Posts Tagged ‘Abstract Expressionism’

Blackpaint 580 – The Best Exhibitions of the Year (and the worst…)

December 29, 2016

Compulsory Annual Review time

Kicking off with exhibitions, in order of merit (sort of):

Abstract Expressionism, RA

Room after room of masterpieces; the (first) red de Kooning and Joan Mitchell’s “Salut Tom” get my prize, but it’s all good stuff.


Robert Rauschenberg, Tate Modern

Staggering – although I don’t think he’s a “modern Da Vinci”; his inventiveness is confined to the art world.  I loved everything except the bubbling mud bath.


Hieronymus Bosch, s’Hertegenbosch, Netherlands

Exploding with imagination and an exquisite painter.  Everything on sale in town has a “Bosch” trademark.

bosch john the baptist

Saul Leiter, Photographers Gallery/William Eggleston, National Portrait Gallery

Separate exhibitions but equally brilliant – by sticking them together, I get one more place on my top ten.  Leiter made me think of Cheever and Norman Rockwell; Eggleston of “Psycho” and Arbus.  But they are both much more than that…

saul postmen


eggleston 2


Intrigue, James Ensor, RA

Surprisingly brilliant, amazingly varied – and still on, like AbEx and Rauschenberg.


He does a scintillating vegetable and his skate is rather alarming (see below) – see also Chardin and Soutine for two other skates – but not a pair.


William Kentridge, Whitechapel

I think it’s his flick book pictures I like best.



Robert Motherwell, Bernard Jacobson Gallery


Round the corner from the other AbExes at the RA, some lovely big pictures that were NOT from the “Requiem for the Spanish Civil War” group.

Etel Adnan, Sackler

Israeli artist; earlier pictures better, I think, reminiscent of de Stael.  Terrific colour and texture.


Mary Heilmann, Whitechapel

Any other year, she would have been higher on the list.  I don’t like the spots and the nursery colours, however.

mary heilmann3


Russian Portraits, National Portrait Gallery

A revelation, before the Revolution (sorry).  Repin, Serov.. brilliant.

Russia Morozov


The list doesn’t include Baselitz, Paul Nash, Terence Donovan, Botticelli, Delacroix, Infinite Mix, Turner Prize (!), Saatchi Champagne Life…. what can you do?  An exceptionally brilliant year in every respect, except the US election, terrorist attacks, foreign wars, global warming…


Georgia O’ Keefe at Tate Modern.  Well, not really – just don’t like her stuff generally (although I DO like the one below).


Also disappointing…

Winifred Knights, Dulwich Picture Gallery

The Deluge 1920 Winifred Knights 1899-1947 Purchased with assistance from the Friends of the Tate Gallery 1989

Too mannered.And…

Wifredo Lam, Tate Modern


Too black and white.  OK, films, museums, DVDs, theatre tomorrow.


Cleveland Way, 82







Blackpaint 329 – Manly Women and The Rear View

March 6, 2012

Leonard Rosoman

Obituary for the above today in Guardian. Fireman during the Blitz, painted the famous picture of the wall collapsing on two firemen during a raid (which he witnessed).  A beautiful picture of an aircraft with folded wings, Sutherland – ish, a luscious rose-pink; was in the Imperial War Museum some time back, maybe still on show.

Robert Motherwell

Looking at Motherwell’s art, you really come to understand what is meant by “gestural” painting – that’s exactly what many of his pictures resemble; a deliberate, sometimes violent, always deliberate gesture, usually in black, often with spatters, on a plain background.  His colours, unlike those of, say, Hoffman, are limited to maybe three or four at the most.  The Spanish Elegy series ran to over a hundred pictures, all with the same central image, based apparently on the dead bull’s testicles in the bullring.  This (below) is his Ulysses, in the Tate, which I have mentioned several times; it’s the most striking image in the surrealism bit (what’s it doing there?)…

Joan Mitchell

Every day, I change my mind – yesterday, I would have sworn de Kooning was the best of the AbEx bunch – OK, I know he wasn’t really an AbEx, not even an abstractionist for a lot of the time, but for convenience’ sake…  Today, I’ve picked up the Joan Mitchell book and it’s page after page of beautiful, fresh, intertwined tangles of bright paint, green, gold, blue, that somehow avoid bleeding into each other and becoming muddy and sludgy – Hemlock, Evenings on 73rd Street. George went swimming, Hudson River Day Line – and then the ones assembled out of colour blocks that look as if they are glowing with fire – Salut Sally, Wet Orange, Belle Bete, all with thin colours dribbling over and through the blocks.  They look good enough to eat.

