In the 1980s there was a resurgence of interest in painting across Europe and America. In Britain, the decade was dominated by a break from modernist abstraction, growing interest in figuration and the adoption of neo-expressionist approaches, all of which seemed to have the effect of revitalising painting. This exhibition, whilst being unable to offer a comprehensive survey of the paintings created throughout the decade, hopes to capture something of the energy and creativity that characterized abstract painting in Britain during this time.

Writing in the 1980s, painter Sean Scully reflected that ‘the point is to rediscover for yourself the dynamic and real reason for making abstract art’. The painters in this exhibition individually examined different ways to rediscover and renew abstract painting in a period when abstract painting was considered in the mainstream to be a recidivist activity. Their work illustrates that the exploration of the territory of form was still a rich area for inquiry.

At the beginning of the 1980s, art critics, such as Tim Hilton and Christos Joachimides, felt that a change in attitude took place in London that opened up the possibilities of what painting could be. Artists, who had been engaged in abstract painting during the 1970s, became aware of this change and looked for new ground to break. Hilton, in A Force against the Basilisk (1980), gave examples of several young abstract painters, including Clyde Hopkins, Jeff Dellow and Geoffrey Rigden, who he felt were suddenly exploring new unexpected facets of painting in a way he had not imagined possible, three or four years earlier. To understand the conditions that led to this development within painting, it is necessary to examine the events and changes that occurred in relation to abstraction in the preceding decades.

The 1950s
Abstract Expressionism, which had dominated American art from the 1930s onwards, was heavily promoted in Britain in the 1950s. Exhibitions, such as Opposing Forces (1953) at the ICA, offered visitors the opportunity to view the work of Jackson Pollock and Sam Francis. Later exhibitions at the Tate Gallery: Modern Art from New York (1956) and The New America Painting (1959), presented an even wider selection of large paintings from the States, that included the impressive flat expanses of Barnett Newman. The Abstract Expressionists and the European lyrical painters introduced a philosophy which had the physical act of painting as its focal point.

Abstraction had previously been adopted by some British painters in response to trends in European painting, particularly to post-impressionism and futurism, but they had remained in the minority. From the 1940s to the 1960s, St Ives, a town in Cornwall, South West England, became a centre for modern and abstract developments in British art. Artist Ben Nicholson, who moved to the area in the 1920s and became one of the most well-known artists associated with the area, defined the differences between representational and abstract painting in 1948. He stated that a representational painting of a place that might include ‘blue skies and seas, olive trees and marble columns’, creates a space in which the viewer is forced to concentrate on the painting in order to take part. By comparison, an ‘abstract version’, he stated, ‘by its free use of form and colour will be able to give you the actual quality’ of the place ‘itself and this will become a part of the light and space and life in the room - there is no need to concentrate, it becomes a part of living’. Nicholson would often dispute that his artworks were completely abstract; instead he would state that they were abstractions from objects such as plates or newspapers on kitchen tables.

Despite the developments being made in St Ives, British art school education still placed a high emphasis on observational drawing from the figure and still life, with draughtsmanship and knowledge of the figure considered to be essential. Consequently, the paintings that students might have seen while visiting exhibitions of Abstract Expressionism would have been a significant departure from the type of painting being discussed in most art schools. Keen to find out more, British painters looked to magazines such as It is… a Magazine for Abstract Painting, that included statements by Abstract Expressionists and offered glimpses of their work. These magazines, as well as the texts included in exhibition programs and the views of American critics, all had a huge impact in Britain. Of particular influence, was the theoretical position of Clement Greenberg, and his assertion that all modern paintings should focus on ‘the limitation that constitutes the medium of painting – the flat surface, the shape of the support, the properties of pigment’.

However, in Presence of Painting (1988), Michael Tooby suggested that American art simply confirmed and encouraged British artists to follow directions that they had already started exploring. He pointed to Patrick Heron and Terry Frost as examples, as the work they made between 1956 and 1957 developed along similar lines.

The 1960s
Through the creation of works and via exhibitions such as the first Situation (1960), British painters offered a response to the flatness and scale of the work of American artists such as Mark Rothko, Clyfford Still, Ellsworth Kelly and Barnett Newman. These paintings were not paintings ‘from’ objects, they were abstract, ‘without reference to events outside the painting’. They were radically different to the abstraction that was predominant in St Ives, which relied on a cloaking of relationship between the observed world and the created image. Painting was becoming increasingly larger in size and scale, which placed the emphasis on exploring abstract painting as object rather than simply something to represent something else. During this period there was an increasingly high level of disapproval of perspectival picture space and the representing of objects in two-dimensions, which stemmed from trends in American Painting.

The sixties were a ‘boom-period’ for modern art in Britian, painters were busy ‘assimilating’ both the influences of American Abstract Painting and Pop Art, which rehabilitated subject matter through either the creation of figuration, or abstraction (Richard Smith etc) with an interest in formal potentialities rather than with the content of the source material.

