Albert Irvin and Abstract Expressionism February 2019

Oliver Briscoe

Albert Irvin’s (OBE RWA RA) major retrospective opened yesterday at the Royal West of England Academy and will stay until the 3rd of March. Drawn by the bigger names on loan and the opportunity to learn more about one of our own foremost abstract expressionists, the exhibit promised to be and was presented as one of the more important ones this year. Held by some dire Evidence Law reading, I forewent the opening on Saturday and making time on a Sunday afternoon, and still found the gallery as busy as I have ever seen it, as busy as it ever will be. A couple of families, two arty students (one was wearing an untucked cord shirt) and the RWA art world; three middle age people, a variety of minor artistic talent or connections. All shuffling, standing, swaying silently on the parquet, in the provincially grand space of the museum, with that faint and pleasant smell of canvas, art and thought.

The importance of the display is certainly felt, well thought out and impressive, from a usually constrained academy whose galleries and description cards are sometimes wanting. For once the galleries felt full (perhaps the scale of his paintings fill the rooms better) and the layout purposeful. Split into four rooms, the main gallery held Irvin’s most famous work, the large scale paintings expected from any abstract expressionist, where we were invited to observe and appreciate his shift from oil to acrylic, which were to later give his paintings their distinctive spots and shadows, prevalent throughout his later work, which bring such delight to those who care to lose themselves in detail.

This interest in abstract expressionism came somewhat later in Irvin’s lifelong art (he writes in one of the letters, also on display, how unhappy and unwilling he was to be drafted for the RAF. Going straight back to Goldsmiths after the war). It was the Tate’s New American Painting exhibit in 1959, coupled with a trip to New York funded by the Arts Council where he got to meet the likes of Tworkov, that inspired the great body of work that was to follow, in his own words, it was “like a bomb going off”. The influence is closer to De Kooning, best seen in Sky, than the other Americans; his tone is markedly more restrained than the likes of Pollock, Newman or Reinhardt.  It is therefore enjoyable and impressive that the RWA has managed to procure a brace of De Koonings, a Pollock and a Newman, and a host of others by Gottlieb, Tworkov to list a few.

The exhibit then folloes back into his earlier ‘pre-bomb’ work. As any student of post-war Britain, Irvin was surrounded and influenced by the ‘Kitchen Sink’ painters. His paintings here are perhaps his least developed and expressive and sitting alongside a couple of Cokers and Middleditchs, look somewhat uninspired. A mark perhaps of the a priori art education popular back then. Here the Cellist and two piano paintings stand out as an early creative and original expression of his love of music, the piano on a life-size length-wise canvas stops one in a second look.

The final room too was underwhelming, more a set of leftovers they could not show anywhere else, with some current British abstract expressionists and contemporaries of Irvin. Though there was a Blow somewhere and it would be remiss not to mention the concurrent thread of influence, felt in the room, that artists such as Lanyon and of the St Ives school had.

The exhibit, fitting for the setting, leaves one with plenty of questions; notably whether our impression of him suffers the shortcomings of a provincial museum. Short of what? One should not expect too much. The art itself leaves one indecisive and more enjoyably so. The usual vagueness of expression, and subjectivity in the interpretation which marks the abstract, is simply presented leaving the viewer to question himself and think about art. There can be few things better for an ageing Sunday afternoon.

Chargé D'affaires - Depuis 2020