'One should remember the striped paintings were the first seen anywhere. We are now familiar with the idea from many sources, and in particular from the late pictures of Morris Louis, all done well after Heron's vertical bands, and just possibly (though not necessarily) dependent on them as certain American critics had actually seen such paintings as Vertical Light: March 1957 at Zennor in Cornwall before they were shown in London' (Alan Bowness, 'On Patrick Heron’s Striped Paintings', Patrick Heron: A Retrospective Exhibition of Paintings 1957-66, exhibition leaflet, Museum of Modern Art, Oxford, 1968, unpaginated).
One of the ‘critics’ to whom Bowness is referring must be Clement Greenberg, king-maker of Abstract Expressionism, who Heron had known since 1954. Greenberg must have seen in Heron’s art of the late 50s, precisely in works such as Blue Horizon: March 1957, everything that he espoused as the future of American painting, if not art in general. Blue Horizon continually asserts its own physicality, as an object: the broad, expansive brushstrokes run to the edge, but stop just short, to highlight the fact that whatever they might express is bounded by the picture edge, and doesn’t exist in some other imagined dimension, as the traditional idea of the picture plane supposes. This boundary, in turn, sets the internal rhythms of the painting free. Vertical plays against horizontal but even this deliberate interplay and interchange is disrupted by the drips, which run down, counter to the artist’s intentions, pulling the eye back to the surface of the canvas. Indeed, Heron’s paintings of this breakthrough period often contain multiple expressions of Greenbergian theory. They have elements of both 'action painting' – in the sweeps and tensions of their mark-making – and yet also have the sumptuous colour harmonies, that hover on the retina, of the best 'colour-field' work. It is this that gives Bowness the courage of his convictions, which he later re-iterates: these paintings are 'a major statement by a major artist' (Alan Bowness, introduction to Patrick Heron: Recent Paintings and Selected Earlier Canvases, Whitechapel Art Gallery, 1972).
Heron seems to destabilize all of this, however, with his titles, such as Vertical Light or Blue Horizon, that seem to refer to the world outside the painting, to the inspirational landscape that surrounded his home at Zennor: the horizontal stripes of blue in the present work becoming the wide expanse of sea below the cliffs, the repeating strokes of an ever-more dry brush, figuring the pattern of the tide. Yet the titles of Heron’s paintings came after the work was complete, a sometimes playful reaction to the images they unconsciously evoke. To reduce paintings such as Blue Horizon: March 1957 to a form of ‘abstract-landscape’ is to do them a disservice. After all, we have no issue with the narrative titles applied to the great works of American Abstract Expressionism, titles that speak more of their epic intentions rather than any subject-matter. The 'horizon’, therefore, canbe seen as less the view from Heron’s studio, more a metaphor of the work’s own ambition to create a new language for painting, at a time when Heron was making some of the most advanced work in Europe, not to say America.
The Estate of Patrick Heron is preparing the forthcoming catalogue raisonné of the Artist's work and would like to hear from owners of any works by Patrick Heron, so that these can be included in this comprehensive catalogue.
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.
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