Brancaster Chronicle No. 7: Fred Pollock Paintings

First posted on 29 October 2013

(No. 1) Sunspots, 1987-1998, 150x232cm (all works acrylic on canvas)

Sunspots, 150×232 cm, acrylic on canvas, 1987-1998. [No.1]

28th September 2013, Robin Greenwood’s studio, London.

Those present: Hilde Skilton, Mark Skilton, Anne Smart, Anthony Smart, Ben Wiedel-Kaufmann, Robin Greenwood, Sarah Greenwood, John Bunker, Nick Moore, Ashley West, Fred Crayk, Saul Greenberg, Emyr Williams, John Pluthero, Patrick Jones, Fred Pollock, Sam Cornish. 

[Looking at “Sunspots”.]

Ashley West: Fred, one thing for me that I find challenging looking at your paintings is the high key of the colour, the primary and secondary colours, and the fact that I’m used to looking at painting like this that’s primarily all about colour where the compositional structure is simplified to a degree, so that the colour can operate as free from that structure as possible. Do you see what I’m saying?

Fred Pollock: No, I’ve no idea what you are talking about.

Ashley West: Well, if you take geometric abstract painting, like Mondrian or Ellsworth Kelly…

Fred Pollock: Oh, OK.

Ashley West: …but here we have areas of paint that seem to be about the direction and texture of the brushwork, the overlapping of those areas which seem to suggest space, depth, forward and back. I wonder just how crucial the colour is to that, whether it goes against it, or fights against it. We can look, for example, at an area of blue here [in No.1] behind this other colour; and yet see that as defying that expectation and coming forward. So for me it is quite difficult to see how colour and composition and structure work together; or are they supposed to be working against each other?

Hilde Skilton: But look at the other blue above it, the blue of that stripe, what that does that do to the space? I mean, I know it’s been painted on top, and it’s strong colour, and it does come through, which is great… but if you then look at the other colours around it, it gives it it’s space. I mean, this painting is just full of space…

Patrick Jones: Can I just say that this is a really exciting painting. It hit my eye as soon as I came in here. The movement in it, side to side, is tremendous.

Hilde Skilton: In some of the other paintings the colours are so bright, it just tires me very quickly. Whereas this one [No.1] just draws me into it. It’s physical, there’s space, there’s just so much going on in it. It’s a real feast for the eyes. And I think it is because of the way the colour has been changed from just being bright, primary colour.

Ashley West: It’s also the texture isn’t it, the brushwork? In this one, it’s a lot more alive, less flat [than some of the other paintings].          .

John Pluthero: There is something in that colour coding about space, because the blues we are used to them being recessive and the oranges coming to the forefront. And yet clearly in the top middle of No.1 you have these oranges which look further away, and most of the blues are up on the picture plane… so I think it is a conflict you are having to work against, which forces you to recognise that space in the picture. I think that is one of the big reasons why that works. I think that’s a cracking picture.

Fred Pollock: I’m aware of the space in the painting, but I never consciously think about it, or think “I’m going to make a space there or make a space there”, I just put the paint and the colours down… and all of a sudden something happens, and you say “Christ, that’s good, that’s good”, and you know you have got something there, you’ve achieved something. I am aware that this one just happened, and I’m aware that they don’t always come off. Each colour is considered as a colour in itself, in relation to every other colour. Oddly enough, when I came in here today the only part of that painting that I thought could improve is this colour up here [olive yellow, upper right middle]. I just kind of think should be a little stronger yellowish colour – not a bright colour, just stronger – so that it would sit on top of that more. I never noticed it before today. I thought maybe that should be a bit ‘punchier’.

(No.4) untitled, 2007-11, 74x227cm

untitled, 74×227 cm, acrylic on canvas, 2007-2011. [No.4]

Sam Cornish: One thing that strikes me is that a lot of the other paintings seem to be involved with a movement ‘with the format’ of the painting; that is, if it’s a long painting, there are lots of movements as you go from side to side; and likewise, up and down in a vertical painting. But this one [No. 1, Sunspots] is much more than a sequence of things which move across the picture. For example, in No.4 you are immediately taken on a sort of journey going from left to right – and of course from right to left perhaps. Whereas in No.1 those sorts of relationships don’t count; you can do those sorts of things if you want, but they are much more secondary to the reading of it as all one thing. The first thing you see is the whole thing, but I mean it in a way that I’m not describing very well, in a more particular way, in that the elements are tensed against each other. It has a much more immediate impact. Obviously it’s the largest painting here, which aids that… I think that part of what I am talking about is the scale of the marks; these marks here, the sludgy green and the purple-ish one here, to me this holds the surface at quite a singular scale.

