'Moon-gazing: watching paintings unfold'. Marco Livingstone
2004

 

Trellis (1962) is a work of such stripped-down confidence that one would be hard-pressed to guess that it was only the sixth or seventh painting that Jeremy Moon had ever made, just a year after his very brief spell as an art student at the Central School of Art in London. Even more tellingly, it already announces the concerns that were to motivate his art-making in the twelve years left to him before his death in a motorcycle accident on 30 November 1973 at the age of 39. The insistent flatness, the bright uninflected colour, the rigorously geometrical vocabulary, and the use of a grid not just as a structuring device but as a motif in its own right all make their entry together, without hesitation or compromise. Using extremely reductive means before the advent of Minimalism, Moon already cautions the viewer against too simplistic a reading, for example by stressing the ambiguity between figure and ground: should the ground be identified with the white grid or with the yellow surrounding and contained by it? The dark circles that mark the juncture of the vertical and horizontal stripes pin down that white grid, but also perform another, mischievously humorous, service by marking in an exaggerated way the visual ‘ping that one might imagine seeing at such intersections of white spaces within blocks of colour. Where an actual trellis is an object constructed to support another object, a climbing plant, this purely visual trellis has an overriding aesthetic function: to bear its own weight pictorially.

In Garland (July 1962) an undulating ribbon-like shape in yellow traces a shallow space against a green ground. Its wreath-like appearance, though not premeditated as an act of representation, appears to have suggested the title. The basic design is of the utmost simplicity, consisting as it does of a large perfect circle, more or less centrally placed, interrupted at ten points by a sinuous line that meanders at an even pace across it. The core of the circle consists of the same dense green as the area surrounding it, so that figure and ground, inside and outside, are presented as absolute equivalents. The effect achieved by such minimal means is like that of a volume of empty space rendered visible by the action of light. The interruption of a regular and straightforward geometrical figure by a more complex shape intertwined with it establishes a basic operating principle of Moon’s paintings: the marriage of logic and irrationality as complementary forces.

The alternating pattern of orange and yellow diagonal stripes in Eclipse (1962) recalls the bold and optimistic formal language of early British Pop painting, in particular that of Peter Blake’s collage paintings of 1960-61 and Richard Smith’s sensuously brushed abstractions of the same date. But it was at this very point where their formal vocabulary coincides that these artists parted ways. Blake used household gloss paint to produce an impersonal surface bearing heraldic hard-edged patterns as a setting against which to feature photographs, postcards and other found images from popular culture. Smith made tangential reference to the artificial colours of magazine photography and the eye-catching devices of billboard advertisements by way of a deft personal touch. Moon’s painting, by contrast, makes no allusion to pop culture or to recognisable imagery and in its calculatedly bland surface quite deliberately avoids the extremes of impersonality and subjectivity. The stripes declare themselves as oil paint but show no obvious trace of the artist’s hand; they exist as a vehicle for intense, saturated colour over a white ground, the material expression of brilliant light partially eclipsed by the undulating circular form placed squarely in the centre of the subtly elongated rectangular stretcher. The regularity in the hue and width of the bands, and the predictability with which they succeed each other in their flow across the surface, provides a striking and satisfyingly simple formal design that can be apprehended at a glance and a vibrating ground for the emblematic shape placed over it. Giving equal weight to every square inch of the surface, these broad stripes occupy that surface as convincingly as the ‘all-over’ compositions painted during the previous decade by the American Abstract Expressionists and colour-field painters.

Moon left behind a kind of homemade catalogue raisonneé of his paintings, consisting of thumbnail colour sketches of all his paintings (identified also by title and size) in their order of execution from 1961 onwards. By his own account, Moon did not begin to paint seriously, or to devote himself to it full-time, until he left university that summer. The very first page of this document is astonishing for the clarity and rigour he demonstrated from the outset about the kind of work he intended to make. In an interview with Barry Martin conducted just a month before his death, Moon credited the Situation exhibition of 1960 — with its large abstract paintings by such British artists as Bernard Cohen, William Turnbull, John Hoyland and Robyn Denny — as having impressed him enormously: he described it as ‘like getting the whole message of what modern painting was about suddenly fresh on your doorstep.’ The fact that he was considerably older than other art students just starting out helps to explain his determination to find his voice quickly, but it is still surprising to see the extent to which he sprang fully formed. Most young artists explore a variety of different, even contradictory, directions before discovering what suits them. There is almost no sign of this kind of experimentation in Moon’s work. Perhaps the only exception is Cypher (July 1963). It is one of the most playful and openly humorous of his early paintings, consisting of four crisply outlined and brightly coloured shapes joined together at single points to suggest a face of disarming and childlike simplicity. It is an oddity in his work in suggesting such a literal figurative reading, but he obviously knew what he was doing: judging from the pencilled outlines, the painting was very strongly and consciously designed in advance. It is a direction that he chose not to pursue, although other aspects — in particular, the sense of centrifugal motion revolving around a static central point of rest — were to become vital to his mature art.

