:: Albert Irvin ::
:: Albert Irvin ::
Here Albert, now in his late eighties, talked to TateShots about three of his paintings; 'Flodden', 'St Germain' and 'Empress', pieces that he hadn't seen since they were last on show at the Tate. Albert explained to us how and why he made the trio, as well as offering up his thoughts on his career as an artist.
Contemporary art wonder Albert Irvin has a new exhibition, writes Colin Gleadell.
Albert Irvin is one of the wonders of the London contemporary art world, whose new exhibition at Gimpel Fils in Davies Street, beside Claridges, every Olympic visitor should visit. The show celebrates the 90th birthday of a man whom I spotted recently running 50 yards full pelt for a bus – and whose art, not to mention the distinctive colour-coordinated clothes he wears, is as vigorous and youthful as any half his age.
Irvin is, as the curator Paul Moorhouse says in the catalogue, an artist who identifies abstract art with existence.
“For over 50 years, his work has been predicated on the conviction that non-descriptive colours, shapes, brush marks and intimated space can directly express a sense of life in its most essential form.”
Irvin has titled the exhibition Fidelio not just as a reference to his faith in abstraction, but also as a musical evocation, echoing his love for and great knowledge of the classics.
Synthesising the proximity of music to painting, Irvin comments: “Music brought me to the realisation that it was possible to say what it feels like to be a human being without having to paint noses and feet.”
Irvin’s work can be found in museum collections in Britain, Ireland and Australia, as well notable private collections, including that of the artist Damien Hirst. Prices are a snip, from £7,000 to £20,000.
In the studio with Albert Irvin
Written by Sam Cornish
Last week I went to talk to Albert (Bert) Irvin having recently enjoyed a mini-retrospective showing of his paintings in the Canary Wharf offices of Clifford Chance. In the course of an enjoyable hour or so we covered a range of topics including his annual celebration of Turner’s birthday, how a younger British artist (currently being honored with a much criticized retrospective) bought a number of paintings from his last exhibition, the Hockney merchandise currently being hawked at the Royal Academy and his daily ‘schlep’ across London to the Stepney Green studio he has worked in for the last forty years.
ALBERT IRVIN Terrace 1996 acrylic on canvas 24 x 24 in/61 x 61 cm. Courtesy of the Artist and Gimpel Fils
ALBERT IRVIN Brandenburg 1994 acrylic on canvas 84 x 120 in/214 x 305 cm, Courtesy of the Artist and Gimpel Fils
ALBERT IRVIN Plimsoll 1979 acrylic on canvas 84 x 120 in/213 x 305 cm, Courtesy of the Artist and Gimpel Fils
ALBERT IRVIN Flodden 1978 acrylic on canvas 84x120in / 213x427cm, Courtesy of the Artist and Gimpel Fils
Like so many artists of his generation Irvin was profoundly influenced by the exhibition of American painting put on by the Tate in 1956, and he remembers the experience of seeing the Abstract Expressionist pictures there as ‘like a bomb going off’, the impact primarily being their scale, that is the paintings’ ‘real scale as opposed to just their size’. He had previously worked in a figurative manner and he showed me a number of small and very early copies he had made after Rembrandt; an artist whose rich dense browns seem very far away from the bright palette with which Irvin is now associated but whom he still values immensely for the ‘physicality’ of his brushwork. Through the fifties Irvin gradually worked his way toward the abstract, at first attracted to Willem de Kooning, whose use of the figure seemed to offer a halfway house, but then increasingly excited by Franz Kline, in particular by the way in which ‘brush marks make up the elements of his language’.
An important jolt along the way was provided by meeting Peter Lanyon in St Ives in the late fifties. It was through talking to Lanyon that Irvin became convinced that abstract art could stand in meaningful ‘relation to your own perception, you could move across a canvas in a way that you move through the spaces of the world… notions of space like proximity and distance could be revealed by moving across a canvas with a brush’. Instead of an abstract art being nothing more than a ‘decorative series of relationships’ he began to believe that it could ‘vitally parallel your experience of being in the world’. Later as we talked he commented that though he knew that his paintings often fulfilled ‘a decorative function’, particularly within private collections, he hoped that they would go beyond this and offer some ‘human content’. Similarly he described his coming over to abstraction as connected to the feeling that it could have an immediate impact, that there was ‘no need for interpretation, like music’ and that you ‘could reveal something of the human condition’ in paintings which did not have ‘bits of humans in them’.
