200 words #12 / Bradley Walker Tomlin

tomlin No 12 Albright-knox.jpg

Bradley Walker Tomlin (1899 – 1953), Number 12, 1952, Oil on canvas, 66 x 48 inches, Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, NY, General Purchase Funds 1963

Regardless of how many convenient artistic groupings have been contrived by critics and commentators, the activity of painting has always been a personal one.  Working on the fringes of a tendency in art, and being passed over by the first wave of public recognition can be a blessing, allowing an artist to be re-evaluated without the background noise which attends the appearance of a new movement or style. In his final years, Jackson Pollock was paralysed by the weight of expectation about where he would go next with his work.

Other more peripheral figures in the Abstract Expressionist movement such as Hans Hofmann and Bradley Walker Tomlin produced what were arguably their strongest paintings later in their careers. From the late 1940s up to his death in 1953, Tomlin made an unprecedented series of canvases typified by a trademark calligraphic mark distributed with remarkable assurance across the canvas creating a complex balance. His exposure to the less imagistic strand of Surrealism helped inform the artist’s late style. Tomlin’s attachment to the mark of the brush may have looked retrograde at the time next to Pollock’s innovations, but the intelligence and poise of these late paintings place them beyond lazy categorization.

200 words #10 / Hans Hofmann

Song of the Nightingale, 1964, Oil on canvas, 84 x 72 in. (213.4 x 182.9 cm), Collection of Barbara and Eugene Schwartz, Photography courtesy of Josh Nefsky

“Art is always spiritual”. It was with such unequivocal statements as this that Hans Hofmann (1880 – 1966) established his reputation as a highly effective pedagogue, a motivator of artistic talent, and a convincing champion of European modernism. From the moment he relocated to the United States from Munich in 1932, he set about the task of instructing a new generation of American artists. His teaching was characterised by a generous self-confidence, and supported by a comprehensive set of clear principles centred on the act of painting, colour theory, and the purpose and limits of the painted form.

Throughout the 1940s and 50s Hofmann’s methodology would continue to inspire his students and emerging artists. His message however, representing as it did a Euro-centric devotion to the figure and the picture plane, would ultimately provide some of his students, such as Lee Krasner, with something against which to rebel.

Looking at Hofmanns’ paintings today, it is impossible to feel the same investment in the battles of theory which were fought across the lines of European Modernism and the emergent force of Abstract Expressionism. Nevertheless, Hofmann’s late work in particular, looks fresh and complex today, and continues to provide invaluable lessons to artists.

200 words #5 / Robert Rauschenberg

Robert Rauschenberg / Glacial Decoy Series (Lithograph IV) 1980, Tate Collection, purchased 1981.

RR Tate collection.jpg

Glacial Decoy Series (Lithograph IV) 1980 / Robert Rauschenberg / Lithograph on Paper / 1680 x 1022 mm / Tate Collection / Purchased 1981.

In December this year Tate Modern will launch a retrospective of work by Robert Rauschenberg, the first since the artist’s death in 2008. It is being sold as a retrospective of a giant of Pop Art, and to many observers and the wider public Rauschenberg falls into an aesthetic category alongside Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, and Tom Wesselmann. Developments in colour print media allowed these artists to riff off contemporary events with an enviable cool and on a scale which was unavailable to collage artists at the start of the century.

I never saw Rauschenberg as a true Pop artist. The energy of the times does echo through much of his most iconic work, in silkscreens such as Retroactive for example, but it is an energy which is dependent on proximity to that moment in time for its impact. If Rauschenberg’s work had not had something more substantial in its makeup, we might not pay it much attention today. Far more than the imagery he appropriated from media sources, what remains fresh and fascinating is the way Rauschenberg could put an artwork together, assembling paintings as though they were three dimensional, and approaching sculpture with the hand of a painter.

A retrospective of the art of Robert Rauschenberg will be on show at Tate Modern, London from December 1st 2016 to April 2nd 2017.

Tate Modern – Robert Rauschenberg Retrospective

%d bloggers like this: