Interview with Stuart Penrose

Arts Review, May 1, 1965

Jeremy Moon was born in 1934 and read law at Christ’s College, Cambridge from 1954 to 1957. In 1962 he studied at the Central School of Art and has taught at the Chelsea School of Art and St. Martin’s School of Art since 1963. He has work in the collection of the Walker Art Centre, Minneapolis, and he has had two one-man shows at the Rowan Gallery in London during 1963 and 1965. Group shows in which his work has been included are The Young Contemporaries 1962 (he won the A.E.I. award for sculpture), the London Group 1963, at Albrighte-Knox, Buffalo, U.S.A., in the Contemporary British Painters and Sculptors Exhibition and in 1965 at the Walker Art Centre, Minneapolis in London: The New Scene.

SP Today, Great Britain occupies a pre-dominant position in international sculpture, as the recent exhibition at the Tate Gallery ‘British Sculpture in the Sixties’ made pointedly clear. Moreover, the so-called new generation of sculptors, many of whom showed their work in the recent Whitechapel Gallery’s exhibition, suggest that this country’s continued importance and position in sculpture is assured. As a painter of the ‘new’ generation of English artists are you conscious of being part of an important new movement?

JM Well, although I know a great many of the younger generation of painters, and for that matter a good many English sculptors, I don’t feel I belong to a cohesive movement as such. Naturally, my own pictures are very much in the contemporary idiom but I tend to work as an individual rather than within the close confines of a group. I would say, too, that my paintings are not particularly English and I am not consciously part of a national group of artists.

SP But you would agree, I think, that there is a definite movement among many of this country’s younger generation of painters? It would seem to me that a marked tendency during the past few years has been for the young avant-garde to paint within a clearly defined style.

JM I don’t really like to think of the painting situation in this country as being seen simply in terms of a choice between originating new directions and following leads. What matters is quality, not the establishment of a new, national style, and it seems to me that the extent to which the ‘new English art’ falls short of the best work being done anywhere today — when it does is the extent to which it is English, i.e. idiosyncratic, literary, self-conscious and academic, i.e. too style and technique conscious.

SP How important are the leading art schools, the Slade School and the Royal College of Art for example, in the formation of the so-called younger generation of English painters?

JM I would say the influence is enormous; in fact it is far too much. It is most clearly seen in the case of a number of pop/figurative/narrative painters — often from the Royal College of Art whose work, quality aside, shares a whole alphabet of painterly mannerisms, formal devices and compositional tricks of one kind or another, all traceable to an academic source. One example is the smudged features and diagonal whipped brush marks in the work of several painters, a mannerism owing some thing to Francis Bacon but a lot to the ‘life’ class.

SP I want to put to you a question that has been put to many of your contemporaries. Why are you concerned in some of your paintings with forms that one immediately associates with artists such as Matisse and Arp?

JM To some younger English abstract artists when first confronted with abstract expressionism, its most important formal characteristics probably seemed the idea of the autonomous, unbroken field of paint and the ‘object’ quality which this, combined with big scale gave to the pictures. This seemed to put paid once and for all to illusionistic space and the idea of making a picture by filling the canvas up with images, shapes, colours, etc.; and sorting them all out until they made a harmonious composition. After this, a figure/field or negative/ positive kind of space probably seemed for a time the only kind possible. I believe that the assimilation into English art of ideas that had their immediate origin in an artist like Rothko was almost a forced process.
Variations on these new innovations became the stuff of art school basic design course and in turn the starting point for a number of younger abstract painters. In my work I suppose I am very conscious of someone like Matisse but there is no direct link.

SP What inspires you to begin work on a new picture? Is it your immediate surroundings? Is it nature, urban images or purely aesthetic consideration?

JM My point of departure for a new painting is a combination of previous work, an intuitive idea and trial and error. I recognise that all the things you mention influence my work indirectly in so far as I would like my work to contain the quintessence of all my thoughts about, feeling towards and responses to life and art organised into an aesthetic unity which has its own reality. But I certainly don’t want to represent in any way the reality of nature, and I don’t consciously use natural or urban forms, however abstracted, in my work.

SP In your large pictures you make, I know, a number of preparatory sketches. Can you explain exactly how you begin a new painting?
When I get an idea for a painting, whether it is closely related to a previous one or something which looks like new ground, I make lots of small, very simple diagrammatic drawings in line or using wax crayons or coloured paper. The main object here is to be able to see the idea as a visual image and have it around in the studio for a few days to get used to it and to make sure that I want to go ahead with it. I also use these drawings to help me establish what size and shape the canvas should be. Once I start a picture, the problems are not ones a small drawing can help with, and it is then of little further relevance.

SP What are you really trying to communicate through the medium of your paintings?

JM Well, I am not trying to communicate in the sense that I have a message. I am certainly not a crusader.

SP How do you see your functions as a painter?

JM I see myself as a traditional painter in the mainstream of art. It may sound corny but I think about artists such as Cezanne and Matisse almost daily. My own work, for example, is really in the central stream of developments in avant-garde painting. Movements like so-called optical painting I consider to be a tributary rather than a major movement. But let me be more specific by talking briefly about one of my paintings. In this way you will get a better idea of how I see my function as a painter. In my picture entitled La Danse I was concerned about balance, harmony, tension, pleasure, movement and beauty. Thus although I was working within an abstract manner I was able to communicate much more than colour — green, orange, red and yellow!