Commentators on Moon’s paintings, echoing his own observations, have noted both their static quality and their expression of motion, as indicated by the choice of titles such as Free Flight. What might appear to be a contradiction is, in fact, the result of a paradox that he felt was intrinsic to the nature of the medium itself: that, as he remarked in an interview with Barry Martin conducted on 29 October I 973, ‘all the rhythms and flow and life and vitality in painting actually operates best when the painting itself is one static harmonious form.’ It was this conviction that persuaded him not to move closer to the nascent Op painting practised by Bridget Riley, Michael Kidner and others, with its dazzling but (for him) overly busy effects. All through Moon’s work one finds a tension between the painting as a still object and the intimations of movement within or across the surface, to the point of breaking the boundaries of the conventional rectangular stretcher. His adoption of an equilateral triangle as the format for a series of eight paintings in 1964 quickly led him, over the course of 1964-5, to explore a variety of increasingly eccentric shapes: lozenge or diamond shapes, as in Spring Voyage 1964; stepped rectilinear shapes suggesting, either implicitly or literally, a geometric figure composed of three or more separate rectangles placed over or next to each other, as in two large paintings of 1964, Orange Queen and Concord; and in 1965, and pairs of conjoined triangular canvases, one pointing upwards and the other downwards, in one case abutting and in two others superimposed in the manner of a Star of David.

In 1964 Moon had changed from oil to acrylic paint, which had only recently become available in England. The synthetic medium suited his preference for a more or less flat, uninflected surface and for large areas of undifferentiated colour. The diagonal bands of Free Flight (August 1964), running parallel, to the triangle’s left edge, suggest the full spectrum of colour obtained when light is refracted through a prism, a reference reinforced by the shape of the canvas itself, but the sequence of hues from yellow through to brown breaks firmly with the scientific evidence that would normally go from violet through to red. The colour has an internal visual logic, to be sure, but it is not that of a textbook illustration. There are stark complementary contrasts of orange against blue or red abutting green, but also other combinations that obey no set rules or colour theory. The challenge here appears to have been to make as many colours as possible work together harmoniously within a severely constricted shape. As with his use of grids and other given systems, Moon often took delight in working against expectations and breaking the rules, relying most on his intuitions when appearing to work from existing formulas. Just under the surface one can see evidence that the bands of colour were originally going to travel at a slight angle to the horizontal; it seems likely in this case that he began with a diagram in which the shapes were oriented in that way, but that he changed his mind while working on the canvas itself. In this, as in so much else, he was a pragmatist, trusting his intuitions and subjectivity as the best guides.

More than half of the 16 or 17 paintings made by Moon in 1965 consist of strategically placed circular or ovoid forms on a monochromatic ground; they are almost all on absolutely square supports, although three of them are rotated 45 degrees so that they form diamond shapes on the wall. While they are among the most severe in form of Moon’s works, the arrangement of the forms and the choice of colours — which makes the shapes look as sweetly appetising as Smarties — make them particularly jaunty, almost jocular, pictures. The circles in Hoop-La (July 1965), several of them truncated, describe a perfect ark with the grace and agility of a juggler. The allusion in the title to a fairground game gives a useful clue to the lighthearted spirit with which the picture was made. The colour here is again absolutely flatly applied and uninflected, sitting resolutely on the surface and acting as a foil to the spatial illusions suggested by the sharp differentiation of the shapes against their setting. From a distance, the blue circles look like holes cut out from the red surface, but closer examination reveals that they are in fact painted over the red ground. This relationship presents an early instance of the sort of reversals in visual perception at which Moon excelled and which provide the viewer with constant challenges to remain actively engaged with the evidence presented.

