As the 1950s progressed, Patrick Heron was the recipient of increasing recognition and critical success as a leading international exponent of abstraction in post-war Britain. The decade culminated in two solo exhibitions in London and New York in 1960: his second solo exhibition with Waddington Galleries, London, and his first with Bertha Schaefer, New York. The present work, Violet Through Venetian (Black) January : 60 was included in the Waddington Galleries show of that year and at Bertha Schaefer two years following. Clement Greenberg, the outspoken champion of the New York school of Abstract Expressionism, visited Heron in London in 1954, and Heron introduced Greenberg to William Scott and Roger Hilton. Though Heron and Greenberg were to part ways but a few years later as Heron resisted Greenberg’s attempts to siphon his work into an ideological narrative of visual simplification, their discussions on Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko made Heron a primary conduit between New York and St Ives, the two transatlantic centres of experimentation in abstraction. In 1956 a major exhibition of Abstract Expressionism opened at the Tate, the first such collective showing in London. Though Heron had already produced his first totally abstract works the year before, exposure to these monumental, audacious works precipitated a group of stripe paintings that signalled the start of a new phase in Heron’s career.
By 1960, and works such as Violet Through Venetian (Black) January : 60, stripes had been replaced by an overall homogeneous totality. Colour and shape were as one: 'All colour is shape and all shape is colour. There is no shape that is not conveyed to you by colour, and there is no colour that can present itself to you without involving shape' (Patrick Heron in interview with Martin Gayford, in David Sylvester (ed.) Patrick Heron, Tate Gallery Publishing, London, 1998, p.47). Outlines were replaced by 'frontiers', in Heron’s terminology, between areas of different colours; relations between 'colour-area-shapes' supplanted the traditional figure and ground dialogue. One of the foremost writers on art of his generation, Heron eloquently explicated the symbiotic relationship that produced colour-area-shapes in a 1969 article for Studio International: 'Space in colour. To me, this is the most profound experience which painting has to offer...' (Patrick Heron quoted in Vivien Knight (ed.), Patrick Heron, Lund Humphries, Farnham, 1988, p.34).
Colour is written into the evocative title of Violet Through Venetian (Black) January : 60, indelibly linking colour, place, and time. In 1962, Heron wrote in an introduction to an exhibition catalogue, 'Colour is both the subject and the means; the form and the content; the image and the meaning in my painting today…' (Patrick Heron quoted in Vivien Knight, ibid, p.34). During this phase of his painting, Heron applied paint rapidly to the canvas, building up fluid layers to bring rich depth to colours that met along a 'blurred and rather fuzzy edge' (Patrick Heron, quoted in Vivien Knight, The Pursuit of Colour (exh. cat.) Barbican Art Gallery, 1985, p.10). In this work, a rectangle of violet realised in broad twists of paint merges into the titular red with hazy, loose edges, and a smaller black square form hovers lower, close to the left vertical edge, encased within a yellow demarcation and a blur of shadow-like black. Floating within the sumptuous Venetian red, the two shapes are balanced in a taut harmony of composition and colour. As the critic George Dennison wrote when reviewing Heron’s 1960 Bertha Schaefer exhibition in Arts magazine, 'Heron lays his strongest demands upon colour; and his most sustained investigations are of its properties – its tensions, vibrations, harmonies, reverberations' (George Dennison, quoted in Mel Gooding, Patrick Heron, Phaidon, London, 1994, p.161).
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