Hudson River Day Line

She’s sort of the Anti-Auerbach; even when the canvas is covered, there’s light and space and air, somehow.  I love Auerbach’s sludgy paintings too, I hasten to add.

de Kooning

I’d assumed that he put his paintings together on the canvas, so to speak; that the charcoal and paint lines left in or only partly erased or obscured were evidence of an improvisatory approach – wrong.  He left some in, painted over others,  He traced or enlarged elements from one picture or sketch to another.  He appears to have borrowed images from other painters on occasion, a notable example being the screaming woman looking up to the sky in “Guernica”.  He mixed his paints with plaster of paris to achieve particular effects. 

It seems that few American Abstract Expressionists fitted the stereotype of the gestural painter, who improvises as he/she goes along.  Maybe only Pollock and a couple of othersMotherwell?

Apart from three canvases, my paintings are totally improvised – when I start, I’ve hardly any idea of where they are going to go.  No sketches, it all takes place on the canvas or the paper.  First thing – get the canvas dirty with a swatch or slash of paint.  After that, it proceeds by trial and error and correction, scraping and plastering.  Shapes emerge and are incorporated or painted over, tracts of paint have to be concealed, scraped off or cut back.  Eventually, an image or set of images emerges, that I think constitutes a picture.  I’m sure that, if I did sketches or preparation, the end result would be better – but the process would be like work and I’d have to stop.  I’d rather keep painting.


I haven’t written anything about the maestro for ages, so had a flick through the picture books tonight.  Two things struck me, both very banal, I’m sure.  First, most of his women, with the exception of Virgins, are really men with breasts stuck on (I think Alan Bennett put that observation into “The History Boys”) – and one of the images of God in the 8th bay of the Sistine ceiling is showing his bare backside, for no good reason.  Given that lots of genitalia were later painted over, how did that get past the censors?


Paging through the channels aimlessly the other night, came across Paul Sorvino’s pouchy face peering at the garlic clove, as he shaves it into thin slices with a razor blade – and that was it, hooked again; only seen it about twenty-three times.  Astounding that he never got an Oscar until The Departed.

A really early one.

Some of my stuff in the WhatIf Gallery, Dartford.



Blackpaint 117

April 22, 2010

Albert Oehlen and Fiona Rae

I’m going to start a new occasional series (that is, I’ll do one now and another when I remember – maybe never), in which I link two artists and then decide that, whereas I thought they were similar, they’re really nothing like each other.  It  requires you the reader to Google them on Images and reach your own decision.

Albert Oehlen is German, born in 1954, and he does large canvases, layering in a range of techniques, sometimes using airbrush, for instance, then doing a layer of thrown-on paint, then brushwork, and so on.  The style, I suppose, strongly resembles Abstract Expressionism, which is why I am drawn to him – but he also includes figurative elements in his work.  Sometimes, bits of  it reminds me of early 60s Pop Art. 

The Saatchi Gallery website ( contains the following memorable (and baffling) quote:  “Albert Oehlen’s paintings are neither beautiful nor seductive.  Their self-consciously brutal surfaces seem to be corrupted from within, a perversion of the paintings they might have been.”

This makes them sound like Bacon or Dumas (not a bad thing, of course); “brutal”,” corrupted”,” a perversion”…  To my eyes, they are both beautiful and seductive.

Ochre Eater, by Blackpaint

Fiona Rae is younger, British born 1963 in Hong Kong, and was a YBA.  Her Wikipedia entry identifies her work as abstract expressionist or similar; her canvases are large, colourful, employing, like Oehlen, a range of techniques.  Yes, I think they are alike – Rae’s motifs appear more flowery and/or organic perhaps, colours maybe more vibrant..?  Not sure, have a look – it will be well worth it.


