Douglas Abercrombie: A Painting Retrospective
This exhibition presents a selection of works from the extraordinary opus of Douglas Abercrombie. Since our first visit to his Scottish studio (he now works mainly in London) we have been convinced of the absolute first-rate quality of Douglas Abercrombie’s work, and on each subsequent visit that view has strengthened. His paintings stand up well to extended looking, so much so that they are often the ones we choose to enjoy privately at home. There is a natural painterly intelligence about Abercrombie’s work, in the substance of the works themselves. We can follow the brush turning languorously this way and that or dashing in impromptu fashion over the full dimensions of the picture. No need for backstories or explanations here, we can see the action for ourselves, as it builds into structures somehow both bold and sensitive. Perhaps, to be more accurate, we see the perceived “completeness” of the work first, then travel back through its history, unconsciously unpicking it, until we can put the thing together again, but in a richer and fuller form of wholeness. We are able to do these things because Abercrombie’s talent as a painter makes it all so lucidly and pleasurably available to the eye.
Within the canons of abstraction that from time to time possess his imagination – American Abstract Expressionism, Post-painterly Abstraction, the late works of Hans Hofmann especially – Abercrombie’s originality consists of finding new meanings at the very moment of stroking into existence the shapes and forms of his pictures. Such are the variations and modulations of sweep and attack and touch and feel – characteristics crucial to Abercrombie’s signature works – that I can think of no more appropriate comparison than the insouciant “touch” of Manet. In Abercrombie this touch is not about nuancing an academic formalism, nor are his natural talents diverted into lesser forms of decorativeness or technical display. Instead his touch directly serves his high-art ambitions of creating specific and coherent pictorial spaces by way of rehearsed and fully realised sets of colour values, tonal variations and very striking compositional dynamics. He fashions spontaneous passages of form with a sweeping fluidity which moves the eye compellingly across all areas of the painted surface - down a diagonal, around a perimeter, across a space.
Look, for example, at the area of paint below and around the eponymous red form in “Red Slash” (PG/0010). This area is not filled in as a background, as many a painter might do to many a similar format, but is coaxed into existence as a delicate and lively and quite extraordinary thing in itself – a new reality of brush, paint and resultant form (It was when first seeing this painting that I thought of the comparison with Manet, recalling those rich and loose areas of green lawn surrounding the spreading of a summer dress...). Or look at the understated yet resolute overpainting of the stripes of colour in a deceptively simple early work such as untitled c1974 (PG/0773). Here Abercrombie achieves a balanced but still dynamic depth of colour and space, a simplicity comprising both complexity and subtlety – it’s extraordinary, brilliant, perfect!
There are a number of discrete phases in Abercrombie’s work, as will be seen within these pages. Yet he has stated his unwillingness to make works in “series”; that each painting should be treated individually; that each individual painting should lead the painter to its own outcome, rather than be imposed upon by a style or a premeditated conceit. There is indeed a certain sensitivity of approach to Abercrombie’s art, which has the positive grace of a spaciousness of effect. That spaciousness makes his work big enough for us to roam around in, physically, imaginatively.
I rather fancy the business of creating meaning in art is subtle and complex and unconscious, and that good art gives you a little room to think and feel for yourself about such things, even as it engages you in the definitive resolutions of its form. Is not such freedom - to intellectually and emotionally roam around in the artwork - what art is at least in part about? The best art tends to give you numerous options about how to enter into it, read it and discover for yourself its embodied content. Having got so far, one can then begin a dialogue with oneself and with others about meanings. Abercrombie’s is just such an art.
Poussin Gallery 2008