inston Branch regards himself as having what might be regarded as deceptively uncomplicated terms of reference.
“I’m a painter. I put paint on canvas. The only thing that’s in your control is you, and the canvas and the paint and how you lay it down on the surface.”
How Winston Branch puts paint on canvas has continued to intrigue and fascinate many of us for the greater part of six decades. Truthfully, apart from the artist’s steadfast commitment to his own vision, his paintings, as distinct as they are, continue to defy pat descriptions. In comprehending Branch’s distinct practice, we can be reassured that despite his steadfast ambivalence to art world trends and curatorial diktats, he has carved out for himself an important and respected place in art history and histories of abstraction.
His wonderful paintings have been, he says, “created through instinct and observation”, a description that is at once precise yet elusive. Perhaps, “ambitious and experimental” and “energetic and exploratory” are two sets of almost concrete adjectives that have been employed as exemplifying “the artist’s 25-year-long inquiry into the potentiality of light, colour, space, and depth.”
The Sotheby’s selling exhibition Journey Into Light brings together a wonderful selection of Branch’s paintings, characterised across an arc of artistic expression that takes great pleasure in explorations of colour and composition. Walking Down To The River (1994) is one example; a bold, confident work that reveals itself as the expressive layering of paint, patiently applied over a period of time.
Another painting included here, Journey Into Night (1982-84), was two years in the making. As if conducting some sort of archaeological undertaking, we might attempt to discern what colours were laid down and when. We know for sure though, that the yellow which dominates the painting is likely to be, artistically speaking, Branch’s last word on 1994’s Walking Down To The River. This layering, this confident application of paint, results in a work that could engage its viewers for years on end. Ultimately, perhaps, the painting is reluctant to give up its secrets, though we are left to marvel at the dedication of an artist whose commitment to “put[ting] paint on canvas” is not only absolute, but ongoing.
While a work such as Walking Down To The River is bright and somewhat optimistic, particularly on account of the yellow that dominates, other paintings, such as Journey Into Night and Look Beyond are brooding affairs, evoking the nocturnal, or elements of the natural world. With its shades of blue that dominate much of the canvas, we might be drawn to considerations of Journey Into Night that are worlds away from Look Beyond, in which a decidedly different palette dominates. Among the things that Branch’s paintings do is convey a remarkable and insistent sense of the affirmation of life. A painting such as Mist Over The Mountain (2006) is after all, decidedly positive, joyful, and affirmative in its mark making, leaving its viewers in no doubt as to the celebratory dimensions of Branch’s singular embrace of abstraction.
I first met Branch in 1982. I was a very young art student; he was an older, more experienced, much savvier artist, who possessed the shrewdness, practical knowledge, and ability to make good judgments, both in and outside the studio. Born in 1947 in Castries, St Lucia, Branch has literally made painting his life’s work, and today, when I speak to him, candidly declares that he has brooked no impediments or distractions in his steadfast quest to pursue his painting exactly as he so chooses, spending a lifetime as a professional artist focussing on what he calls his “inner vision”.
“It’s a very lonely life being a painter,” he says. “The sacrifices I’ve made… painting is a selfish act.”
In a recently published text on Branch, a reproduction of an invitation to the artist’s first solo exhibition in London was included. The invitation shows a photograph of Branch, about to turn, or not long having turned, 20. He stands in the middle of the photograph, casual but determinedly looking at the photographer, full of quiet, certain confidence.
Though none of his paintings and drawings from the time are clearly visible, we know that ahead of him, in the years to come, lay the making of key works such as Yellow Sky (1970), West Indian (1973), Ju Ju Bird No. 2 (1974), and First Light For Polly (1979).
We should tread cautiously in rendering or attributing any expansive or general description to these pieces, which represent a broad range of visual and aesthetic concerns, but certainly, a dramatic interplay between figurative and non-figurative elements is already discernible in each of them.
That debut exhibition took place at the Arts Lab Gallery, Covent Garden in October 1967. It was around this time that, as chronicled by Jules Walter Esq, Branch met “a very distinguished British artist, Robert Medley [himself a graduate of the Slade], who saw his work and advised him to go to the Slade School of Fine Art, at University College London, where he would meet and have first-hand information from, the makers of British culture.”
Three years later, in 1970, Branch graduated from the Slade. Ahead of him lay exciting and fulfilling residencies, which included prestigious undertakings such as winning the Prix de Rome at The British School at Rome in 1971, a residency at the Deutsche Akademische Austauschdienst (aka DAAD), fellowship in Berlin, in 1977, and a Guggenheim Fellowship in New York in 1978. To these wonderful international opportunities can be added those such as Branch’s artist’s residency at the legendary Fisk University, in Nashville, Tennessee, in 1973.
