[Image: (left) Marc Vaux, OV.M.13 (2014), acrylic on MDF, 132 x 115.5 cm; (right) John Carter, © courtesy of the Artist. Three Turns Variant (2007), acrylic with marble powder on plywood, 65 x 70 x 8 cm, © courtesy of the Artist.]
Geometric abstract art has generally been poorly received in Great Britain. Britain was late to visual Modernism and accepted only its most tepid forms until at least the mid-twentieth century. The hostility towards Modernism translated into especially strong disapproval of the most uncompromising avant-gardism: geometric abstraction.
In this book, James Bartos looks at the geometric abstraction in British art and provides case studies six artists: Alan Reynolds (1926-2014), Peter Joseph (b. 1929), Marc Vaux (b. 1932), John Carter (b. 1942), Callum Innes (b. 1962) and Luke Frost (b. 1976).
The author is unequivocally in favour of beauty, no matter how spurned that term is by the sophisticated consumers of advanced social and artistic theory. The publishers are to be commended for the decision to publish a book that advocates contemporary art, painting and beauty – a shamefully rare intersection of vectors in contemporary art publishing. Bartos uses Tim Craven’s tripartite categorisation of abstract art into biomorphic, expressive (gestural) and geometric. He comments on the associations between geometric abstraction and Minimalism.
I think painting can be minimal, and I think of minimalist art as being a sort of quiet art. Most art today is very shouty art. It shouts slogans and politics and social issues; it shouts with bizarre objects, chaotic graphics, loud colours, shiny surfaces, cacophonic sounds coming out of multiple speakers, multiple images coming out of multiple TV screens, complicated back-stories, hard-to-understand scenes of dystopia and jumbled installations that are difficult to take in or to walk through. Among this shouty cacophony, minimalist art seems at rest, creating within itself and around itself a quietude, a harmony or balance and a space for contemplation.
In the first part of the book, Bartos recounts the international development of the style, starting with Constructivism and de Stijl and running through later phases. Those phases and artists include Bauhaus, Naum Gabo, Josef Albers, Barnett Newman, Robert Motherwell, Kenneth Noland, Ellsworth Kelly, Frank Stella, Minimalism (including Donald Judd, Sol LeWitt). The emphasis on prints and painting is expanded to include Judd’s sculptures made of painted aluminium components. Minimalism was a major area of experimentation for geometric art. A left-field addition is Larry Bell as a representative of California Light and Space. (The most well-known member of the group is James Turrell.) Commenced in 1964, his sculptures in glass and mirror, with addition coloration effects, are the light and subtly coloured West Coast counterpart to East Coast Minimalism. The example illustrated is striking – with its sprayed graduated opaque pigment combining with the glass box to form a cube of smoke. Apparently, Judd admired the art of Bell and Robert Irwin, so the Californians were far from peripheral in terms of influence. Fellow Californian Robert Mangold is also discussed. His combinations of solid colour and applied line designs place the coloured surfaces into the dual aspects of being solid material and immaterial colour inhabited by linear forms.
[Image: Callum Innes, Untitled from the Canto series (1992), oil and turpentine on paper, 210 x 100 cm, © courtesy of the Artist.]
A separate section discusses the evolution of hard-edge abstraction in Britain. Vorticism was the first serious engagement with abstraction. It was only a brief eruption, with most of the artists retreating to the figurative neo-classical pastoralism of l’appel d’ordre in the immediate post-war period. In the 1930s continental abstraction had filtered into the consciousness of younger advanced artists and there came renewed engagement with hard-edge abstraction. Ben Nicholson was the most prominent and original member of this group. His geometric reliefs and circular incisions utilised clean lines and absence of colour to achieve their vigorous clarity. Bartos notes that these artists struggled for patronage. Kenneth Clark, Director of the National Gallery and leading figure in the public arts, used the War Artists scheme to acquire art of figurative and Neo-Romantic artists for the nation. The documentary function of the war art project meant that abstract artists were excluded, which conformed to Clark’s taste. In the post-war period, British Constructionists Victor Pasmore, Adrian Heath, Kenneth and Mary Martin and others took up the baton. However, Bartos acknowledges that it was in the architecture of Brutalism that hard-edge abstraction found its greatest impact, most serious notoriety and vigorous expression in Britain after the 1945. A serious omission is Op Art, especially the art of Bridget Riley. Riley is the British artist most associated with hard-edge geometry in painting and printmaking in British Modernism. She is also an important figure.
This account is solid, illustrated with appropriate examples and could be used as a set text on the development of Modernist painting in Great Britain.
[Image: Luke Frost, Deep primary cyan volts (2014), acrylic on aluminium, 84 x 84cm. © courtesy of the Artist. ]
The individual texts on artists include interviews, with context provided. In the case of the recently deceased Alan Reynolds, the interviews are with his dealers. The other artists consented to participate in interviews which provide a record of their progress and affiliations. Their interviews are sometimes unexpected and revealing. (Marc Vaux found more to admire in Pasmore’s abstract paintings than in his geometric relief sculptures. Peter Joseph never formally studied art. Luke Frost’s greatest influence is Dan Flavin.) Comments from their dealers and extracts from reviews of exhibitions explicate why the art appealed to viewers and how the art was accepted (sometimes reluctantly) by the public and museums. The interview transcriptions provide us with a record of the artists’ attitudes towards art and a glimpse of their working practices. Bartos adds his own thoughts about salient elements in the way the art operates. This is difficult because art which relies on visual effect – and very little else – is the hardest to write about.
The artists talk about their influences and what art they were looking at when they developed their signature styles. There are a lot of relief constructions and the multiple views from different angles allow us to appreciate the construction of these pieces, which straddle the line between painting and sculpture, surface and object. Some of this art is not well known, having been crowded out by more aggressive showy art that is easier to summarise verbally and which allows itself to be used for political causes. The attention paid to such restrained and careful art is thoroughly welcome. Let’s hope that publishers such as Unicorn and authors such as Bartos are held up as examples of independence and encourage others to investigate art that demands and rewards patient observation and prolonged interaction.
James Bartos, The Geometry of Beauty: The Not Very British Art of Six British Artists, Unicorn, 2019, hardback, 320pp, fully illus., £30, ISBN 978 1 912690 34 3
© 2019 Alexander Adams
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