NEW YORK - Last week in Sotheby's New York offices, I had the opportunity to see Patrick Heron’s masterpiece, Lemon Into Cadmium – Ochre into Black: April-May 1959 alongside Mark Rothko’s Untitled (Yellow and Blue), which sells tonight in New York's Contemporary Art Evening sale.
While a world apart in terms of value and profile, for me, these two paintings, made within five years of each other, could easily hang in the same room, as they share a power, an authenticity, a presence. Either work could stand as a symbol abstract painting in the post-war period.
Lemon Into Cadmium was painted a few months before Rothko paid his now fabled visit to St Ives, the artist’s colony at the westernmost tip of England, which had become the centre of the British avant-garde, an experimental environment for living and working that had its equivalent in Long Island, where Pollock, de Kooning and others went to create and blow off steam.
PATRICK HERON, YELLOW PAINTING WITH ORANGE AND BROWN – OCHRE SQUARES: JUNE –
OCT 1959. SOLD SOTHEBY’S LONDON, 11TH DECEMBER 2006, LOT 105 FOR £635,200. © THE
ESTATE OF PATRICK HERON. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED, DACS 2015.
A month later, Clement Greenberg, the Kingmaker of Abstract Expressionism, also visited St Ives, mainly to see Patrick Heron, with whom he had been in dialogue – and lately, some disagreement – over the course of the decade. Despite this, the arch New Yorker Greenberg, in the photograph above, looks chipper standing on the rough-hewn harbour wall at Mousehole, a tiny fishing village at the farther reach of the Cornish peninsular, which in the late 1950s still had one foot planted in the 19th century.
Greenberg was visiting Heron the painter, although he had encountered him first as a writer, as it was Heron who had reported on the happenings in New York for a British audience. However, he did so with criticism and distance, always seeing the confluences between American painting and already current European ideas, rather than be bowled over by the "brave new world" of Abstract Expressionism. Heron was neither over-awed by Greenberg’s criticism or by his power to make or break reputations. In the end, it was this power – and the narrow view of abstraction it demanded – that led Heron to take Greenberg on in a series of coruscating articles in the 1970s.
PATRICK HERON, LEMON INTO CADMIUM - OCHRE INTO BLACK: APRIL - MAY 1959. ESTIMATE:
£400,000 — 600,000. ($597,720 - 896,580).
Heron had committed to this challenge in the mid-1950s, in works such as Lemon into Cadmium. Rothko’s work summed up everything Greenberg believed in – its frontality and centrality demonstrating a high seriousness, a hieratic power of balance. Heron’s painting has some of this – in the resonance between the large lozenges of bright yellow and deep brown-black – but there is also a sense of play, especially between centre and periphery, which is very un-Greenberg. The brushwork of the lower quarter pulls the eye to its surface, in a powerful gesture akin to that of a Robert Motherwell or Franz Kline. Yet the lozenges of pink, purple and yellow float above – and then behind – shifting our sense of where that surface is. This is Heron’s idea of "space in colour" perfectly executed – an idea that he would refer back to constantly in his career and in his later critiques of Greenberg’s unwavering belief in singularity.
MARK ROTHKO, UNTITLED (YELLOW AND BLUE). ESTIMATE: £27,014,250 - 40,521,375.
($40,000,000 — 60,000,000).
For Heron, it was the differences between British abstraction and its American counterpart, as much as its similarities, which gave it its purpose and its authority. Ideas crossing between Paris (in the hands of a younger generation, with Picasso now decamped to the South of France) and New York (the new home of Modern art, forged from European émigré knowledge and native talent and ambition) took on a particular accent as they passed through Britain, as our artists reworked them into a language all their own. And standing in New York, almost 60 years later, this unique voice still has the power to convince, alongside the best of American art from the 1950s.