'Right Wrong Moves'. Mathew Collings

 A transcript of a public talk about Jeremy Moon by Matthew Collings


Hello. I’m happy to be here tonight to talk about Jeremy Moon. I never knew him. He died when I was still quite young. What’s the main thing I associate him with? It’s something that might sound unpromising at first, a special kind of lightness. How can I draw out what I mean? I think the current moment of art is negatively obsessed by meaning and significance: in effect by literalism and figuration. Even if it’s abstract it’s about basically moral meanings. Compared to this, Moon’s art is refreshing in its abstract narrowness.

To be personal for a moment — I spent the day at the Chelsea and Westminster Hospital, where my mother is very ill. Something that relieved this experience, to my surprise, because I’ve been in this place several times before, and if anything I’ve always had the opposite feeling — was the type of art they have in that hospital. It’s all from a particular rather unglamorous period: kind of fall-out from the 1960s. Mostly from the 8os, they are abstract paintings or uncomfortable semi-abstracts done by artists who are either 6os-survivors themselves but now out of the spotlight, or else a younger generation that is somehow nevertheless foolishly stuck in this bygone art-school painting style. Not jazzy like real 6os formalism, but heavy breathing and sluggish. Don’t ask me what the historical reasons are for this transformation.

In any case, for all its wrong moves these paintings dotted about the place amongst the escalators and elevators still had something visual about them. But connected to the same wrong-move condition, they actually lacked a negative that made the limited visual element somehow — for me, on this occasion — moving, It was the lack of being whacked round the head with asinine would-be content, content that is desperately eager to be clever in order to avoid being really anything.

The absence of that was a relief on every level, visual, psychological, aesthetic, moral, the lot. I wasn’t sure I would be able to make it to this talk tonight, because I didn’t know what was going to happen at the hospital from hour to hour. However, while I was there I made some notes that relate to this whole issue of content in abstract art and in particular in Jeremy Moon’s work, which seems to break certain rules of the abstract school or movement that it comes from.

Moon died before UK abstract painting entered the phase represented in the Chelsea and Westminster Hospital collection. He’s from the hot phase, and yet he’s an oddity within that hot moment, and his time seems to be now really, rather than then — so he’s a double oddity. What is it he expresses? A tiny point of content that is a product of a combination of elements: the cultural background of the paintings; the mind of the artist; and his skills and experience. (His painting life was very short, only about 10 years.) His paintings express the times in which they were made, what Jackson Pollock called ‘the aims of the age’. If a work with a bit of light orange and light purple is only about proportion and shape, and degrees of finish, and relationships of cloudy to acid or bright to dim, we know there’s something liberating in the effect of those few elements. Your mind feels free. I appreciate the way narrowness in art can produce intensity, the way narrowness can be connected to generosity.

You could write down on a very small piece of paper what he does with colour intensities, it’s so simple — some colours of the same tonality will sort of ‘ping’ against each other. Once you register that ‘ping’ you start to see how other rectangles and other bands have their own colour identity too, and how in fact everything set down before you is doing some thing in relation to something else. That’s it. This is what we mean by colour being structured.

You’d assume the experience would be too simple but in fact it’s complex. A rich experience is conjured out of very little. Through edges made by masking tape, not even very immaculate ones; paint applied in a non flamboyant way; and colours that are never anything much in themselves (merely dimmed or brightened obvious hues — but they become some thing in relationship to each other) he gives us the obtuse and obvious and the elusive and rich, all in the same moment.

Snobs pretend they are interested in elusive values because it makes the snob seem special rather than socially inadequate, which is what they usually are (it’s striking how the current art world, which is supposed to be so revisionist, still seems so densely populated with them).A snob believes he’s the only one with senses rarefied enough to get the special fragrance of art. Moon wrong foots us because he is special but also deliberately clunking. He lets the edges bleed a bit and the corners seem not quite right, and he spells things out so blandly. He’s full of refusals.

I can’t remember when I came across his work. In the mid-l980s,when I first saw a parody of 6os-type abstract art by John Armleder, the Swiss painter and installationist, it was Moon that came to mind rather than a more canonical 6os figure. A stripe, a circle, a square, a space — that was Armleder’s style, always with a deliberate laziness about it, emphasising that these were borrowed clothes, a campy reference to a look or an ideal, not an attempt at originality. I think there’s an element of the deliberately non-original about Moon, with his true originality disguised behind it.

The name we gave to Armleder’s  type of work 20 years ago was Neo Geo. I was more able to see richness in the parody, because by then I knew more about art and had more experience of looking at it and evaluating it, than I’d had ten years earlier when the first wave of stripes and squares and so on, still had a bit of currency So I came round to the real wave, or first wave (if that’s the right way of putting it; really it was the final spurt of the first wave, the peak being more like the constructivist-style abstraction of the 1920s and 30s, following the very first abstracts of the 10s) via an appreciation of the mocking later post-modernist stuff. I still think Armleder is a sensitive, funny artist, but Moon is in a whole different league.

It’s not a question of profundity but of the way style works, although profundity does come into it. The 1980s tolerated artificiality much more than the 1950s; the 50s was more interested in the natural or the authentic. You might say that between the natural and the artificial is the playful. I think 196os formalism offers playfulness as a quality. It isolates it more. The artists of that time are sometimes bold enough to do that. And yet Moon looks odd compared to, say Bridget Riley or Kenneth Noland: of the same world but, I don’t know— he risks more blankness. His art is appreciated better detached from its time of origin. It’s like a dream of the 6os rather than anything you’d really expect to find in that era, and yet at the same time in its careful thoughtfulness it’s nothing like the Neo Geo parody of the dream

Art is all subtle nuances, but writing art criticism, which often involves categorizing experience, means that you sometimes deliberately allow issues to become black and white, more abrasive and Manichean. I find myself wanting to attack one set of values with another set. So for me, art with genuine formal values or what I think of as non-ego-driven values, criticizes the present. It criticizes the hysteria and sensationalism of current art, its obsession with ratings, with making an impact, with cynically turning upside down all the values that make art worth having in the first place in a secular society. These values include a natural opposition to society’s lowest aims. But the values of the big institutions of contemporary art, our equivalent to the cathedrals of the old Christian world, is in the opposite direction. Amusing as it is, the art produced by these institutions is content to remain oscillating between the solemn and the trivial. It’s a relief to look at Moon coming down so firmly on the side of the serious and the playful.