Partly inspired by the object quality of Jasper Johns’s target paintings of the mid-1950s, by the turn of the decade British abstract and figurative painters alike — including David Hockney, Joe Tilson, Allen Jones and Richard Smith — had experimented with shaped canvases. Moon’s involvement with the issue, however, particularly in the inverted-Y paintings that occupied him in 1967, had more in common with the work of Americans associated with Hard-Edge or Post-Painterly Abstraction. Frank Stella’s early stripe paintings, with which he established his reputation in 1959, and Kenneth Noland’s chevrons, initiated in 1963, are particularly pertinent examples, given the way in which the shapes featured on them followed the structure of the support; both artists showed at Kasmin in London, Noland in 1963 and 1965 and Stella in September - October 1964 (with large paintings from the Running V series) and November 1966. Ellsworth Kelly had had his first solo show in London, at Arthur Tooth & Sons Ltd, as early as 1962, but it was only in 1968 that he adopted the triangular and other geometric formats that bear comparison with shapes Moon had favoured since 1964.

Yellow Flight (July 1967) is the eighth of a series of thirteen paintings in an identical format, all made in 1967. It is precisely symmetrical in its disposition of alternating grey and yellow bands across the central axis, with the centrally placed inverted-Y in yellow acting as the key to the structure and as the defining shape from which all the other forms radiate outwards. In all these respects it relates very closely to Moth, the very first painting in the group. Identical in size and structure to that painting, it reverses the placement of the grey and yellow, so that if one mentally transposed one canvas over the other as if they were transparent, they would effectively disappear into a yellow-tinged grey monochrome. This is not to suggest, however, that Moon anticipated the games of visual transference at which Jasper Johns was to excel in his cross-hatch paintings of the mid-l 970s, for Yellow Flight and Moth were not conceived as a pair. It is evidence, rather, of the way in which Moon’s paintings give rise to each other, each work in some way a response to one that came before. Working in series was for him not a license to produce mindless variations on a single idea, but on the contrary to explore what occurs when a set of parameters is subjected to constant change. The surface design animating most of the paintings in this series, for example, works against rather than with the rigidly symmetrical structure of the support. The question one imagines him asking himself most frequently is one beginning with the phrase ‘What would happen if..?’

Moon’s willingness to contradict his own rules is much in evidence in Caravan (No. 2) (September 1968), in which two linear grids meet each other at odd angles on either side of a diagonal division bisecting a large rectangular canvas. A vertical/horizontal grid is meant to act as a stabilising force, like architectural scaffolding or a post-and-lintel system; here two fragmentary grids are deliberately destabilised and undermined. The perceptual ambiguities that Moon had already exploited now virtually become the subject of the painting; does one read this as a blue linear grid over an olive green ground, since it appears to be advancing towards us, or in terms of olive green blocks over a blue ground? Reproductions of the painting will not provide the answer; only close looking at the painting itself will. (The blue, in fact, was applied first.) Representing the more austere side of Moon’s work, with its stripped down and exposed structure, this enormous painting depends also on subtle inflections that provide additional visual incident — such as the irregular bleeding of colour under the masked edges — and that caution the viewer to be on guard. The diagonal stripe which provides the most dramatic thrust of the composition, one notices, precisely bisects the lower-left corner of the canvas but meets the upper-right corner along the top edge, so that the right edge of the stripe hits the corner with a pool player’s deadly accurate aim.

Although Moon’s paintings are voiced in a restricted and strongly formal geometric language that more or less demands an equally formal written language with which to dissect them, the overwhelming evidence suggests that the artist was anything but a plodding formalist. There is something very human about the decision-making process that gives rise to the structure of any given painting or group of paintings, often in response to the concerns on which a previous series had been based. Having spent most of 1967 working on eccentrically shaped supports, Moon began the new year with five conventionally rectangular canvases before adopting a new fan-like shape in paintings such as Battenburg (October 1968). Each of these works forms a rigorously geometric but unnameable six-sided shape that appears to be constructed from two trapeziums of the same size reflecting each other across a central axis, and then rotated so that one of the long sides becomes the top horizontal edge anchoring the movement that flows across the surface. (A trapezium is a quadrilateral whose two parallel sides are of different length.) The painting is divided into two decorative rectilinear grids that start at the outer edges and meet each other obliquely where the two sections join, yielding a multi-coloured symmetrical pattern very much like that of the loose pieces of coloured glass viewed through the eyepiece of a kaleidoscope.