The iconic David C. Driskell, who at the time of Branch’s residency was Chairman of Fisk’s Department of Art (and who would go on to organise the acclaimed exhibition, Two Centuries of Black American Art at LACMA in 1976), couldn’t resist drawing attention to Branch’s ethnicity and the ways in which it represented the artist triumphing in an environment, arguably indifferent to the aspirations of artists of colour.
“Winston Branch went to London from his native St. Lucia to live 14 years ago,” wrote Driskell. “Since that time, he has pursued major courses of study in the fine arts at institutions such as the Slade School of Fine Arts, University College, London, and the British Academy in Rome, where he was the recipient of the Prix de Rome, distinguishing himself as one of Great Britain’s most promising young painters… That he has been able to forge ahead as a black painter whose artistic merit in the European cultural community is now becoming internationally known speaks loudly of his dedication to the craft of painting and the talent which he has demonstrated in his work.”
Branch himself described his residency in Berlin as being “a very important time”, though we perhaps have good reason to consider him needing freedom of geographic movement as much as freedom of artistic expression. This aligns with Branch’s escape from what he refers to as “identity politics”, that he believes dominated the art world, particularly during the 1980s and 90s. Today, he is forthright in declaring such concerns as “nothing to do with what I was about.”
“If you stand still, you get your feet webbed up. If you keep moving, you keep living and invigorating yourself because you’re pressing new horizons.”
“If you stand still, you get your feet webbed up,” he says. “If you keep moving, you keep living and invigorating yourself because you’re pressing new horizons.” These sentiments, about the need and benefits of new horizons are underlined by his expression “It’s not the place that matters; it’s what you do in the place that matters.”
These peripatetic dimensions have resulted in his work being exhibited, literally, far and wide. “The Caribbean gave me an opportunity to show my work, because it’s important for an artist to show. [International travel] gave me an opportunity to show in Ecuador, Argentina, [other countries in] Latin America, [and] Santo Domingo [the capital of the Dominican Republic].” Now in his mid-70s, Branch is, as much as he’s ever been, at home in London. “London has always been a city I’ve admired and loved and feel very comfortable in.”
Branch’s journey as a painter continues, though he sees himself in decidedly Robert Frost-esque terms, fondly recounting his ongoing decisions to take the road “less travelled by. And that has made all the difference.” Ever determined to artistically answer to himself alone, Branch maintains his unshakeable belief that “Painting is about feeling, and if it ain’t got no feeling, it ain’t got no substance.”
“Painting is about feeling, and if it ain’t got no feeling, it ain’t got no substance”
Today, Winston Branch is the most intriguing of painters, deservedly occupying a central place in the pantheon of accomplished British painters of the past 50 years. Yet paradoxically he remains an artist whose work deserves greater levels of exposure, appreciation, and critical reflection. Central to our appreciation of Branch’s remarkable paintings are considerations of what he does with paint. Behind his deceptively simple declaration with which I began this short text - “I put paint on canvas… the only thing that’s in your control is you, and the canvas and the paint and how you lay it down on the surface” - lies an extraordinary commitment to seeing what paint can do, when it’s applied to canvas with a range of gestural mark making.
Produced between 1982 and 2006, these paintings, brought together by Sotheby’s, not only demonstrate a journey of artistic expression but also point to Branch’s own preoccupations during his decades of considered, strategic (or, one imagines on occasion, somewhat impulsive) peripatetic journeying.
Where in the world was Branch when he painted Journey Into Night? Or Walking Down To The River and Mint In June, both from 1994? Or When I See My Father’s Eyes from 1998? Where had this journeying taken him, for instance, when he painted Forever Young (2006) or Mist Over The Mountain, from the same year? London? St Lucia? The San Francisco Bay area? (Branch was after all, for a time, a professor of painting at the University of California, Berkeley). Those of us privileged to have had contact with Branch over the past four decades might possibly hazard informed guesses.
Such questions are of course speculative but so too, perhaps more fruitful, are our imaginings about what experiences, readings, travels, or encounters informed the making of and titling of the paintings in this exhibition. The more we comprehend the work of this brilliant painter, a product of the 1960s London art scene, the more intrigued we become and the more certain we are of his centrality in histories of British abstract painting.
Winston Branch 'Journey Into Light' is at Sotheby's New Bond Street, London between 17 November–15 December 2023