The curatorial and editorial project for systems, non-objective and reductive artists working in the UK

Website: Chestnuts Design

Seven from the Seventies

16 - 21 February 2015 at Flowers Gallery, Kingsland Road

Artists: Colin Cina, Bernard Cohen, Noel Forster, Derek Hirst, Michael Kidner, Jack Smith, Richard Smith.

A review by Laurence Noga

‘Seven from the Seventies’ brings together seven painters concerned with reduction of line, colour, and form. Each work presented here was made over 30 years ago, yet critically, the dynamic visual rhythm in this exhibition allows us to see the work as if it were new. The selection of artists is significant; Derek Hirst was one of the first artists with whom Angela Flowers worked, and Summer, 1975 was only the third work on the database at the gallery. This is obviously a show documenting a time of historical importance to the gallery, but its magnitude goes beyond that, demonstrating the relevance of reductive and geometric practices to the discourse of contemporary abstract painting.

Derek Hirst, Summer, 1975, cryla on canvas, (c) Estate of Derek Hirst, courtesy of Flowers Gallery

In his first solo show at Flowers, in 1970, Hirst had shown works like Countdown with its glimpses of interior space, the key element a darkly painted, claustrophobic, arched tunnel, where at the end of the space, horizontal bands vibrate. Later, the arch and the bands would occupy whole compositions, as in Cherokee Grande (1973, Cryla on relief panel), and the structure of these works pre-empted the stark purity of Hirst’s later compositions.

The summer of 1975 was hot, the warmest summer since 1947, and the atmosphere of Hirst’s Summer, 1975 holds the viewer spellbound, locked in the pulsating grip of a temporal spatialisation. Hirst applied colour with compulsive precision - fairly thickly in layers - in each stripe. The taped chromatic bands work in sequence and have built-up edges, which increase the plasticity and tension. The vibration of the banding sucks you into a strange depth of field of reflecting light, as if the phosphors in a fluorescent tube were emitting ultraviolet radiation. The viewer is drawn into a void at the centre of the canvas, into the white light of that heatwave 40 years ago. But at the same time we perceive something beyond the painting’s opticality - a child’s faint handprint on the surface, and as Hirst comments in Fuller’s text, the work is “in a certain sense autobiographical”.

Colin Cina, MH39, 1973 Acrylic on canvas. (c) Colin Cina, Courtesy of Flowers Gallery

Colin Cina’s MH39 (1973) looks sharp and elusive. The thin depth of the stretcher bar, which keeps the painting close to the wall, deepens its meditative value. The initial deep turquoise-green ground is scumbled over with a light aqua green, while the lined verticals are taped off precisely across the picture space. The process of scumbling builds an organic structure into a mathematical system. The angled, stretched triangles, or chevrons, sit in clusters at either end of the picture space, acting almost like a heart monitor, hinting at mathematical notation. The chevrons work a ‘push and pull’ colour system; the peripheral management in the  construction seems key to the painting’s psyche. The work is intrinsically mathematical, but does not lack expression. Colin once emailed me, recounting a story that provides a narrative to his practice:  

“A computer scientist teaching at Hatfield Poly visited me in 1973 and noticed my notepad covered in arithmetic. I had been working out the exact intervals between the constant vertical strips, which had become a recurring theme in the paintings. He offered the opportunity to come to his college to work out an algorithm for any such calculation. So, with that archived within the computer, I could check the basic data, length and height of the rectangle, width of the verticals and number required. This was all calculated on a pre-PC computer” (Colin Cina).

Noel Forster, 3 Piece, 1974 (c) Estate of Noel Forster, Courtesy of Flowers Gallery

Noel Forster’s triptych 3 Piece (1974) creates a density of constructed networks. The middle canvas sits slightly lower than the first and the third canvases, and although this may be serendipity, it seems to emphasise the unstable, layered physicality in the work. Parallel lines, drawn freehand in oil paint, develop a tightly-packed, interwoven grid that echoes the weave of rough hessian, with its overweave and underweave. The gradually curved arcs are generated by drawing at arm’s length: sets of arcs are intersected as the canvas is rotated a number of degrees between each gesture. Although this mechanical approach to gesture is cool and calculated, soft, feathered edges bleed from one coloured section to another. These complex mechanisms keep the work in perpetual question.

