusion.

Adolph Gottlieb, another German, like Hoffman who fled Europe before the Second World War, experiments with allover compositions in his ‘pictographs’ and then employs discrete burst of colour on flat grounds in his late works.

Barnett Newman, in his late work divides his canvas vertically into discrete areas of colour counterbalancing strong contrast of thinly painted colour and linear edge drawing on large-scale canvases.

Clifford Still explores rich palette knife applications of large areas of colour in a more organic configuration balancing variation of surface on large canvases.  His work combines and allover surface with mostly strong colour shifts.

Mark Rothko evolves from still life compositions to large horizontal compositions on vertical canvases by saturating thin richly stained and opaque floating slabs of colour that hover over their surrounding ground colours.

Jackson Pollock’s mature style involves him in a process of working flat and casting, dripping long strands of stove pipe enamel and other often commercial house paint in web like formations ‘allover’ the canvas.  As Greenberg would say “allover but not allover” referring for the need for a painting to have compositional variance and differing visual weights to sustain interest and make a painting rather than wallpaper.  (my understandings from conversations with Greenberg in my studio)  Pollock’s approach to working on the floor and painting from all sides in an active responsive way, I contend extended Monet’s allover vision into a new era which Juan Miro along with Pollock allowed the paints movement and forms to become part of the drawing process.

That the fluidity of the medium becomes part of the vocabulary of form available for expression.  Not that this had not been employed by Asian artists and Classical painters before them but here begins the open declaration of the fluidity of the medium being employed as the signature approach to painting.  Pollock used these very fast drying enamels because of the stringy linear strands the paint would make as it hit the air, causing it to have a toffee like consistencies.  He thinned other paints to provide more runny mixtures that spread on impact with the canvas providing him with a range of mark making to add richness and interest to his work.

Hoffman, Gottlieb, Newman, Still, Rothko, and Pollock, are the major European figures who established themselves as the first generation of artists who evolve unique approaches to painting and form what has become to be known as the New York School These artists were also the first to begin what later became to be called Color Field Painting, which saw gesture, so valued in the Abstract Expressionism in the 1940’s and 50’s become subdued.  By the 1960’s large unbroken surfaces and the flattening of the picture plane by areas of pure colour and the staining process has become the focus in the work of Americans’ Helen Frankenthaler, Morris Louis, Kenneth Noland and Jules Olitski, followed by Jack Bush of Canada.  Color field painting emerged in Great Britain, Canada, Washington, D.C., and the West Coast of the United States with motifs of vertical, horizontal, and circular banding of simplified geometry often referencing landscape and natural imagery.

It is the Colour Field painting which leads to what I refer to as The Fluid School and Process Painting.  This became focused in the work of Louis and Frankenthaler, followed by Olitski, by allowing of the painting process to evolve the ‘imagery’ of the work.  Frankenthaler worked on unstretched canvas spread flat on the floor, and poured and spread her colour discovering her forms or shapes by responding to the spreading paint and using this as a starting point in her compositions.  Louis used gravity by hanging and suspending canvas using it to guide the stains of colour down and across the canvas making his motif through a compositional process focused on colour.  He allows the ‘image’ of the work, which in his case involves, leaving bare canvas surrounding the painted image, to be the resultant shaping giving it tension with the painted image.

Olitski combined large stained areas and approached beginning much in the same way Frankenthaler by brushing and sometimes spraying large field of colour using the shape of the canvas primarily rectangular, and edge drawing to lock and compose the field of colour.  His early work of the 1960’s explores Color Field staining in a wide range of saturations but as his work develops towards to a more muted palette and ethereal colour with a multitude of painterly surfaces.

The 1950’s saw many of the Europeans and Americans, De Kooning, Kline, Motherwell explore large-scale expressions that came to be know as Abstract Expressionism.  Colour was largely tonal and imagery subdued in painterly surfaces.  The 1960’s saw a return to full palette color and the preponderance of large color areas and motifs that became known as ‘Color Field’ painting.  Color with no u as the Americans spell it.

The 1970’s see a return to tonality but with a new subtly not seen ever or since Cubism.

Jules Olitski works through into the 1990’s making paintings which articulate many variations of surface and a range of mark making with spraying, spatulas, rollers, dripping and throwing, car washing gloves and pouring creating, making him a truly dominate figure of abstract paintings in those decades.  He was able through subtle shifts in values, textures and transparency or opacity to create ethereal depth and subtlety, which evoke a sublime depth of feeling.  At the same time the younger Larry Poons having made Op Art (art which emphasized optical phenomena) of the 60’s began to hang loose canvas vertically around the wall and cast paint across and down the surface like a waterfall, cropping, cutting out his compositions from these painted lengths when dry.  Poon’s‘ Cascade paintings are the most radical departure from easel painting since Pollock and Olitski and push ‘Process Painting’ and the exploration of fluidity as a way of drawing following on from Frankenthaler and Louis.

The 1980’s see the emergence of a group of artists with whom I am associated who have come to be known as the New New Painters.  All have been influenced by the artists of the proceeding generation particularly, Olitski, Noland, Louis, Frankenthaler, Still, Pollock and Poons.  Most of these artists are in their early to late 30’s before they break free of Olitski’s dominate influence and do so in most part by returning to a wide colour palette.  By the 1990’s they can be said to have between them accentuated bold contrast of colour, surface becomes in some cases dimensional and with radical picture shaping.

