Page 16 - Studio International - December1996
P. 16

The ascendancy of London in the sixties

      Patrick Heron discusses the response of British artists to the American
      'first generation'-and American criticism of the British scene

      As one of the first Europeans to have per-  England. In addition, the British public has made   simply mixing together Picasso, Matisse, Bonnard,
      ceived the great importance of American   an enthusiastic response to the most important   Braque, Miro, and others—and if anything doing it
      painting (and to have recorded this enthusi-  American artists, more than in America. I think   slightly less 'pertly than the British 'middle-
                                               that in many cases, certainly in those of Pollock,   generation', despite the fact that we had been
      asm in print at an early stage) I feel it is
                                               Rothko, Rauschenberg, and Jasper Johns (perhaps   prevented by wartime restrictions from making a
      somehow incumbent upon me, now, to speak
                                               not Jasper so much because he did have a good   firm start on our careers as painters until 1946,
      out in condemnation of two things which
                                               response here), it was after the London exhibitions   or thereabouts). But by 1950 these Americans
      characterize the present situation on both
                                               that Americans snapped to and said, "Well, we've   had all arrived (possibly a little too suddenly, it
      sides of the Atlantic: first, the intense artistic
                                               really got something here and we'd better start   may seem, in retrospect) at the large-scale, empty,
      chauvinism which rages now in New York;
                                               studying it and thinking about it and doing some-  shallow-space format by which the world knows
      second, the sheer gutless obsequiousness to   thing about it." '                  them: and this precisely was the revolution which
      the Americans which prevails amongst so                                           we hailed; because it showed the way out of the
      many British critics and art pundits generally.   I am not so concerned to point to the value of the   claustrophobic post—cubist idioms of postwar
      It is the second of these two related pheno-  help which British enthusiasm rendered to the   French painting and led to new concepts of
      mena which most infuriates British painters,   careers of Rauschenberg and Johns: these artists   pictorial space. It is precisely because (unlike the
      because we know perfectly well that London   do not greatly interest me, and in any case by the   French) we British openly availed ourselves of the
                                               time they came on the scene here it was already   American discoveries, making them to some extent
      leads New York now in so many ways, even
                                               fashionable to accord the loudest praise to   our own new point of departure, that we have
      if our own critics can't see it. I have neither
                                               American  artists. But the extremely enthusiastic   been able now to advance far beyond the American
      the time nor the impulse to argue the entire
                                               welcome extended to the work of Pollock, Rothko,   positions of 1950—whereas the French, pretending
      case in print, but I will say this : in Britain
                                               de Kooning, Kline, Motherwell, Newman, Still,   that nothing had happened in New York, success-
      today there are not one but three generations   and Gottlieb, in the early and middle 1950's—not by   fully cut themselves off from contact with the
      of painters. whose vitality, persistent energy,   `the British public' (O'Hara himself is guilty of an   pictorial revolution which was at the centre of
      inventiveness and sheer sensibility is not   injustice here), but by a very small group of   western painting for the decade 1950-60, and are
      equalled anywhere else in the world. Further-  `middle generation' British painters, of whom I was   still doomed, as a result, to pursue 'a merely
      more, these three generations are linked in an   one—this was a historic development of the utmost   circular development, or redevelopment, of the
      organic historical relationship-from Nichol-  importance.                         merely decorative consequences of Cubism', as I
      son down through the so-called 'middle    If the eight 'first generation' New York painters   said in a letter to The Times in June, 1963, on this
                                               I have just named became the first American   subject.
      generation' to a positive  crowd  of younger
                                               painters to exercise great influence on the inter-  Unfortunately those eight 'first generation' New
      painters, many only in their early thirties.
                                               national scene, it was our tiny group of 'middle   York painters have never really advanced beyond
      The recent development of major painting in
                                               generation' painters in Britain who gave them   the formats which each had arrived at by 1950:
      Britain has not, as in New York, suffered from
                                               their first foreign approval—their first  invaluable   instead, they seem to have 'gone into production',
      those horizontal fractures of total reaction, as   bridgehead of approval outside the United States.   repeating the results of their discoveries instead of
      between one generation and the next: there is   Furthermore, and in sharp contrast to the cagey,   going forward to new ones. Perhaps this absence
      far more sense of continuity here-and this   tight-lipped players of the 'who-influenced-who'   of development was inevitable, given the special
      comparative absence of a hysterically violent   game of today, I feel that we 'middle generation'   nature of their revolutionary style: their great in-
      rejection by each age-group of its immediate   painters were peculiarly open, frank and generous   novations were, after all, connected with a sweep-
      predecessors is an absolutely essential condi-  in our applause for our American friends: not   ing away of detail and of all complex divisions of
      tion for the emergence of major painting in   only were we in varying degrees influenced by   the picture-surface—that is to say, their discoveries
                                               them at that time (the supreme compliment as   involved a systematic advance towards the
      any country.
                                               between painters), but we openly proclaimed that   extremes of flatness, emptiness and bigness. Since
       In view of all this I was extremely interested
                                               this was what was happening. I have always had   they achieved these extremes, almost at a bound,
      in the remarks about the Anglo-American
                                               the feeling, when in New York, that that genera-  and since they were unwilling to reverse engines
      relationship made by an American expert, the
                                               tion of New York painters recognize all this and   and go in the only direction left open to them (i.e.
      late Frank O'Hara, in an interview with
                                               feel a certain gratitude; and I hope that none of   towards some sort of re-complication of the picture-
      Edward Lucie-Smith, which Studio International   my friends among them will imagine, from what I   surface), they have had to stand still.
      published in September. O'Hara is reported   am having to say here, that we in any way regret,   It fell to us British to begin the trek back into
      as saying:                               or would like to go back on, the admiration that   pictorial complexity and away from that arid
      'I think there are a lot of injustices going on,   we all expressed in the early and middle 'fifties.   'openness' which, in two generations of Americans
      personally. One is that the Pop Art thing in   Nevertheless it has to be admitted that it was the   —the 'first generation' I've been speaking of, and
      America has been almost universally presumed to   works these eight Americans painted between 1948   (far more so) the so-called Post-Painterly Abstrac-
      be American, which it isn't, since if I remember   and 1952 that we were enthusiastic about. Before   tionists—has become at last an academic emptiness.
      correctly as early as about 1952 or 1953 Pop Art   1948 their paintings, like our own, were small in   But those of us here who have seen that this re-
      as we know it today had already been done in   scale and eclectic in content (i.e. they, too, were   complication was in fact the only way forward have
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