Speaking very broadly, Irvin’s route through abstraction began with an emptying out. Through the late fifties and into the sixties and seventies the size of his pictures increased whilst the elements of which they were comprised became larger, fewer in number and physically lighter. His marks slewed off any sense that they carried literal weight, or that they were bonded together, limited in the way that we understand objects in the world to be (and which figurative painting attempts in a huge variety of ways to mimic). Instead of describing objects (even abstract objects) the elements of his paintings often suggest, to me at any rate, an arrival or a bringing to attention. Sometimes this seems to occur slowly, with the gradual blooming of a cloud of colour. More frequently though I think it is as if something previously tensed, coiled or restrained had been unleashed so as to it fall into the picture’s space or had, at just the moment in which we see it, pressed itself flat against the picture-plane, or at least advanced toward it. At around the beginning of eighties this sense of arrival or bringing to attention was increasingly accomplished through marks which corresponded to the movement of his hand or the flick of the brush, and the paintings filled up again, with marks arranged in angled grids and formed into basic signs; ‘V’s, crosses, circles, stripes. More recently these have been joined by more complex shapes loosely transcribed from things seen in the built environment; quatrefoils, windows or the arches of bridges.
There is perhaps something theatrical about the way in which Irvin’s marks address the viewer, their sheer drama, and the way in which the force of their making carries over into a suggestion that they have been created or revealed just as we look at them, and perhaps specifically for us. Painting as dramatic entrance is common to much of Abstract Expressionism and its progeny; the ‘arena’ which Harold Rosenberg wrote about action painters working in is perhaps a stage as much as anything else (Robert Linsley has recently written about this). For Michael Fried, writing in the (long) wake of the Abstract Expressionists, theatricality had negative connotations. For him it stemmed from the ‘primordial condition’ that ‘paintings necessarily imply the presence before them of a beholder’. As far as I understand it, what Fried saw as theatrical paintings played on this condition, and made a direct appeal to the viewer, one which made the viewer self-conscious about his or her status as a viewer and so broke the spell of their ‘absorption’ in the painting. It was better, Fried felt, that works of art ‘treated the beholder as if they were not there’. If a work of art could create the ‘illusion’ that it existed only for itself, that it was completely ‘absorbed’ in its own workings, then this would, somewhat paradoxically, allow the viewer to themselves become completely ‘absorbed’ in it. The viewer would be able to achieve a state of ‘rapt attention, being completely occupied or engrossed or absorbed in what he or she is doing, hearing, thinking, feeling’.
<img src="http://abstractcritical.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/04/Picture-62.png" title="ALBERT IRVIN Varden 1976 acrylic on canvas 84 x 120 in/213 x 305 cm, Courtesy of the Artist and Gimpel Fils " alt=""/>
There is something compelling about Fried’s discussion of theatre, particularly in our age of distraction (which as a melodramatic cliché of my epoch I often feel as a personal affliction, though this is likely an excuse for nothing more than laziness). But beyond the – potentially large – problem of returning to words which are so weighed down with meaning, thinking about Irvin’s work (particularly that of the seventies) it occurs to me that I would like to try and begin to reclaim ‘theatrical’ as a positive word in painting. Not positioning it as Fried did within a theoretical scheme covering the whole of modern painting but simply in a limited sense, as a positive adjective suggesting drama, an openness to life and to sensation and an achieved and striking display of bravado.
Sam Cornish, April 2012
All the quotations in the first 3 paragraphs are from my interview with Bert Irvin, April 2012. Those in the penultimate paragraph are from Fried’s Absorption and Theatricality: Painting and Beholder in the Age of Diderot, The University of Chicago Press, 1980
Shaping The Landscape Of Half A Century - Aidan Dunne reviews 50 Years of Modern Painting in The Irish Times
SINCE IT OPENED in 1999, the Peppercanister Gallery has pursued an interesting exhibitions programme, alternating early and later modern and contemporary artists, predominantly Irish or with strong Irish connections. It has also championed several relatively neglected, sometimes underestimated figures, such as Robert Janz, Sonja Landweer, Deirdre McLoughlin, Breon O’Casey and Joseph O’Connor.
