British Abstraction

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That the selection for this exhibition darts between the hard-edge and the painterly, between geometry and intuition, between the utterly reductive and the essentially figurative, is very deliberate, as it is precisely the lack of definite boundaries between the purely formal and non-representational and the expressive and allusive that best describes the British approach to abstraction in the post-war period.

The dominance of one particular artistic ideology over the other that one sees in European or American art – such as the absolute monarchy of Abstract Expressionism – doesn’t take place here. London’s leafy suburbs might themselves be ideal for the writing up of all-consuming ideologies, but the natives themselves never much went in for ‘isms’: from the Enlightenment on, in art, music, literature, ours has been a magpie approach, the only ‘ism’ we adhere to being pragmatism, the making of others’ rigorous doctrine fit for own more flexible purpose.

Having said this, British artists in the 20th century were more than capable of making serious work within the formalist vocabularies usually considered the exclusive province of the Swiss, Germans or Dutch – as the recent tiny but exquisite Mondrian & Nicholson exhibition at the Courtauld Institute clearly showed. This is why our Constructionist / Systems artists of the 50s and 60s – the likes of Victor Pasmore, the Martins, Anthony Hill – are (finally) receiving their critical due, as collectors start to seek out some intellectual rigour and, more importantly, some real conviction amongst all the irony and in-jokes of much contemporary art. And if one goes back a few years, to the shows of sixties art at the Tate or the Barbican, here we can see the original YBA’s – such as Robyn Denny and Richard Smith, who spilled out of art school straight into the midst of Swinging London – giving the Americans a serious run for their money, either taking on Abstract Expressionism in terms of scale and ambition, whilst at the same time giving its grand philosophy a gritty urban realism, or co-opting Minimalism’s intellectual cool and suffusing it with a street-wise Pop glamour.

Of course, the form of abstraction now known simply as ‘St Ives’, where colour and form evoke a sense of landscape – of space, weather and the ancient tracks of human movement – is undoubtedly this country’s unique contribution to the history of Modernism, an art that despite it’s various roots in European and American movements, feels real and entirely natural for a tiny island floating at the leeward end of a vast ocean that has, nevertheless, been at the centre of the trade in ideas for centuries. But ‘St Ives’ isn’t the whole story: this exhibition suggests that, like many other aspects of Modern British Art, our take on abstraction – the big idea of 20th century art – it is always more diverse, experimental and innovative than it is often given credit for.