Please write to The Estate of Patrick Heron, c/o Modern & Post-War British Art, Sotheby's, 34-35 New Bond Street, London, W1A 2AA.
Lemon Into Cadmium – Ochre into Black: April-May 1959 was painted at the high-point of an incredible burst of creativity and experimentation, during which Heron established himself as not only one of the most important abstract painters working in Britain but also a major voice in the European avant-garde, who through their work had issued a challenge to the dominance of the ‘New York School’. This challenge had not gone unnoticed by some of the leading lights of American art, a number of whom including Rothko and Pollock were very aware of the powerful images being created in London and St Ives – the fishing village at the western tip of this island that in the years after the War was the epicentre of abstract art in this country, our equivalent to testing-grounds the New York artists were creating in the Hamptons.
As a painting, Lemon into Cadmium is loaded with powerful mark-making and eloquent brushwork that sits in counterpoint to its mesmeric use of colour. It is a deliberate contradiction: a flatness and factuality played off against a sense of depth and resonant space that goes on forever. As an artistic statement, though, it packs even more punch, made as it was at the height of Clement Greenberg’s dominance of the discourse of abstract painting, as for Greenberg such internal contradiction was anathema. For a painter to challenge Greenberg in this way, at this time, is exceptionally brave, especially one seeking to make it in the States, but it was even more so for Heron, as he had already received the great American critic’s censure a year earlier.
After seeing Heron’s new work in 1958, work that moved away from the ‘horizontal stripes’ of 1957 to works approaching Lemon Into Cadmium constructed from ‘lozenges’ of colour, one laid over another in a palimpsest, Greenberg wrote to Heron: ‘Always, I felt, a few too many discs or rectangles were put in to prevent that wonderfully original colour of yours from realising itself… every one of the five paintings could have been decisively strengthened by simply or mechanically wiping out every silhouetted form that was less than a foot and a half away from the edge of the canvas, that is, by bunching and clearing…’ (Greenberg, letter to Patrick Heron, 17 August 1958, quoted in Michael McNay, Patrick Heron, Tate Publishing, 2002, p.57)
Yet in paintings such as Lemon into Cadmium much of their beauty and interest defiantly takes place within a ‘foot and a half from the edge’. Indeed, no British artist of the period explores the possibilities of the edge of the canvas – that borderland between our world and the painted world – quite like Heron.
The paintings of the late 1950s is masterful in its exploration of Heron’s concept of ‘space in colour’ (that is, creating a sense of space and light through the careful placement of colours side by side) that he had first formulated through an exhibition of the same title in 1953. Key to this concept is the moment of contact between colours – the interplay of edges. At this point in time in his career, Heron didn’t work out his paintings beforehand, beyond creating a rough route-map in his head, and so compositions grow organically on the canvas, as each form and each colour follows the suggestion of the preceding elements. These are paintings made up of a series of moments, when two edges, two areas of colour, intersect: Lemon into Cadmium should be read as a highly sustained free-form poem, born from these moments. As the eminent art historian and critic Mel Gooding notes, in Heron’s paintings of the late 1950s: ‘Time is as much their subject as space and colour’ (Mel Gooding, Patrick Heron, Phaidon, London, 1994, p.161)
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