Emyr Williams: No.1 has a greater range of darks and lights in the same painting. Compare that with any of the others; in No.1 you’ve got pinks and yellows and limes, a very light blue, turquoises and a whole range of lighter colours and a whole range of darker colours. Also, a lot of changes of direction, which because of the shape of the painting allow you to do that; whereas in No.4, as Sam says, it is sequential, it runs along and the colour is a little ‘softer’.

Ashley West: In No.1 we have areas of colour that are circumnavigating the central area, which seems to suggest landscape, more conscious of the frame and the outer edges of the painting, bringing us into the centre. Whereas, in a lot of the others, they are much more evenly composed.

Robin Greenwood: I think there is some of that ‘surrounding’ business going on in some of the other paintings, like No.3; that has some stuff painted in around the edges.

(No. 3) Highland Spirit, 2000-11, 147x91cm

Highland Spirit, 147×91 cm, acrylic on canvas, 2000-2011. [No.3]

Fred Pollock: I think that’s possibly true. I think I have always been aware of the top and bottom of the painting. I can see numerous places [in No.1] where I’ve deliberately made these marks, maybe subconsciously too, that squeeze the middle. This kind of movement in the middle is being held by what is on top and what is at the bottom. It is a way to hold it in, like a ‘vice’ sort of thing, to contain it.

Ben Wiedel-Kaufmann: This green patch on the far right and the red on the far left, extend it away from that ‘containment’, they have an outward push that I don’t really see in other paintings.

Patrick Jones: There is a lovely variety in no.1; scraped and flat areas… I am particularly drawn to this almost fluorescent section against a much more inert area and the tension of that. I am in admiration of it.

Nick Moore: I think it has to do with the sensuousness of it. That colour, I have been trying to put my finger on it; there is such a richness of different mark-making and handling of paint. All these passages here where you have multiple bits of colouring are fantastic. It is very different to all the others, which mostly have one colour maybe with another on top of it, but not that multiple application of colours in more than one area. For me it is a very sensuous and sensual experience actually being with this painting. I think something that is missing for me from a lot of other painting is this sensuous quality. To add value, I think there is a lot to be had from the sensuousness of painting – and sculpture, I guess. It is more obvious in painting. I think No.1 has a kind of emotional connection, some kind of deep felt experience that I don’t get from the other ones, except the one with the yellow in the middle of it, No.6. That one, after this, is the one I resonate with the most.

(No. 6) Through the Reef, 127x101cm

Through the Reef, 127×101 cm, acrylic on canvas. [No.6]

Anne Smart: In your world, Fred, the colour so overriding that you do not actually think about some of the other problems that we tend to talk about when we look at painting. For me, the colour here is ‘it’, and I don’t think I worry about anything else. Does anyone else feel that way?

Ashley West: I find it difficult to look at these and say it’s just about colour. You can’t focus on the impact of the colour without focusing on the rhythm and direction and brushwork and space; there is a whole host of things going on. I suppose what I was trying to say in my opening statement is that I might find it difficult to reconcile all that is going on, there is so much happening with the space and composition and colour. I hear myself saying to students sometimes that a piece of work can’t be about everything. Often you have to choose what it is primarily about. I am just saying that when I look at these, it makes me work!

Emyr Williams: I think it is the colour that sort of delivers all that though; the space, the rhythm – the colour will give you the lot!

Robin Greenwood: That does rather ignore the fact that the colours are presented in all different sizes and shapes and orientations and articulations. So it can’t just be colour…

Hilde Skilton: Why is it that No.6 is better than No.7?