Ochre Eater 2, by Blackpaint



Blackpaint 49

January 25, 2010

My Abstract Expressionist binge

Exhausted and feeling sick today, after efforts of last two nights – plus that crash when you think you’ve done something passably good and the scales suddenly fall from your eyes.  I fiddled with AbEx no.2 this morning, to see if I could give it some structure, but not happy with it.  As Pollock said, “..the painting has a life of its own.  I try to let it come through.  It is only when I lose contact with the painting that the result is a mess.  otherwise there is pure harmony, an easy give and take, and the painting comes out well”.

That’s absolutely right – everything that Pollock says about the act of painting is very clear and straight; he reminds me of Bacon in that respect.  Anyway, I decided I’d fly the results, whether they were crap or just mediocre, so this is it.

Francis Alys

This artist is my current hero and this is why (extract from 100 Contemporary Artists, Taschen) : “In 1997, Francis Alys pushed a large block of ice through the streets of Mexico City until it was reduced to a puddle of meltwater.  This…illustrated the futility of the sculptural endeavour…but its very absurdity guaranteed its continued existence through word of mouth anecdote” – which I suppose is sort of what I’m doing now.

Can’t write more tonight, but since most visitors to this blog come for Michelangelo, here he is-




Blackpaint 48

January 24, 2010

Abstract Expressionism

Following Friday night’s “automatic” painting session, tried it again last night; predictably, no success.  I remained very conscious of what I was trying to achieve throughout the night and the result was very disappointing.  A bluey-green, grey, white and very black mess of a picture, a sort of childlike imitation of what I got on Friday without the natural feel of it.  I’ll have to work on it in the normal way to try and make a fist of it.

Joycean Novels 

By chance, I’m reading three books at the moment which all claim influence from Joyce: Berlin Alexanderplatz by Doblin, Manhattan Transfer (which the blurb also compares to Berlin Alexanderplatz) by Dos Passos and At Swim-Two-Birds, by Flann O’Brien.  With the first two, so far, the influence seems manifest mostly in the use of portmanteau words and sections of newspapers, official reports and adverts.  O’Brien’s book is the closest to Joyce, the first 30 or so pages containing dialogue and prose style that could have come straight from the “Cyclops” and the “Oxen of the Sun” chapters of Ulysses. 

The Flann O’Brien is also the source of the best sentence I have read today: “Kelly then made a low noise and opened his mouth and covered the small man from shoulder to knee with a coating of unpleasant buff -coloured puke.”

Or I thought this the best, until reading the Observer, I found this, under the sub heading: “overweight Britons resort to liposuction”:  “During the same period the average amount of fat taken out (by liposuction) rose from 687ml in 2000 to 1.05  litres last year.  The 2000 litres of body fat removed in 2009 are the equivalent of what a typical chip shop uses in a year to fry its fish and chips.”

Surely, there’s an opportunity here for an enterprising conceptual artist to explore a new material, perhaps asking questions about body image, norms of beauty and so on.  Someone’s probably already done it.

Tate Britain

Went there this afternoon – some “new” sculpture in the main hall: Richard Deacon, a doughnut shaped bulb of pewter-like steel plates, squashed in, as if sat on by a giant; Rachel Whiteread, a set of what looked like concrete toasters, set up like dominoes; William Tucker, a long pipe twisted into improbable loops; Tony Cragg, a multi-shelved cabinet stocked with sand-blasted white bottles and vases; someone else’s long, thick rope, snaking through a chicane of tall, soft “traffic cones”.  In a side room, a giant rock which from a distance resembled honeycomb or Father Jack’s earwax – but, close up, turned out, (disappointingly) to be knitted wool.

St. Ives  

The Lanyons, Herons, Hiltons, Blow (only one- why?) looked as good as ever; when will the Tate have a big exhibition of St.Ives stuff, giving Sandra Blow and Barnes-Graham etc. their due?

Listening to “El Paso Blues” by Big Joe Williams;

“Didja get the letter I throwed in your backyard?

I’d a come home, baby, but your good man had me barred,

Oh babe, baby don’t you wanta go….”



