Catalogue Introduction by Norbert Lynton

Introduction to the catalogue for the retrospective at The Serpentine Gallery in 1976

1964 statements by Jeremy Moon in Monad I volume one number 1 (magazine sponsored by Chelsea Art School Students Union; only one issue published)
1967 (a) statement by Jeremy Moon in Studio International, September
1967 (b) introduction by Alan Bowness to catalogue of Tate Gallery exhibition Recent British Painting I) November — December
1968 Charles Harrison, Jeremy Moon’s recent paintings, Studio International volume 175 number 898, March 1970 paper by an art student, Christopher Ernill, Jeremy Moon undated but attributable to this year on internal evidence
1973 Jeremy Moon, 29th October 1973, interview with Barry Martin, published in One number , April 1974

“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” (1968).
Such a sentence seems to hit the nail on the head, fair and square. Jeremy Moon probably found it acceptable. But his paintings start hares that Charles Harrison either didn’t notice or wished out of the way because they interfered with his categorization of the work. I think we should chase after some of them. Not just for the sake of doing Moon better justice but also because they run circles around the whole notion of what has been called an art of pure visibility.

That phrase was of course constructed to emphasize a distinction. It stresses that the painter requires us merely to look, to operate visually without interference from habits of mind such as that of linking what we see to something we already know (the paintings are “non representational”), or of hoping to receive from his work any sort of experience that is not embraced in a flat and static arrangement of colour (it is “non-illusionistic”). Each painting is a surface covered with juxtaposed areas of colour. That is all.

But is it? We cannot — and the artist cannot either — rid ourselves of the associations that shapes and colours bring with them. Every colour has its built in meaning sometimes a host of possibly contradictory meanings. Why else should we speak of, for instance, warm and cold colours? And doesn’t that example suggest how basic, how humanly inescapable, such an associative meaning is? Yellow, we are told (1968), is “the most abstract of the primary colours” and Moon himself (1970) appears to have accepted this claim, adding that was why he used yellow a lot: “the need to keep the picture completely abstract is very important to me”. But of course yellow means many things.

In 1966 Moon painted a large rectangular canvas composed of nothing but yellow: eleven tones of yellow arranged diagonally in scalloped bands that traverse the canvas in lengths of up to six feet, the deepest tone in one corner and the lightest in the diagonally opposite corner. I remember seeing it when it was first shown at the Rowan Gallery (then in Knightsbridge). It glowed with benevolence, and the impeccably graduated tones seemed to flow downwards from right to left. So there was a strong associational value in the colour — of sunshine and wellbeing — and an almost equally affecting sensory message in the formal arrangement — a steady flow which, because of the size of the canvas, felt like a flood rather than a trickle. And what did Moon himself say about it? “It was the largest picture I had done up till then and I worked on it longer than on any other I’ve done before or since….The real problem was getting the eleven tones of yellow. You haven’t much room for manoeuvre or you run into orange at one end and white at the other. If you get all the tones right except one in the middle (which happened endlessly) you have to repaint the whole thing.” And he went on: “I have only referred to the technical aspect . . . the idea however was obviously to make a great golden yellow sweep and I have called it Golden Age partly to describe this but also, perhaps a bit presumptuously, to make a forecast or testimony” 1967 (b). The painting is number 13 in this exhibition.

Everything suggests that even if Moon’s conscious or primary intention was to make a totally non-representational and non-illusionistic painting, he welcomed the effects it carried and even turned them into a message by giving it that title and that commentary. And I believe that some part of him knew what the message of his painting would be when he decided to execute it and to invest in it such special effort and care. Let us say that deciding to paint this picture and not the infinitude of others he could at that moment have painted answered a deep expressive urge in him. It is an astonishingly beautiful picture, and all credit to Moon for positing its message in the future (‘‘a forecast’’) when most people’s golden ages were long ago and far away.

The distinctions which artists’ and critics’ labels and phrases make are intended to define the dominant intention or attitude behind a work of art. Their function is often to establish the artist’s right to a particular territory, to draw a line between his plot and next man’s. But of course they leave a great deal unsaid and seem to deny the possibility of anything else being sayable, as though it was essential to protect the distinction at the expense of responding to the complexity of the work.

