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Roger Coleman text for 'Situation' catalogue (excerpt)


A number of commentators (eg Tom Cross) have noted that the 'Situation' exhibition at RBA Galleries, August 1960 marked a significant move away from the abstract painting of the St Ives school. Antagonism towards St Ives is fairly explicit in this catalogue essay written by Roger Coleman, one of the exhibitors. The text also describes the response to large scale American painting that this influential group of artists shared.

'During the 1950s American painting introduced among other things the concept of the large painting into British Art. It was not so much that the painters who came under its influence had never heard of large paintings before, but they had tended to be the careful, prepared for exception, whereas since they have become the rule. In fact 25 to 30 square feet is now considered quite an average size for a painting. Unfortunately the larger canvases have brought their problems; people seem to think, for example, that a large painting needs to hang in a large room (presumably so you can get far enough away from it to see it as a whole). Perhaps a result of the mistaken view (if you can get away from it then it loses scale) there has been some reluctance on the part of galleries to accept the younger painters and the new dimensions together.

The present exhibition was therefore organised by a committee, largely consisting of artists, to provide an opportunity for themselves and others who habitually work on a large scale to show their paintings comfortably. The conditions set by this committee were that the works should be abstract (that is without explicit reference to events outside the painting - landscape, boats, figures - hence the absence of the St Ives painters for instance), and not less than 30 square feet.

A common ground in abstraction and size might seem a loose basis on which to select works for an exhibition. But, in fact, it is symptomatic of a more fundamental cohesion than the styles of the individual painters might suggest. This cohesion grows directly out of the values implicit in the large painting. What are these values?

First a new conception of space in painting and with it a new conception of the spectators relationship to a painting. If a painting is denied its traditional space backwards, as it were, into the domain of illusion it is logical for it to compensate by expanding horizontally and vertically to extents where the spectator is contained and confined by it, and where in some cases a turn of the head of several degrees right and left is needed before it can be fully incorporated into his experience. This environmental definition of painting removes the case that the large picture needs a lot of room. It should be pointed out that canvases of environmental proportions do not imply a mural space; the large painting operates as an easel painting and retains the mobility of easel painting and not as a mural whose location is fixed by definition.

Second the large painting is inextricably related to the idea that paintings somehow can be the record of a sequence of actions; as Harold Rosenberg put it: 'What was to go on the canvas was not a picture but an event.' The 'gestural' or characteristically 'action' implications of this are clear. But 'action' in this sense is hardly present among the painters of 'Situation'. However, contained in the notion of the painting as an event are two ideas which do find expression in practically all the artists here. One is the manner of the development of a canvas, not as a copy of precious planning (painting from sketches), but as direct execution on the canvas itself, committing the artist to a much closer relationship with his work and also committing him ethically.

Indeed this ethical commitment is the second of the two ideas referred to. As Robert Motherwell has pointed out, 'venturesomeness' which is involved in this approach to the act of painting is one of the ethical values represented by modern art. So it can be that a painting of, say, Turnbull divided down its into two hues by a shallow arc is still 'gestural' even if there are no signs of gesture in an obvious sense.

The third value implicit in the large painting is its development to a new identity of one of the constant preoccupations of modern art namely to make the work of art a real object something existing in its own right and not merely because it happened to represent some aspect of what could only be by definition, reality.

So, in their use of the large painting, the artists in Situation have accepted at least some of these values and in as much as the whole concept is the invention of American painting, the values that have been accepted are an outcome of the influence of the Americans. This does not mean, however, that the British artists are merely satellites of the Americans. The change in the definitions of what a picture could be, that was brought about by American painting in the 1940s is only the second, counting Cubism as the first, fundamental reorientation in the history of modern art. The British artists, if they have any concern with this moment at all are unavoidably among its heirs whether they have the capacity or desire to inherit or not. And while some of the artists here are still in the process of assimilating what they have discovered through the Americans, the character of all the work is becoming recognisably individual. (Not recognisably 'British', however; the desire to be British by attempting to isolate British usually results, when it arises, in a full stop)...'


pictures top: Lawrence Alloway with portrait of artists (Henry Mundy, Gwyther Irwin, William Turnbull, Peter Coviello, Gillian Ayres, John Plumb, Peter Stroud, Robyn Denny, Roger Coleman, Bernard Cohen, Gordon House, Lawrence Alloway); middle and bottom: installation shots at Royal Society of British Painters.

see Gwyther Irwin exhibition

and Gillian Ayres video interview