(No.7) Burning Bush, 2008-11, 170x115cm

Burning Bush, 170×115 cm, acrylic on canvas, 2008-2011. [No.7]

Nick Moore: No.6 has some of the qualities of No.1, the way the paint is put on, all the underpainting, the layers that have gone into it. But also for me there is completely different energy than there is in No.7, which seems like it is more structured. It has got blocks, it’s got verticals and horizontals; and no.6 is much more free floating and one way you could look at it is that all the other colours are coming out of that red background. That could appear to be a red background there. Then all these shapes are milling around…

Anne Smart: I think that’s the thing about the movement, though because it is moving in and out, you could see this red in the bottom corner as ‘locking’, or it could be coming out, or it could be bouncing across this. So not only are you going to get the literal placement of the colours, you feel both the movement and the reality of something… For me this seems so organised, whilst so free at the same time, so you don’t feel any sense of the control that Fred might have imposed on it, it just moves. You can’t say it’s ‘floating’ because everything is double-locked and yet still moving.

Hilde Skilton:  A very strong thing about No.6 is the way the red has been brought in all round the edge – normally you would think “hang on a minute, why are you bringing all this red in”, but the way that it plays with the slightly more orangey colour that is more in the centre, it is creating a lot of tension and the space is happening.

Anthony Smart: Isn’t it that the red is more red, the blue more blue? You are particularising the redness; it’s not red just out of a tube. Abstract painting, abstract sculpture, have to have a reality, create their own reality and these reds are particularised by their shape, by their interference, and they become more red than just red. They become that very special red which sits with that very special ‘tuned-up’ green, so what you are seeing is the integration of colour, shape, texture, torn edges etc, the whole panoply of what you could do with paint and the tools you put it on with. You see the whole thing ‘tuned-up’, all in the name of colour.

Fred Pollock: Colour is the motivation of everything else in the painting and it’s a question of how complicated can you make it and still keep everything in its place and working together. All these marks, these blues, suddenly started appearing bluer than they had been before, this whole area suddenly appeared as a kind of unit, and these colours here on top of this yellow…

Robin Greenwood: Do you see sequences of colour coming together into bigger passages?

Fred Pollock: Yes, something happens and I think “Oh Christ, look at that”, that mauve with that yellow, with that pale green, with the white-ish green, all become very important in the painting.

Hilde Skilton:  Fred, is that why you have a colour coming in from the outside that holds the whole thing, because you have done it in quite a few paintings, but in this one [No.6] it works particularly well, and that one [No.7] doesn’t work for me.

Robin Greenwood: Well, I’ll put in a good word for this [No.7]. This green patch in the left hand side of this section which is really moving into the painting, over the top of this, I think that’s great, and actually makes that a very particular spatial thing.

Anne Smart: Maybe…

Hilde Skilton:  But Fred, answer my question about the ‘coming in’.

Anne Smart: I think that before Fred explains it, one of the things about this is that there is an incredible naturalness about Fred’s painting. In a sense we are all privileged in being told by Fred how he works, but I don’t think we really need to know, because if you look at these for long enough you realize what’s happening. Sometimes we talk about how you get a painting to be a whole thing, and it is certainly big on my agenda, and for a lot of people here, talking about the whole thing.

Hilde Skilton:  I don’t disagree with you, I’m just interested because I notice in Fred’s paintings that he does this; I just want to ask him… it is very specific what he does. So Fred, would you like to say something about what I asked?

Fred Pollock: Yes, yes. As the painting developed I realized that if I made more of this red it would help what’s in the centre to hold together better, isolate all of these different parts and make them just hold together, so that you feel that you can’t move anything without destroying the picture. There is nothing there that I feel I could take out, it needs that yellow in the middle there which helps to keep the rest of it working in the way that it is working.

John Pluthero: It’s interesting that you say that, because that is obviously a very ‘Hofmann’ notion – only keep what is absolutely necessary – and I see that as very ‘Hofmann-esque’ picture. It is quite a traditional painting, in a way.

Fred Pollock: I am not worried about that. Well, you just paint in the way you do. I am me, and I know Hofmann very well!

Hilde Skilton:  Hofmann never did that, never did red coming in from the outside.

John Pluthero: He did that… and then he did that yellow on green…

Hilde Skilton:  …never mind the yellow on green…

John Pluthero: …it makes up two thirds of the picture…!

