10th March - 17th April 2010

Poussin Review 2010:
New to Sight

Frank Bowling

John Hoyland

Iain Robertson

Mark Skilton

Derek Stockley

Gary Wragg

Poussin Review 2010: New to Sight

On a recent trip to Paris I happened to see “A”, a well-known London art dealer and jolly nice man, on the Eurostar escalator. “Hi. Going to FIAC?” he asked. I had to think quick - FIAC, what the hell was FIAC? I surmised “artfair” - that’s what “A” does, travel the world’s artfairs. I shook my head gravely, and explained I was on my way through Paris to the Pyrenees. Which was true. Hardly time to stop, sadly. “Good luck, have a nice weekend”. We had planned, in fact, a two-day stopover in Paris to visit “Titian, Tintoretto, Veronese” at the Louvre. It seemed a little pompous to mention it. Perhaps I was momentarily embarrassed to own up to my own lack of interest in contemporary artfairs, or indeed my unwillingness to participate in the general melee of commercial interests surrounding the contemporary art scene which of late seems to consume all of our art institutions, no matter how eminent; dealers, critics, curators - everyone loves new art!

I didn’t care to admit it to our friend, but the truth is I didn’t even know FIAC was taking place. Later that same morning, in Paris, on the way to the Louvre, we had to go past the entrance to FIAC (which is indeed an art fair, perhaps the Parisian answer to Frieze, but comprising mainly French galleries - I know, French Britart, don’t go there!), and looked in the windows and tried very hard to convince ourselves that, as galleristas in Paris, we really ought to do it, and that - tomorrow - we would.

We knew we should... We had a whole free day in Paris to digest the previous day’s Titian/Tintoretto/Veronese thing, which we spent mainly just wandering, thinking. We passed the FIAC again, and we passed another manifestation of it, a sort of Parisian “Zoo” thing, I guess. But we could not be tempted by installations of meter-high brightly coloured plastic rabbits, or mysterious black-plastic bundles reminiscent of something very, very bad I did at art school in 1968. They seemed, to understate the case, to be somewhat unattractive postscripts to the art of the Venetian masters.  We peered through the windows feeling sad and old, looking at things that seemed even sadder and older than we felt, all things jaded and unoriginal; and we wondered why art now was so fantastically crap.

There you go, we missed out on the new, exciting, up-to the-minute art in Paris that week. Except to say that, unlike most of what we could see through the windows of FIAC, a number of the Tintorettos were new to us, and what’s more, were exciting and up-to the-minute. The experience of such art is often not only a “new” thing, but also a “now” thing, a revelation of the moment, even if we have seen it before. With art as good as this it is never just a matter for art history. And there is more originality and immediacy in a few Tintorettos than in a dozen FIACs. In fact, without even seeing it properly (but on the basis of having seen similar things before and been senselessly annoyed by them) I’m rather presumptuously inclined to dismiss it all as rubbish. Rubbish, that is, if you dare be so bold as to compare it to Tintoretto. Should we not do that? No, probably not, a hopeless, useless exercise. There is for the most part no comparison to be made. They do say comparisons are odious, but we had had great enjoyment comparing Titian with Tintoretto and Veronese. It seems a wonderful, insightful thing to do, this side-by-side comparison thing (a big cheer then for the person who recently hung Rubens, Titian and Cezanne together on one wall in the National Gallery). But I suspect it is the literalness of contemporary art which means it cannot be meaningfully rated against or compared with the clear and strong visual form of Venetian painting. There is nowhere to go with that comparison - it doesn’t work.

So - we’ve put some contemporary painting and sculpture together for this show that rectifies all that! But seriously, you can compare any of the work in this show with Tintoretto, if you are so inclined. It is all visual, and it all has form, more or less - some more, some less. It speaks the same visual language as Tintoretto. It’s true that none of it would ultimately match up to Tintoretto (have you gathered yet that Tintoretto came off best in our comparison with Titian and Veronese. More of that another time, perhaps), and it’s also true that in some cases it would be rather off-putting to do it, but none of it would be rubbished by the comparison, like most of the work in FIAC would be. All the works in this show have something to say for themselves visually, being driven for the most part by the same order of impulses that informed Tintoretto’s decision-making - the imperatives of the eye, the look of the thing, the “feel” of the thing, the structure of visual organisations, how to organise a space to have the utmost liveliness and intensity...  I could go on.

We started Poussin five years ago with the introductory words to the inaugural catalogue - “It's the look of the thing that counts...”. It was an optimistic statement back then about how visual art could carry on developing and how what one visual artist often gets from another is a subtle blend of unnameable visual prompts which lead deeper into the structure of the work (as opposed to non-visual prompts which might lead elsewhere). Would we want to change that statement now, upon reflection? Well, we seem to have learnt much in our five years of showing abstract art, but the message remains of relevance, and in the light of ongoing developments in contemporary art, it is all the more necessary to keep saying it. Perhaps, given what we have learnt, we would amend it to “It's the form of the thing that counts...”,  and therein lies a whole world of definition trouble. Because what do we mean by “form”? It’s a problem word. Lots of different uses of the term have been made in the past, and I am inclined to attempt another one - a definition of form not as a constituent part of an artwork, but as a discovered condition of art.

The pervasive literalism of contemporary art means genuinely plastic and spatial values are in danger of being lost to our consideration of painting and sculpture, both in the recurring evaluation of old and new work, and in the continuation of that evaluation which constitutes a part of the process of creating new art. The achievement of form in new art, dependent as it is upon these plastic and spatial values, has therefore become a critical issue. The form of a work of visual art can only fully emerge when a significant proportion of the elements of the work are seen to be in a structured visual relation to one another, at which point an overarching sense of purpose becomes evident, embodied in the physical fabric of the work. This state of complex but lucid unity often consists of the grouping of lesser forms or part-forms together into bigger and broader unions, to the point where the whole work becomes in the end one complex relational entity, one form. This state will at no point have been a predictable outcome for the artist, and most probably never have been synonymous with their intentions. Such form can only be discovered by a sustained and diverse imaginative engagement with the physical processes of painting or sculpture. This is particularly true in relational abstract art, though I imagine it to be the case in the best figurative art too, especially in Tintoretto. So, here is our definition: form is the state of resolution resulting from a successfully developed set of visual relationships, discovered by the artist, but ultimately seen as autonomous of them or any external considerations or context. At the point of achieving such a condition, form and meaning are inseparable: perhaps one might elaborate a little by speculating that the more complex the set of relationships resolved, the greater the ultimate form, and the greater the art?  

The attainment of robust visual form is inversely proportional to the degree to which the content of the work is accountable for itself in other, more literal terms. These cover just about anything we can think of: geometry, objecthood, formalism (in which I would include all format painting and all manner of academic abstraction), process, storyline or literary content, etc. If you can name it, then the art becomes accountable by these terms rather than by its own newly created and unnameable abstract visual identity. So that, if the content of the work is not newly invented, then the art that results is not in a meaningful sense fully creative. Is genuine creativity not what we are after - a lucid product of a bright imagination and intellect, made physical and real in the material world? And by the way, this discussion of form in art is not to be seen as promoting something exclusive or elitist - there are probably as many ways to make good form as there are good visual artists. What is more, new invented form is amongst the most accessible of things for the arts audience, at least for those willing to connect with real visual originality. Such form does not rely for its achievements upon verbal interpretation or historical or cultural context (though this knowledge might help us in the approach to difficult or complex great art). It does, however, most certainly depend upon being in the physical presence of the work of art rather than looking at some mediated version of it. Our response to art often comprises of a very straightforward moment of impact or revelation (though it may take several attempts for it to register) followed by a much longer developing relationship between the viewer and the work. Not everyone will want to or be able to get involved in this way, but that doesn’t matter. The quest for the total accountability of access to the content of visual art is probably a vain one, and the way it has been partially achieved in recent times, and the way that art has become popularised, is by making art more and more non-visual – more literal, in fact.

One of the things that Poussin Gallery has done over the last five years is look back to work made in the Sixties and Seventies. Our primary reason for this was our awareness that in the Sixties there occurred an extraordinary explosion of new forms (that word again – perhaps we should here substitute the word “shapes”, since we want to reserve “form” for higher purposes) that ran the gamut of quality, but were almost all primarily visual phenomena. We wanted to connect back to that moment when art was still predominantly and overtly visual in its mainstream. Was there something to learn from that period? Had we missed good things that had lasted beyond their initial excitement and visual novelty? We also looked, perhaps with even greater interest, at some of the abstract work done in this country in the Seventies, when the expanded field of the art scene eclipsed by degrees even the most high-profile abstract painting and sculpture of the time, regardless of quality. Despite (or because of) that eclipse, some of the practitioners of abstract art who had not capitulated to novelty or fetish looked a little more sharply at their discipline, dug a little deeper, and pursued the harder things to pursue rather than the easy answers. This appeared to be particularly true of British painters, who took the initiative of high-ambition abstract painting away from the Americans. They got little recognition for it, but we have seen plenty of evidence in shows at Poussin over the past few years of the quality of effort put in by a handful of British painters over the latter part of the Seventies and right through the Eighties and Nineties. The Americans (and Canadians) seemed to get a little stuck in format painting, non-relational or minimal painting and “process” painting. In comparison, the British seemed more interested in developing... well, form. There is nothing else to call it - form through relationships. And whilst the best abstract art, as we have said, is dependent upon an imaginative involvement with the procedures and materials of its processes for both the initiation and development of its structures, it now seems relevant to ask whether and how much the finished forms of abstract art have been abandoned too early to the many novelty seductions of those same processes. It is probable that an over-reliance on either process, and/or on the limiting factors of format, have been all too inhibiting to abstract painting and sculpture.

But it is true, after all, that we need to be stimulated by new things; that, indeed, new art is needed which asks questions of old art, as well as vice versa. So we are very pleased to welcome to Poussin work that is, for different reasons, “new to sight”. Either it really has never been seen before because it is brand new; or it has been seen and forgotten; or it has never been seen properly. All the work, whatever its history, communicates in a direct way through the language of visual art, through visual relationships, through form!  Whether the form herein is major or minor, whether it is of a quality that will last, is another matter; a matter for us all to decide individually and collectively. It is a group of work you can compare and contrast without fear or favour and then go on to compare with all other work that is based upon plastic and spatial values. As the work of Tintoretto can testify, painting is a fantastic medium, a really great way to “have your art”, to get your fix of form. When it reaches the heights Tintoretto reached, it is pretty unbeatable. We all have a way to go with this.....

One last thing. Whilst I said previously that the final condition of form is not a predictable conclusion for the artist in each individual piece of work, nevertheless a broad aspirational vision of that potential outcome is essential. In fact, a vision of the future of abstract art as a complex and unified state of form will be a requirement for any artist with ambitions to make abstract art that can match the achievements of the greatest figurative art of the past.

Robin Greenwood