An ambitious concept for a painting show – four distinctive yet united figures in the evolution of postwar European abstraction. All pursued their own goals against a backdrop of American artistic hegemony, sustaining long careers to produce outstanding late work. They gain by being considered together: they share spontaneous gestures, lively experimentation with raw, unaesthetic materials and techniques, an orientation towards Paris, and a cultural context where, argues curator Emma Dexter, artists “had to abandon the illusion that art could change society and, instead, develop the notion of the artist as a liberated, self-reliant individual”.
Least known of the four is Simon Hantaï, a Hungarian émigré who represented France at the 1982 Venice Biennale, then became reclusive. His signature method was “pliage” – a sort of painted tie-dying where he dripped, splashed, poured colour on folded, knotted canvases, unfurling them to reveal all-over multi-hued abstractions, randomly patterned, as in “Blanc” and “Etude”.
Hans Hartung, also an émigré to Paris, was a similarly innovative colourist: using a complex combination of broad brushes and lithography rollers, he barred the picture plane with thick sheaf-like black forms contrasting with brilliant underlying yellows and blues.
Aimé Maeght’s seminal 1946 Paris exhibition Black is a Colour, including new work by Matisse and Bonnard, seems to me a background for Hartung and also for Pierre Soulages, at 94 the only living artist in this show. Soulages’ “outrenoir” (ultrablack) paintings, constructed from swaths of impastoed luminous black paint reflected in cut, marked, striated surfaces, are a highlight here.
They connect in turn to the tragic sensibility of Catalan Antoni Tàpies, who died last year; Tàpies’ use of unconventional materials – sand, cement, marble dust – and scratched symbols and figures in black/earth-coloured, heavily tactile paintings, evocative of primeval landscapes as in “Formes en l’espai”, places him in the primitivising tradition. Tàpies’ belief that “painting is a return to origins” speaks for all these glorious late modernists who converge materiality and metaphysics.
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