The Barber Institute in Birmingham is probably one of the finest small collections of Western Art to be found anywhere in the world. When Lady Hattie Barber set out the acquisitions policy through the trust deed in 1933 the seeds were sown for a brilliant representation of the progression from early Italian painting through to the post impressionists of Paris. However the stipulation that no object created after 1899 should be acquired; reversed by the trustees in 1967, created the dearth of twentieth century art we see now. With the exception of two or three lonely examples; Howard Hodgkin’s, Artificial Flowers (1975), on loan, and Leger’s Composition with fruit (1938) abstract art is largely missing.
Chance, Order and Change, the exhibition, therefore came as a complete surprise to me in 2016 attracting my attention; a look into the world of abstraction, and, in particular, constructivism. This post is taken from a Frieze competition entry I wrote that year. On display were twelve works from a private collection, and therefore, normally excluded from public scrutiny. The show ran from 11th February to 8th May 2016.
Josef Albers was the star of the show; one of the giants of geometric abstraction. There were two examples of his ‘Homage to the Square’ series; Red Tetrachord (1962) and a smaller study, Affectionate (1954). These paintings of four diminishing squares, set symmetrically horizontally but descending vertically towards a points, moving around on the retina in quite a hallucinatory way. The colours of Red Tetrachord diminish through red / yellow through earth, pure red to red / blue. This is not a painting to quickly walk past, but one to ponder, enjoy and even enter it trance like. The squares and the colours become more excited, the longer they are viewed and the colours move freely around the spectrum in patterns on the eye.
The square dominated the show; eight of the twelve exhibits being based on the equal quadrilateral and the remainder rectangles offering a substitute. Pure curves are almost absent, although there are occasional curvilinear works such as those by Bridget Riley; Orphean Elegy 7 (1979) and her Study for Studio International cover (1971). Riley’s’ is possibly the most familiar exhibits and the only ones which offer the most colourful palette. The curves are more subtly observed in Kenneth Martins Chance, Order, Change (1983) and Victor Passmores Line and Space No 21. Here the straight line still dominates as either groups of lines, the number determined by the throw of a dice, in Martin’s ‘Chance’, or as an array of short flecks in Passmore. But spending time with these sweeping shapes starts rewarding the viewer as strong curves, natural curves, hints of eroticism, appear behind the geometry.
At Chance Order Change half of the exhibits were either black or white, and of the remainder four were monochrome or had only red or blue to offer. The show finished with Ad Reinhardt’s Abstract Painting(1957), a canvas of monochrome black; the ‘end of painting’ as he described it – no line, no colour, no form, no object. But wait; shapes start to appear, more landscapes, more images; representation. What the ambiguity of these minimalistic abstracts prove is that painting did not die but, with time and patience, they become so full of vitality, images and figures. By reducing art to the most complete abstraction and asking so much more of the viewer, the reward is representative imagery that can transgress beyond any of the aspirations of the creation.
My entry did not win the Frieze prize but the exhibition was worth the effort though!