Review by Barry Martin
1976

JEREMY MOON RETROSPECTIVE

Serpentine Gallery. 3—25 April

Reviewed by Barry Martin

 

…I have done ten years painting and that is ten years of fantastic living that you can’t express in terms other than the work’.

J.M. 1973.

Jeremy Moon (1934—1973) was the most morally aware artist I have met and almost to the point of obsession was self-critical. This drive for thoroughness showed itself as a high level condition which his students at St. Martin’s and Chelsea Schools of Art took notice of and matched themselves up against.

He was from an era when it was possible for a student to attend university first and, having obtained a degree, then decide to go to art school to be a painter or sculptor. It was the time when provision was made by art schools for such alternatives. Having worked in advertising, following his law degree at Christ’s College, Cambridge, he decided by the end of 1961 to make art full time. This was preceded by a period of about six months during which he attended ballet lessons five nights each week. He simultaneously waltzed with the idea of a career in choreography, which in itself is unimportant except for the direct experience it gave him of movement, balance, harmony, imbalance, contrapuntal movement, rhythm, continuity, flow, disorder and so on.

Against a background of Lyrical Abstraction, Matter Painting, Art Brut, Art Informel and Colour-Field painting, Moon’s first works were sculpture. He was awarded the sculpture prize at the Young Contemporaries in 1962 and in 1963 started teaching in the sculpture department at St. Martin’s School of Art. He quickly resolved his sculptural tendencies in the fullest sense in terms of paintings, and exhibited these in his first show at the Rowan gallery in 1963. The Situation exhibition of 1960 had a noticeable effect on him. In Roger Coleman’s catalogue introduction a definition of formal painting is described as ‘…a concern with surface, organised through the employment of “visual facts”. The canvas is, more often than not, partitioned into a few simple areas, or fields, which are very often close in tone and hue. The common edges of any two of these forms vary from painter to painter, but they are usually clearly defined and consistent throughout each painting. The effect of this is to make the paintings cartographically simple but perceptually complex — a kind of stable/unstable surface’. He goes on to say ‘ …that there is rarely, if ever, a moment when the spectator can satisfy himself that he has optically located all the forms in a final spatial order the presence of the painting is never lost’. Moon’s work in general fits these broad comments.

In 1966 he moved to Kingston. Having settled and built a studio he produced during the following year a unique run of works, such as English Rose, Blue Rose, Signals and Fountain. Unique not only to the contemporary English painting situation but within the range of his works, they are the least problematic of his paintings. Abroad, artists such as Noland and Stella were well advanced in the use of the shaped canvas but Moon’s achievement in this series is personal and leads naturally from work such as Mandarin, Orange Queen or Petrouchka of 1964.

Two clear points about his work are the grids he chose to investigate and the immaculate painted surface he set these into. The grid structure was used from the beginning as an underlying ground plan on which he could position the discs and ellipses. Over the years the grid began to surface and became itself the motif for much work.

The immaculate surface was consistently employed throughout; from the earliest of works such as Trellis, 1962, to the last such as No.14/73, 1973. Little variation occurred except in degrees between shiny or matt. The working out of the painting took place before its execution at the drawing stage, enabling revision to be centred on colour change alone, if needed. Brush marks were erased from the final work. It showed little sign of the artist’s physical involvement. Any tell-tale marks would have impaired the totality of the work by breaking its surface and placing it in time. It was a process diametrically opposed to that employed in Abstract Expressionism. The type of surface Moon developed was consistent with his continuing search for a reality.

‘…what I am interested in above all else is reality and the criterion always with me is not am I painting a beautiful picture or am I painting the next problem that everybody says we should be looking at, but is it real?’ J.M. 1973.

The painting had to become an object, physically stated and capable of supporting itself. To this end, the edge of the painting and drawing became the means of substantiating the painting’s physical reality. The edge represented the physical termination of the surface. The more each could be made viable the more strongly each would oblige the other to force out the work’s objecthood. The surface was made continuous with no differentiation of brushwork, a difference occurring only at the edge where physical intervention prevented its continuation. Even in later works such as No. 29/69, 1969, where the grid was interlaced with squares of changing hue, it was painted consistently of one colour and tone. This physical insistency had its roots in the pre-Rowan days of 1963 when the work was sculpture. Drawing was tied to form and hence corporeality: it later allowed the painting’s existence. Inevitably the outer shape of the canvas was questioned, creating works such as Indian Journey, 1965, Signals, 1967, No. 2/73 and No.14/73, 1973.

