“…the absolute communicated solely by means which are proper to pictorial art”
– Tim Hilton: UK commentary: notes on threes exhibitions | John Walker at the Ikon Gallery, Birmingham, Studio International, December 1972, pp 238-240
…the distinguishing sign of the visually active human being, constructing his own universe and refusing to be the slave of given forms.
– Carl Einstein: ‘Notes on Cubism’, 1929
So art, whether it be painting or sculpture, poetry or music, has no other object than to brush aside the utilitarian symbols, the conventional and socially accepted generalities, in short, everything that veils reality from us, in order to bring us face to face with reality itself. … Art is certainly only a more direct vision of reality.
– Henri Bergson: ‘Laughter’, 1900
1972 | IKON Gallery, Birmingham
“…directly onto the walls of the gallery / …then painted out to make way for the next show.”
– Tim Hilton, 1972
proximity to oblivion
[thin fragility of surface]
[discrete being was emulged in surfaceness]
[some masked irregularity in the support]
[steadiness, perfectly adjusted to pictorial incident]
[the role of surface, the fact of surface]
[touches, drags, erasures…done with a brush…done by hand…smeared around…flung on in splatters…an overflowing]
between the picture and the wall
the possibilities are endless
a real sense of the absolute communicated solely by means which are proper to pictorial art
the working activity of being an artist
the first to go
Tim Hilton: UK commentary: notes on threes exhibitions | John Walker at the Ikon Gallery, Birmingham, Studio International, December 1972, pp 238-240
[image 1/3] John Walker, Summertime 1972, chalk on wall prepared as blackboard, 10 ft X 20 ft, Ikon Gallery.
John Walker’s painting has always made use of a great variety of surface effects, from the most delicate washes and powdery coatings to thickly-built layers and craggy passages that were the result of forcing paint through wire netting, then puling it up into congealed tackiness. At the same time, he has always been a draughtsman, and the making of drawings has been integral to his whole activity as an artist. These works have characteristically been in crayon, pastel, charcoal, the more painterly materials. Some recent drawings, such as that reproduced on the cover of the June issue of this journal, were done in chalk on a paper thick as canvas which was essentially primed and underpinned by the all-over black ground.
[image 2/3] John Walker, Summertime 1972, chalk on wall prepared as blackboard, 10 ft X 20 ft, Ikon Gallery.
Other recent drawings, though small in size, have employed the metal screen device familiar from much larger paintings. At the IKON GALLERY, Birmingham, last month Walker developed the relationship between his drawing and painting in an unexpected and ambitious manner, by enlarging the drawings to the full size of his paintings and by doing them directly onto the walls of the gallery, in chalk, on areas of the walls which had been prepared as blackboards. The drawings were beginning to be damaged a day after they were finished, were looking like as wrecked as yesterday’s buttonhole after a week, and were then painted out to make way for the next show. It was a unique occasion, not merely because of the short life span of the works, but because of their evident high quality and quite noble assumption of a status normally accorded only to painting. It seemed that the peculiar nature of the support and the medium, together with the question of the scale of the work, and its proximity to oblivion, dramatized matters of a purely formal and of a generally expressive type which are essential to Walker’s
[image 3/3] John Walker, Summertime 1972, chalk on wall prepared as blackboard, 10 ft X 20 ft, Ikon Gallery.
[page break] [p239]
art. The scene in Birmingham (Walker’s home town) was not a performance, but it was an impermanent personal display of much significance.