The group is championed by Kenworth Moffett, former curator of 20Century Art at the Boston Museum 1970 -1983 and Director of the Museum of Art Fort Lauderdale Florida U.S.A.  He was a close associate of Clement Greenberg with whom he often accompanied to studio visits to Noland and Olitski and many of the New York School throughout the 1960’s 70’s and into the 80’s.  Greenberg, died in 1994 and Olitski, last year and Noland a few months ago.  Moffett is still active as freelance writer/curator and is currently working of a New New Painting show for China in 2011.  Writings about the New New Painting group and more can be found on his web page at

My Work

I grew up in London England and graduated from London Universities Goldsmiths College of Art.  I was provided with both a classical grounding in drawing, sculpture and painting while being introduced to abstraction, which became my focus in my second year of studies.  I have been influenced by all of the artists I have discussed in my lecture and in differing ways they have stimulated my interest in finding a way to make my own work.

My quest has always been for colour AND painterliness, a term used to describe the paint handling showing in a work.  The desire to use a full palette of colour, as in Matisse or Noland, yet achieve the allover synthesis and freedom of paint as in Monet, Poons and Pollock was always a quest to be resolved.  In my case it took 20 years from starting art school.

I began in 1962, my second year at art school to work with blocks of colour influenced by Mondrian, and subsequently in the late 1960’s, having traveled to New York, discovered the work of Mark Rothko and Kenneth Noland.  Seeing their work freed my insight to drawing and paint surface applications and I began spraying and looser compositions of bands of colour.  Along with these influences came the work of Jules Olitski, Jackson Pollock and Larry Poons, who’s allover, seemingly free approach, particularly that of Poons, was overpowering.  I began pouring and casting paint around in search of a way to keep my colour clear yet paint in some freeing process from which I could make paintings. 

After years of modest successes some of which I later determined as failures and destroyed, I returned to a layering approach by pouring one colour on top of another.  It was not until the 1980’s that I began to get the idea of what the potential of this way of working might be.

I began pouring paint in layers on long lengths of canvas, one on top of the other and drying the paintings to produce fissures in the surface revealing clearly the colour below.

I would then select compositions from the dried paint formations, cut them out, and work on shaping these on the wall.  The observation that I could make separations, fissures in the paint led me to consider the potential of such a process and I began to develop a painting medium in acrylic that would induce what would come to be called ‘crazing’.

The first group of these blue white works was titled  ‘Polo’, and were made in 1982.  The ‘allover’ crazing was reasonably small and the main concern was that of creating enough compositional tension and decreasing the sense of regularity and patterning.  This was resolved by shaping the canvas and hanging them on a diagonal axis in a fixed position accentuating the dynamics of the crazing.  Collage was also used within the paint to create a compositional event.

By 1985 I had enlarged the scale of crazing, the size between the paint separations and increased my use of collage in the paint and had made larger paintings with angular and curved shapes that were sometimes combined.  Diagonals, cone shapes and ovals and combinations of these are explored.

In 1887 I returned to working with rectangles pouring individual ponds of paint and allowing the organic shapes to be expressed within the frame.

By the 1990’s I had taken these shapes in the rectangular works out of their frames and began by cutting out the shape and subsequently undulating parts of the surface by padding it with foam, and mounting the painted canvas on a backing with the foam in between.  The shaping in my work in the early 90’s became associative of animal and others forms but as the decade ended I lessened the complexity of the shapes in favour of simpler more neutral, generally circular emphasized works.  Colours had also begun to include reflective pigments and I made a group of glitter painting using glitter pigments.

From 2000 on I have been increasing interested in reintroducing illusionistic painting into my work.  To do so I have introduced drawing of ellipses and cut out oval shapes, which are then shifted and rejoined, and place new canvas in the cut hole and painted it to look 3 dimensional.  I have also combined linear ellipses as a way of creating a transparent figure on a colour (crazed) field.

While the rejection of illusionistic representation was what made Monet and Matisse discover new forms of visualization, I have found it possible to reintroduce illusion in abstract painting without traditional representation and as a means to increasing the spiritual content in my work.  This remains the current focus of my work and I am returning to some aspect of my early angular work to achieve this.

I found in making my own paint medium has allowed me to make a new form of painting, which combines the allover surface and yet can include high colour contrast that was my quest.

I think that there is a vast potential for artists if they can become more able to modify acrylic mediums, as has been the case with oil paint for centuries.  This would allow them to achieve new processes, ways of drawing in creating new forms of expression.  This will necessitate that artists in becoming more knowledgeable of acrylic paint chemistry and by doing so have access to the basic materials rather than buying only standardized commercial products.  Because the raw materials, acrylic monomers, are controlled substances, this poses some problems, as unlike oils, these are generally not sold to artists.

I have just published a book on my work, Graham Peacock, A Retrospective, which contains over 500 photographs of my work, my writing on my work, and its processes together critical discussions of my work in English with some French and German. A copy can be viewed in my printmaking studio and are available by mail for 225TL. Postage paid to Turkey by contacting me at

It has been a pleasure to work with you all at the Pamakkale Artists Colony/Workshop and I thank you for your invitation and warm reception.  I look forward to working with you in the future.

Best Wishes

Graham Peacock