I don’t believe that anything is ‘‘pure’’ anything in art. We are too intricate for that. Our responses are multifarious. As living beings we respond innocently and at once to size and shape and suggestions of comfort and discomfort; experience educates our responses further until any stimulus is likely to release a host of reactions. I don’t mean ‘educates’’ in a specialist sense: the scallops in Golden Age make a pattern we might equally find in a comic strip or a holiday advertisement to indicate the sea lapping a beach. We need not therefore enrol Moon as a Pop painter; it just seems unrealistic to imply an artist blinkered to everything outside the narrow definition of his working process when our regard for art and for creativity, past or present, stems from a recognition of the protean sensibility and receptivity of the greatest artists. In fact, such definitions merely describe the artist in terms of the more superficial characteristics of his work. He may find some sort of support in having a definition published: at least he has been located more or less correctly on the map of art. But he is free to extend or vary his process, and he can keep his own counsel where deeper meanings are concerned. It is the public that is misled, confronted as it find itself by authoritative instructions that rule out all alternative or additional approaches to the work including — the best sort of approach, that which takes its direction from each specific painting.

Jeremy Moon emphasized more than once that his main concern was colour and that he wanted his work to be totally abstract. His answer to the question, “Do you regard your painting as an act of representation?”, was “Not in any way at all”; other artists, on that occasion, produced less absolute replies (1964). Obviously we must accept that he meant what he said. But we need not take it as the whole truth. What he wrote about Golden Age, and other things too suggest that he would have agreed that his mental working equipment, like our experiencing art, embraces and is affected by all sorts of factors.

More specifically, he said repeatedly that he wanted his paintings to have movement in them (an illusory effect, if the word “illusion” still means anything). “I hate the static things in painting. I like the painting to be a kind of constant flow” (1970). It was important to him that this flow should he achieved by surreptitious means: “That is why I don’t really like optically a very active kind of painting, or paintings which carry the idea of movement or flow into a very literal form. And the reason why it doesn’t seem satisfactory is that it isn’t necessary to do that in painting. It seems that all the rhythms and flow and life and vitality in painting actually operates best when the painting itself is one static harmonious form” (1973). Now of course paintings are static things, so the distinction Moon was making is between forms and colours and sometimes ways of applying them (such as, possibly, Pollock’s dribbled paint tracks) that shout “Look, this indicates motion”, and subtler, more ad hoc arrangements that incorporate a sensation of movement (and therefore also of space). I nearly wrote here “unconventional” arrangements, meaning those that we are not already accustomed to associating with motion, and this would certainly apply in Moon’s case. But convention in another sense is almost essential: sensations of movement, space etc. in a painting are often produced by a conflict between what is actually there and the convention to which it seems to belong. What I mean will perhaps become clearer below, when I refer to individual paintings.

Moon came late to painting. “I’m an Anglo-Saxon. “I’m a middle-class Anglo- Saxon” (1973). His family had cultural interests. There were art books at home. He knew something about modern art and felt sympathetic to it. He did some drawing and painting as a hobby, and “I was ‘the bloke who always did painting best at school’” (1973). But his early passion was for classical ballet; for a time he thought he would become a dancer. Nevertheless, the son of a lawyer, Moon went to Cambridge to read law. After his National Service, which took him to Japan and Korea, he worked for a while for an advertising agency, on the non- creative side. Meanwhile he painted in his flat, under all sorts of influences.

He stressed the big effect that seeing the Situation exhibition had on him in 1960: “it was like getting the whole message of what modern painting was about suddenly fresh on your doorstep” (1973). There was a second Situation show in 1961, and meanwhile Moon was getting to know some of the painters involved in them. At the end of 1961 he gave up his job. He enrolled at the Central School of Art, but he was 26 whereas the students around him were 18 and, in any case, he had a relatively clear notion of the kind of work he was going to do even if he still had to learn a good deal about how to do it. It seems he did not spend long there.

What the Situation shows had presented was largeish paintings by young British artists, many of them of the ‘‘hard-edge” sort — that is, composed of flat and clearly delineated colour areas — and all abstract. The exhibitions seemed to Moon to sweep aside for ever English tendencies to semi-abstraction and to surrealism. Seeing them coincided with his realization that he had to he a painter; what he saw confirmed that his own more or less amateur efforts had been towards a relevant goal. Meeting the artists clarified his task for him. He worked hard and on a more ambitious physical scale. In 1963 he had his first show and a consequence of that, was offered part-time teaching posts at Chelsea and St Martin’s Schools of Art where he taught, from late 1963 on, beside some of the Situation painters.

