Heath was an influential figure in the Constructive art movement – as both a maker of some of its most significant early objects but also as the organiser, in his own studio, of ground-breaking early exhibitions at the start of the 1950s. He was also a painter with a close eye on the European scene and was unique amongst his contemporaries (and arguably amongst most British collectors) in owning works by Nicolas de Stael and Serge Poliakoff. It was the surfaces of de Stael’s works – with their thick paint, applied in broken impasto with a knife – that were to influence a change in direction for Heath in the mid-1950s, as the refinement of his early geometric work gives way to a more physical form of painting, as can be clearly seen here in Painting - Blue with Red.
There are three distinct but interwoven elements to the work: the first are the loosely-geometric shapes that span the centre of the canvas, all different but which in combination give a sense of a single form rotating and transforming whilst it does so. This horizontal movement is then given counter-balance by the angular black forms that have a subtle vertical thrust and which anchor the composition in the top right and bottom left corners. This is Heath at his best, cleverly combining a sense of stasis and movement, creating opposing forces described by essentially the same forms, all through placement and colour. Uniquely for a Constructive artist, much of Heath’s painting (and he was a primarily a painter) was worked out by eye, as the work was in progress – rather than using formulas and patterns to give structure.
The third element he introduces is the way the picture plane seems to open up to reveal a layer beneath. This is most clearly expressed in the jagged red lines, that appear as fissures in the surface, revealing a magma layer beneath – but the contrast between the heat of this red and the cool of the blue and black then brings the nature of the red, orange and yellow shapes into question too: are they above or beneath? And so, by implication, do the white and soft pink shapes sit in-between? Suddenly this seemingly flat arrangement of shapes and heavy, physical paint on a canvas pulls our senses into three-dimensions. Heath further enhances this effect in a painterly way, through thinning the areas of blue and brushing it on lightly, creating an ethereal space, full of air, which again appears to sit on a different plane to the areas of impasto applied with a palette knife.
Painting - Blue with Red, then, is exactly the sort of work one might wait 50 years to acquire – a painting with an immediate sensual quality that over time reveals itself to be full of subtle nuances.
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