Waddington Galleries, London, whence acquired by the present owner
Heron’s painting from the early 1950s onwards shows a development of ideas that transmute almost constantly throughout the decade, and within each series of canvases, aided by his frequent habit of precisely dating the period of creation, the changes can almost be tracked from canvas to canvas.
Although Heron had experimented with pure abstraction as early as 1952, rather under the influence of Nicholas de Stael, he maintained a figurative base to his painting until at least January 1956 when he began to develop a language of strokes of pure colour which moved away from a definite subject. Perhaps in response to the environment of the artist’s new home at Eagle’s Nest at Zennor in Cornwall and known as the ‘garden’ paintings, the broad subject was often only made clear by the descriptive titles given them, and the idea of an actual physical depiction was clearly subordinate to the artist’s exploration of the possibilities of colour itself as the subject. As these works developed, the vertical strokes
‘…became longer and longer, until in one painting in early 1957 they became so long that the strokes touched top and bottom. Suddenly there were actually seven vertical stripes in one painting, which at the time I actually called Scarlet Verticals: March 1957.’ (M.Gayford, ‘Looking Is More Interesting Than Doing Anything Else, Ever: An Interview With Patrick Heron’, reproduced in ed.D.Sylvester, Patrick Heron, London 1998, p.29)
Heron’s ‘stripe’ paintings are one of the most contentious groups of paintings produced by a British artist in the post-war period. Relatively few in number, they span just over a year, developing in March and April of 1957 and reaching their zenith with Lux Eterna: May-June 1958 (Private Collection). However, the poor contemporary critical reaction to the 1958 Redfern Gallery exhibition at which they were first shown (the gallery’s poor support of the show precipitated Heron’s move to the then newly-opened Waddington Gallery) belies their importance. By reducing the work to a bare minimum, the use of colour and the amazingly free and painterly handling produce images in which spontaneity is at its apex, a fact attested to by Heron’s own recollection that many of these pieces were the result of less than an hour of carefully controlled involvement and are ‘unlike anything else being painted in England at that time’ (M.Gooding, Patrick Heron, London 1995, p.126).
Although the ‘stripe’ paintings were later to achieve iconic status within Heron’s oeuvre, especially after it became clear that they predated the American ‘stripe’ images of Gene Davis, Morris Louis and David Simpson by at least two years, Heron felt that they were very much a stage in his own painting’s growth. The works which sprang from the immediate post-‘stripe’ period show a much greater complexity and involvement of the artist and, like the contemporary pieces of his friend William Scott, clearly involve repainting and reworking of the image building up an almost historical and organic sense of construction.
From the early part of 1958, and thus before the creation of the last of the ‘stripe’ paintings, Heron had again begun to move forward. Often using one predominating colour, the horizontal emphasis of the canvases begins to be lessened by the introduction of panels of colour, as in Cadmium Scarlet: January 1958 (Private Collection) and Yellow and Violet Squares in Red: February 1958 (Private Collection). Stung by the suggestion of contemporaries that his horizontal ‘stripe’ paintings contained landscape references, the simplification of the palette and the introduction of a wider vocabulary of forms allowed the artist to concentrate on the use of colour to form pictorial space. In a way that was comparable to the introduction of what amounted to apertures in the work of Terry Frost, and which Heron had himself praised in a review of Frost’s work in 1957, these floating areas of colour allowed Heron to establish a three-dimensional quality in his paintings, using the weight and balance of the colour relationships to engender a sense of depth and spatial recession. Indeed, Heron also seems to have found this quality in the work of Rothko, who he singled out in a review of the 1958 ICA exhibition of works from the collection of E.J.Power for the American magazine Arts, noting that he was the sole member of the group shown (Pollock, de Kooning, Kline, Rothko and Still) to not incorporate suggestive image notation, which he contends as always retaining a figurative element. By removing any external references, and thus ‘meaning’, Rothko had moved towards a manner of painting ‘that was pure of intent, that freed the imagination of the spectator as music does, and like that of Matisse, offered a profound delight to the senses’ (M.Gooding, Patrick Heron, London 1995, p.139).
It was perhaps natural that having found a method by which the balance of colour could be used to create depth and recession within a canvas, Heron would then begin to rebuild the range of colours used within each painting, and thus this re-complication of the image begins to be seen in works such as Yellow Painting: October 1958 – May/June 1959 (Coll.Tate Gallery, London) and Blue Painting (Squares and Disc): August 58- February 59 (Formerly Collection of Ken Powell, sold in these rooms 28th June 2006, lot 60, for £327,200, a world auction record for the artist). Introducing new forms and colours allowed Heron to build up the surface of the paintings, reworking, overpainting and moving the elements until the required effect had been achieved. As the titles of the paintings of this phase make clear, this would often take place over a prolonged period, with several months elapsing between the start and finish.
Yellow Painting with Orange and Brown-Ochre Squares: June – October 1959 is an extremely complex image, with a far wider palette and variety of textures than most of his contemporary works. Painted on an unusually coarse canvas, which may have allowed Heron a stronger support for the numerous re-workings and developments of the layers of colour, it also includes an extremely intricate range of handling with some areas showing an almost calligraphic use of the paint, presaging the new style of mark-making that would begin to appear in his painting of the 1960s, such as Squares Floating in Brown (Emerald, Lemon, Violet): January 1960 (Private Collection).
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