Albert Irvin and Abstract Expressionism: RWA, Bristol, 08/12/18 - 03/03/19
I hadn't encountered Albert Irvin before viewing this exhibition, which displayed a good selection of his (mostly) large, bright abstracts. The closest I'd come to his work will have been Peter Lanyon, who clearly directly influenced Irvin to take the purely abstract route that he did. (One of the displayed paintings, 'Sky', could easily have been by Lanyon.)
To put it in context, alongside Irvin's work was a selection of American Abstract Expressionist paintings: a couple of fleshy and energetic de Kooning's, plus a Pollock and others. Also the work of some British abstract painters: Peter Lanyon, Gillian Ayres, John Hoyland amongst them. Finally, work by the British 'kitchen sink' artists, which is where Irvin began. (Notable was John Bratby's 'The Toilet'.)
Irvin's large, late acrylics on canvas were undeniably the stars of the show, with brilliant colours and brilliant contrasts of colour, outgunning even the Americans for scale and impact. I sketched two, 'Almada' (1985) and 'Northcote' (1989) to make sense of their composition. Each has broad stripes of colour, sloping right, almost top to bottom, and narrower horizontal stripes extending virtually full width, sometimes seemingly created in one sweep, sometimes obviously composed of several joined strokes, end to end. There is no attempt to blend these marks into each other; beginnings and ends are obvious, albeit fuzzy. Paint is soaked into the canvas, often bleeding out. Laid over these background stripes are large ovals and roughly quadrilateral lozenges, each decorated with three or more sweeps of colour, more or less distinct. Much splashing and dribbling of colour has created lively marks, some harder edges and the most striking contrasts. In addition there are occasional sweeping curves including, in 'Almada', a large outlined oval. This feature stands out on my sketch, and was the first orienting thing I drew, despite its bright red colour almost matching much of the bright red background on which it rests. I find it intriguing, therefore, that this was my first mark: perhaps a practical consequence of my drawing being worked from the top 'plane' backwards (presumably the exact opposite of Irvin's work) to retain the overlapping feel of the whole image. I may, be wrong about the order of the paintings' construction, though. There was nothing to indicate lower layers having been disturbed.
There's a lot of red. 'Almada' must be 80% red. On the surface of 'Almada' a screaming blue sings out in two pairs of stripes, each laid over a complementary purple or green. Then, at the top, the same blue appears in three or four tiny patches unmediated by any intermediate layer. They're so striking that these splashes separate themselves and float forward above the dominant red ground. A similar blue appears in 'Northcote' but is held in check by being amongt other, darker (though still saturated) coloured stripes. The forward-most features on this second painting are two sweeping curves of scarlet, one full-width across the top, and a smaller asymmetric one at bottom right. They are as arresting as the oval in 'Almada' that I drew first.
The brightness of the paintings conveys a joyfulness that is unmistakable. The colours, though often bleeding into each other, remain distinct and pure. There is no muddying or sullying of the hues, even where a lighter colour is placed on top of a darker one, even when the colours, so placed, mix.
As is often the case, it was revealing to see the artist's preparations in a sketch book. A good deal of planning was evident, with trials of specific colours, prepared as swatches, collaged together and photographed in various combinations. This was, presumably, the means of guaranteeing the zingy blue/red juxtaposition, for example.