Abstract Colour: Agnes Martin, Cy Twombly and John Hoyland

Haphazard, I visited three exhibitions over the weekend; as it turned out, each had something in common. All three artists reached their mature, abstract styles during the 1950s, a period when American Expressionism dominated the avant-garde.  Two were in new venues designed by Caruso St John; another – Tate Modern – is about to launch its new extension by Herzog & de Meuron.  All made an impact with their extraordinary use of colour and their glorious, tactile, textural use of paint.  For a start, Agnes Martin…


I rushed to Tate Modern first of all as I realised that the retrospective of Agnes Martin was about to end.  Martin’s early abstract works referenced numerous masters of American Expressionism as she tried out various different approaches. The earliest are somewhere between Joan Miro and Cy Twombly, with floating biomorphic forms on a painterly white ground and lines like threads or roots or scratchy hieroglyphs.  ‘Harbour’ develops the amoeba-like forms into something more solid, with echoes of William Scott; while further on the shapes are simplified as Martin moves towards a paler vision of Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman – both of whose influence she acknowledged (‘Untitled’, 1959, above).

Untitled 1962 (acrylic rpiming, graphite and brass nails

In fact, Martin was taken on by New York art dealer Betty Parsons, who represented both Rothko and Newman.   From Taos, New Mexico, Martin moved into a sailmaker’s loft in New York to take up this offer; here she experimented with ‘found’ objects, producing some sculptural pieces using driftwood and nails, and also incorporating nails into paintings on canvas such as ‘Untitled’ (1962, above).  These remain an anomaly in her career, but were perhaps in some way instrumental in her move towards ever simpler forms – squares, rectangles, dots and repetitive linear marks.

Friendship 1963

Morning 1965 Agnes Martin 1912-2004 Purchased 1974 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/T01866

‘More and more I excluded from my paintings all curved lines, until finally my compositions consisted only of vertical and horizontal lines’ Martin has explained; yet her series of large square canvases from the 1960s-70s show the powerful effect that this austerity of means could produce.  The ‘aesthetic of the grid’ is explored in all its subtle permutations (even using gold leaf in ‘Friendship’, 1963, above top); Martin painted the canvas – usually white or pale grey – before constructing intricate grids using pencil lines.  An early series from the 1960s are like an intense study of workbooks – maths books, accounting books, lined notebooks – rational and repetitive in design, but on a grand scale strangely hypnotic and deeply calming (‘Morning’, 1965, above).  The human hand is ever there, in the texture of the painted background and the lines which sometimes waver very slightly and do not quite meet that edge of the canvas – yet the superimposed grid structure contains and controls this human fallibility.  Together the series has an almost monumental presence. It is interesting that curator at this point informs us that Martin suffered form schizophrenia.

on a clear day 1973

This striving for control and perfection is given new form in a series of thirty screen prints, ‘On a Clear Day’ (1972, above), completed in Stuttgart, Germany.  There is something perverse about using the roundabout method of screenprinting simply to reproduce pencil-drawn grids, perfectly.  Some grids are contained, others open-ended, untethered and infinite; all thirty are different, variations on a theme rather like music.  Then colour returns with a series from 1974, pale pinks, blues and yellows softly applied to a surface of acrylic gesso in precise rectangles or stripes, delineated by the ever-present and just-visible pencil lines (‘Untitled #3, 1974, below; ‘Untitled’, 1977, study on paper, bottom).

Untitled #3 1974

Untitled 1977

The grey paintings that began in 1977, though reduced in colour range, are more varied in technique.  In one, Martin uses a textural gypsum ground covered by a wash of Indian ink on top of which her habitual horizontal bands are drawn in graphite.  Some paintings are graphic, using flat planes of paint and sharp edges; others are like studies of the surface of rocks, up close and on a large scale (‘Untitled #12’, 1977, below).

Untitled #12 1977

Next door is a series of twelve white paintings, ‘The Islands’ (1979), with pencil lines as fine as cobwebs and such pale modulation of colour that it might just be one’s vision playing tricks.  They are dreamlike, the shifting lines creating a silent rhythm, almost pulsating around the room.  Everyone was silent, inspired by a contemplative awe; or was this prompted by the curatorial text asserting that the paintings should ‘invite concentrated looking’ and ‘convey a contemplative quality’ reflecting ‘East Asian philosophy and spirituality’?  Context and cultural norms will always play a part – a painting above an altar will often inspire awe and a certain mystical transcendence that it might not if it were on the wall of a canteen or an office, though it might still glean respect and admiration.

Untitled #5 1991 Agnes Martin 1912-2004 Presented by the American Fund for the Tate Gallery, courtesy of Milly and Arne Glimcher in honour of Anthony d'Offay and ARTIST ROOMS 2012 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/T13717

Martin’s later career (she lived until 92, back in New Mexico) shows her revisiting past styles – the colour stripes, the grey paintings (‘Untitled #5’, 1991, above), the early Rothko-esque canvases – but with a brighter, looser paint surface, and in some the introduction of solid geometric shapes superimposed (‘Untitled #1’, 2003, below).  These are the closest Martin gets to ‘landscape’; while the work of other artists drawn to New Mexico, such as Georgia O’Keeffe, are suffused with natural forms, there is none of that here.  Yet there is a common feeling for the wide empty spaces and timelessness of that land, something primitive and elemental.

Untitled #1 2003

Next episode: Cy Twombly at the Gagosian and John Hoyland at the Newport Street Gallery…

Sonia Delaunay: Art and Design

yellow nude 1908

I finally saw the well deserved retrospective of Sonia Delaunay at Tate Modern  just before it closed.  Much seems to be made of the rehabilitation of modernist women artists by Tate over the past year, but it seems unhelpful, almost regressive, to highlight their gender; one hopes they would have been deemed worthy of exhibition regardless.  (Indeed I don’t remember a retrospective of Robert Delaunay’s work on this scale in my lifetime, so it’s hardly as if Sonia has been badly done by).  Overlooking any curatorial bias, it is a well designed presentation of a remarkable artistic career.

La Finlandaise 1907Sonia’s early work, such as ‘Yellow Nude’ (above, 1908), shows her absorbing the profusion of modernist styles that burst forth in the early years of the 20th century.  In ‘Yellow Nude’ the angular dark outlines and acidic colours of the German Expressionist ‘Die Brucke’ artists are a clear influence; in others, the cloisonniste colouration of early Gauguin and Emile Bernard  jumps out, or the pure Fauvist hues of Matisse and his use of patterned textile backdrops in ‘Young Finnish Woman’ (above left, 1907).

Sonia’s interest in using an array of media and crossing the boundaries between art, craft, literature and performance can be seen from early on in her career.  A patchwork cradle cover of 1911 and a painted coffer are equally effective manifestations of her experimentation with colour theory and an increasing abstraction of form, while her friendship with the poet Blaise Cendrars led to illustrated prose poems in 1913.

bal bullier

It is at this point, as the exhibition begins to explore her developing abstraction through an exploration of colour contrasts, that Sonia’s husband Robert should have made an appearance.  The couple met in 1907 and married in 1910, and together evolved the theory – or two man movement – known as Simultanism (or later, Orphism).  Nevertheless, the space is amply filled by Sonia’s large canvases, with standout works such as ‘Bal Bullier’ (above, 1912-13) and ‘Electric Prisms’ (below, 1914).

Sonia Delaunay, Prismes electriques 1914 (Download high resolution image 670.56 KB) Prismes electriques 1914 © Pracusa 2013057 © CNAP

The Delaunays went to Spain when war broke out in 1914, and it was in Madrid four years later after the Russian Revolution cut off support from her Russian family that Sonia opened her shop, Casa Sonia.  Here, the large gallery devoted to her textile and fashion designs is a treasure trove of original designs, fabric samples, garments, archive photographs and film.  03-sonia-delaunay-tate-700x1146The designs themselves are deceptively simple but extraordinary in repetition, and must have made a bold impact in post-war Europe.  The influence of her work with graphic design and her friendship with Diaghilev, impresario of the Ballets Russes, are both evident.


Some of the monochrome designs seem to anticipate Bridget Riley’s Op Art by several decades.  The wool-worked swimsuits however, though beautifully sewn, look rather impractical.  Back in Paris, Sonia showed her designs at the Exposition Internationale des Arts Decoratifs et Industriels Modernes in 1925, from which Le Corbusier coined the term ‘Art Deco’ – and she appears an ideal figurehead for this modern and urbane style.

Considering her disregard of boundaries between the art forms, it should have been no surprise to learn that Sonia was closely associated with the Dada movement at this time, collaborating with its poets to produce ‘dress-poems’, their words incorporated within her dress designs.  Costume and set design – of ‘Le Petit Parigot’ in 1926 for example – were a natural progression for an artist so allied to the performative element in art.