The regular progression of chocolate brown to pink to lime green adhered to in the top section of Battenburg recurs along the left edge of the lower section, but the system is then broken so that the brown is repeated twice in adjoining rectangles. The yellow grid that holds these components together recalls the marzipan coating of the sticky sponge cake, divided longitudinally into two pink and two yellow sections, from which this painting takes its name. In spite of the artist’s insistence that his work was not in any way representational, something of a Pop sensibility is revealed in the choice of title and in the cheeky association of painting with the pleasures of a particularly English form of confectionery. Jackson Pollock, the American Action Painter celebrated for his mastery of curvilinear skeins of paint, was reputedly a dab hand at making spaghetti bolognese, so perhaps one could construct a theory about the relationship between painting and cooking. It seems fitting in this regard that an English abstract painter of a younger generation and sweeter temperament should be associated with cakes consumed with a comforting cup of tea. This is not to say, however, that Moon, like the shopkeepers in the cult comedy television show The League of Gentlemen, was interested only in making local things for local people. On the contrary, his generous and extrovert outlook was openly international.

I don’t mean to be flippant with all this talk of food, nor to get off the subject but at this moment, at least, such references seem difficult to avoid. There is certainly both humour and sustenance to be had from Moon’s art, which is designed not to instruct in an earnest way but to lift the spirit. Golden Section (November 1968) is the same shape and size as Battenburg, subdivided in a slightly disguised manner into the same configuration of squares. The dark brown squares in the top half and the lighter brown ones in the lower section — which, for the sake of convenience, I can’t help but refer to as plain and milk chocolate — appear here to be floating freely on the two yellow grounds, but they in fact correspond precisely to the placement of the brown squares in Battenburg. The actual grid has been rendered almost invisible by the disappearance of the other coloured squares. More explicitly than usual, Moon reinterprets a painting he had just made, starting from exactly the same premises but coming to a totally different conclusion. Once again, he quietly insists on the fact that there is no single system operating across all his work; each painting constitutes a reconsideration of the function and interaction of the various elements.

A dark grey grid subdivides Untitled (No. 6) (1969), a large rectangular canvas, into twenty rectangles of equal size in four horizontal rows of five sections each. As in many of his paintings, the colours are very strong but are far from obvious, chosen with deliberation rather than taken as found from the primaries and secondaries; the inventiveness of his colour schemes rival, among his contemporaries, those of his friend Patrick Caulfield. It is difficult, for example, to put a precise name on the red used in this painting, which edges towards pink but is not quite pink either. Just four colours — an orange, a blue, a brown and a red — are disposed across the surface in a semi-systematic way that recalls some of the checkerboard configurations of Paul Klee. The orange and red appear five times each, the brown four times and the blue six times. Certain sequences recur: the orange/blue/brown/red in the top row, for instance, is triggered again two rows down and one square along. But there is no strict mathematical system at work; instead; there are many different ways of accentuating the visual rhythms across the surface. The grid itself, as on previous occasions, is a negative image created by selectively masking out the monochrome ground underlying the entire picture.

After destroying a whole series of paintings in the summer of 1969, Moon experimented with the possibility of breaking up his signature grids into small candy-coloured components including cross motifs scattered like confetti against plain-coloured grounds in works such as Untitled (No. 7) 1970. These were almost immediately followed by much more severe works that restored the rectilinear scaffolding to its dominant role. Carving up the surface with a similar system of regular rectilinear subdivisions, in Untitled (No. 7) (1970) Moon created a grid of ten by eight squares encased in thick grey outline, with a powder blue, a dusky pink, various yellows and other recurring colours this time punctuating the surface irregularly to establish a dynamic motion. Around the edges of the painting one can again see the ends of the pencil lines defining the grid. On this occasion, but not in every case, Moon appears to have used masking tape, though there is much deliberate bleeding of one colour into another as a way of counteracting the apparent logic and rigid formality of the structure with the vulnerability of the human hand. Colour, too, has been used ‘irrationally’, unpredictably, leading the eye on a merry chase across the surface.