Hilde Skilton:  The whole thing comes together because of this red.

John Pluthero: Absolutely; but the red is a background.

Hilde Skilton:  It’s not, no way!

Nick Moore: It runs both ways, you can see it as a background or…

Hilde Skilton:  …no…!

Anne Smart: …if it is a background, surely this thing would be more of a figurative…

John Pluthero: No.6 is less abstract than No.7, but I would hardly call it figurative… What I wonder about, in your work Fred, is using these very high key colours – they become quite difficult to handle…

Fred Pollock: Well, I don’t find them difficult at all. [Laughter] I don’t see them as acidic. They are controlled. Yellows, greens and oranges… it’s something that your eye can absorb quite easily. I see them as strong. I like to go into a gallery and see paintings that are ‘woof’, and think “Christ, look at that, how did he do that?” Actually, that’s what keeps me going – these primary colours, and purples and violets and pinks to go along with them.

John Pluthero: You do recognise that you are at one end of the scale in terms of uncompromising in how vivid your colours are to our taste?

Fred Pollock: Yeah, yeah!

John Bunker: Talking about notions of taste, something is coming up a lot on discussions on Abcrit. Ben wrote a really interesting piece on Pete Hoida, and in that essay, towards the end, you suddenly realize that abstract painting can be incredibly accessible and exciting and immediate, and I think Fred’s painting goes some way to saying “Yeah, why not”. You say you are juggling with difficult things, but I think it’s a language of excitement and energy that is specific to adding colour as a force in abstract painting, which is about colour and its intensity, vibrancy and the way it articulates… and that’s what I get from being here this afternoon with these paintings.

(No.5) untitled, 2006-10, 170x100cm

untitled, 170x100cm, acrylic on canvas, 2006-2011. [No.5]

Anne Smart: So are you saying that it’s not difficult?

John Bunker: Exactly right. I am saying that it’s not difficult. They are making me work obviously incredibly hard, but in terms of receiving the paintings, if you let go of a series of various kinds of notions that we have about what we are actually looking at, it’s blissfully easy! Maybe it’s an important quality in the painting that it glides through those things, it knocks those things out of the way. I’m thinking that a lot of the paintings do that.

Fred Crayk: The achievement is that these are entirely abstract paintings.

Anne Smart: Yes!

Fred Crayk: Somebody said landscape… it’s obviously not!

Anne Smart: Yes!

Fred Crayk: There is no space in them, there is just this thing sitting there…

Hilde Skilton: You say there is no space in them!?!

Fred Crayk: No, I don’t think there is; I think that it is Fred’s achievement, they are entirely flat; that’s not pejorative…

Fred Pollock: I can’t agree with that. I don’t think any of them are flat, but the colour and everything is within range of everything else, and that’s what makes them ‘solid’. You get a ‘solidity’ from the painting.

(No.2) untitled, 2005-12, 127x101cm

untitled, 127×101 cm, acrylic on canvas 2005-2012. [No.2]

Fred Crayk: Yes, I don’t feel as though I’m going into the painting, or out of it – the painting kind of comes towards you, it pushes out into your space. I think they all do, I think that’s strong in all of the work; they all invade my space!

Robin Greenwood: That’s not flat though, is it, coming out towards you, as opposed to going behind the picture plane?

Patrick Jones: In this picture [No.6], which is much more heavily worked, I battle with having to look at the picture through the accrued acrylic build-up. Obviously in this painting [No.7] it is much fresher, because you ‘hit it’ much earlier. So the sense of struggle in the picture, is it an important ingredient? Would it be important for you to do that painting again on a fresh surface? Could you do that Fred?

Fred Pollock: No, I could not do that…

Patrick Jones: Would it be better in oil paint? Would it give you a more rich surface…? Thick oil paint is very attractive, whereas thick acrylic is difficult, it’s just a difficult surface. I just wondered if you battled the surface at any time?

Fred Pollock: I think the surface is fine.

Patrick Jones: Do you actually like the bumps and things you are going over?