Blackpaint 45

January 21, 2010


I’ve rung some changes in my paintings over the last couple of weeks;  I’m doing them landscape instead of portrait – big change for me – and I’ve been using more big slashes and masses of black paint.  i’m wondering if it’s because of the name I’m using for this blog.  Anyway, there is a sort of device or pattern which keeps coming through, in thr form of something like car side mirrors attached to great curved, or slightly curving, black supports or arms.  I’ve got four of these around me in the room now.  Two of them are basically black, red, white and blue-grey, two are  black, yellow, yellow ochre and blue grey.  Two are relatively cleanly painted and drawn – the other two much rougher, edges blurred, backgrounds sort of scraped and fuzzed.

Reading back over this, I see I’ve referred to a “sort of device or pattern which keeps coming through”.  That’s a real “Expressionist” way of looking at painting, as if the painter were some kind of medium, brushing and splatting and scrubbing away at a surface until gradually some pre-existing organic form emerges.  This is bollocks of course – there is no Platonic form floating around out there in the ether that chooses an artist and allows him/her to  fix it on canvas or paper, like a brass rubbing. 

Maybe, though, there are patterns which emerge during the process of painting that are determined by subconscious mental and physical attributes of the artist – the arc of a curve, say, or a preference to leave a section of the canvas unoccupied.

Or maybe you do something you like and copy it over and over, convincing yourself it’s different each time.

Hans Hoffmann

Just been reading about the above in Taschen “Abstract Expressionism”;  one thing that I liked –  he squeezed the paint directly from the tube to onto the canvas, thus (according to Greenberg) inventing the “heavy surface” in abstract art.  I tend to chuck it on from pots and then mix and work it in situ too.  I can only wish, as with so many others, my results were as good as his.

Listening to Chicago Bound by Jimmy Rodgers:

“I didn’t need no steam heat by my bed,

Little girl I loved kept me cherry red,

But I left that town,

Yeah I left that town,

When I left St.Louis, well, you know I was Chicago bound”.



Blackpaint 40

January 16, 2010

Michelangelo and Leonardo shadings

In Blackpaint 16, I was writing about the way that various artists used shading in their drawings.  I made a couple of generalisations about the above pair, based on a few drawings I had studied.  I said, I think, that Leonardo tended to shade in lines diagonally downward from  left to right and Michelangelo the opposite.  In both cases, the angle could be vary from very shallow to very steep.

What I didn’t take into account was the crushingly obvious; Leonardo was left handed, so it would have been difficult to draw repeated diagonal lines right to left (you could, of course, turn the paper round).  Michelangelo, I discover, was ambidextrous; I assume in the drawings I looked at, he used his right hand to shade.  

Anyway, since Bl.16, I’ve looked at many more sketches and drawings by both men.  I think that the generalisation holds for the more rudimentary work, but they both use a wide variety of lines and hatching to shade.  Leonardo, in the anatomical drawings, tends to use lines that follow the contour of the muscle, or encircle the bone that he is describing. 

I have to say I’m rather disappointed by this; I was hoping to find some invariable method used by the “greats” that I could copy- now I find that the only rule is to be a genius at drawing and use the best possible method to achieve the effect you want, i.e. to have good taste.

Franz Kline and Hans Hartung

When I look at the work of both these artists, I have the overwhelming impression that they were created spontaneously, perhaps in a single burst of sustained, intense creativity, conjured out of nothing more than the artist’s vision and interaction with the paint and canvas – with maybe, probably, chance thrown in.

Well, yes and no.  It turns out that Kline did preparatory sketches  for his huge black and white paintings – that one in the Tate that looks like an enormous bridgehead with Japanese – style reed bed below in the misty water, for instance – and Hartung copied his paintings carefully, from sketches he produced involuntarily by a process of autonomism.

I can’t help feeling that this is a sort of cheating.  I suppose it’s the idea of carefully making a brushstroke look as if it’s been done spontaneously, with a bit of dry dragging at the end of the slash and maybe some spatter.  Especially Hartung; why couldn’t he do the big ones “automatically”?  Copying the little sketches seems pointless to me.

On the other hand, all painting is about cheating really; if it works, it’s justified.  I would have burnt the sketches though.

Christian Boltanski

I was reading Adrian Searles’ review of Boltanski’s new installation at the Grand Palais in Paris (It’s a jungle out there, G2, 14.01.10), and I noted the sentence “It is hard not to think of deportations and genocides, a recurrent theme in Boltanski’s art.”  I thought great, I can refer to my stuff about Balka and other Polish artists in Blackpaint 20-21.  Then I read on and was deflated to find that he was born – or at least, conceived – in Paris.  More proof that all generalisations are wrong, or at least, very shaky; I have decided not to generalise any more at all.

