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After Image (Works 1956-2009)  |  Michael Kidner

Flowers Gallery, Kingsland Road, London, 9 March to 30 April 2022

A review by Laurence Noga

©Copyright Patrick Morrissey and Clive Hancock  All rights reserved.

Nothing sits still in Michael Kidner’s exhilaratingly-curated retrospective exhibition, ‘After Image’. The works chosen, dating from 1956 to 2009, reflect deeply-felt relationships and connections throughout Kidner’s career. Colours hover and pulsate, constantly in flux. The language of science, mathematics and systematic possibilities feel inextricably linked to past memories or feelings for places. The spectrometric observations within each painting’s structure build a sense of frequency, optimism, and adventure. Kidner’s rational journey towards a pure experience of colour feels rooted in the pop /op /conceptual world of London in the swinging sixties, but it is the sense of his personal experience, such as his time in the Canadian army as a signalman (hence his knowledge of Morse code) that builds emotional intensity for the viewer.  

Conceived initially for the Mark Rothko Centre in Daugavpils, Latvia, the exhibition interrogates Kidner’s approach to the irrational and unpredictable nature of colour. As he recalls: “what interests me is the area between the second and third dimensions, the order that lies between imagination and reality”.

Kidner’s brushy work on paper in oil and gouache, Homage to Rothko, calls to mind works by Rothko such as Red,Orange,Tan and Purple (1954). With a similar phenomenological approach to the layering process, these works are all about natural or artificial light and shimmer, with the edges not quite dissolved. For Rothko, poetry penetrated every microscopic particle on the canvas. Kidner clearly felt some affinity with this emotional anchor, but perhaps the tensions he explored through scale, interval, and symmetry were already making a more powerful impact.

Untitled (Colour Balance with Red, White and Orange), 1957, oil on canvas, ® The Estate of Michael Kidner, courtesy of Daugavpils Mark Rothko Art Centre, Flowers Gallery

Kidner spent some time in St Ives in 1957, working alongside Roger Hilton, Patrick Heron, Trevor Bell and Terry Frost. Colour balance with Red White and Orange, painted in 1957, is placed in the gallery to reflect this experimentation. Two equally-sized hand-drawn circles in opaque white and cadmium red (with equal spacing) float with blazing optical light. The work contains a palpable sense of after-image, like gemstones sparkling in the sunlight. Its simplicity is a perfect counterbalance to the rest of the work in the gallery space.

In 1959 Kidner took part in a course in Leeds with Harry Thubron and Victor Pasmore, where Thubron’s colour exercises tuned Kidner’s thinking.  After Image, cleverly located in the window at Flowers, sets up a scale and autonomy for the exhibition. This painting draws our attention to the retina of the eye, where light and images hit, and particularly calls to mind retinal imaging scans. The compositional decisions allow a simultaneous interpretation; the oval shape feels magically split. The viewer tries to connect the floating light red arc (on a deep pink ground) to the grey arc, but Kidner’s visual suggestion of magnetic repulsion doesn’t let this happen.

Untitled (Orange, Magenta, Brown), 1963, acrylic on canvas, (c) Michael Kidner Art, courtesy of Flowers Gallery

Kidner soon started to develop large vertical works with horizontal movement and alternating colours, like a Venetian blind being  opened and closed very fast.  Orange, Magenta, Brown, (1963) in acrylic on canvas, marks a shift towards chaos, optics, and visual perceptions. Kidner often made highly emotive and skilfully rendered oil pastels, or oils on paper, as preliminary studies, such as ‘Dog leg stripes’ (1962), and Lightbulb (1964). Looking now at the scale of Orange, Magenta, Brown, I can see the complexity in those drawings, and how Kidner decided to simplify the expansion or contraction in the painting. This is not an easy painting to look at, as it rolls like an electrocardiograph constantly in motion. It’s difficult to decide whether the magenta or the brown was used as the ground colour. The subtle burnt orange (the third colour) flickers in and out against the brown to orchestrate a fourth possible colour.