Fred Pollock: Yes, absolutely. In fact, I love that painting [No.6]. It’s got a history, all of this stuff, and all the stuff going on underneath. For a period towards the end of the painting, I couldn’t decide the colour. I just felt something inside – that needs this, that needs that, and it needed these greens. One of the first things that made me aware of the painting were these three areas of green. But it wasn’t a case of let’s try an area of green here, a green up there – I wanted these three greens to be different greens, then to work on top of that and see what happens, to actually find out what would happen when I did that. It was something I had not considered, I’d never thought of it before.

Patrick Jones: It is wonderful to hear a painter of your experience talking about painting, where you still want to find out what would happen ‘if’… that is so exciting to me, as an abstract artist. You are in your prime, but you are still moving forward in your work with a sense of excitement. It’s tremendous and I think it gives value to the work.

Fred Pollock: It’s a motivation for painting isn’t it? Saying “What will happen if I do this…?”


Comments made previously on

  1. Jeltje said…

The reproductions look much better now. Big thank you to Sam and Sean!

Posted at 4:02 pm on April 3, 2014

  1. Alan Gouk said…

No—I’ve already said too much. Since I haven’t seen the pictures in the flesh, and am not taking part in the Chronicles for reasons that you know, it will have to wait for another occasion.

Posted at 7:38 am on December 17, 2013

  1. Alan Gouk said…

Sorry- the Magnum Opus is illustrated in David Evison’s article in Notes, October.

Posted at 11:21 am on December 16, 2013

    • Robin Greenwood said…

I have absolutely no tendencies toward the particular “vice-versa” you mention, but I do rather think that abstract painting is due the sort of re-invention that sculpture has undergone in recent years – and, yes, I know that you disagree. To be blunt, even as I concur that “Sunspots” is a very fine painting (as I have written), and even as I concede that your own recent work is of a very high order (as I have written), I feel reservations about, not least, the influences you take pains on behalf of Fred to deny. If I have sometimes suggested the idea that abstract painting might take on a more “three-dimensional” sense of space, it is because I feel in general that it labours excessively in the realm of two-dimensional design and composition (or format) which derives from a lineage of flat American (and/or St. Ives) abstract painting, which allows many of its practitioners to settle for a rather easy option in terms of what the space in the painting really means and really does. I’m surely not such an expert in these matters as you, but it does seem to me much abstract paintings rather shelters in this state of tenuous ambiguity.

I would like to know what you think about this “circling” device in “Sunspots” and some of the other work I mention. Do you not see it? Do you not think this is Fred’s subtle way of dealing with or trying to mask the format? Or, maybe it is the very opposite – of trying to re-establish or subtly impose a two-dimensional structure back onto his tumbling spaces (as he says, “locking” it in). This is surely one of the main characteristics of Hofmann’s rectangles – to lock the space back into two-dimensions with an iteration of the stretcher. I think that painting that sheds such devices as these is – or will be – at an advantage, once the difficulties of such a thing are overcome. And whilst this is of course speculative, I do not think that to hold such an opinion is in any way to put down the work of you, Fred or Hofmann, which I honour.

Fred, by the way, sees a very strong personal link between how he constructs a painting and how some of the new sculpture is made – he has expressed to me a particular affinity with the work of Tony Smart. But I think you have read too much into my conjectures at the end of my original comments about abstract painting competing in real space with sculpture. The point was made, actually, to highlight the fundamental difference between the two.

Posted at 6:21 pm on December 16, 2013

  1. Alan Gouk said…

Of course this “trampoline effect”, the blocks bouncing back to the viewer, is just the quality Heron disliked in Hofmann,[when it is present]. He felt the sharp edges and corners of the blocks jutted out like sore thumbs, throwing the rest back as “ground”. He advocated the equal presence of all areas of the picture surface. He under accounted the extent to which the grainy “grounds” tend to swing out and swamp the blocks, [ see Magnum Opus, illustrated in Sam’s recent essay, or the great Goliath,], the reciprocal see-sawing of colour-space.
Notice that Fred’s pictures don’t essay these extremes. In his Sunspots, there is a continuous modulation from the innermost to the most salient furry-edged flurries so that there is no sense of a ground, or awkward cutting edges. And they give little succour to Robin’s desire for greater projection into depth, which accounts I presume for his very odd take on the pictures.
There is a rather worrying tendency to wish paintings to take on more of the preoccupations of the sculptors,[ as some commentators have noticed] , and vice-versa. “-a kind of abstract wholeness one might aspire to” — seems to me just what Sunspots does deliver, but not necessarily one that has implications for sculpture. And all this cloud -cuckoo talk of “potential” and “new” is an intensely annoying put-down of what has been and is being achieved right here and now.

