MAKE A SPLASH
Serenity and explosive energy are to be found in Peter Upward’s work, writes Sebastian Smee Frozen Gestures: The Art of Peter Upward Penrith Regional Gallery and the Lewers Bequest, Penrith, NSW. Until December 2. Brian Blanchflower: From the Generative E
PETER Upward was a casualty twice over. The culprit first time around was the swinging ’ 60s: Upward went to London, took too many drugs, fell for too much countercultural gobbledygook, and generally lost the plot. He got it together again, returning to Australia to resume painting and teaching.
But the second time around fate was less forgiving. Only three years after marrying the painter Julie Harris, and less than two years after the birth of their daughter, his son from an earlier marriage, Matthew, died in a motorcycle accident. Two weeks later, in November 1983, Upward suffered a massive heart attack while walking along Sydney’s Balmoral Beach. He was dead, aged 54.
Upward made some of the most explosive and — counter- intuitively — some of the most serenely beautiful paintings of his time. After seeing them it makes sense to learn that he was fascinated by paradox, especially as it came down through the teachings of Zen Buddhism, because he had found a brilliant painterly language to express it: brushstrokes so big and bold that they look like the squiggles of a frenzied giant; pools of paint so thick, viscous and sweetly coloured they look like melting puddles of gelato.
Undoubtedly, Upward’s visual language occasionally resembles the abstract expressionist work that came out of the US and Europe in the wake of World War II. But Christopher Dean, the curator of a retrospective of Upward’s work at the Penrith Regional Gallery and Lewers Bequest, is at pains to distinguish Upward from these abstract expressionists.
You can understand why: Dean feels ( and I agree) that Upward is sadly underappreciated. His achievement warrants much more acclaim than it has so far been given. And if all this is because he is regarded as merely a provincial imitator of New York abstract expressionism, then one solution might be to sever the connection. Unfortunately, it doesn’t wash, unless you cling to a very caricatured notion of abstract expressionism.
The fact is, abstract expressionist artists such as Robert Motherwell, Pierre Soulage and Franz Kline were fascinated by Zen- inspired splashed ink calligraphy ( although Kline denied direct influence), just as Upward was. They all liked working on a large scale. And even though they were interested in spontaneous gestures and self- expression, they were also interested in a surprising new form of quietude, of mystery and paradox.
It’s the usual story. So often when art history is invoked to establish an artist’s lineage, it relies on drastic simplifications. Thus, for instance, Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings are associated with ultra- masculine, drink- fuelled, emotionally violent ‘‘ action painting’’, a caricature that in no way accounts for the unearthly calm of his greatest pictures. Similarly, abstract expressionism is caricatured as emotional, anguished and agitated, in opposition to minimalism, the movement that succeeded it, which was ultra- cool, inexpressive and calm. But already in the work of abstract expressionists such as Pollock, Kline, Clyfford Still and Barnett Newman there were elements of the extreme reductiveness we
associate with minimalism. So Dean’s argument that Upward was more of a proto- minimalist than an abstract expressionist is equally strained.
The real reasons for Upward’s lack of worldly success are simpler, and sadder, and they are hinted at in the biographical data Dean supplies in his catalogue essay. Upward was unlucky. He did not make the most of his worldly opportunities. He was distracted by the blandishments of ’ 60s counterculture. And then he died too young.
The best thing to do to restore Upward’s reputation is to give people an opportunity to look at his paintings, and that is precisely what Dean and Anne Loxley, the director of this exquisite Penrith gallery, have done. This is a splendid show.
Robert Hughes, writing as a 24- year- old in The Art of Australia , argued that Upward’s paintings were properly described as ‘‘ calligraphic’’ because they dispensed with any illusion of a third dimension. This, thought Hughes, made Upward a ‘‘ purer’’ sort of abstract painter, and riskier, too: ‘‘ his aesthetic strips his sensibility to the quick’’.
Upward’s paintings are indeed risky — their appearance of chancy spontaneity is a big part of their appeal — but Hughes’s explanation is not quite convincing. Seeing Upward’s progression from horizontal, landscape- derived abstracts, influenced by his teacher John Passmore, to the bold calligraphic works of the early ’ 60s makes it hard to miss his ongoing interest in spatial illusion. In the earlier works, in an ochre key, Upward makes great use of overlapping colours and degrees of transparency, which he brings alive with glazing. It is impossible not to read three- dimensional space into them.