It was launched as a partnership between mother and son Antoinette and Bryan Murphy. With her husband Pat Murphy, Antoinette is an art collector of long standing, and from early on Bryan shared his parents’ enthusiasm for art. 50 Years of Modern Painting is a compact survey show reflecting this lengthy family involvement with Irish art and in particular Bryan’s close personal engagement with the work of painters from the mid-20th century to the present day, encompassing figures beyond the gallery’s own stable of artists.
The earliest piece in the show is by Camille Souter and dates from 1961. The most recent – just completed, in fact – is Liam Belton’s The Last Time I Saw Paris, a still life in a crisp, realist manner. But landscape is perhaps the main strand of subject matter in Irish art – its default setting – and it’s naturally central to the Peppercanister’s show. Three other areas are evident too: the human figure, including portraiture – abstraction, and interiors.
ANDREW VICKERY is best known for his sequences of narrative paintings about journeys. There is an appealing storybook quality to them, but they also withhold information. We rarely see the people or the interactions implied by the images. By contrast, the series of character portraits showing in this exhibition focus on the people, casting each individual in a role defined in terms of profession, vocation, family or emotion. Again, Vickery’s style is simplified and approachable, and each work hints at a potential story.
Also featured in the show are Graham Gingles and Neil Shawcross. The latter is one of the best-known portrait painters per se in Ireland. He too has long employed an informal, conversational, graphic style that cheerfully embraces elements of caricature and whimsy, all in the cause of conveying a subject’s character more vividly. Gingles, best known for his intricate box sculptures, is an exceptional draughtsman, approaching his human subjects with incisive precision, often on a miniature or close-to-miniature scale.
GAVIN O’CURRY’S Spruces (2011) is a big monochrome study of a forest of spruce trees on a mist-wreathed hillside, an image that evokes the spirit of Casper David Friedrich. It is typical of a great deal of contemporary painting in using a second-hand visual source and making clear that it is doing so. Rather than trying to disguise its documentary photographic origins, the painting highlights them, inviting us to speculate about representational style and meaning. By comparison, Sean McSweeney’s Shoreline, Ballyconnell (1987) clearly emerges from the painter’s prolonged, attentive familiarity with a specific place. It’s a direct, nuanced response rather than an investigation of artifice.
Somewhere in between, perhaps, is the Barrie Cooke work included. Dating from the mid-1970s, it is one of the extraordinary rainforest landscapes made following a sojourn in Borneo. In the dense linear patterning of the paint surface, Cooke suggests the rainforest as a labyrinthine network of interconnected organic processes. This analytical approach to the landscape prefigures his subsequent treatment of Irish-landscape subjects in relation to environmental pollution rather than traditional picturesque concerns.
Interiors and still life
LIAM BELTON is one of Ireland’s foremost academic painters, and has built a considerable following for his meticulously realistic still lifes. They are characterised by his liking for very formal compositions and a spare, almost monochrome palette, with an emphasis on white or, more accurately, whites. He also likes to build allegorical hints into his work. The Last Time I Saw Paris, painted this year, simply marshals a number of items from the city in a tightly organised arrangement.
Graham Gingles could also come under the heading of interiors given that his sculptures are rooms within rooms, infinitely recessive interiors packed with myriad images and objects that hauntingly suggest the strange workings of memory.
Galway-based painter John Brady’s small, intensely chromatic works are based on interior spaces. That may not be immediately evident as he seems to begin with a straightforward image of, in this case, an art gallery and overlay it with areas of colour that convey an emotional response to the space.
PERHAPS SURPRISINGLY, abstraction has flourished in Ireland, even if there are often associations with aspects of landscape in otherwise purely abstract works. Camille Souter’s Pale Shapes (1961) is a case in point. A wonderfully warm arrangement of forms, it came at a time when landscape, still life and human subjects were increasingly finding their way into her pictorial language, a language that had strong links to Abstract Expressionism. Here, it is in texture and shape that we sense a world beyond the composition itself.
