Anthony d'Offay Gallery, London
Gagosian Gallery, New York
Acquired directly from the above by the present owner in 1991
"During the 1980s, Kossoff began to bring together a number of figures into more complex and arresting group compositions... he commenced a series of paintings based on a new idea: 'A Street in Willesden', the most important of which was finished in 1985. This work is at once grand and informal, qualities which derive from the increased scale of the figures and the expansive treatment of the urban setting."
Paul Moorhouse, 'The eye sees more than the heart knows: The Work of Leon Kossoff' in: Exhibition Catalogue, London, Tate Gallery, Leon Kossoff, 1996, p. 30).
A Street in Willesden, executed in 1985, is an outstanding exhibition of Leon Kossoff's lifelong dedication to transposing into paint the rich phenomenological sensation of vision. Operating on an impressive scale and one of the most visually exciting of Leon Kossoff's illustrious career, the present work emerged during a particularly fertile period of production between 1985 and 1988. This intensely dynamic and emotive work synthesises a translation of the artist's native area of North London in which Kossoff continues to live and work to this day. Representing the very culmination of a body of work initiated in 1983, A Street in Willesden stands as a remarkably resolved and mature conflation of the dual entities of landscape and figure painting that, prior to 1972, had remained markedly distinct. At once psychologically intimate and atmospherically evocative, this painting is an arresting celebration of both the urban environment and the human condition. Composed in grand proportions and asserting a chromatic mastery of impasto paint, Kossoff triumphs in elevating the everyday into the grand realm of epic painting.
The grandeur of the present work is in part derived from the honesty and directness of its creation; thickly applied paint is repeatedly scraped off and vigorously reworked until the moment of inspired expression manifests itself. Within Kossoff's oeuvre, A Street in Willesden constitutes a peak of painterly exuberance and tonal variety absent from his brooding depictions of Willesden Junction and the subterranean evocations of Kilburn underground. Abounding with formal and painterly vigour, this work truly embodies Kossoff's enthusiasm for capturing and transmuting the commonplace visual sensation indigenous to his locale of North West London. As observed by Klaus Kertess, "Kossoff celebrates the everyday – the haphazard, even unstable community of urban street life. And while he addresses his native city, Kossoff's masterful understanding of light and atmosphere orchestrates the seasonal changes his subjects undergo" (Klaus Kertess in: Exhibition Catalogue, New York, Mitchell-Innes & Nash; London, Annely Juda Fine Art, Leon Kossoff, 2000, p. 13). In the present work, the artist's expedient brushwork navigates our eye across the surface in a way that enhances the movement of people in the landscape, leading us deeper into the heart of this intimate suburban terrain whilst simultaneously providing a confessional network of the picture's organic creation.
As expounded by David Sylvester, Kossoff triumphs in transforming the everyday and banal into the grand and monumental (David Sylvester, 'Against All Odds' in: Exhibition Catalogue, British Pavillion, XLVI Venice Biennale, Leon Kossoff: Recent Paintings, 1995, pp.14-15). In A Street in Willesden, the culmination of observed detail realised in the documentary act of preparatory drawing is majestically synthesised into a unique and colossal celebration of place, atmosphere and human experience. As such, the present work represents a significant contribution to Kossoff's lifelong artistic engagement with London's urban landscape: "London, like the paint I use seems to be in my blood stream. It's always moving - the skies, the streets, the buildings, the people who walk past me when I draw have become part of my life" (the artist cited in: Exhibition Catalogue, London, Tate Gallery, Leon Kossoff, 1996, p.36).
An affirmation of atmospheric presence lies at the core of Kossoff's work with his ability to capture a glimpse of humanity beautifully encapsulated in the fleeting frenzy of the present Willesden street scene. Teeming with a remarkable level of perceptual detail, this work is a consummate crystallization of Kossoff's central artistic concern – the transformation of a specific location by the trace of human presence. Indeed, it is this intense human element that marks A Street in Willesden as a particularly significant work. In no other urban scene throughout the entirety of Kossoff's landscape painting do the depicted figures evidence as much psychological intensity as they appear to here. Kossoff transforms ostensibly anonymous personages into psychological individuals; as the artist has attested: "each little mark becomes an identifiable person in the painting. And so it is with all my 'crowd' paintings. Although made from numerous drawings done in the street or over long periods of time, at the final moment each person becomes someone particular that I know. It is as though, apart from the obvious subject matter these pictures are about the people in my head." (the artist cited in: Exhibition Catalogue, London, Tate Gallery, Leon Kossoff, 1996, pp. 21-22). This stands particularly true for the present work: the foreground figure seated on a bench bears a striking semblance to portraits of the artist's brother Chaim, the subject of numerous studies during the 1980s following their father's death in 1983. Aligned with the poignancy and honesty inherent within these emphatic contemporaneous portraits, the artist's apparent depiction of Chaim in the present work imparts a heightened depth of emotive feeling, enriching and propelling the painting into the realm, not only of monumental urban landscape, but also of grand, intensely emotive and psychological portraiture.
Like his contemporaries Auerbach, Freud and Bacon, Kossoff painted that which he knew best; in limiting his subject to the immediate vicinity of his neighbourhood, the anonymous people that passed through these places, and the friends that posed for his portraits, Kossoff transformed the everyday into the extraordinary. A unique conflation of all these elements – at once landscape, atmospheric evocation and portraiture – A Street In Willesden represents an encompassing culmination of Kossoff's highest achievement, truly placing him within the canon of great Twentieth Century artists. In the words of Anne Seymore: "It is one of the prime purposes of art to record the invisible as much as the visible aspects of life. The need to break through the materially based, banal, worn out patterns of seeing towards a manifestation of non-visible energies, has been the preoccupation of many of the great artists of the past hundred years, from Van Gogh and Cézanne to Picasso and de Kooning, and the seriousness of Kossoff's contribution to this movement cannot be questioned." (Anne Seymour in: Exhibition Catalogue, London, Anthony d'Offay, Leon Kossoff, 1988, p. 2).
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