1956 was a vitally important year for Patrick Heron. Although he had embarked upon his first forays into non-figurative work earlier in the 1950s, it was not until this year, when he made the series of works now known as the 'garden paintings', that he swung fully – decisively – to abstraction. As the art historian Peter Fuller has noted, it was at this point that Heron began to search ‘for a more "gestural" way of painting. Under the influence of the American artist Sam Francis and the light of the Cornish landscape, Heron moved sharply away from explicit figuration towards abstract organisations of patches of colour across the whole canvas surface ... [works] marked by that restrained taste and developed "intelligence of feeling" which characterises all Heron's successful painting; their reference to the world of nature, beyond the canvas surface, appears self-evident. Though the colour may be based on memory, mood and reminiscences of flowers and light, rather than on the immediate perception of them, it is most decidedly not concocted "studio colour" of London (or Paris). It was obviously more than a coincidence that Heron's decisive break with figuration coincided with the leaving of the metropolis to live in Cornwall' (Peter Fuller in David Sylvester (ed.), Patrick Heron, exh. cat., London, Tate, 1998, p.155).
It was in 1956, too, that Heron moved with his family to Eagle’s Nest, located high on the cliffs near Zennor, a mining village to the west of St Ives. Although a Yorkshireman by birth, Heron had spent many years as a child in Cornwall, after his father had moved his textile business to St Ives, and it was during this time that the wild landscape of West Penwith first caught his imagination, as it has so many others’ before and since. As such, the move from London to Cornwall was in many ways a homecoming, but it also provided a vital new stimulus to his work and imbued it with a new focus and creativity. In the late 70s, Heron noted that although he hadn’t painted a representational landscape since the move to Cornwall, he was sure that being positioned where he was: 'a third of a mile and over 600 feet above one of the world’s most ferociously rocky coasts […] I don’t doubt for a moment that the enormously powerful rhythmic energies of the granite outcrops beneath my feet transmit certain rhythms straight up through the soles of my shoes every minute of the day.' (Patrick Heron, 'The Colour of Colour', E William Doty Lectures, College of Fine Arts, University of Texas at Austin, 1979, p.26.)
The years that followed the move to Eagle’s Nest – 1956 to 1959 – signaled an incredible burst of creativity and experimentation, during which Heron established himself as not only one of the most important abstract painters working in Britain but also a major voice in the European avant-garde, who through their work had issued a challenge to the dominance of the ‘New York School’. This challenge had not gone unnoticed by some of the leading lights of American art, a number of whom, including Rothko and Pollock, were very aware of the powerful images being created in St Ives, in those years after the War when it was our equivalent to the testing-grounds the New York artists were creating in the Hamptons. May : 1956 is loaded with powerful mark-making and eloquent brushwork, as good as anything being painted at the time in America. There is a flatness and factuality – a sense of physical presence – to the work that is reminiscent of Pollock. Yet Heron goes further, creating a greater sense of depth and layering through his use of colour – the very first inkling, perhaps, of this later exploration into ‘space through colour’.
Further to being one of the leading British artists of the day, Heron was also one of its most revered critics. A fiercely intelligent man, his ability to understand painting from the perspective of an artist gave his opinions credibility amongst fellow artists and differentiated his writing from the layman’s stance of the critic at large. In 1956 he attended and reviewed the seminal Tate exhibition, Modern Art in the United States: A Selection from the Collections of the Museum of Modern Art, New York, which included works by Pollock, de Kooning and Rothko amongst others. He wrote in his review of the exhibition for the journal Arts: 'My own feelings about these painters have shifted one way, then the other, since my first sight of them, as they hung in consort in the big Tate room, at the private view a month ago. I was instantly elated by the size, energy, originality, economy and inventive daring of many of the paintings. Their creative emptiness represented a radical discovery, I felt as did their flatness, or rather their spatial shallowness. I was fascinated by their constant denial of illusionistic depth which goes against all my own instincts as a painter ... To me and those English painters with whom I associate, your new school comes as the most vigorous movement we have seen since the war. If we feel that far more is suggested than is achieved, that, in itself, is a remarkable achievement. We shall now watch New York as eagerly as Paris for new developments (not forgetting our own, let me add) - and may it come as a consolidation rather than a further exploration' (Patrick Heron, quoted in Mel Gooding (ed.), Painter as Critic Patrick Heron: Selected Writings, Tate Gallery Publishing, London, 1998, pp.102, 104). These works were rapidly digested and reconsidered by Heron, and the impact on his own art is quite apparent in the present work. The schism in his manner can be put into context when viewed alongside works of a year or so earlier, such as Green Table on Red Floor, 1954 (Aberdeen Art Gallery & Museums). Although his enthusiasm for colour persists in both, the disavowal of a conventional 'subject' denotes the present work as a critical element within his oeuvre, as one of his earliest, truly abstract paintings.
As abstraction came to rule his painting, Heron experimented more and more with the freedom of brushstrokes, making their interaction with the canvas the central narrative of his art. Every brush stroke therefore carries its own unique character and stands entirely in of itself. The progression from singular daubs of colour, through to the longer, more considered stripes that would define his work the following year is evident in May : 1956. Combining both staccato attacks (the traces of which are caught in drips) and longer, more considered brushstrokes, of white, red, black, orange and green, the present work is a wonderful example of the new direction his work was taking. Heron himself said that gradually the works were pushed to the ultimate conclusion, and the lines 'became longer and longer, until on one painting in early 1956 they became so long that the strokes touched top and bottom (Martin Gayford, 'An Interview with Patrick Heron,' in David Sylvester, Patrick Heron, Tate Gallery Publishing, London, 1998, p.29).
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