Article by Charles Harrison

'Jeremy Moon’s recent paintings'. Studio International 1968


‘I usually have a fairly clear idea when I start a painting of how I want it to look when it’s finished. But once I start work, the more the painting develops, the more I become aware of the difference between what I planned to do and what I have actually done. The process of finishing the picture therefore is to a certain extent a question of coming to terms with what I’ve actually done and relinquishing the original conception. The final stage—getting the picture to work as I want it to—always goes on longer than I expect. I just keep looking at it and working on it week by week until I have taken it as far as I can—which is sometimes too far—then it’s finished. (Statement by Jeremy Moon in Monad 1, Summer 1964).

This potential difference between the image conceived and the image achieved, between the priority of the original experience and the priority of the formal resolution, brings to Moon’s paintings excitement and tension.This tension is entirely relevant not so much to the experiences he is trying to express as to the creative personality that is trying to express them. The mood of the paintings is absolutely true to the situation in which they are produced. Jeremy Moon is a highly professional painter, dedicated to a very demanding and very unadulterated conception of painting. Many of the tensions which are most important to him are those between different possibilities or different interpretations as to what painting really is. Where, with a Pop painter, it is relevant to talk in terms of social, cultural or commercial interests, with Moon one is confined to consideration of form and colour and surface and of what these can be made to do.

The central preoccupation in Moon’s painting has always been, it seems to me, the attempt to use colour meaningfully in a wholly non-representational and progressively non-illusionistic context. The shaped canvases started, with Moon’s triangular paintings, from a desire to make colour work diagonally, to work across the surface of the painting rather than in relation to an outline which would be read as ‘picture’ (as opposed to ‘painting’). The distinction between picture and painting in Moon’s terms of reference was made clear in his statement in Studio International in September 1967: ‘Always the problem with the shaped canvases has been that if the outside shape of the painting is too complete in itself it somehow closes off the central area of the picture and when that happens it’s no longer painting for me and I’m no longer interested or satisfied.’ To use Michael Fried’s distinction between ‘literal shape’ (the outline of the canvas) and ‘depicted shape’ (the forms used within a painting)[1], Moon’s concern in his non-rectilinear canvases has been to ensure that the literal shape does not, by dominating or constricting the depicted shape, deprive the surface of life and integrity. The recent paintings achieve this aim pretty consistently.

During 1967 Moon worked on Y-shaped canvases, exploring the relationship between the three striped square areas at the arms and the triangle at the centre. The fact that each of the squares was striped with a different colour suggested a rotating movement of the whole canvas, a movement of colour across its surface. These paintings are alive where the bands of colour meet the edges at right-angles so that colour experience runs against the shape experience; but where the bands lie parallel to the edges they appear to reinforce the literal shape and thus allow our reading of outline to dominate our sensation of colour—allowing the life of the paintings to ebb away, as it were, through the three straight edges.

Two of this V series are, to my mind, far more successful than the others. In one the three squares are each painted a different solid colour, and the inner triangle a fourth, so that the integrity of the four primary shapes, as colour, is asserted against the overall literal shape. In the other, Union, red, blue and yellow stripes on each square respectively are laid over an all-white ground; one tends to read white, in a situation like this, as ground rather than colour, space rather than form, so that again the colours assert themselves over the literal shape.

In a transitional painting, Electric Blue, Moon inverted the V-shape and painted the stripes in relation to the form, parallel with the concave rather than the straight edges, but this development, although it allowed the three joined squares to be read as a more integrated single form, tended altogether to deprive the central area of tension.

The most recent shape is a truncated version of the inverted Y, allowing a maximum incident along the outline without closing off the central area. ‘The cut-down version of the three joined squares is the best shape I've worked with yet. If you could turn a square inside out and still have something to paint on, I feel it might look like this’ (Moon in Studio International, lov. cit.). With this new shape the areas of maximum incident—the edges which the bands of colour meet at a right-angle—have been increased in relation to the total outline, and the edges to which the bands of colour run parallel, being no longer straight, no longer read as framing edges. Where the bands of colour meet the edge of the canvas the dialogue between any two colours juxtaposed is of sufficient interest in relation to the total life of the painting to divert attention from the fact that an edge has been reached at all. It is this quality, the relative unimportance of outline, that saves the best of Moon’s new canvases from the danger which has always been present in his paintings: that they should be readable merely as emblems.

In the first paintings made in this format, two colours alternate across the canvas and each corner terminates with the same colour. Where a third or even fourth colour is introduced into this shape, as in No.12/67, No.18/67 or No.29/67, the problem of maintaining the integrity of the surface becomes acute. To render the image readable and conceivable only as a whole and flat unit while still employing an asymmetrical balance of colour requires not merely a carefully controlled relationship between colour and colour, but an exact relationship. This relationship has to he achieved in the face of a wide range of tempting alternatives. There is the temptation for instance, to open the painting to the wrong allusions. It is crucial to the nature of the statements he is making that Moon should never allow colour to be anything but abstract, and that it should never encourage associations irrelevant to the experience he is trying to render. This is perhaps one reason why he uses so much yellow, the most abstract of the primary colours; we are not tempted to read yellow as representational in the way we are tempted to read blue as sea or sky or associate its use with memories of one or the other. It is perhaps relevant to mention here that Moon paints his canvases on a horizontal surface, laid flat across a trestle.