No such ambiguity is evident in the work of Albert Irvin, Ciaran Lennon, Richard Gorman or Makiko Nakamura, although none of these artists would discount the importance of the real, outside world in their painting. For Gorman, the world as embodied in his sensibility and awareness is always there in the process of making a painting and is inescapably part of what we see. Nakamura’s rigorous abstracts with their lustrous surfaces are partly – but significantly – about time and memory.
50 Years of Modern Painting
Concise overview of modern and contemporary painting in Ireland. Peppercanister Gallery, 3 Herbert Street, Dublin 2, tel: 01-6611279
Evidence of Albert Irvin RA’s irrepressible thirst for adventure on canvas can be seen in the heavily spattered surfaces in the east London studio he has occupied for over 30 years. By Fiona Maddocks.
If you visit Albert Irvin RA, always known as Bert, you have to go in through the ‘Girls’ entrance. For the past four decades his studio has been in the former Stepney Green Jewish School – an Edwardian redbrick building off Mile End Road in east London – which closed its doors to pupils in 1970. His workspace is an adjoining pair of first-floor classrooms where the blackboards are still in place, long ago painted white by Irvin, although nothing else has been touched, no improvements made. ‘Well, that’s not quite true,’ he corrects himself. ‘There used to be enormous cast-iron radiators that looked marvellous but never worked. After freezing each winter for more than 30 years, I thought I could allow myself some central heating.’
On a still, golden autumn day, light flooding in through the 336 panes of glass which comprise the tall windows at either end of the north-south axis of the main studio (the other room is used for storage) you can easily imagine the sound of fidgety children scraping chairs and slamming desks, wanting to be in the playground outside. ‘You used to be able to see the scuff marks of shoes on the parquet floor, around where the desks once stood,’ Irvin recalls. The artist Mark Gertler, the playwright Bernard Kops and the band leader Jo Loss were among the school’s distinguished alumni.
‘When I got together with five other artists [including the late Michael Kenny RA] to rescue this building from demolition for use as studios, this part of London was still predominantly Jewish – a big Russian and eastern European immigrant community. Now it’s more Bangladeshi. Sometimes, former pupils come back and want to see inside. I do my best to show them around, even if it is a bit of an interruption... It’s often very moving.’
A tall, upright and unbelievably youthful 88-year old, with twinkly chestnut-brown eyes, Irvin appears to have emerged from one of his canvases, his striped rugby shirt, jeans and shoes comprehensively spattered with the rainbow colours which make his large, abstract paintings so instantly familiar. On closer inspection, it’s as if he has stood upwind of a spin painting machine, since the thick acrylic splashes cover only his front half. His rear is spotless. Is this his work uniform? ‘Well, yes, in a way. I change when I get here [on the tube from Clapham, south London]. I don’t wash these jeans. This pair is about two years old. Eventually, I throw them away.’ They look as if they would stand up unaided. A new pair and a denim jacket hang neatly in a corner of the room, ready for his 5pm commute home.
His studio is not, as he needlessly observes, a clinical kind of place. Every inch of floor is covered: pots of acrylic, buckets full of big brushes, phone book, shoes and socks, a trestle table crammed with radio, old light bulbs, kitchen roll, water biscuits. On a pin board, a few art postcards – by Matisse, Van Gogh, Turner and a scruffy note from the composer Morton Feldman saying, ‘Bert I’m in the Pearly King [pub]’ – act as quiet inspiration. Irvin works, first propping the canvas on several rusty old four-pint beer tins, ‘sullying’, as he puts it, the background in a dominant colour of choice. His knees evidently give him no trouble. The array of quatrefoils, multifoils and hinted architectural forms that shape his visual language are then added, often using his favourite wide-headed brush – ‘ordinary trade, the kind used to paint walls’ – in which the four ferrule-secured tufts give a broad, open, spontaneous quality to his brush strokes.
