However, rather than being painted in a loft in New York City or a barn on Long Island, Witness was in fact painted in a studio in St Ives, a fishing village on the tip of Cornwall, albeit a village that in the decades following the Second World War was to become a centre of the British avant-garde to rival London. And rather than be made by a European émigré or a hard-drinking son of the Mid-Western plains, it was painted by a native Cornishman, deeply connected to the magical, dark landscape of West Penwith. Lanyon had begun exhibiting in America in the mid-50s, holding his first one-man show with the legendary Catherine Viviano in 1957. He had met and befriended a number of the major figures of the New York School: Mark Rothko and his wife stayed with the Lanyons in St Ives in 1959, a trip that Rothko found so inspiring he thought of finding a building in Cornwall to create an installation of paintings along the lines of his Seagram Murals. Lanyon admired Kline too, whose work he has seen at the Sidney Janis Gallery, which, he noted, ‘seemed to be the best [of Abstract Expressionism] both as painting and as art’ – and it is perhaps Kline’s influence that can be most closely identified in a work such as Witness, although as ever with British abstraction of the late 50s and early 60s, it is important to stress how contemporary it was with the best of American painting. Artists on both sides of the Atlantic were finding themselves in similar places, often by totally different means and to very diverse ends.
Lanyon’s work, whilst superficially adhering to Greenberg’s proscriptions, also breaks many of his rules. Abstract in principle, they are equally concerned with the elemental forces – wind, rain and sea – that battered and shaped the landscape of West Penwith. From the very beginning, he wanted to paint the experience of the world around him, seen from above and below, in the mind’s eye, across time and place. As Lanyon himself wrote: ‘The thing that I’m interested in… is that there’s a place… the thing I have experienced that I am able to make into something new which is an equivalent of that… In the end the whole picture has to be that. It hasn’t to represent it…it has to be so charged with that experience that it is, the whole self: it will give back that experience to someone else’ (the Artist, interviewed along with Alan Davie and William Scott by David Sylvester for the BBC, 19th June 1950, Tate Archive, TAV214AB).
It was this desire to capture experience that led him, in 1959, to take up gliding. This allowed him to conceive space within his art differently and bring to his activity as a painter a more profound understanding of the elemental. Gliding was to enter ‘the realm of vertigo’, something that can be very clearly seen in Witness, with its vertiginous updraft of black to the left, which then hooks to the right only to be buffeted by a turbulent brushing of grey-white and forced back on itself. With a change of mental perspective, however, the whole painting can also be seen from above rather than square-on, as a map of (perhaps) a solid headland, a harbour scooped out within it, black against a raging-white sea. This multiplicity of reading was key to Lanyon in these works.
In 1964, the year of his untimely death as a result of a gliding accident, Lanyon wrote: ‘I believe that landscape, the outside world of things and events larger than ourselves is the proper place to find our deepest meanings…. I want to make the point that landscape painting is not a provincial activity as it is thought by many to be in the United States, but a true ambition like the mountaineer who cannot see the clouds without feeling the lift inside them… where skill and training and courage combine to make us transcend our ordinary lives’ (the Artist, ‘Some Aspects in Modern British Painting: An Artist’s Point of View’, lecture for the British Council in Czechoslovakia, 27th January 1964). Lanyon’s ‘gliding paintings’ have recently been given their own dedicated museum show, the Courtauld Institute’s highly acclaimed Soaring Flight, although they always feature strongly in any exhibition of his work, as Witness did in the 2010/11 Lanyon retrospective at Tate St Ives. It is no surprise, perhaps, that for someone who owned Lanyons from every period of his career, David Bowie would have one of the best of the ‘gliding paintings’, from the period where Lanyon was creating a truly international pictorial language.
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