In 1937 the Delaunays were given the opportunity to work on a larger scale than ever before, producing panels to decorate the ‘Pavillon des Chemins de Fer’ and the ‘Palais de l’Air’ for that year’s Exposition Internationale des Arts et Techniques dans la Vie Moderne in Paris.  For the latter, three enormous murals depicting a propeller (above), an engine and an instrument panel were created, here displayed in their own gallery where their colour still has the power to astonish.  The combination of such bold flat colour planes with mechanical forms outlined against them strongly foreshadows pop art, especially calling to mind Patrick Caulfield and Michael Craig-Martin.


Robert died in 1941 in the South of France, and Sonia’s paintings after this blow returned to the abstract geometric forms of simultanism, though the palette alters.  First lighter pastel colours emerge, then darker and more opaque pigment from the 1950s, and new elements are introduced as the concentric circles are diminished to make way for rectilinear forms and curving lines – the last most overtly in ‘Syncopated Rhythm known as the Black Snake’ (above 1967).

Considering how well suited her work is for reproduction it is astonishing that Tate has produced not a single postcard; Sonia, with her excellent commercial sense, would surely be dismayed by this failing.

Marlene Dumas at Tate Modern


There is a deathly stillness to Marlene Dumas’ paintings.  They are like mug shots or crimes, the details long forgotten, or bodies laid out on a mortuary slab.  And yet even that factual certainty is elusive; they seem constantly in flux, metamorphosing into something else.  They are haunting, unsettling dream images that stick in your retina but evade knowledge.


Some are dead – Dumas’ grandmother for instance, a phantom deity cast in forensic blue light (‘Martha’, left, 1984); others are not, most emphatically the artist’s own self portrait entitled ‘Evil is Banal’ (below right, 1984).  Most of Dumas’ work focuses on people – often close-up portraits of the face excluding any background – showing her abiding fascination with psychology.  Even when using oils the paint substance has a watery, insubstantial quality, conveying the sense that expressions, emotions, motives or thoughts are slippery and cannot ever be truly known or pinned known.  The title of her self-portrait is based on the famous phrase coined by Hannah Arendt in her report on the trial of Adolf Eichmann; the simple portrait is consequently subverted, becoming somehow sinister, disturbing (the colours of fire and bruises), yet perpetually ambiguous.


The large scale, close-up portraits in this arresting central gallery mark a maturity of style and creative progress; some of the others on display were part of an exhibition entitled ‘The Eyes of the Night Creatures’ of 1985, which similarly combine psychology with allusion to powerful and pointed effect.  ‘The White Disease’ (below left, 1985) shows a pale, bloated face with unseeing but piercing blue eyes that could as easily be a corpse floating just under water as the suffering patient it is based on.  The title too can be read literally as reference to a skin disease, or as a racial pun on the apartheid system in South Africa, where Dumas grew up.


Dumas’ relationship with the media is key to her art.  She works from ‘found’ images – press clippings and photographs – rather than directly from life, and an inclination for painting on paper results in works seemingly as transient as their inspiration.  The works have a power of immediacy, but not of permanence.  As well as the material used, Dumas is drawn to media images as subject matter,  viewing the political as a subject that art can and must address.


‘The Woman of Algiers’ (right, 2001) shows how effective her approach can be.  Based upon a 1961 image taken during the Algerian war of independence, the horror of the situation and humiliation of the girl are felt with a sharp jolt; yet the anonymity of the figures – the retention of media censorship stripes, the harsh cropping of the soldiers and part-deterioration of the girl’s features – highlights a perennial aspect of past news: headlines one day, forgotten the next.  However, Dumas’ choice of title adds another layer to the image, recalling the famous romanticised Orientalist painting by Delacroix, ‘Women of Algiers’, which inspired countless artists from Renoir to Picasso.  This brings into play a broader view of history and war, the universal tragedy encompassed within such specific events, linking the past to the present.


Moving away from the figure for the first time in her career, ‘Mindblocks’ (above, 2009) was part of the exhibition ‘Against the Wall’ of 2010 that focused on the West Bank barrier between Israel and Palestine.  Dumas credits these as her ‘first landscape paintings, or should I say “territory paintings”‘ – recognising the centrality of the political in such work which makes the classical terminology of ‘landscape painting’ seem inappropriate.  The lack of any other subject matter brings the texture of the blocks of stone to the fore, stressing the materiality of the paint itself.  Only the faint road markings stretching to the horizon remind one of the political import of the painting.  It is this restraint – the imposingly large canvas which yet does not shout its message – that is so impressive in Dumas’ later work.