Around the time he turned 80, Irvin decided he ought to stop working on huge canvases and confine himself to (slightly) smaller ones that he could manoeuvre more easily. He has no assistant, so has to rely on his own muscle power. But the vivid yellow, ochre, orange and green canvas he has just completed is on the old scale. Has he found some magic elixir to restore his strength? ‘No, I had some of the large canvases left over from my last order. It was an effort of will, really. I just thought, “Come on Bert, bugger it, just do the bloody thing”.’
It took him around three months, and the result is entitled, appropriately, Inextinguishable (2010). It relates in part to Carl Nielsen’s fourth symphony, which shares the same name, but also to the unquenchable spirit of this popular artist, who did not become a Royal Academician until he was over 75, giving him immediate senior RA status. ‘I don’t mind that at all, though I get a bit frustrated that, as a senior RA, I can’t sit on any of the committees. I suppose they think, or back in the mists of time once thought, “Can’t have these doddery old sods droning on...”’ He says this with a warm grin.
‘Inextinguishable’ is also the title of Irvin’s forthcoming show at Gimpel Fils gallery in London which opens in November. As part of a trio of winter events, in December Kings Place, London, is holding a show of his prints and Lund Humphries has just published a book, Albert Irvin: The Complete Prints. ‘I think I’m pretty lucky,’ he reflects, touching wood. ‘There was no sense from my childhood or upbringing that I could live a life as an artist.’
He was born in Bermondsey, south London, in 1922. His father ran a grocery shop but during the Depression fell on hard times. ‘I have always lived an urban life. I see my paintings as a metaphor for my journey through life. It’s why I have used street names so often as titles.’ When he was a boy, the family moved to north London and he was a pupil at Holloway County Grammar School, near Arsenal football ground. At the beginning of the Second World War they were evacuated to Northampton where he attended art school, benefiting from fine teachers who had also fled London. ‘So this little shoe- making town didn’t know what had hit it, with all these talented people from art schools such as Camberwell, Chelsea and St Martins moving in.’
This period of his life proved a turning point. In Northampton he met Walter Hussey, vicar of St Matthew’s Church and an inspired patron of the arts. ‘He commissioned Henry Moore’s Madonna and Child [1943-44]. Going into his house was the first time I had ever seen works by Graham Sutherland, Stanley Spencer, Blake, Epstein – right there on the walls. This was a very significant encounter for me. It made me see what was possible in life.’ Hussey became Dean of Chichester Cathedral and his collection is now in the city’s Pallant House Gallery.
After serving in the RAF as a navigator during the war – ‘I was never a pilot. I didn’t trust my steering ability. In fact I have never learned to drive a car either’ – Irvin completed his art studies at Goldsmiths, where fellow students included Bridget Riley and Mary Quant. ‘They were younger than me because they hadn’t been in the war.’ By this time he had met his future wife, Betty, who had also been at art school in Northampton. They married in 1947 and now have grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
'During the war she retrained, as several women artists did at the time, as a graphic designer in the aircraft industry. That skill came in useful later when, in the ups and downs of my career, she was able to earn money!’
As we leave the studio, he points to an enlarged picture leaning against a wall. ‘That’s Ruskin’s drawing of Turner – one of my great heroes. He keeps an eye on me, and makes sure I get on with what I have to do.’ Bert Irvin shows no signs either of taking it easy, or of disobeying.
Underpinning Albert Irvin's paintings are grids. So far so standard for a particular kind of abstract painting. But Irvin's grids are usually skewed, given an enlivening tilt, one tactic among many in a repertoire devoted to energising the pictorial field. Others include an incredible level of sustained attack.
His work has a clear affinity with American abstract expressionism, but he is also an action painter in the literal sense of vigorous, physical engagement with the painting.
He is always willing to up the ante in terms of colour, exploiting the wayward qualities of acrylic pigment expertly in building vivid and buoyant patterns. The fast pace, lightness of touch and penchant for bright hues may together make the whole thing look easy. But just try it. You're likely to end up with a muddy, inert mess in place of Irvin's pyrotechnics.
He identifies his paintings in terms of place, and the many references to Ireland indicate the extent to which he has developed ties here over the years.
Although there are architectural qualities in his work, from the street grid of towns and cities to the quatrefoil pattern, they are not illustrative of particular places. Perhaps they relate more to the experience of being in a place, one buzzing with interest and possibilities.