Some other stuff in this fascinating review that makes Boltanski sound insane to me; but then all great artists are…



Blackpaint 36

January 12, 2010


I finally managed to get to the pub where my paintings were on show today, to take them down, a week late.  As I was loading them into the car, the next painter turned up with his work wrapped in a towel, just like mine.  We exchanged pleasantries.  Well over a month on show, and I’ve sold just two.  Still, I’ve got a few still up in another pub and another lot going up in another pub next Thursday.

It’s funny to have them back home again – they look fresher and brighter somehow, more interesting than I’d thought; I suppose it’s just that they are new to me again.

Attacked that pastel ice cream abortion last night with great swathes of dirty grey, blood red and slashes of black.  It doesn’t look pastel anymore!  Stuck it on the wall and surprised to see it looks great from the right hand side, looking in from the hallway.  From the front it looks shit, unfortunately.

From the Taschen Abstract Art, found the argument that an abstract painting is more “authentic” than a figurative one – in the sense that a figurative picture is only a representation of reality, can never be more than a copy, and hence a fiction, whereas an abstract painting is the real thing; the colours, shapes, marks are themselves, not representations (unless you think they are representations of your inner self, emotions and suchlike).  I assume this is old hat for those who have been to art school or done courses in art history, but it’s a new idea, or rather, new expression of an old idea for me.

Listened to Eisenhower Blues, by JB Lenoir, and Finlandia and 2nd Symphony, Sibelius.  I have to say that at times it reminded me of film music, a touch melodramatic – but then, so does Mahler, here and there ( his 2nd, the Resurrection,  in particular).



Blackpaint 35

January 10, 2010

Kenneth Noland

In yesterday’s obituary of Noland, Michael McNay recalls Clement Greenberg’s use of the term “post-painterly abstractionists” to describe Noland and others, and remarks how, for Greenberg, “the purely colour-based paintings of Noland and the others marked out a different and more advanced stage of art’s march to absolute abstraction”. 

This sounds very odd now, the idea of art as a rolling process heading in a particular direction towards fulfilment, in some sort of Hegelian or Marxian progression.  Further on in the piece, McNay mentions the “wholesale rejection by younger painters…of modernist abstraction” in the 1960s.

Now, of course, everything is fragmented and one can cut and paste from these past movements – nothing is original.  this, thank goodness, does not mean the same as “nothing is worthwhile doing”; but I suppose every piece that is produced of whatever kind fits into some existing category, with ready points of comparison by which the critic can assess its worth.

Is that really so, or is there true originality “out there”? (horrible cliche, like “I don’t think so”, or “Do you know what?” or “Good luck with that.”)  Here’s another one; Answers on a postcard to….


Yesterday, I bought the two new Taschen books “Abstract Art” and “Abstract Expressionism”.  Both full of images of great beauty and profundity that I am tempted to describe in superlatives like “stunning” and “poignant” – but I won’t, because I am of a certain age and culture, and besides they are cliches.

Something I noticed was the use of marginalised or obscured colours in two paintings in particular.  The first, by Barnett Newman, “who’s afraid of red, yellow and blue I”.  This is at first glance a red rectangle with a narrow stripe of blue running down the left margin.  Only at second glance (perhaps as a reaction to the title) do you notice the much narrower, and ragged stripe of yellow down the right margin.

The other picture, by Robert Motherwell, is one of the famous “Elegy to the Spanish Republic” series, this one no.34.  In this version, the bulbous black figures in the foreground partially hide background squares of red yellow ochre and blue, arranged in rough columns.  I think I’ve seen a version in the Tate Modern, and I’m sure that it was on a background of plain white.  The colours (of the Spanish Republican flag) transform the image from an abstract one to a symbolic one to my mind – although I suppose you could argue that the title itself does that, to an extent anyway.

More about these stunning and poignant paintings of great beauty and profundity to follow.

Today, I listened to no music at all – but I watched Wolfie Adams beat Dave Chisnall in the darts final, to the accompaniment of the most surreal commentary yet from Tony Green and his colleague.