Five yellow bands traverse Untitled (No. 8) (1970) vertically, and another five horizontally. The first, third and fifth in each direction are placed fairly randomly at oblique angles, momentarily disguising the fact that the second and fourth bands create a perfectly regular grid that subdivides the surface into nine equal rectangles echoing the proportions of the canvas as a whole. Seen this way, it can be understood as nine separate small paintings abutting each other, each one divided into four sections of flat colour. One’s reading of the picture thus alternates between the chaotic and the logical. There is a remarkable confidence and sense of relaxed pleasure in the making of this painting, and in the way the process is revealed: the basic structure of the design is first drawn, then overpainted in the ground colour, then taped over and then, almost casually, painted in segment by segment in such a carefree way that the colour bleeds freely into the ground.

In Ice Palace (November 1970) the surface is again subdivided into identically sized rectangles in the same proportion as the canvas as a whole. The system of parallel diagonal lines, established by the simplest of means through the crisscrossing of the surface from opposite corners, precisely establishes the locations of the verticals and horizontals. Where in previous paintings Moon had often playfully broken his own rules, here he seems set on maintaining the most rigorous structure; the cool detachment is communicated by the choice of title, but more often in these last years by the complete disappearance of titles as unnecessary distractions. This is not to say that we are meant to stop looking. The artist still lays visual traps for the lazy or unwary. What looks like a light blue grid painted over a near-black ground turns out to be a case of mistaken identity; as so often, it is the grid, which appears to be on top, that turns out to be the ground colour, with the ‘contained’ shapes painted as a second layer.

What explains the formal austerity and geometrical regularity of the large rectangular paintings made by Moon in 1970-71? Was he just responding to the playfulness and asymmetries of the paintings he had made two years earlier by exploring contrary properties, moving down a new road when he had come to what he felt was a dead end? Or had he recently encountered American Minimalism, in particular the sculpture of Donald Judd, first shown in London at the Whitechapel Art Gallery in September - November 1970, and been inspired to rival its extreme reductive quality? Japan (July 1971), with its interplay between evenly spaced vertical black stripes and horizontal burnt orange stripes, is clearly still the work of the same artist who had painted Trellis nine years earlier, but the greatly expanded scale and the refusal to deviate from the system makes it seem much more relentless and uncompromising. The only respite is provided by the visible brushwork within the pale cream-coloured areas viewed through the grid. Even more audaciously simple in its structure and means is Untitled (No. 3) (July 1 972), a pink monochrome nearly ten feet wide crossed vertically at equal intervals by twelve white stripes of uniform width. Both the white and pink appear to have been painted over a white ground. The stripes close off the space with the finality of prison bars, just as the decision to leave this and most paintings of the period without a title offers the viewer no easy associations through which to read the motif.

Moon’s last paintings reveal that he had no intention to stay long with this rather strict and disciplined manner. Untitled (No. 12) (November 1973), painted just a few days before he was killed, is one of a sustained sequence of eccentrically shaped canvases initiated with his second painting in that year; in its irregular contours, it harks back to the stepped canvases of 1964 such as Orange Queen, with their protrusions breaking free from the confines of the rectangular stretcher. The impression here is of a set of four rectangular monochrome canvases, one lying flat behind the other — a fleshy light pink one over a green on a blue on top of an orange one — yet all actually sharing the same plane. The very crisp masking of the shapes dramatises the pictorial illusion of each distinct area of colour as defining a separate object.

A still more dramatic departure from the most reductive grid paintings of 1970-71 is represented by Untitled (c. 1972), closely related to the pastel Drawing 3/73 (British Council Collection). It consists of a black linear grid set at a 45-degree angle to the horizontal, within each section of which appears a fragment of a separate linear grid oriented in another direction. The impression given is of a single large grid having been cut into numerous blocks and then reassembled, randomly collaged together to convey a sense of rotating movement and a shifting in and out of space. In a more extreme way than ever, the painting simultaneously conveys absolute stasis and dynamic motion. Although from a distance it looks flatly painted, close up it reveals obvious signs of quick, spontaneous brushwork in the cream-coloured areas, announcing a further loosening up of the parameters of Moon’s work. Tragically, only twelve years after he had produced his first painting, the painter died on the road. The exuberant art he made during that all too brief period, the product of his freewheeling spirit, thankfully remains. At last exhibited again in force, his paintings look as fresh and carefree as ever, poised to re-enter the world with the confidence and vision of an artist destined to remain forever young.