Lucy 2004 by Marlene Dumas born 1953Themes of the fragility of life, death and the female body sit alongside each other throughout this exhibition.  The series of  large vertical canvases collectively entitled ‘Magdalenas’ depict the female body as both human, nude and vulnerable – capable of eroticism and shame – and as goddess-like, pure and inviolable.  Some figures are conceptual – ‘Losing (her meaning)’ (below, 1988) is purposefully anonymous, conflating the idea of meaning in art to the meaning of a life.  Others are historical female figures whose identification brings its own background story – though the series of heads of dead female subjects in the final gallery give only clues to their identity.  ‘Lucy’ (above left, 2004) is based on Caravaggio’s ‘The Burial of Saint Lucy’, while ‘Stern’ depicts in similar fashion the Red Army Faction terrorist Ulrike Meinhof who died in her prison cell in 1976 (the title alluding to the German publication that first printed the image of her corpse).

Marlene-Dumas-The-Image-As-Burden-at-Tate-Modern-21By juxtaposing the infamous with the unknown, cropping and selecting, Dumas plays with out preconceptions of people and politics and in her pale fluid strokes manages to convey how time and context continually shift meaning like waves eroding the shore.


Conflict, Time, Photography

Luc Delahaye - US bombing on Taliban positions

The photographs are still and meditative.  There are vast desert landscapes, sweeping architectural panoramas, austerely beautiful monochrome still lifes; even the portraits show faces frozen in reflection.  Yet the unifying theme is one of war and conflict, whose concomitant chaos, terror and misery would appear far removed from the peace and beauty of many exhibits here.  Richard Peter - Dresden after allied raids germany 1945This is what makes Tate Modern’s approach to war photography so intriguingly different – it follows a chronology of temporal distance, the first pictures taken moments after an event, the final images almost a century later.  Another factor is that these are all ‘art’ photographs – they are not the ‘captured in action’ shots of a front-line paparazzi – and even if they appropriate documentary, ‘found’ or snapshot images, these are presented in such as way as to detach them from the moment.

Don McCullin - Shell Shocked US Marine, Vietnam, 1968Luc Delahaye’s picture of US bombing on Taliban positions in Afghanistan (c.2001, top) and Toshio Fukada’s ‘The Mushroom Cloud’, taken seconds after the atomic bomb hit Hiroshima in 1945, are the starting point. Don McCullin’s shell-shocked marine in Vietnam (1968, left) is captured moments after the action, rigid and staring unseeing at the camera.

Pierre-Anthony Thouret - Reims after the war, 1927

Two priests are photographed by Pierre-Anthony Thouret standing amid the wreckage of Reims cathedral in the days and weeks after the First World War (pub.1927, right), while an angel looks out in horror and pity over the ruins of Dresden after allied raids in 1945 (above right).  Similarly, Simon Norfolk documents the architectural destruction of warfare in the Karte Char district of Kabul in 2001-3; a bullet riddled cinema at the Palace of Culture stands abandoned, and a battle scarred apartment building quietly collapses as a flock of sheep continue on their way (below).

Simon Norfolk - bullet scarred cinema at the palace of culture in the Karte CHar district

Simon Norfolk - Karte Char district of Kabul, 2001-2

Taken in the months after the first Gulf War, Sophie Ristelhueber’s series of images of Kuwait – ‘Fait’ (1992, below) – fill the next room.  They alternate aerial scenes of almost abstract, pockmarked desert landscapes or burning oil fields at night with close-up shots of abandoned clothing hanging off the parapet of a makeshift entrenchment, commenting on the dislocation between the technological and the human in modern warfare.

Sophie Ristelhueber - Fait (Kuwait after the 1st gulf war) 1992

A year on from the 2011 revolution in Libya, Diana Matar returned to produce ‘Evidence’, a series of photographs documenting the buildings or locations where atrocities had taken place under the Gaddafi regime.  Mostly taken at night these deserted urban wastelands throb with the uneasy ghosts of the ‘disappeared’ and those summarily executed.  And further on in sub-Saharan Africa Jim Goldberg chronicles the roadside_stall_on_the_way_to_vianaaftermath of war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo through portraits of refugees and former rebels in ‘Open See’, and Jo Ractliffe records the effects of Angola’s civil war in images of mines and military facilities still littering the landscape – as well as the part surreal, part sinister ‘Roadside stall on the way to Viana’ (2007, left).