Posted at 10:37 am on December 16, 2013

  1. Alan Gouk said…

And just for the record, the thought that pictures should advance rather than recede does not originate with me. It goes back at least as far as Mondrian, and try reading Darby Bannard on Hofmann in Hofmann’s Rectangles, Art Forum Summer 1969.

Posted at 7:27 am on December 16, 2013

  1. Alan Gouk said…

And to cite Perehudoff as an influence on Fred is also totally wrong. That goes back to Fred’s show at the Garage in 1974 , when Caro suggested Fred should go and learn from Perehudoff’s show at Waddington’s, typical of his attitude that we had to learn from the Americans and Canadians. Patronising and wrong in equal measure. This is not the first time Robin has picked up a mistaken impression.

Posted at 6:48 am on December 16, 2013

    • Robin Greenwood said…

If I’ve misunderstood your comments about red, I apologize, though my recollection of that conversation differs from yours, and I recall no mention of the technicalities. It remains of interest to me that the reds often do recede and the blues come forward in abstract painting, and Fred’s “Sunspots” is a good example.

As for Perehudoff’s influence, Fred himself did not pick me up on that, despite a long conversation about my comment. There is a painting on the Poussin website – “Red, Blue, Green on Brown”, from 1985, well after the Garage show, which seems to me to owe a lot to Perehudoff and is typical of Fred’s work at that date. Maybe you are right in so far as Bush is a strong influence on them both.

Posted at 9:56 am on December 16, 2013

  1. Alan Gouk said…

A bit late I know, but I NEVER SAID that that all reds recede. That would be ridiculous. What I said was that red pigments tend to sink in and need careful preparation with underpainting to work at full brightness, say with magenta or yellow underneath ,especially with oil paint. And I suggested Robin looked at Fred’s pictures as an example of how this was done successfully. Fred,s reds are some of the jewels in his crown.

Posted at 12:41 pm on December 15, 2013

  1. Patrick Jones said…

Without attempting analysis of Robins piece,which is an extremely intelligent discussion of Freds virtues,Im interested in him saying he wasnt painting space.I wouldnt be surprised to hear him say he wasnt interested in Colour painting per se. If I got the right impression from Fred when he was talking ,the spirit of the adventure was paramount.I have heard Gary Wragg discuss space as crucial and was influenced myself by Frankenthalers deep space[akin to looking out of her window at night at the tugs showing red and green lights in the dark].Sculptors deal with real space but contemporary abstract painting deals with “I wonder what will happen if I do this”.I am aware that the struggle for me is to get hints of different possible realities within the lanquage of painting.I mean by this moving forward ,not repeating,trying to find a different set of solutions for the big problem.

Posted at 6:34 pm on November 3, 2013

  1. Jessica Bonnard said…

As a great admirer of Fred’s work it’s wonderful to hear about the way that his paintings evolve and get a glimpse in to the creative process.

Posted at 4:08 pm on November 3, 2013

  1. Rowena Comrie said…

Please could you add the sizes of the paintings. It would be very helpful. Thank-you.

Posted at 1:18 pm on November 3, 2013

    • Rowena Comrie said…

Great, thanks it makes such a difference to know the scale.

Posted at 9:56 pm on November 5, 2013

  1. Corinna said…

Enjoyed this discussion about Fred’s work.

Posted at 6:13 pm on November 2, 2013

  1. Siobhan welsh said…

One thing I would like to mention is that I have a few of my dad’s paintings (I know I am very lucky) and these paintings or the colours in them never hurt the eye or make you feel there is too much in them it is quite the opposite when you live with them ,The colours are harmonious and soft on the eye and the paintings become like a piece of the furniture, it is only when you engage with the painting that the colours dance and sing creating something truly spiritual or magical, a sense of wonder. I have to say when the paintings come down to decorate a room the room feels so bare and lonely and such warmth is added to the room once they are re hung. I have paintings from 25years ago and I still notice something new in them and I think how is that possible? They have made me realise what real intelligent painting is about and They still bring great joy to me .