Michael Kidner Column (no.2) in Front of its own Image, 1970 (c) Michael Kidner Art Ltd., Courtesy of Flowers

The 1970 painting by Michael Kidner, Column no.2 In Front of His Own Image, demonstrates Kidner’s systems approach to formal constructions. He immersed himself in scientific thought, reading prodigiously on mathematics and chaos theory. The structure and rhythm of Kidner’s wave pattern (the movement of a 3D object in space) is sometimes regular, sometimes irregular. As the spaces between the vertical lines and criss-cross wavy lines emerge in the work, we find ourselves reading an extraordinary latticed structure of visual intricacy.  

Subverting the pattern, the top of the canvas is left exposed, unprimed, as if just out of reach, and Kidner’s puritan handling of each small rectangle feels almost ‘stuck on’, like the photographs at the bottom of the work. There seems to be as much excitement about the collage elements as about the painting itself, and the bronze column acts as a counter-balance in the space, continually reviewing the painting’s progress.

Richard Smith, Maryland, 1972 (c) Richard Smith, Courtesy of Flowers Gallery London and New York

Maryland (1972 acrylic on canvas) by Richard Smith is a substantial construction; it dominates the space it occupies as the viewer turns the corner in the gallery. Its power comes  from its materiality and components (tent manufacture; tubing, canvas and ties), and its resemblance to a kite.  These elements focus us on the physical decisions in its making: the way it is stretched, surging into the space; the relationships of colour and form. Dense ochre pigment saturates the canvas; a cross, made of cadmium orange blanket ties, is contained within another open rectangle, and this shifts our attention to the shape, the drawing and the structure. As Smith developed his work further, elements began to hang loose, or became tied in knots. But I find the tension in this colossal work more significant in its lightness of build and its relationship with its environment.

Jack Smith, Sounds and Silences No. 4, 1970, (c) Estate of Jack Smith. Courtesy of Flowers Gallery

Jack Smith’s eye-popping calligraphics, with their subtle tonal shifts (the tricks of op art), read as a series of semiotic codes. The colour is handled in an animated way; the repetition and the red border give the work a playful approach to mechanical construction. Iconography and representation are brought together in Sounds and Silences No. 4 but - perhaps crucially – are distanced from Smith’s earlier preoccupations. I appreciate the mechanical look, the sharpening of the handling, and above all the freedom of sensation ot the repetitive forms in the work.

Bernard Cohen, Resting Place, 1974-75 (c) Bernard Cohen. Courtesy of Flowers Gallery

The tilt in Resting Place (1974-5) by Bernard Cohen gives the work an even greater sense of activity within the painting’s depiction of motion, collision, and obliteration; the work has a duality of syntax. A field of overlaid elliptical forms and rectangles floats on a black ground, giving the painting a strange sense of movement and a symbolic shorthand. As we zoom in further, small ovoids containing fingerprints shift in motion across the flattened cosmos, which lend the work a psychological component.

The colour is super-hot in the light red square: this carries the picture’s momentum, and slows the restless eye within the chaos. The white ellipses and rectangles seem to determine the sense of composition throughout the whole. I particularly like the way the surface contains forms that have been cancelled out, adding to a sense of the familiar, but also a little uncanny. The intuitive sensitivity towards intersecting form beneath the surface unifies all the elements. I sense that Cohen has made a work that is spatially disorientating, but as always, composition and improvisation are deeply embedded in its eccentric geometry.

Visual balance and rhythm emerge, not through employing strict visual systems, but by more intuitive means, evolving from what Cohen describes as ‘trial and error’. He wrote of his methodology: “is a painting something contained within four straight edges, or is it something that has landed lightly upon a flat rectangle so that it may fly away?”

Each work in ‘Seven from the Seventies’ demonstrates a rigorous articulation of form, colour, light and space. It’s an important exhibition; not least because the works are exemplary in revealing the integrity of systematic, structured approaches to painted abstraction at a particular point in art history, but also because the intense nature of the hang tests how painting from a past decade can feel now – imposing, dynamic and fresh. Many of the painters in the show held prominent roles in British art schools and their ideas influenced a future generation of artists. There is much here to learn in terms of technique and execution of painting, but ‘Seven from the Seventies’ also speaks of a legacy of reductive abstraction that continues to be developed today.

©Copyright Patrick Morrissey and Clive Hancock  All rights reserved.