Looking back a decade or so, Taryn Simon addresses the Srebrenica massacre during the Balkan Wars by means of a family tree composed of photographic portraits of those surviving, with accompanying text and visual ‘footnotes’ reinforcing the concept of a scientific process.  Walid Raad – or ‘The Atlas Group’ – uses a similarly detached approach to document decades of conflict in Lebanon between 1975 and 1991; media pictures of the engines remaining from car bombs that exploded throughout Beirut during this time are framed, annotated, and arranged in a grid structure across the gallery wall.   Political 1 sheet 19 2010 by Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin born 1970, born 1971Like Raad, Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin are known for appropriating images and re-presenting them in such a way that they articulate a political critique of the control or manipulation of images in the press, revealing them in a different light.  Here the images have been selected from the Belfast Exposed Archive documenting the Troubles in Northern Ireland, where coloured dots were used to mark those selected for use.

Various photographers were drawn to Berlin in the 1960s as the Berlin wall was constructed, segregating East and West Berlin.  Don McCullin was one, capturing American soldiers looking across the wall from empty window embrasures, as well as East German guards on the other side of the barbed wire (1961, below).


East German Guard, Berlin Wall 1961 by Don McCullin born 1935

Michael Schmidt continues the narrative in 1980, showing a post-war Berlin still marked by undeveloped spaces of urban wasteland a few rooms further on in the chronology.

Michael Schmidt Berlin


Meanwhile, Paul Virilio’s ‘Bunker Archeology’ (1975) contemplates the remnants of German defences along the coast of France, and Jerzy Lewczynski’s ‘The Wolf’s Lair’ creates a semi-abstract modernist study of the bunker that acted as Hitler’s HQ in Poland as he planned his attack on the Eastern front.

Shomei Tomatsu - Skull bone fused by atomic bomb, nagasaki, 1963Then we return to the fall out of the atomic bomb in Shomei Tomatsu’s portraits of scarred faces and silent objects – such as this tin helmet to which a fragment of bone has been fused by the heat of the blast (1963, left).  Later in the exhibition, Portuguese artist Joao Penalva creates a more abstract response to Hiroshima over fifty years after the event; joao Penalva - Weeds of Hiroshima, 1997his solarised photograms of small weeds found growing in a building that survived the blast comment on the intense heat that left ‘shadows’ of living things imprinted on buildings, echoed by the solarisation process (‘From the Weeds of Hiroshima – Cayratia Japonica’, 1997, right) .

Ursula Schulz-Dornburg - Kuchatov Nuclear test site Kazakhstan 2012




Ursula Schulz-Dornburg is a contemporary photographer whose conceptual images in series – sparse and austere like the ‘industrial archaeology’ of Bernt & Hilla Becher – explore meaning and history through architecture; here, the Kuchatov nuclear test site in Kazakhstan (2012, left).  An-My Le also returns decades later to a site of conflict – and one that was once home – taking photos of contemporary Hanoi decades after fleeing the Vietnam war as a child (1994-8, below).

An-My Le, Untitled, Hanoi 1994-8

Fifty years on, the debris of war has been swept from the surface; yet the hidden fragments that remain still have a sometimes touching, sometimes haunting, power.  Nick Waplington’s photographs of the graffiti of German prisoners of war in Wales – ‘We Live as we Dream, Alone’, 1993; faint drawings of pine trees and lakes, fragments of germanic script – are on the scale of the walls themselves and so highly detailed that the plaster might almost be crumbling before our eyes.  Julian Rosefeldt explores former Nazi headquarters in Munich, now schools and colleges of music, whose untouched vaults and basements retain an air of oppression and secrecy.

Luc Delahaye - Patio civil, cementero san rafael, malaga, 2009Luc Delahaye’s ‘Patio Civil, Cementero San Rafael, Malaga’ (2009, right) takes the archaeological approach a step further, no longer simply suggesting the atrocities that once occurred in seemingly guileless landscapes and buildings, but capturing the indisputable evidence of slaughter in a mass grave dating from the Spanish Civil War.  Stephen Shore, in contrast, has produced studies of some of the survivors of the holocaust and war in the Ukraine, focusing on the small domestic details of their lives and the few gaudy but prized possessions, the composite effect a testimony to stoicism and almost unbearably moving.