Posted at 9:30 pm on November 1, 2013

  1. Robin Greenwood said…

This is probably wrong – but I’m going to punt it out anyway. I think it might be worth considering Fred’s more recent paintings – i.e., all those here except for “Sunspots” – as being not about colour at all, which rather contradicts much of the above discussion. It is surely no longer correct to describe Fred as a “colourist”, though the man himself would be happy to be linked to the body of artists so named, from Fred’s favourite, Van Gogh, through Monet, Bonnard, Matisse and beyond to Hofmann and a whole academia of painters who made abstract paintings wholly and solely about “Colour” with a capital “C”. He could have been so described, up to and possibly including the period in the nineties when he painted “Sunspots”, but the extremism of Fred’s current colour, as highlighted by John Pluthero’s comment here, might just have taken him out of that kind of “colouristic” preoccupation altogether and into something else – though what that is I’m not sure..

If you look on the Poussin Gallery website there are some seventies paintings by Fred that are formatted in stripes and roughly orthogonal panels which rely almost entirely for their spatiality upon the subtle and very original (and brilliant) colour mixing that Fred was then involved with. I would say that in the seventies he was as a colourist pretty much as good as anybody and better than most, and rivalled that of his influences, Bush and Perehudoff. As he worked through the eighties and into the nineties the formats he used were broken up and the paint-handling become much looser, but the colour remained highly particularised and personal, albeit gaining in intensity with primaries and secondaries more in the mix than before. “Sunspots” belongs to this period, as does “Painter’s Song” of 1993 (which you can find on ), which I consider one of Fred’s very finest paintings.

In both of those nineties works, “Sunspots” and “Painter’s Song”, there are signs of this business of the “circling” round the perimeter of the painting, “boxing in” – “a way to hold it in, like a ‘vice’”, as Fred says). In “Painter’s Song” the “circling” is quite subtle, as it interacts with and breaks down the vestiges of a “double tier” format like the one in “Double Span” (in the same archive section on Poussin), to the point where the whole painting tumbles and rolls through the space (with great “steely” precision, I might add), and colour really does take complete control, without benefit or hindrance of format.

By comparison, “Highland Spirit”, 2000-11, (shown here) has some stuff around the edges which looks a rather clunky compositional ploy to trap and stabilise (and flatten) the colour-passages across the top and down the left, then back into the space, which for me rather destroys the potential of that articulation, particularly the dark swath down the right-hand edge (I feel a very similar discontent with this as with the Alan Gouk “Leap-frogging Reds and Greens” I criticized here ). Slightly differently, untitled (No.2) and “Through the Reef” have what I would have to describe as a “surround” – blue in the former and red in the latter. They are not really backgrounds, since their positioning is ambiguous and varied, sometimes overlapping, sometimes underlapping the other parts of the painting. But there seems to me no doubt that they act as a comparatively passive foil for the other more active parts of the painting. Hilde Skilton questions Fred’s ideas about “coming in” from the sides in the text. Sometimes these surrounds make “windows” through which the active stuff is “viewed” (top of untitled No.2); if, that is, one reads recession into the painting…

But if one doesn’t – if ones views the paintings as per the suggestion of Fred Crayk as coming out at you, into the room (which ties up with Gouk’s theory about abstract paintings coming forwards and participating in the architecture of actual space), then the question is – what are those other parts; what constitutes the “active stuff”?

It would appear colour here is NOT used to determine the spatial positioning of the elements – certainly not in any kind of naturalistic or atmospheric way; blues do not recede, nor reds come forward (if they ever did – Gouk has said to me reds always recede), nor is there much in the way of “push-pull” backwards and forwards, in and out of the picture plane, as per Hofmann (or indeed, Hilde’s work from Brancaster 3). I’m not sure there is a sense of a picture plane at all, even when there is a “surround”. The colour in these later Pollocks is not only (excitingly) ambiguous as to its spatial positioning, but seems to act primarily as a differentiating device, to confirm one thing in relation to (on top of?), but separate from, another. The colour, of itself, is certainly not “nuanced”, as, say, in the work of a painter like John McLean (though I would agree with Tony that it is “tuned-up”; but only perhaps to further differentiate, without causing a complete disconnection or disruption – still keeping it “solid”, as Fred says). Maybe what I am suggesting is that the colour in Fred’s newer work is more abstract…? But it also seems more akin to the differentiation of parts in abstract sculpture – one thing, one piece of “stuff” AGAINST another piece of “stuff”, of different size and orientation, turning and acting in space, acting upon each other; but decisively not in a DEPICTION of space. I think this might be good, even though I’m not sure I like the paintings…!