There has been no publicly-shown painting of Walker’s which fully deploys the developing repertoire of his shapes as seen in these drawings. One could see in the Ikon show that the chalk medium had modulated the tense though embracing unity between vast areas of a differently inflected surface and the shapes’ own tendency as prominent elements, whether locked or floating, to dominate that surface. In the drawings the shapes become reticent, while there are more of them, and the expanses [italics] of the work, at least in the horizontal drawings, become of paramount importance. The shapes are worth talking about. Although they have forbears [sic], there are no specific precedents for them in post-war abstract painting. They are not figurative, nor decorative, they are not quite areas, they are not calligraphic, nor emblematic, nor symbolic, nor pictographic, nor are they signs. All other uncials since Abstract Expressionism have been in one or
[image 1/3] John Walker, Deirdre 1972, chalk on wall prepared as blackboard, 10 ft X 20 ft, Ikon Gallery.
more of the categories. The immanent sense of identity of Walker’s shapes is so special as to have no parallel within modern painting (though it’s interesting that there may be such a thing in sculpture). They are immediately recognizable as revelations, and as subsequently haunting. Their continual presence, modified and extended, does not appear as the repetition of a motif or a trade mark, but as the gradual unpacking of immense riches. They are difficult to describe: there are the hewn-off ovals, familiar since the trapezoid paintings, the rearing half-moon pointed at its left-hand circumference and encompassing within the scimitar outline two complementary bulging crescoids; a rising, pausing, rising again and suddenly descending block, closed with a long vertical at the bottom (rather like an outline from Philip King’s Dunstable Reel, as it happens); and a swooping and sometimes jagged holly shape which is extensible according to circumstances. What seems to be happening in the drawings is that new shapes being introduced are less amenable to modelling. They are getting more silhouettey.
[image 2/3] John Walker, Deirdre 1972, chalk on wall prepared as blackboard, 10 ft X 20 ft, Ikon Gallery.
This would tie in with a reputed source for them, in David Smith sculpture of the open, linear, see-past type. Thus, as the medium and support of the drawings so much emphasizes a thin fragility of surface, the shapes within the are either forced into too sharp an individuality as outline (which I thought happened in a trial run for this project at NIGEL GREENWOOD three months ago), or on the other hand are made to disappear. And this latter is what occurred in Birmingham, during the four days it took to do the drawings. The shapes’ discrete being was emulged in surfaceness.
The first of the drawings to be completed, New St Blackboard [italics], was the most like a previous Walker painting, and was especially reminiscent – because of the same vertical format and general structure – of three of the paintings shown at the Venice Biennale last summer. On the other hand, it was more centralized in the area of the painting not controlled by the shapes than they were, in that very fine chat had been rubbed towards a kind of interior a little to the right above the middle of the drawing. It is probably wrong to say
[image 3/3] John Walker, Deirdre 1972, chalk on wall prepared as blackboard, 10 ft X 20 ft, Ikon Gallery.
[page break] [p240]
rubbed towards [italics], however, for the chalk, at its finest and most powdery, was put down in such a way as to leave no evidence of directional impulse or application – as it if were [sic] sprayed on, in fact. I recall that there were fairly similar passages in Darby Bannard’s vertical paintings at Kasmin this September. This may be coincidental. An extraneous factor, that a vertical band caused by some masked irregularity in the support ran through the middle of the drawing, emphasized the centre of New St Blackboard [italics] to the pint of weakening it. But in any case it was necessarily the two horizontal [italics] drawings, twenty feet long and ten feet high, which seemed to carry more of Walker’s concerns, most movingly presented the difference between evanescent and the standing of major art, and were strikingly – the word insistently presents itself – metaphysical. This was largely because of a perceptible shift from the expressive charge carried by the shapes to the implications of the expanses, and their expansiveness. A new factor in the horizontal drawings which is intimately connected with this is the physically definite though otherwise somewhat mysterious role of the horizontal lines drawn from edge to edge of the picture, one a little above the bottom framing edge, the other rather below the top. They are of an ochry claret colour. There are normally two types of line across big abstract paintings which don’t depend on stripes: markers and trackers. In some painting they have been the same thing, but for the purposes of argument we can separate the functions. Walker’s lines are not markers: the don’t indicate avowedly separate zones, i.e. officially demarcated regions of he work, nor do they act as a pivot or ground base for the