Chloe Dewe Mathews brings the show to a close with suitably silent and empty landscapes, landscapes replete with history and memory.  The images in ‘Shot at Dawn’, pale light illuminating damp green fields or a frosty copse, ask us to think back a hundred years and imagine each unblemished scene as the site of an execution for cowardice.  Mathews carefully documents the site and the names of the soldiers – as in this image of Verbranden-Molen, West-Vlaanderen, where four soldiers were shot on 15th December 1914.

Chloe Dewe Matthews - Bebranden-Molen, WEst-Vlaanderen, 2013

The exhibition acts as a reappraisal of how we perceive war and conflict, and how this gradually alters over time.  It reveals the indelible scars that war inflicts upon a landscape or upon the living organism of a city and its inhabitants.  It shows the human capacity for evil, often from a detached – almost scientific – angle, but also the human capacity to persevere regardless, to heal and rebuild, to purge or come to terms with the memories of horror.  As the introductory quotation from Kurt Vonnegut, who inspired the exhibition, reads:

slaughterhousefive‘People aren’t supposed to look back. I’m certainly not going to do it anymore.  I’ve finished my war book now. The next one I write is going to be fun.  This one is a failure, and had to be, since it was written by a pillar of salt.’

P.S. The Archive of Modern Conflict is a postscript, an annexe, to the exhibition – but a treasure trove and not to be missed.

Sigmar Polke


Had I not had an afternoon of leisure and a Tate card in my pocket I may well have missed the Tate Modern’s retrospective of Sigmar Polke altogether.  Polke is an artist I hitherto knew nothing about.  I entered the exhibition unburdened by preconceptions and was immediately beguiled, diverted, and engaged by an artist who through five decades continued to experiment and challenge the very fundamentals of art in a manner both humorous and deeply probing.

two_palm_trees-1964He began in a pop art style; but while the movement may have been a playful jibe at consumerist culture, in Polke’s case it also strikes a more serious note, signalling the extreme material differences between West and East Germany in the sixties.  ‘Plastik-Wannen’ (above, 1964) is a typical example of Polke’s use of advertising imagery as high art, denuded of its slogans and transferred to a large scale canvas format.  However, at a deeper level, the curators attribute a symbolic meaning to the images of bath tubs and soap, one of Nazi atrocities and a desire to ‘wash away history’.

The everyday was more literally incorporated into Polke’s work when he started using decorative fabrics in place of canvas – as in ‘Two Palm Trees’ (above right, 1964).  This served both Pop Art’s satirical purpose and Polke’s own interest in jarring juxtapositions between materials and motifs.  He continued to use this technique for many decades to come, using children’s blankets for a series of Heron paintings in the 1970s and as backdrop to several works in his ‘Watchtower’ series in the 1980s.

sigmar-polke-girlfriends 1965-6Meanwhile Polke’s Pop influence turned from Warhol towards Lichtenstein, as he became increasingly interested in the construction of printed media images and the effects of blowing these up to a large scale.  However Polke shuns text, leaving his ‘raster’ images ambiguous – the more so as they also remain messy and painterly, full of ink blots and human error, as in ‘Girlfriends’ (left, 1965-6).

sigpol010_polke_untitled_mushroom_largeIn the 1970s Polke lived the hippy life.  He lived communally in the German countryside, producing numerous collaborative works (of which there are a series of collages exhibited), experimenting with drugs and dressing up in python skins.  More importantly this decade saw him experimenting with photography and film, layering and hand colouring images – as in ‘Untitled (Mushroom)’ (right, 1975) – or deliberately spilling and smudging the chemicals to create a hazy, fragmentary effect.  Polke also travelled extensively during these years and the new cultures and visual stimuli combine with his innovative approach in photographs such as ‘Bowery, New York’ (below top, 1973) and ‘Quetta, Pakistan’ (below bottom, 1974-8).



Polke’s experimentation with materials became ever more abstract.  His sketchbooks show him playing with the simple idea of Rorschach inkblots, as in ‘Untitled (Rorschach)’ (below, 1999), as well as with different pigments, liquids and combinations of media such as graphite, lacquer and resin.  Meanwhile he also started to coat his ever larger polyester canvases with resin so that they became transparent, the stretcher behind showing through, complicating and challenging the viewer’s perception of back and front or surface and depth.

Untitled (Rorschach) 1999

Watchtower 1984In the ‘Watchtower’ series, created between 1984 and 1988 (left and below right), Polke combined a simplified motif with material, chromatic and chemical explorations.  Printed fabrics in jaunty patterns jar with the brooding symbolism of the watchtower, unstable photographic chemicals continue to steadily obscure the image over time, and a bubble wrap surface creates a strangely ethereal and vulnerable image like the fading moments of an unsettling dream.

