New Art for a New Age

Now, can I first say, it’s not that I desire to play off two [wonderful] Midlands exhibitions against each other to the detriment of one. But, when two exhibitions crop in just six months, exploring a similar area of art history, comparison seems only natural. I thoroughly enjoyed Tate-touring exhibition ‘The Indiscipline of Painting’ (at Warwick Arts centre last term), however I liked ‘New Art for a New Age’ at Leamington Spa Art Gallery and Museum more and this article will explain why.

‘New Art for a New Age’ is an exhibition curated by ten third year History of Art students exploring fifteenth artworks (paintings, drawings and sculptures) and ten years of history to ascertain how optimism characterised Post-War British abstract art. It’s small but neat, and not to be overlooked. Here’s why I think it worthy of your attention.

It is a sharp-focused look at abstract art.

There’s a lot of abstract art out there. Artistic ‘movements’ or styles had become universal by the 60s, and due to its nature – its emphasis on purified colour and form – it can be hard to detect the nuances across abstract artworks. What this exhibition clarifies, in just fifteen works, is how the intentions and appearances of the British branch of abstract art differed from their American counterparts, predominately from the earlier decade of Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman etc.

This exhibition really played to its own strengths. With just one room to take over, it was wise that the exhibition did not attempt to cover the broader topic of abstraction, because it would have either overwhelmed or starved the viewer. Narrowing down the subject area to British Abstract Art in the 60s, made consumption more manageable, and I for one was pleased to be given so delightful an introduction to the St Ives Group. Secondly, its setting is a local one, and it is right to acknowledge and uphold this in the character of the exhibition. For example, one painting was by Terry Frost, a leading figure in the St Ives group who was born in Leamington Spa. Moreover, I can proudly declare that a third of the works came from the University of Warwick Art Collection.

The second reason, I’d like to give for backing ‘New Art for a New Age’ with your visit, is its written content.

It’s not that I’m willing to admit that education is necessary to enjoy art, but until those who have not had much of an education in art realise they are capable of engaging with it; not having adequate explanations to accompany works can be a common stumbling block. I have no doubt that audiences feel it particularly necessary for abstract art, which is intentionally non-referential, and therefore is often mistakenly read on purely shallow terms. For example, “I like this one because it’s mainly pink and that’s my favourite colour.” Such readings can lead to conclusions about the artworks being that of child’s play, and this [ignorance] we want to avoid. (I do wonder how many reached these kinds of conclusions on seeing ‘The Indiscipline of Painting?’)

What the Young Curators have produced is an engaging and accessible study, in a professionally presented booklet, of this period of art in Britain. It’s factual but also evaluative, communicating effortlessly the artists’ a) desire to purify art b) attraction to new materials c) different approach to how to involve the audience with their works and d) their relationship with the expressive tendencies in abstract art. Featuring coloured prints of most of the artworks, this booklet is a take-away case study, a walking-tour of the exhibition, never to be forgotten. (Now rarely do you get such an inclusive deal with a free exhibition.) So, reason number two: a wonderfully researched and documented exhibition showcasing three years of intensive education on the part of its curators.

My third reason is such: it really is a very interesting exhibition.

Come and see for yourself how the Brits dealt with an art history that had exhausted the principles of figuration, and used the brilliance of colour and simplicity of shapes to bring about new life. Bryan Wynter’s mobile is slightly nauseating to stand before but strangely captivating; the same applies to Bridget Riley’s black and white painting known as ‘Winged Curve.’ There there’s the calming influence of David Annesley’s substantial steel ‘Blue Ring’, and finally I loved Barry Flanagan’s ever-so slovenly but inviting, canvas and sand floor sculpture, ‘Heap 4 ‘67’.

This is bold and effective problem solving from the British. And this is a fantastically composed exhibition from ten talented Warwick Young Curators.

Check it out before 1 July – it’s free!


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