Letter to The Guardian

Your art critic Caroline Tisdall (‘Action Men’ – Guardian Friday, March 18) must do her homework a bit better. Her account of British abstract painting since the fifties is pure fantasy. I have nothing against the work of the four artists showing in Oxford, two of whom I know well and whose sincerity, enthusiasm and ambition are not in doubt, but, confronted by this sort of art historical nonsense, is it any wonder that English artists of all generations are getting a bid fed up?
Your critic’s thesis goes like this: English painters during the nineteen sixties imitated American abstract expressionism and now at last there is a new generation (there always is!) who are going back to the source and getting it right this time! It has been the custom in English art criticism for some years to bandy the word ‘generation’ about very freely and it has long ceased to be a chronological term and is now simply part of an instant history-making kit used to hurry out of the way one lot of artists you don’t support in order to bring forward to the centre of the arena another lot you do. Miss Tisdall, however, carries the ‘generation’ gambit to the limit of absurdity by reducing all painting remotely connected with abstract expressionism down to two categories – Patrick Heron’s generation and that to which the four artists she is reviewing belong.
It hardly needs to be said that a lot of very good painting in England since the fifties owes little or nothing to abstract expressionism except in the broad sense that any intelligent ambitious painter is influenced by, and learns from all good painting that precedes him. A young painter starting out in the late fifties or sixties could no more ignore Jackson Pollock or say Barnett Newman than he would Matisse or Cezanne. But even leaving aside those English painters for whom the need to come to terms with the implications of the large abstract field of paint was not an important issue, the striking and remarkable fact about the assimilation into English painting of American abstract expressionism is how little it has to do with imitation and process – dripping, slashing, pouring, rubbing, etc. and how much to do with a concern with the formal implications of the new painting. Paradoxically, since the time of the exhibition, Situation in London, in 1960, English abstract painting has often been criticised by English critics for its Englishness – its so-called reticence, its tendency towards didacticism (a legitimate criticism) and its refusal to seek reality by abandoning pictorial space.
It is true that for a very brief period in the art schools ‘tons of pigment were mindlessly splurged in apish imitation of the greats’ – a perfectly standard procedure in art schools and, incidentally, nothing compared to the slaughterhouse atmosphere obtaining in some quarters now. But the artists for the most part spoke from the start a different pictorial language expressing, when it succeeds, a reality true to its time and place and failing, when it fails, not through ‘servile imitation’ but, as with all art that fails, through a lack of integrity, or imagination, or skill, or nerve.
It is with just these very factors and the need to make a language with which to deal with them that the critic’s proper concern should lie. Such a modest, demanding and unglamourous role seems beyond most young English critics at present who have variously taken easy ways out either by writing painting as art or by uncritically adopting a tough-sounding American jargon without the slightest idea of what painters actually think, fell and do when they paint a picture. In this context it should be noted that many of the worst excesses of these younger critics stem from an exaggerated respect and sense of awe for that tradition of American painting dubbed ‘the American Sublime’ – though quite often it ought to be ‘the American banal’. This probably arises from an essentially literary mind responding unduly to what is often a spurious aura of tragedy and pseudo-spirituality which is one of the weaknesses of abstract expressionism rather than its strength.
At the present time there is a return amongst art students and a number of young painters here and abroad to the processes used in the work of painters referred to as abstract expressionists or tachistes. Anyone who has taught in an art school for a few years or reads the international art magazines knows that there is a constant ebb and flow of styles, processes and media – a flux of international creativity with a momentum, a transitory and feeling reality and life of its own distinct from the slower, more natural rhythms and realities of any one working artist’s life. A painter may perhaps expect that either by luck or good judgment once in a lifetime his work will catch for a moment this tide. Of the four painters showing at Oxford one, or all, or none may be on the wave and good luck to all of them anyway – but it should not be necessary for a critic to rewrite a decade of art history in order to send them safely on their way.