Review by John Elderfield

UK Commentary. Studio International, January 1973









All histories of art are in some way histories of ambition; and the best art is usually the most ambitious. Such ambition, however, belongs both to style and to method—and stylistic ambition alone has never been a guarantee of excellence. Although most major art advances style through its quality, the issue for any artist has always been to localize ambition to the specifics of a particular situation—one painting, one sculpture—rather than have some ‘idea’ of ambition which is then realized through the medium used. This localizing of ambition is in essence a critical activity—that is, it demands that close attention be paid to the results of painting, that the artist will take no stand other than for the work at hand. It may seem like a pathetic fallacy, but for the artist the real question is always ‘What does the work demand?’ rather than ‘What do I demand of it?’ Even more than critics, artists require the ability of close looking—of a rigorous inwardness to art— for only through such self-criticism—and a willingness to take heed of it. - can ambition be thus tested. And if I suggest that the artists I discuss here—Frank Stella, Jeremy Moon, Terry Frost—have missed out on excellence in their recent work it will be mainly because of a failure in their criticism. Their seriousness and ambition is not in question. What is, however, is their real attention to the look of their paintings. In different ways, they all seem to have suspended their judgements on their own work, leaving the looking to others.

Frank Stella’s new pictures, at KASMIN, are at first sight very bewildering. They seem to be weak, but Stella’s reputation is such that one begins to doubt one’s own judgement—and begins to search for good reasons why the pictures are as they are. In time, some emerge as better than others: the simpler ones, Rakow II and Borgoria I, come to look more acceptable than the confusions of Felsztyn IV and Chodoron IV—but this seems a matter of degree more than anything else. All of the paintings suffer from a basic imprecision of direction: clearly there are links with his earlier work (Chodoron IV looks back to the 1967 Effingham paintings), but Stella’s new move gives the appearance of being overmuch theoretical rather than practical. He had been involved with protractor forms since 1967 and any change, one feels, had to be a radical one to carry conviction. But surrendering to a radical look—as I believe he has done—is no real answer, and speaks of desperation more than anything else.

I have written elsewhere that Stella’s new work might be understood in terms of a resurgence of painterliness — of a new interest in complicated, tactile and broadly ‘expressive’ concerns —and that his taking on of involved gestural forms means that painterliness has now become an inescapable issue for new art.[1] But the situation is rather more involved than that; for Stella has, since the Protractor paintings, relied very much on complications and ambiguities which the new paintings really only specify in a new way. Stella’s work from 1959 to around 1963 possessed a real conviction and directness which, I feel, has been lacking since that date. What the new paintings seem to show is either that Stella has become aware of his problems —that he could no longer continue as an accomplished designer—or that his evident design sense is seeking new grounds to conquer. Some similar works, shown recently at Rubin’s in New York, have not only the varied applied materials, but an actual change in relief across surfaces. They spell-out, more obviously than the Kasmin paintings, that Stella is finding the actual practice of painting somehow unsatisfying and is looking to bas-relief as a way out. But however much one respects Stella’s integrity, one cannot help but feel that this is dodging the issue. As paintings they so obviously fail to carry conviction: their complications have so little real logic other than of incident—and this is how one tends to read them. They embrace illusionism, like the 1967 paintings I mentioned, but their illusionism appears somehow unintentional—a matter of failing to convince as surfaceness. They cannot help but insist theft being carpentered—but this too seems the by-product of a failure on other counts. One is never sure whether certain gaps between the applied materials is intentional or not or whether the revealed corrugated paper on the sides is supposed to be part of the painting. Too much is left to chance. But for all their manifest failings, one is left with an indescribable feeling that Stella was somehow correct in breaking with his past. Odelisk IV at Kasmin and its companion piece shown in New York come close to achieving something of the authority of the early Stella. They suffer on many counts — especially in the choices of applied surfaces—but they do stamp themselves as confident images; and, for all my complaints, works like these leave me with a very considerable faith in Stella’s future.

If Stella’s pictures suffer from their wilful ‘radicalness’ —their seeking to be ‘genuine’ through an ‘advanced’ look—Jeremy Moon’s recent works, shown at ROWAN, disappoint for other reasons. I admired Moon’s Y-shaped paintings of 1967[2] for the seriousness with which they fixed their ‘literalness’ (partly in response to Stella’s Ifafa II of 1964). At that time, Moon appeared to be in the process of becoming a very serious artist. The issues he was confronting were very real ones, and some of that year’s paintings (especially those which made strong use of yellows) remain important in modern English art. His recent paintings, however, have lost their intensity. Somewhere, Moon has floundered—and has become seduced by the ideologies of his art. The grid formats (mainly diagonal) of the Rowan paintings have only a conceptual interest as a ‘conventional’ art-making device.[3] Formally, one searches for some justification for these works. As with the Stellas, some are better than others. Flamingo and Lake set themselves above the overtly ideological Fault (a grid split apart in one section). Sun, Sand and Sea, a diagonal grid of lemon yellow on a blue ground, is so plainly a failure of taste (and looks too like a Patrick Caulfield to be taken seriously). Christmas, a red and green diagonal grid on grey, seems banal when you read the title, but is among the better paintings. But none really have any conviction. In these works, Moon has clearly not looked hard enough at what he is doing—has not challenged himself in the way all artists must do if their pictures are to be more than ‘realized’ schemes. It is always easy to have good ideas; but a lot harder to keep checking their results. By using grids, Moon has taken on something very difficult: to make pictorial something by now strongly conceptual in nature. Few have achieved this, and those who have done it have been aware of the dangers of their situation. Moon, one feels, has been ignorant in this sense, and the paintings, therefore, seem somehow meaningless. The activity of the grid meeting the edges of the support is so slight and the colour juxtaposition is so undemanding that it is hard to see the pictorial justification behind them.