The rest of his career is quickly summarized (his exhibitions, in this country and aboard, are listed on another page). He painted and he taught page). He painted and he taught. He married a beautiful girl called Beth and became the father of two boys and a girl. By British standards he was reasonably successful. In November 1973 he was killed in a road accident. For Barry Martin he had summarized his career as “ten years painting, and that is ten years of fantastic living that you can’t express in terms other than the work with tremendous exhilaration when I’ve made work I was happy with, and depressions when I felt I would never paint another picture” (1973).

Jeremy Moon’s paintings look carefully planned and are cleanly executed. Everything in them is stated unambiguously. Here are alternating bands of colour, that is a right angle, this is a vertical horizontal grid, there are red, yellow, blue, white, green, etc. His colours are often bright and always active, and they run unmodulated from edge to edge of the shape they make. There is no modelling, no shadow, no transition. Everything is painted flatly with a neat, impersonal technique that produces a skin of paint thick enough to obscure the texture of the supporting surface, wood or canvas.
He avoided the pleasurable accidents that thin paint on cloth or wood can bring, principally because he wanted his colours unqualified by anything other than their inter-relationships. His paintings thus present themselves as utterly factual and self-evident.

One imagines him preparing each composition fully on paper and then carrying it out on the larger scale carefully but mechanically. But that is not how his paintings were done. For one thing, a difference in scale means a fundamental difference in effect; for another Moon’s pastels on paper are no equivalent to acrylics on canvas.

In answer to the question “How do you know when you have finished a painting?”, he wrote “I usually have 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” (1964). He was always ready to discard finished paintings; for example, he spent the summer of 1969 on twelve large canvases all (If which he soon after destroyed as worthless (1970).

So making each painting involved a  process of re-adjustment of his plans and of his expectations, and thus each painting starts from his previous experience hut also enlarges his experience while it comes into being. Moon often worked in series, producing a number of paintings of similar format and organization. When he did so it would seem likely that the ratio of fore-knowledge as against adjustment and discovery must have shifted in favour of the former, but even here we must guard against short-circuiting the process: it is when small changes are made within a tried system that surprising transformation can occur. Then also there comes the point when the painter knows that a series has ended and his work has to find another starting point. The new start may or may not be implied in the work just done; the new idea may or may not be ready and waiting for realization. Again, it would be a mistake to see a change of appearance in Moon’s work as representing a change of direction within himself. Just as small changes within a known framework can have fundamental effect, so all-over changes may he made in order to embody ideas that had become dominant in what came before.

This is apparent in the paintings themselves, and I shall draw attention to some instances of it below. Furthermore, it is proved by Moon’s sketches and working drawings for his paintings. I have looked through a great quantity of rough sketches as well as more finished drawings, and they taught me what witnessing Moon’s one-man exhibitions over the years had not made clear. Beth Moon says that Jeremy sketched and doodled incessantly at home, whilst chatting, watching television (which he did a lot), listening to music (he was very passionate about jazz and very interested in avant-garde music), and so on, and I have seen the results, on all sorts of bits of paper and done with pencil, biro or crayon, with cars, motor bikes and extreme female footwear appearing among pictorial jottings. I learned from them that (1) he worked amid a buzz of ideas, even when the paintings emerging from his studio all belonged to one series; (2) each painting, singleton or part of a series, started as the preferred project among several variations jotted down; and (3), although the succession of a series gives one the impression of a steady and sequential programme, Moon’s ideas existed in no sequence but leapt over the years and reappeared in new guises.

All of this may seem unnecessary inside information. I am stressing it because of the well-established British habit of calling any tidy work of art intellectual and equating “intellectual” with difficult, heartless and foreign. It is always the heart-on-sleeve man or woman who feels most deeply? Is Tchaikovsky’s music unarguably more human that Bach’s? The point is that highly controlled paintings, if we are prepared to look at them without prejudice, prove to be as capable of delivering emotional content as more blatantly expressive paintings; the best of them have an impact that lasts where others fade. Clarity does not mean coldness; it means the pursuit of an idea with passion and the gradual elimination of irrelevancies, and also between it and us, the observers.