Homage to Rothko, 1956, oil and gouache on paper, ® The Estate of Michael Kidner, courtesy of Daugavpils Mark Rothko Art Centre, Flowers Gallery

Hung slightly away from the rest of the work in the gallery. Butterfly Wings (1966) emphasises the phosphorescent colour and afterglow that Kidner was searching for, and also explores a metaphor with which to contextualise the painting. Kidner was fascinated by Edward Lorenz’s work, especially his seminal paper ‘Deterministic Nonperiodic Flow’, first published in 1963, in which Lorenz questioned whether the flapping of a butterfly’s wings could create micro-changes in the atmosphere that could lead to a distant tornado. The drawing for Butterfly Wings (shown with Flowers ‘In Dreams of world order’ at the RA in 2009) is seductive in itself, with hand-drawn grids just visible below the surface of the wonderfully handled oil pastel.

But we really start to feel the impact of Kidner’s research into chaos theory as the large work slides into view (the butterfly effect is highly sensitive, dependent on initial conditions, in which micro-changes in one state of a deterministic non-linear system can result in larger differences in a later state). Here Kidner chooses a subtle four-colour system. The colour decisions flicker from left to right: in the first column grey/turquoise, and the second column ochre/pink - repeated until the seventh column where the colours are reversed to turquoise/ochre, pink/ grey, turquoise/ochre, followed by three complete wave forms. The three waves in the centre are made of one or two colours and pop dramatically out of the space, before we return to the calm of the alternating colours within the vertical columns.

Kidner’s paintings developed Lorenz deterministic interpretation, perhaps taking into account the imprecision of human measurement of physical phenomena; in other words, noting that nature’s interdependent cause-and-effect relationships are too complex to resolve.

Butterfly Wings, 1966, oil on canvas, ® The Estate of Michael Kidner, courtesy of Daugavpils Mark Rothko Art Centre, Flowers Gallery

Untitled, 1996, oil pastel on paper 36x25cm

Untitled, 1996, oil pastel on paper 28x25cm (Study for Butterfly Wings)

As we turn back into the gallery, we understand conceptually why Kidner used a constructed approach to develop another work in this series. In an instant I am compulsively inspecting the side of this work, moving in and out with it. Blue, green, violet, brown (1966) has a seamless fluidity in the way it operates. It calls to mind Cezanne’s Mont Saint Victoire series with its carved sense of colour choice. You don’t immediately appreciate the labour that goes into Kidner’s painting. In this work the system pulls us into the symmetry of the waves and the deeper space created by the brown and violet, which slowly expand the negative spaces. A similar stretching occurs in the relationship between the light blue and the minty green. We notice the waves returning, in symmetry, to the mystery of the initial composition that Kidner invents.

Blue, Green, Violet and Brown Relief, 1966, acrylic on canvas on board, ® The Estate of Michael Kidner, courtesy of Daugavpils Mark Rothko Art Centre, Flowers Gallery

I sense that Kidner’s experience in the army often sits beneath his work; he took part in the D-day operations off the Normandy coast.  Red, Green and Blue II (1964) evokes a feeling of manoeuvres, with its waves of small green and red rectangles that shift across angled stripes, which zip at great visual speed from one side to the other. The small blue rectangles increase in size slightly, catching the viewer unaware. The optical movement and vibrations in the work generate a feeling of insecurity, creating the effect that the superimposed shapes, and the qualities of the ambient colours, change according to the viewer’s position in the gallery space.

Perhaps it’s important to reflect on Michael’s recollection of Bridget Riley’s approach at this time. He began to notice that her black and white paintings were playing with the transitory effects of light: a polyphony of experiences generating all sorts of colours in the eye.

Installation shot courtesy of Flowers Gallery

Diagonally opposite hangs a tall, majestic, symphonic work: ‘Prelude’ (1975). The 2D/3D approach builds a sense of relief and modulation, giving the work an acoustic quality that permeates its character. It’s a deeply encoded painting, perhaps also worth looking at from a bird’s-eye view. The composition is constructed in thin columns and has three parts. The first black vertical is broken at intervals, like measurements of time with experimental variables. Reading downwards, the small white intervals are painted in a scale reminiscent of a Mondrian grid, in the sense of bandwidth; perhaps reflecting Morse code. The white intervals occur in a pattern 1,2,2,2,2,3,1,1,1. Below, the column widens in the second section of the painting and the intervals are painted in black. The last column is half that width in diameter with fuzzy Rothko-like striations. Subtle variations of this approach guide us, like reading braille, across the rest of the painting’s surface.  