My inclination with “Sunspots”, despite some doubts as to whether I like this “circling” of the central “basket” of stuff by the outer parts, is to say that it is the best painting we have looked at over the course of this year’s Brancaster discussions. But I’m not sure that such an opinion is of much value (other than privately), in so far as it is only a reflection of what I and others might consider to be the successful bringing together of a number of “known” qualities. Throughout the Brancaster discussions Anne Smart has been hinting at the importance of “potential”; I’m not sure I know what she means by this yet, but it seems to beg more questions of the future than that of a connoisseur’s view of what constitutes “good” in abstract painting to date.

“Burning Bush” (No. 7) has none of this “surround” business, and whilst it has perhaps a hint of recessive depth and landscape (maybe this is just a compositional failing, or it has just not been worked out enough?), it might nevertheless signal a way forward, since the whole painting, from edge to edge, is in contention. We are not dealing with passages which build into an articulated “thing” that exists within a “surround”. As such, the approach of a painting like “Burning Bush” might be a way to initiate a more immersive (or would it be overwhelming?) experience of abstract painting, without resorting to either an obvious “all-over” and relatively undifferentiated surface, or a “centred” and conventional composition, both of which we are already familiar with. Neither way seems to me to quite deliver a kind of abstract wholeness one might aspire to (I recently read a definition of “form” as being “unity in diversity”; I like this definition). But can abstract painting really operate “in our space”, in competition with abstract sculpture, which doesn’t need a “surround”, it just does whatever it does in free space? And what part does colour play in this? Any thoughts…?

Posted at 7:14 pm on November 1, 2013

  1. Patrick Jones said…

I would also like to thank Tony and Anne Smart for their efforts and very positive enthusiasms for the work on show.I was very impressed by the group generosity of spirit.After standing for four hours there was none of the interpersonal wrangling which marred the Stockwell Depot forums.Having said all that ,it must be clearly understood that the real space of Sculpture is a million miles from the space available in Painting,altho they are both alluded to as personal to the work,

Posted at 5:39 pm on November 1, 2013

    • Robin Greenwood said…

Mmm… might have something to say about that shortly…

Posted at 6:11 pm on November 1, 2013

  1. jeltje said…

A very exciting exchange about these brilliant paintings! A great shame that the reproductions don’t do justice to the paintings. People who don’t know the paintings are missing out. A great way to make the work more accessible. Keep up the good work!

Posted at 2:31 pm on November 1, 2013

  1. Patrick Jones said…

Without wanting to go over the top about Fred,it was a great day and a real moment of painting history to see Fred talking about his paintings.I wished it could have been filmed and archived for future generations.The transcript ,however good,doesnt capture the drama and passion in the room ,between speakers not agreeing.It was great to be there “live”.If a bit dour in the transcript but the day was a lot of fun.Normally Id run a mile from a day talking about Art,but the occasion was remarkably fresh ,exciting .Thank you Robin and Sarah for your hospitality.

Posted at 9:28 am on November 1, 2013

    • Robin Greenwood said…

Thank you for taking part, Patrick, and thanks to all those who have contributed to Brancaster. Special thanks should go to Anne and Tony Smart who have done most of the organising and also made significant contributions to the debates.

Posted at 10:42 am on November 1, 2013

  1. Siobhan welsh said…

I loved this discussion about my dads paintings, I only wish I had been there, hopefully there will be another . Patrick jones is so right to say he is in his prime, he has lived and sacrificed everything so he can paint ,he his truly a master of these very exciting paintings . Thank you Robin for doing so much for Abstract art.

Posted at 2:42 pm on October 30, 2013


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