An ingratiating premature resolution of the painting may offer another temptation. It can’t be easy for the painter to work away from a seductive image toward one which is less immediately so and the fact that Jeremy Moon has obviously felt the need to do so in the case of certain pictures raises many interesting questions. He is plainly interested, as a painter like Kenneth Noland is not, in a paint surface which is physically substantial.[2] In No.18/67, perhaps the most complex painting in Moon’s recent exhibition at the Rowan Gallery, four colours are employed, yellow, alternating with pale green, pink and pale blue. Each corner ends with a different colour so that the same rotating movement is implicit as in the Y-shaped paintings. I first saw this canvas at an early stage. Each of the colours had been laid in with only one coat of paint and the painting looked finished—highly seductive, full of life, the paint hardly more than staining the very attractive surface which cotton duck presents to the eye. Jeremy Moon himself seemed highly suspicious of the painting and of the speed at which it had appeared to reach a satisfactory state, accustomed to see his paintings emerge as the end product of a tense and exacting period of concentration and redefinition. Intellectual and manual control over the process of painting are important for him, and this means that he has tended to view painting, at the working stage, as a process of realization rather than revelation. We have had no Jackson Pollock in Europe to illustrate how rapidly sensation can become paint or how inseparable, at the ultimate point, the two become; and Moon sees himself I think, as very much part of a European tradition in which Matisse was the last great landmark.

The next time I saw the large four-colour painting it had changed totally; not in colour, but in intensity and in its implication. Four or five coats of paint had been added; the edges were sharper; the whole painting stood, as it were, further off. The image at which the painting was aimed had been more distant, more self-contained and more precise than I had understood.

The tension between the image which offers itself spontaneously and the image which the painter is attempting to work towards is crucial for Moon. It is crucial not only to the progress of individual paintings but also to his whole position as a painter and specifically to his relationship with the work of the American Post-painterly Abstractionists, Noland and Stella in particular. Despite the strongest of temptations to accept the ‘once off’ painting as an achievement, Moon went back to it, applied several more coats of paint, and came that much closer to the image he had conceived. For Kenneth Noland, even more so for Jules Olitski I suspect, to have resumed work at that point would have been tantamount to a breach of faith. And anyway, I don’t believe Noland or Olitski would think in terms of conceived images.

But if Moon’s first reference point, as a European painter preoccupied with colour, is still Matisse, he is also, as an artist committed to a very pure view of painting, very much involved with the American painting which followed from Pollock. This involves him again in two different concepts of what a painting can be. The dilemma can be expressed very clearly. Does the artist, like Matisse, work for the formation of one certain image, however long it may take to crystallize;[3] or does he, like Pollock, and like Noland after him, just work, secure in the knowledge that being a painter he will produce occasional visual images which are true to himself, albeit these may be only a small percentage of his total output of paintings. The choice is largely dictated by personality— the painter’s priorities as an artist depend ultimately on his reading of himself—but partly also by the traditions within which the artist is working.

The English have never been amenable to Existentialist aesthetics. There is something in our character which inhibits us from making creative statements which are self-revelatory and at the same time grand. It is perhaps no coincidence that we have been made to feel most insular in the context of twentieth-century art at moments when the most advanced art elsewhere was exuberant and expressive: Bloomsbury in the shade of the Fauves, the middle generation eclipsed by the Abstract Expressionists. It was under the banner of formal abstraction that we so nearly reached the ‘Promised Land’ in the thirties.

Younger generation painters in England are, I think, very conscious that the supremacy of American painting since the war has been in part due to its great openness and generosity, and they are thus anxious to avoid excluding the possibility of a more direct, less inhibited working process. Jeremy Moon has recently painted a one-coat painting—yellow on cotton duck—and left it like that. What is important is not that he may now concentrate his energies in this direction (which I think is very unlikely) but that the possibility of once-off painting, of painting fast, will now always be present in his work. Part of the excitement of Moon’s recent paintings results from their relation to (rather than dependence on) the best painting being done in America. The dialogue between alternative possibilities continues from the moment the painting has begun, and the alternatives are now more significant than they have been before. The final equilibrium, when it is reached, is the more meaningful for being won in the face of what are, for the painter, deeply important considerations. It is as if Jeremy Moon were deliberately forcing himself, time and again, into situations in which the maximum number of considerations yield the narrowest range of possible ends. This is the measure of his ambition as a painter: to be successful in circumstances in which, to succeed at all, he must be true to all that he considers relevant to the pursuit of painting at the present time. Not all the recent paintings are successful by this criterion; in No.18/67 it does in fact feel that the most exciting solution lay closer to its first than its present form; the finished painting appears to me too controlled and ungenerous in relation to the possibilities inherent in its size and colour. The danger of working on a scale and with a scope comparable to that of the American artists is that the English painter risks failing just where the Americans appear to succeed with such open-handed grandeur and with such ease. But where Jeremy Moon does succeed, as in No.12/67, the paintings carry complete conviction. Of the gifts, preoccupations and insights with which the painter is armed at his moments of keenest experience, nothing is lost in the making of the painting. Michael Fried has written of Anthony Caro’s sculptures that it is as though they essentialize meaningfulness as such—as though the possibility of meaning what we say and do alone makes his sculpture possible’.[4] Jeremy Moon’s paintings, it seems to me, assert passionately the possibility of saying what one means, and of making, in paint on canvas, meaningful statements of a kind that cannot be expressed through any other form. I know it isn’t true, but when standing in front of a painting like No.12/67, I feel utterly convinced that perhaps painting is a better way of saying more things of greater depth than any other means of expression.   


[1] In his important article ‘Frank Stella’s New Paintings’ in Artforum November 1966.

[2] See, for instance, Olitski: ‘Paint becomes painting when colour establishes surface’, with its corollary that there is no surface until colour is established and that surface, when it is established, should be read as colour rather than as paint. (From ‘Painting in Colour’, an expanded version of Olitski’s catalogue statement for the 1966 Venice Biennale, in Artforum January 1967).

[3] See the progress studies of the Pink Nude published by Alfred Barr in his monograph on Matisse.

[4] In ‘New Work by Anthony Caro’, Artforum February 1967.