Prelude, 1975, acrylic on cotton duck, (c) Michael Kidner Art, courtesy of Flowers Gallery

Talking to the Kidner family recently, I imagined Michael working and reflecting in his studio space. There seems to be an importance in the reading of the house and the family’s memories and recollections:

“There was a second uncarpeted flight of stairs to the floor with the studio. Then the loft happened above that, with a respectably-sized hatch and a sound drop-down ladder. There were two, possibly three rooms comprising the studio, with the staircase on the outside flank elevation. There was also a separate room, which was the store-room containing shelves and some Dexion racking, where Michael seemed to keep completed, but (as far as he was concerned) unstretched or unsatisfactory work, maquettes and some small 3D pieces.  We found nothing there that could ever be described as large. There were also two half-landings.  The one at the top, as well as the right-angle turn, gave access to the tiny room with a sink, etc. that brushes and paint generally was kept in, and the one at the bottom opened on to the main landing.  Both turns were tight and the stairs were narrow. I think the ball on the top knurl-post at the end of the banisters had been sawn off to give better access to the stairway”

We feel a deliberate tension between the two large, significant, horizontal works at opposite ends of the gallery; they act as slightly different emotional counterpoints. Love is a virus from outer space, painted on board in 2001, gets deeply in to our contemporary psyche. Firstly, as a prediction of our recent experience in the context of a global pandemic and its cause and effect. And secondly, regarding Kidner’s personal feelings towards intimacy. The vast cellular structure floats on a warm grey ground. Each of the forms is constructed with straight lines that maintain the geometric tone but also refer to more organic starting points such as roots or bulbs; the pink circles feel like something breaking through the ground. A high degree of synthesis is at play in this very moving painting, perhaps as Gaston Bachelard says: “Intimate Immensity - since immense is not an object, a phenomenology of immense would refer us directly to our imagining consciousness”.

Washington no.3 Yellow, 1968-69, acrylic on canvas, (c) Michael Kidner Art, courtesy of Flowers Gallery

Washington number 3 Yellow 68/69 relates strongly to Kidner’s time at a residency in Washington with his family in the summer of ’68. He felt more at ease there, seduced by painters such as Morris Louis and Kenneth Noland with their flooded fields of colour. This work seems to evoke the memory of that kind of freedom. In 1969 Kidner came back to England and became part of the highly innovative systems group, and a certain rationality started to shift his thinking. He recalls picking up his son’s building blocks and starting to play directly with shape, columns and profile. Looking at this spectacular painting now I see it as a kind of hybrid. You get the playful push and pull of American painting (the soaking and staining) but at the same moment a slightly delirious rotation starts to kick in as the shades of white, and the almost edgy combination of brown and grey forms, produce an after-image that stays with you long after you have left the gallery.

This is an extraordinary exhibition that not only explores and unpacks Michael Kidner’s personal journey but also allows his personality to shine through.


“I remember a private view at Flowers, which Michael attended, and where he spoke briefly about his work. During questions afterwards, the following exchange occurred: ‘About the triptych on the wall over there, are you sure it’s the right way up?’ 

Michael (following a long pause and dragging heavily on his pipe): ‘I’m not honestly sure if it really matters’.”  Kidner family recollection, 2022

With many thanks to the family of Michael Kidner and the British Library.

Red, Green and Blue II (1964) Acrylic on canvas (C) Michael Kidner Art, courtesy of Flowers Gallery

After Image, c.1960, oil on linen, (c) Michael Kidner Art, Courtesy of Flowers Gallery

Between 1962 and 1964 Kidner exhibited at the Grabowski Gallery in Chelsea, showing fizzing, optically striped works and reliefs in aluminium foil, paint and wood. Grabowski had a chemist’s shop and imported and exported medicines between Poland and London. At the back of this shop he created an international gallery space, often showing systems artists such as Jeffrey Steele, Tess Jaray, Mark Vaux and Bridget Riley.

Grabowski’s support created a buzz around Kidner, bringing him wider recognition. In 1963 and 1965 he exhibited in the John Moores painting competition. Yellow Blue and Violet No1 (1963), which is still in the John Moores collection, sits between his colour experiments and his invention of more systematic procedures.

Love is a Virus from Outer Space, 2001, acrylic on board (c) Michael Kidner Art, courtesy of Flowers Gallery