The contour of the overall shape of the painting was altered and consequently its objectified reality. Moon's ideas about painting engendered concepts of completeness and wholeness. Completeness was the product of his involvement with the work. The completed painting was a statement that verified and supported the artist’s awareness of reality. But completion necessitates the state of wholeness separate from but reliant on completeness, not however created automatically on completion. This view led to ideas of perfection and s about the nature of the perfected state. To those ideas Moon leaves us twelve years of painting with which to compare our thoughts on the subject and his.

Many of the paintings present visual problems. Problems such as the optical interference the edge makes on a field of diagonal stripes, as in Night Time, 1966, or the change in shape the edge creates in ellipses in Orange Queen, 1964. Many of the 1968 paintings have two parts. A grid is split around the central axis of the painting and some are inclined towards each other. They have the appearance of one original canvas shunted together from both ends, the middle section being lost to view in the process. Even in the all-over grids of this period, a figure/ground interplay is intensified through the use of colour. The grid theme was to occupy him until 1971. Moon’s weakest paintings are probably those where deception is weighed too heavily on the literal side and the guessing game we are invited to play is small and obvious in its permutations.

Probably, for this reason alone, his 1967 works are the best: they are at one with themselves. They drop any pretext to problem solving. We do not ask ourselves, how is that done or why is the form of the painting doing one thing and the colour another? In these works the form and colour markings exist freely alongside and inside one another . . . in the form of the simple, irreducible, irrefutable object.

Problem solving and its visual demonstration isn’t the measure of Moon’s work but rather the context in and through which he survived. It is interesting to note that many of his late sketches are drawn on notepaper from a civil engineering department. The reverse side of the notepaper contains references to such things as ‘thrust shears, fracture cleavage, slip surfaces and shears, reference axes, displacement shears . . . in which a is the direction of movement and b lies in the plane of shear with c at right angles to this plane. Biaxial compression. One of the boundaries may be formed by a thrust shear, in which case the section becomes trapezoidal and a ‘bull-nose’ profile is sometimes developed. Free and forced vibrations of one degree of freedom — and so on. Words that aptly fit Moon’s work. From the earliest to the last works an integrity of style was shown and wilfully maintained.

Against the needle-sharp concentration his paintings appeared to have required, his small, freely executed pastel drawings come as something of a shock. These exquisite works run into their hundreds and are diametrically different from the paintings. Different because the small sketches served the purpose of extending the artist’s visualization of painting. But the effect they have on us transcends our knowledge of why they were drawn. They shimmer from pastel marks and the glow of white paper through the colour. (The colour in most paintings is opaque.) Broadly placed, the marks are often overlaid by others of another hue giving the shapes and lines a broken, rugged appearance and allowing colours to ‘bleed’ one to another. It could almost be called hard-edged Impressionism.

The process of painting itself varied little during his working life. He began with rough pencil or ink sketches which were slowly strengthened by extending this or that shape or re-adjusting positions until an acceptable solution was encountered. This was coloured and some minor changes in shape implemented. Later on, drawings were worked up more, especially the pastel pieces. The superficial exuberance which these often coarse and stubborn little works exude is beside the artist’s intention:

‘Once I start a picture the problems are not ones a small drawing can help with and it is then of little further relevance’. Measured up, the drawing was transposed to the painting. However, the activity of drawing represents a relatively unknown side of the artist, one where action and spontaneity were the keynotes.

His last drawings showed even more complex configurations around the edge of the canvas, combining both curved and straight edges. These were preceded by works such as No. 12/73, 1 973. It consists of a rectangle duplicated four times and shuffled in such a way as to create an apparently random series of edge shapes. Illusions of depth are contradicted by the way each shape left of the underlying three rectangles k coloured. Their chromatic intensity and juxtaposition justifies autonomy and a reality apparently found by chance methods. The part left showing of the underlying rectangles is occupied by just the right proportion of colour to formally satisfy the composition, the central rectangle operating as a blanket cover of near neutral hue.

By paring away all that seemed unnecessary he attempted to reach for a purity of vision and reveal thought. He resented and perhaps mistrusted any sensuous appearances in his work yet did on many occasions extol its virtue in the work of others. His colour was personal and became a major concern. Drawing was beginning to make less demand on his colour at the end.