I prefaced this article with the remark that stylistic ambition is no guarantee of excellence; but here one wishes there had been more ambition in terms of style. It should be by now quite evident that the possibilities of Sixties ‘linearism’ are being openly challenged. It may seem unfair to blame Moon for limiting his ambitions to what he is accustomed to cope with (and I am certainly not saying that to strive for radicalism is ever enough—for it is becoming more and more clear that the cloak of radicalism hides as much poor art as the Academy used to), but the disappointment of these paintings is both that they lack a local intensity of effort and that theft broader ambitions seem so narrow.

At this stage, I should perhaps attempt to justify discussing in some detail paintings which fall below a reasonable standard of excellence. It would be very easy to bypass work like this; for criticism is generally only useful when considering what one thinks of as good art. But there is a good deal of value in trying to under stand why potentially serious art falls down. So often, failures are as instructive as successes; one begins to appreciate the problems that have to be overcome and the issues that have to be put aside on the way to ambitious art. This present note does not seek to ‘condemn’ these three painters. Far from it: their integrity is not in question. But criticism can only deal with the materials it is presented with, and in all these cases the artists do themselves far less than justice.

Terry Frost’s exhibition at WADDINGTON was, even more than Moon’s, an unfortunate lapse in taste. Like Moon, Frost has in the past produced some exciting paintings, even though his ambitions have been more surely regional than Moon’s. His response to ‘advanced’ art has never been a radical one and perhaps because of this his paintings, at their best, have possessed a quiet authority unmoved by fashion. His weakness, however, has been in what might be described as a certain whimsicality—a fondness for a kind of playful understanding of pictorial composition. The elements in his paintings are too often made to ‘perform’ — as if their integral presence alone is not enough. This is the pre dominant effect of the Waddington paintings. Many seem to have derived from his interest in collage (and some paintings do use collage). Some vertical works use a centre panel to contain a playful sequence of ‘falling’ elements — interlocked circles or overlapping flaps—and other, horizontal, pictures are based on paired semicircles arranged to form lines across the canvas. Some look simply ‘arranged’ —especially those which use collage; but some so depend on the concept (translated into paint) that as pictures they appear incredibly ignorant. One supposes that the clumsiness of the drawing is affected, but one is never sure. When most conceptually ambitious —in the perspex reliefs — there is such a blatant pictorial failure; but where Frost is less ‘ambitious’ —in a smaller close-hued painting, August September 1970—he is far better. And there is only one ambitious painting in the exhibition which comes close to realizing itself— Spring, a flat, clean, slightly Youngerman-like work. Too often, the simple concept is made to bear the whole weight—and never more than in a jokey ‘laced-up’ drawing where string is used to connect the principal forms.

It may be objected that my criticisms of these three exhibitions are unfair in that they dismiss what I have called the conceptual aspects of the work, and that my arguments depend exclusively on what is usually called a ‘formalist’ standpoint. I would not deny the slant of my approach; but go further and say that so far as art is concerned (excepting ideology, which is something different) to pretend that there is any alternative to this is to mistake the nature of the medium. It is the least, and the most, we expect of art that it bears looking at. Looking is the role of critics; but also of artists, and my present complaint is that these three artists have, at the moment, avoided an important part of their responsibilities.

[1] ‘Mondrian, Newman, Noland: two notes on changes of style’, Artforum, December 1971. I might add here that the new Stellas also have something of the Vorticist about them. Comparison with some drawings by Bomberg and William Roberts, exhibited nearby at the Fine Arts Society, shows that Stella’s ‘expressiveness’ is likewise created in terms of a taut, outwards-thrusting design.


[2] These paintings were discussed by Charles Harrison in Studio International, March 1968.

[3] had not seen these paintings when I wrote (in the article cited in note I, above) that a grid format is too often ‘merely a contextual symbol in, or of, art rather than a specifically pictorial configuration’, and that such a format can readily operate ‘on the symbology of a structure-convention, displaying the “framework” of what we understand to be modernist art as a symbol, or signal of intent, that what we are looking should be considered as being art’, but Moon’s new paintings could not be a better example of this in their presentation to achieve effect.