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I’ve been to see ‘Action, Gesture, Paint’

This exhibition of 150 abstract paintings from 81 overlooked female artists was exhilarating. As with surrealist art, abstract art is the sort of thing I would choose to have in my own home. I like the boldness, the depth, the way one’s interpretation shifts over time, the way you can’t quite pin it down. It is just totally my kind of thing.

As I was on my way to this exhibition, I happened upon an article about Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s design for 78 Derngate. This mentioned that Mackintosh’s designs and colour choices were dramatic to appeal to the client, who had limited colour vision. This made me wonder whether my limited colour vision is part of the reason that I enjoy big, bold, abstract art. Who knows.

I could, quite happily, have stayed all day at this exhibition, and still wanted to go back for more. I had so many favourites in that it’s hard to know which works to include in this post, but here are a few.

This is Distillation, a 1957 work by Gillian Ayres. Just look at it!

It’s apparently partly painted in household enamel and partly in oil paint. Ayres laid the canvas on the floor and poured, squirted, and brushed pain all over it, dissolving it with a solvent so that she could keep shifting it about.

Apparently, Jackson Pollock was an influence, but I care less about that than the fact I could get lost in it for days.

This is Myriader (myriads), painted in 1959 by Elna Fonnesbech-Sandberg. It’s such an intense piece. It immediately makes me think of those days—often busy work days—where it feels like my thoughts are going faster than I can keep up with them.1 Interestingly, it was Fonnesbech-Sandberg’s psychoanalyst who encouraged her to express herself through painting, so maybe this is precisely what it represents.

These pieces are made by building up layers and layers of paint, then scratching some bits off and building them up again… which is a technique that chimes nicely with the sensation the work seems to represent.

This is Idyll II, a 1956 work by Miriam Schapiro. Schapiro based each of her works on those of old masters, recreated in her own style. I’m not sure what work this is based on, but I love how the figures come into and out of view. Sometimes, I see a small orchestra or band in this work, which is appropriate as there is something about the whole composition which seems musical to me.

This is La Nef (Interieur d’Eglise)—or ‘The Nave (Interior of a Church)—painted in 1955 by Maria Helena Vieira da Silva. This was one of the smaller works in the show. I liked this less on an immediate ‘I want that on my wall’ level, and more on an intellectual level. The more I look at it, the more it clearly is a church, or the idea and feeling of a church, with regular almost arithmetical forms but cut across with things that don’t quite fit. And isn’t that also essentially religion?

And one more, just because it makes me go ‘wow.’ This is Mary Abbott’s 1959 work, Purple Crossover.

People who actually know something about art have written rave reviews of Action, Gesture, Paint. Given that an artistic idiot like me is also raving about it, it’s certain to get busy, so buy your tickets now. It continues at the Whitechapel Gallery until 7 May, after which—at least according to the chatty lady managing the cloakroom–it’s off to France and then Germany.

  1. I know that this sounds slightly like the ravings of a lunatic, but it is a very distinct sensation that I sometimes have which I struggle to describe. I’ve descrbied it as ‘pressure of thought’ before, analagous to pressure of speech, but that’s not really quite right either. One of these days, I’ll come across a perfect description in some book or other: I’m sure the feeling isn’t at all unusual, I think it’s something everyone has, and I just don’t know the word for it.

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13th March 2023.

This post has been referenced by another on this site:
sjhoward.co.uk » I’ve visited ‘Wilhelmina Barns-Graham: Paths to Abstraction’

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