Watchtower.jpgOf the vast wall-sized showstoppers in the final galleries I loved ‘Mrs Autumn and her Two Daughters’ (below, 1991).  The 19th century illustrations by Grandeville are caught up in a blanket of white acrylic snow, the semi-tranlucent canvas behind like the thick cloud from which crystallised resin flakes form on the surface of the canvas.  The snow is not just depicted but literally created.

Mrs Autumn & her two daughters 1991

The later works flit from one idea to another with a creative energy that, while arbitrary, never fails to engage – and entertain.  I constantly felt impelled to peer up close to clarify the technique and then to stand right back to take in the whole effect.  During the very last years of his life Polke was still testing out new technologies within his work, creating hand-made lenses to layer over layers of images for optical effect.  Perhaps it was his ceaseless pushing of boundaries and hyperactive desire to experiment that has made him a difficult artist to understand, let alone classify.  But I can’t wait to feast my eyes again.


Matisse and the art of the paper cut-out

The Horse, the rider and the clown 1947

There was excessive veneration heaped upon this assemblage of Matisse’s cut-outs for months in advance of its opening.  I have always admired Matisse’s work – and he is undoubtedly a Modern Master – but this is not a full retrospective (if it were, and included ‘Le Bonheur de Vivre’, I might understand the hysteria).  It is an exhibition of his late career when, unable to hold a paintbrush, his creativity found a new outlet in cut-out paper collages.  This a long-overdue show full of joie-de-vivre, and, more than his paintings perhaps, these late works deserve to be seen at first hand to gain the full impact of their method and their sumptuously bright colours.  As an exhibition, then, I loved it; its exaggerated billing as the Show of the Century, however, was unnecessary and irrational – indeed detrimental to a more nuanced understanding of his extended career and of artistic modernism more widely.

Henri Matisse: The Fall of Icarus (1947)

The Tate is to be praised for its clear demonstration of how the cut-out technique evolved within Matisse’s oeuvre (initially as a compositional aide, whereby cut-out still-life elements could be moved and pinned at will until the balance was satisfactory enough to paint) and for drawing attention to the materiality of the paper and paint.  The effect of layering – paint upon paper, cut paper upon paper – makes the collages almost sculptural, or at least something hovering between two and three dimensions.  And the myriad tiny pin-holes tell a story of an energetic and exacting creative process, of compositional trial and error, of a living and evolving work of art.  Matisse himself appreciated how much life was lost in the printed copy as his series ‘Jazz’ was produced, the cut-outs accompanied by notes in the artist’s wonderfully looping gallic handwriting.  ‘The Horse, the Rider and the Clown’ (top) and ‘The Fall of Icarus’ (above) both 1947, are examples of the various themes encompassed within the series.

Verve IV cover design 1945

His cut-out figures seem to float like thistle-down, or dance about manically, little demonic shadows, always full of passion and energy.  They appear again in the designs that were commissioned for books and journals – such as that for the cover of ‘Verve’ IV (1945, above).  These early cut-out designs begin by trying to imitate the long, sinuous Matissean brushstroke in paper; but soon the artist realises that paper should not pretend to be other than cut paper, and its intrinsically sharp, graphic, colour-block qualities come to the fore.  There are designs too – barely contained on the walls of the not diminutive Tate Modern – for the chapel at Vence, its stained glass windows and chasubles, making me long to see the fabled chapel in its actuality.


Abstraction ensues.  It comes gradually, with mermaids and parakeets hidden among the seaweed-like forms in a gigantic collaged tapestry of 1952, or faces forming a figurative focus in ‘Large Composition with Masks’ (1953).  Then these references are discarded, and in 1953 we have ‘The Sheaf’ (above), an explosion of the motif that Matisse seemed to find so satisfactory and expressive.  In contrast, ‘The Snail’ (1953, below) uses simple blocks of coloured paper, that only perfunctorily allude to the creature of the title.

The Snail 1953

Best-known, perhaps, of Matisse’s cut-outs are the Blue Nudes (below, 1952).  Calm and serene, their decorously intertwined limbs are sculpted in searing azure.  ‘Blue Nude IV’ (bottom left) was the first attempt at this subject, and the preparatory arcs of charcoal still faintly visible in the background, the cautious, exploratory layering of small paper building-blocks, testify to this.  The following versions – all, in contrast, cut from large single pieces of painted paper – appear somewhat less successful, the head either overly large and clumsy, or the legs uncomfortably twisted.  The sequence in the abstract, however, is an aesthetic triumph.