When he turns, in the ’ 60s, to the ‘‘ purer’’ works that made his reputation, this interest in spatial ambiguity doesn’t simply disappear. Rather, it is distilled. Upward’s sweeping black lines, wild splatters and puddled full stops suggest not just the ‘‘ pure’’ space of calligraphy, but the branches of trees, the paths of insects against the sky: indeed, all kinds of vigorous movements occurring, we may easily imagine, in threedimensional space.
In this sense, Upward can be compared to John Olsen, his friend and contemporary, who for years has combined calligraphic mark- making with close observation of natural phenomena in an attempt to suggest states of incessant becoming, movement and transformation.
To say, as Hughes does, that Upward’s ‘‘ flat white tablets are merely a neutral ground on which the black gesture happens’’ is not to have looked at the ’ 60s canvases, which are never neutral. Look, for instance, at June Celebration , Upward’s masterpiece in the collection of the National Gallery in Canberra.
The artist uses grey washes and thin mist- like splatters to detonate the empty ground on which the bolder marks are made.
These bold black marks sit in front of the washes. They are made at different speeds, and with different quantities of paint on the brush. Some are brisk, thin and transparent. Others are dense, puddled, opaque.
All these variables, set against each other, create beguiling illusions of space. These illusions may not always be directly inspired by the natural world. But they do activate the imagination, stimulating our sense of spatial ambiguity.
What makes Upward distinctive is not just his visual reductiveness but his control of scale. Though his marks look free and spontaneous, they are too big to have been made by mere sweeps of the hand. And while they suggest violent, spasmodic movement, they are also full of the kind of texture and weathering that suggests duration, stillness, serenity. His puddles of paint have cracks in them. Spatter sits on the surface like gentle rain.
In London, Upward — bless him — became interested in astrological charts and horoscopes. Only two of his so- called Zodiac paintings are included in the Penrith show. They are supposed to function as symbolic portraits inspired by people’s astrological charts. Take it from me: you can live without them.
His output slowed during the ’ 60s as he went down the path of drugs and hippie philosophy ( Dean more generously calls it ‘‘ a time for selfdevelopment’’). He met people such as Allen Ginsberg and R. D. Laing and studied the writings of Wilhelm Reich, whose notion of ‘‘ orgone energy’’, or ‘‘ the free and primordial energy of the libido’’, seemed to answer to something in Upward’s gestural paintings.
He returned to Australia in 1971 ‘‘ a broken man’’, according to Dean. But he quickly got down to a new series of works: pools, splatters and dripped lines of coloured resin applied to circular monochrome grounds. These works seem more artificial and minimal than the earlier abstractions, and yet their combinations of colour — light blue on dirty yellow; mauve on a kind of apricot — are never less than original.
Upward is one of many artists who ought to have been the subject of important retrospectives at our state galleries. But in recent times, for whatever reason, most of our state galleries have dropped the ball when it comes to paying proper attention to living, or recently deceased, artists ( unless those artists conform to tediously predictable academic criteria). The situation is dire, and getting more so.
Recognising this, the John Curtin Gallery in Perth has taken an unusual step in its attempt to champion another abstract artist we ought to have seen more of: Brian Blanchflower.
Blanchflower, who was born in Britain and has lived in Western Australia since 1972, has been collected by almost all our state galleries, as well as the National Gallery in Canberra, the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, the Pushkin Museum of Fine Art in Moscow and the British Museum.
But he has not been the subject of a big solo show in a state gallery for almost 20 years.
Blanchflower paints in oils and acrylics, which he mixes with pumice powder and wax medium before applying to surfaces such as jute sackcloth and laminated hessian. The resulting paintings, pinned to the walls, are entrancingly beautiful. Without ever pretending to be more than they are, they seem to contain whole worlds.
They breathe and pulse with mysterious life. Often hung beside each other in series of two, three, four or five, their exquisitely refined fields of colour seem to want to melt into each other; but they remain tantalisingly, achingly apart.
The John Curtin Gallery in Perth mounted the only serious overview of Blanchflower’s post1989 work when it devoted its entire gallery to the artist in 2002. In the wake of that all- too- short exhibition, the gallery has spent several years and a great deal of money publishing a post- event catalogue, which reproduces each work in the show and photographs of their installation.
I did not see the show: I was living in London exploring hippie philosophies at the time. But I am more glad than I can say to have this catalogue, since I believe it records one of the most refined and exquisite bodies of work by a living artist anywhere in the world.
Spatial ambiguities: Peter Upward’s January Seventh ( 1961), above; and Spartacus R ( 1971), below
Counter- intuitive: Upward’s Punctuation ( 1970)