In 1956, the year before Red, Black and White was painted, the first British exhibition of American Abstract Expressionism was shown at the Tate Gallery causing great excitement amongst Frost and his contemporaries. It was from this time that we witness a shift in Frost’s work, exemplified through a series of paintings renowned for their red, black and white theme of which this work is a leading example. Whilst the Tate exhibition is often cited as being formative, perhaps Frost’s most significant American influence was meeting Sam Francis in the same year on one of his many trips to Paris with Roger Hilton. Frost, like Hilton, though fascinated by the large expansive and gestural canvases coming from America, was well aware of his European roots, and he was also to meet Pierre Soulages in Paris in 1956. Both Europe and America were to be informative on his work - his application of pigment from this time was more expressive, not to mention the direct response to Sam Francis with the dribbling paint so expertly utilised in this work.
Frost’s abstraction, however, was still very much his own: associated with St Ives but with a training from Camberwell and an enduring friendship with Victor Pasmore, he was exposed to the two major emerging strands of British Abstraction. Frost’s work of this period showcases his unique ability to bring together these differing strands of thought on the development of abstraction in a manner that is quite unlike that of any of his contemporaries. As Patrick Heron enthused the same year the present work was painted: ‘In Frost’s new work an overtly geometric (and somehow symbolic) form lies involved in the downward-moving rain of pigment gestures…a broad compositional structural statement lying behind the beadcurtain of dribbles, that gives the picture that power and punch, that three-dimensional focus and concentration of space that no purely Tachist picture ever exhibits’ (Patrick Heron, ‘London’, Arts (New York) vol.32, no.1, Oct, 1957, p.17).
A significant influence on Frost’s work from the mid 1950s was his move to Yorkshire. By 1957, Frost was teaching at Leeds College of Art having lived in Leeds for two years as the first ever Gregory Fellow of Painting at the University. From his arrival, his work demonstrated an immediate and very different reaction to the broad expanse of the Yorkshire Dales, so different to the Cornish landscape that he is most associated with. The intricate interlocking forms of the St Ives paintings became much less central to the composition, and were replaced by a pronounced vertical emphasis. Red, Black and White, though not a physically large canvas, conveys the vastness of this northern landscape through the long black vertical lines which cross the work, interspersed with fine ochre and sky-blue strokes most likely derived from the patterns of stone walls running along hillside fields and the rays of sunlight as they coincide. These downward strokes are used in unison with the polygon (first seen in 1955, and which remains the central feature of this work). The predominantly white area inside the polygon is used to suggest a separate space beyond, while at the same time emphasising the flatness of the picture’s surface with vertical lines running or dripping down. The contrast of the strong compositional structure with a freer, more animated application of paint is used by Frost with such originality to convey this intense response to the Yorkshire landscape. The clarity of vision and the vigour with which this work is executed are testament to Frost’s skill and it is remarkable that this vibrant work feels just as fresh over sixty years since its creation.
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