Blue Nudes 1952

Paul Klee: Richard Hamilton

The Tate Modern has produced two bumper retrospectives this winter-spring.  Both the Klee exhibition and the Hamilton show address artistic oeuvres that are bursting with experimentation and creativity, yet remain difficult to classify and therefore often misunderstood – or at least underrated.  The success of both is to reveal the astonishing breadth and variety of these artists’ capabilities; from the diverse physical materials and techniques they employed, to their intellectual capacity to adapt aesthetically and respond to the the fluctuating fortunes of the twentieth (and early 21st) century.

Comedy 1921

Both take a similar approach in their early experiments, working in series to develop a new technique of mode of perception.  Klee explores the ‘oil-transfer’ method, drawing over a sheet of painted paper, so that the line is transferred to a black sheet below.  Once he begins to use colour, following his travels in Tunisia in 1914, he responds in a similarly logical fashion with his series of ‘gradations’, creating paintings built up from thin layers of watercolours that become gradually darker, like paint colour swatches (as above in ‘Comedy’, 1921).  Yet the effect is ghostly and beautiful, creating an underwater world of shimmering fishes or pots


reflected in ripples.  Hamilton plays with modes of etching while at the Slade in 1949, repeatedly printing various images of a reaper (right).  He later experiments with how far one can blow up a printed photograph (using images of people on the beach) before the subject matter disappears into a blur of monochrome dots (as in ‘People’, 1968, below).


Both rely on an innate geometry in their art, one that is based on organic, natural forms.  Hamilton’s ‘Out and Up’ (c.1951-2, below) could be a series of focal points within a grid but also embodies a protean, metamorphosing  life form – of jellyfish, perhaps, or amoeba.  Klee’s ‘Red-Green and Violet-Yellow Rhythms’ (1920, below left) uses more solid blocks of

Out and up circa 1951-2 by Richard Hamilton 1922-2011

pigment – yet their definite status is undermined as the colours overlap and run into one another.  Rudimentary trees force its reading as a landscape despite the determinedly abstract title.  It is a fiery, intense landscape of fragmented memories, reduced and organised in a modernist idiom that would come to be associated with modernism of the Bauhaus where Klee began teaching in  1921.

red-green & violet-yellow rhythms 1920

From his abstracted grid-like paintings, Hamilton introduces figuration back into his paintings – and in this his generation is clearly apparent.  In contrast to the post-First World War modernist idealism of Klee’s Bauhaus work, Hamilton’s painting becomes inextricably linked to the post-Second World War consumer culture of the 1950s and 60s – for instance in ‘Towards a definitive statement on the coming trends in menswear and accessories (a) Together let us explore the stars (1962, below).

Towards a definitive statement on the coming trends in men's wear and accessories (a) Together let us explore the stars 1962 by Richard Hamilton 1922-2011

This interest in consumer culture and use of collage, infused with an anarchic satire, come to fruition in what is probably Hamilton’s best-known work and that which effectively coined the term ‘Pop Art’ as the central image of a naked bodybuilder holds a giant lollipop: ‘Just what is it that makes today’s homes so different, so appealing?’ (1956).

Despite the obvious differences – as Hamilton progressively focuses on celebrities and branded products, while for Klee, ‘art does not reproduce the visible; rather, it makes visible’ his idiosyncratic visions – both artists also coincidentally make use of the same symbols.

Greeting 1922 Paul Klee

Arrows, for instance; a work like Klee’s ‘Greeting’ (left, 1922) can be compared with Hamilton’s series of paintings inspired by his commute up to Newcastle where he took a teaching job in 1953.  The visual experience of movement, and the speed of modern life in general, is likewise described using arrows.

Hamilton becomes more political and more figurative; Klee’s art is branded ‘degenerate’, the Bauhaus is closed and he flees to Switzerland.  Hamilton settles into a position of establishment notoriety, producing a series of self-portraits accompanied by polaroids of himself taken by artists he meets; Klee increasingly withdraws from the world from 1935, suffering a degenerative illness that would eventually lead to his death in 1940.  ‘Blue Night’ (1937, below) looks like broken letters, a melancholy echo of the destruction of culture being wrought by the Nazis.