[image 1/2] Installation view, Ikon Gallery, foreground: New St Blackboard [italics] 1972, 10 ft X 7 ft
progressive rhythms of the shapes. They are certainly not the residue of any grid structure, nor do they relate to the division between lower and higher zones of a painting that appeared, for instance, in Sometime II [italics] and Green Light [italics], in which the shapes were kept below the diving line. Nor are they trackers, in any active sense (in the sense of having the illusion of motion built into their relationship to the rest of the picture). They do move to some extent but this is paradoxically because of their steadiness, perfectly adjusted to pictorial incident which vaults or dives, which lowers, or proclaims itself, in their company – most beautifully in the cursive rightward flow of the upper part of Sometime [italics]. Again, the role of surface, the fact of surface, is dominant. The line appears, is lost, and reappears among the shapes and brushy flourishes. just as the shapes are cut by the flourishes and swathes, and thus lose their path (or are sometimes reversed, a chalk line on black becoming a scraped line as it travels through a contradirectional passage) so does the horizontal line become subdued or submerged at some points. But its notional existence is never in doubt – which is not the case with the drawing of the shapes, as some of them, especially at the right of Deidre [italics], become lost in speculation. The lines feel like a constant in a world of infinite possibilities where moods can change as clouds can move. This is most apparent in Sometime [italics] because of the abundance of effects within the drawing, the touches, drags, erasures, the parts done with a brush, the parts done by hand, the chalk smeared around or flung on in splatters. It’s an overflowing work, and it seems formally significant therefore that while two lines
[image 2/2] Installation view, Ikon Gallery, foreground: New St Blackboard [italics] 1972, 10 ft X 7 ft
in the drawing do not relate to each other, being too far apart, as internal [italics] lines they predicate order, moderation and the finite more that the outside framing edge does. One’s sense that this is so is doubtless because of there not being any physical difference, apart from the absence of drawing, between the picture and the wall. But this in itself suggests the rightness of Walker’s activity in Birmingham, that it wasn’t at all an eccentric thing to do, in the terms of art. Significantly, Walker has always had a definite distrust of painting that arrives at is final form by being cropped, and I fell that these internal lines may be understood as something of an affirmation of his attitudes towards the boundaries of painting: briefly, that the boundaries are within the possibilities of painting, and that the possibilities are endless. What we saw in Birmingham may have come near to that very rare thing in modern painting which, since Pollock, has haunted artists of deep imagination in the tradition to which Walker belong: a real sense of the absolute communicated solely by means which are proper to pictorial art. This may sound an impossibly romantic ambition nowadays, but some very good paintings have made it quite evidently substantive. The fact that such art not [sic] seldom dramatizes the means by which it is made is relevant to the work in Birmingham. For there was a sense in which it was quite transparently about its facture – and also about the working activity of being an artist. The close relationship of Walker’s drawing to his painting (and the practice of using a blackboard in the studio) indicate this. But so too, much more, does the sheer artistic mileage between New St Blackboard and Deirdre. The former is a beautiful work which is perhaps too much like the transcript of a painting that had already been made. The next drawing to be completed, Sometime, was a fine and utterly convincing resolution of things to do with shape, surface, and interior space which have been present in the paintings – not necessarily as problems, things to be resolved – but had never been declared to this extent. And Deirdre was exceptional. The size of a very large painting, it revealed itself as having that kind of presence and expansive seriousness, and yet there was no way at all in which one could imagine it as a painting. Its extremist individuality well accorded with the fact that it was the least material of the works, and the first to go, falling and drifting from the walk as dust; so did the boldness of the fact that most of its passages were obviously dabbed on by one of those extended oval blackboard rubbers, whose repeated outline, in fanned-out flurries, formed separate areas of activity which were only minimally bound together by the sort of copious streaming that, in Summertime, allowed attention to nuanced effect to be borne along by the whole movement of the work.
TIM HILTON [end]