In 1964, the Post Painterly Abstraction exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum and The Art of the Real (1968) held at the Tate Gallery in London, both explored changes in attitude within American painting. This signalled a divorcing of the physical means of art from expressionistic associations, which were considered to continue within representational art. Artists began asserting that the true nature of painting was painting and their aim was to create works that were as real as the real world. Painter Frank Stella who participated in both exhibitions declared ‘my painting is based on the principle that only what can be seen is there… What you see is what you see’.

All these competing ideas created a fertile ground for painters to reconsider their approach towards abstraction. Through these different theories, many painters in Britain would begin to explore the inherent qualities of painting and as a result, many artists in the seventies began focusing on the language of colour, marking, gesture and surface within painting.

The 1970s
Large divisions in the Seventies began to form, between the competing ideas of minimalism, conceptualism and lyrical abstraction. The reduction of painting to its essence appeared to have been achieved, leaving many to question the possibility of paintings’ continued validity. William Tucker, a sculptor, stated at the end of the sixties, that, in his view, sculpture had ‘become a more complex kind of process’, yet painting had ‘become more simple and definable’. While another younger sculptor, David Annesley, stated that painting was primarily concerned with ‘illusory space and colour’, and had seemingly been ‘boiled down to what colours to pick, how to pick them and where to put them’.

It is evident from the publications of the time, that in the seventies, magazine journalism and criticism featured a high level of suspicion and cynicism around the continuation of traditional arts, modernism and abstract painting. The painter Jeremy Moon, writing in the magazine Studio International, claimed that an attempt was being made, ‘partly conscious and partly by default, to undermine belief in the continuing viability of the act of painting’. Painting began losing ground and importance, to new media, which extended the range and attitude of what was considered to be artistic practice. The decade is famous for conceptualism, performance and the introduction of the post-modern, which Charles Harrison had described as being a refreshed call to arms for those who felt disgruntled or rejected by High Modernism.

This friction between the established media and painters would eventually lead to the creation of several artist-led magazines which focused on painting and sculpture. One of these magazines, titled Artscribe, was founded in 1976 and featured many of the painters in this exhibition, including David Sweet who wrote repeatedly for the magazine throughout the 1970s and 1980s.

It is also notable that all the painters in this exhibition maintained careers as teachers in Fine Art higher education whilst being practicing artists. Several, including Clyde Hopkins, Jeff Dellow, David Sweet, Simon Lewis and Vanessa Jackson progressed to the roles of ‘Head of painting’, ‘Head of department’ or even ‘Pro-Vice Chancellor’.

In 1970, the National Council for Diplomas in Art and Design stated that the study of Fine Art should not be defined in terms of a specific medium, which left it up to individual colleges to decide the chief area of study (HMSO 1970, 8). Along with this reform, and the expanding range of media as well as the conceptualisation of arts practice through groups such as Art & Language and their Arts Theory Course, drawing, painting and sculpture were no longer officially considered to be essentials. The importance of teaching painting was questioned, and it became a new challenge for these educators to implement something that would introduce students to the value of painting but in a way that was viewed as educationally credible. This led to workshops and projects becoming an important part of Fine Art higher education.

The 1980s
At the beginning of the decade, The Hayward Annual exhibition in 1980, featured 18 painters chosen by John Hoyland for their contribution to developments in art in Britain during the preceding two decades. Hoyland described the artists he chose as sharing a belief that painting had a directness and responsiveness which offered an ability to create ‘magical fusions’. Hoyland described this as the ‘timely, coming out of abstract art after its period of suffering in the wilderness’. Hoyland believed that ‘real art’ evaded easy description, and that the paintings he offered up to the viewer would take time to reveal themselves, stating that, ‘Paintings are there to be experienced’ and that they are ‘not to be reasoned with, they are not to be understood, they are to be recognised’. John Mclean wrote in 1982, that, in confronting art, as opposed to making a study of it, it is always direct. He felt that historical, sociological or philosophical questions were only relevant after the initial confrontation.

However, with later exhibitions such as the New Spirit in Painting (1981) there was a sense of a broader and more inclusive attitude to what was perceived as being artistically valid. The New Spirit was characterised by a return to the figurative as a prime concern for painters, and there were many other exhibitions that played an equally important role in contributing to the return of the figurative in Britain just prior to this, at the end of the 1970s. These included New Art New York (1979) at the Hayward Gallery, and Gerhard Richter (1979) at the Whitechapel Gallery, as well as coverage of American New Image Painters. All these offered inventive examples of ways of blurring the distinctions between abstraction and representation. Stuart Morgan, writing in 1983, explained his view that recent image painting emphasised a fixed equation of ‘Dying abstraction + conceptualism = Image’. Yet for many, such as Tim Allen, the worst aspects of ‘New Imagery’ seem to have been ‘identical to the worst aspects of 1970s abstraction: undernourished, unrealised, plagiaristic, over-burned with preconceptualisation’.

In the face of all these developments, the painters exhibited here individually contemplated how to expand the range of what was possible in painting, and they did this through synthesising or rejecting what was on offer in the milieu of influences in the world of contemporary painting. I hope that this exhibition, will serve as an example of how thirteen painters found ‘the dynamic and real reason for making abstract art’.