House, Gordon (1932-2004), 'Abstract Painting', 1957

'Abstract Painting', 1957

Signed lower right. Dated and titled by the artist on the reverse ‘Abstract Painting 1957’ and inscribed ‘For Martin & Kay’. Bearing label on which written in the artist’s hand ‘Abstract’ painting by Gordon House 1957 painted at Crouch End having moved to London in ’55’.

This early abstract work was painted while House was living in Crouch End, following his move to London in 1955. Painted in a taschiste style with thick impasto daubs of paint, it is a rare example of his first abstract style before he moved to the more flattened taschiste treatment seen in the works exhibited in his 1959 New Vision Centre show and the later harder-edged geometric abstract execution of his signature sixties works. The only other known work in this early style is a smaller painting ‘Abstract’ (25 x 23 cm), which belongs to his wife, Jo, and is illustrated on page 114 of his autobiography.

In the Fifties the younger post-war generation of artists, including figures such as House’s art school-friend Richard Smith and Robyn Denny, moved towards abstraction encouraged by exposure to the work of both the European school of Taschisme and the American Abstract Expressionists. House recalled in his auto-biography ‘Having my time at art school and an ongoing interest in the visual arts, my friends were mostly practicing artists or enthusiasts of the cultural scene around town. There were also places of meeting, as the Institute of Contemporary Art, then in Dover Street, where weekly meetings, lectures and exhibitions took place’. He was very much a part of the burgeoning new artistic scene and the debates about new directions in the contemporary art of the day.

Early exhibitions which would have proved influential included ‘Opposing Forces’ (ICA, January 1953) which was ‘designed to contrast European Taschisme with American Abstract Expressionism. At the ICA the Europeans were represented by Mathieu, Michael, Riopelle and Serpan, and the Americans by Francis, Alfonso Ossorio and Pollock’. Later in 1956 the Tate Gallery held ‘Modern Art in the United States’ in which the entire final room was devoted to Abstract Expressionism, including works by Gorky, De Kooning and Pollock. Artist Patrick Heron wrote admiringly of the exhibition ‘I was instantly elated by the size, energy, originality, economy and inventive daring of many of the paintings. Their creative emptinesss represented a radical discovery … as did their flatness, or rather, their spatial shallowness’. House would also have seen non-figurative work at the New Vision Centre, where he would later exhibit, as well as in the private homes of forward thinking collectors. The shock of the exposure to the new abstract work is succinctly communicated in House’s description of a visit to the home of collector Ted Power, managing director of Murphy Radio. House described ‘I remember paintings stacked around the house, upstairs on guest beds, etc. Downstairs I stood near a wall thinking to myself ‘this is interesting wallpaper’, to later realise that it was a large painting by Sam Francis, the like of which had never before seen in England’.

At this time House was working as a designer at the ICI Plastics Division in Welwyn Garden City, he commuted there daily by stream train from Finsbury Park. In his text for Gordon House’s 1959 solo show at the New Vision Centre Gallery in Marble Arch which took place from the 13th of July to the 1st of August Richard Smith related this urban experience directly to the forms in his paintings writing:

“His paintings are like the momentarily in-focus forms of the daily-recurring landmarks of the Kings Cross - Welwyn Garden City route. The bright white space in which they exist is a non-atmospheric dazzle: the landscape has been burnt out by speed. The images are not loaded with associations but are a painter’s painted shape; the landmarks’ significance to the commuter is: “20 minutes to Welwyn Garden City” or “10 minutes to Finsbury Park” or “time for another beer.” Questions “Why are they there?”, “What do they mean?” never arise. The multiple times they are seen do not add depth to the view. The image in House’s painting is big within the canvas area, over-exposed, making it loom toward one, close as a tunnel wall. It is as if they had only a second to register, like signs on the mew motorways.

This 1957 painting, with the atmospheric blues, suggestion of a distant illumination and subtle hints of bright reds, perhaps neon lights, in the underpainting, can certainly be viewed within this framework.

Size 61.4 x 91 cm
Bibliography House, Gordon, ‘Tin-Pan Valley: A Memoir by Gordon House’, Archive Press (London), 2004
Garlake, Margaret, ‘New Vision 56-66’, Bede Gallery (Newcastle), 1984
Mellor, David, ‘The Sixties Art Scene In London’, Phaidon (London), 1993
Walker, John A, ‘Cultural Offensive: America’s Impact on British Art Since 1945’, Pluto Press (London), 1998