AboutWhen I went to see Terry Frost at his house above Newlyn in 1994 he was one year short of 80, but still brimming with vitality. One of the first things he told me about was the trip he had made to the USA, and the series of images involving spirals that had come out of it (Arizona Spiral, 1990-94, in this exhibition is one of them).
âThe spiral motif all started', he explained, âbecause I went to see my eldest son who was in Tucson, Arizona, and he took me into the desert as far as the Grand Canyon. It was a shock to me because the desert I saw during the War in Egypt was all sand. Here there were cacti 14 feet high all in bloom, and wonderful mountains all around. There were blue mountains, pink mountains, white mountains, double rainbows and thunder clouds! The whole thing was a spiral of excitement. So it started a relationship for me with the idea of foreverness.'
That whole account was completely typical of the man: the joyous pleasure in the visual world, the easy, apparently straightforward movement from a concrete experience to an abstract shape a spiral and then an idea: eternity. When I found the cassette tape of our conversation 15 years ago and put it in a near-obsolete machine, Terry Frost was immediately there in the room with all his joie de vivre and enthusiasm.
His was an unusual career in art, if only because like Van Gogh's - it did not properly begin until he was almost 30. His delayed entrance into the world of painting came as an unpredictable result of being taken prisoner of war by the German army, and sent to Stalag 383 in Bavaria. There he came across the painter Adrian Heath and other artists and scholars of art, and received a sort of ad hoc further education not just in aesthetics, but in a moral world-view.
âI think perhaps I was lucky in not being educated at a university. In a way I was educated in the prison-camp where I met Adrian Heath and the other lads, who had been educated by life so they were kind, considerate, even the man who pinched my bread turned out to be marvellous. I came to the conclusion that there is more good in people everybody - than bad. That's a hard conclusion to come to, but I reached it in that POW camp.'
If he had not been deposited by fate in Stalag 383, Frost would doubtless have spent his life doing mundane jobs in the West Midlands (he was born and brought up in Leamington Spa), and never found his true vocation. Naturally, therefore, that wartime and immediately post-war moment when British society seemed to change and a new world open out - was very important to him.
âPeople were very kind, it was so different to before the War when you had to doff your cap to people across the road and you daren't put your foot out of line or you got the sack. But the doodle bug didn't differentiate whether you had been to Oxford or Elementary school. Bullets didn't differentiate. I found it a wonderful period, everybody helped each other.'
Just at that moment, Frost was discovering the whole world of modern art, and with it abstraction. In the 1940s, through a series of lucky chances, he quickly found himself in the centre of British modernism. Adrian Heath recommended him to go to St Ives. Ben Nicholson and Barbara Hepworth were neighbours; Peter Lanyon took him for walks through the landscape.
Frost was strongly attracted to another period, a quarter of a century earlier and in another country, when there had seemed to be a similar dawn of equality - in Russia immediately before and after the 1917 revolution. âThe Russian constructivist movement', he remembered, âwas very much of a force on us. In that revolutionary moment, thinking they were making a new art for the people, they had had terrific structure, wonderful design that went through their ceramics and every medium. Rodchenko's photography, and El Lissitzky's typography were absolutely fantastic in that period.
âThen there was Malevich's Black Square why should it be such a knock-out? It stops my heart whenever I see it. It's more than perfection. It's love and it's beauty, and it's poetry. It comes from a period when there was great hope and great opportunity.'
That's the essence of Terry Frost's art too: simple forms filled with feeling, love, beauty and poetry. Indeed, he found that however austere the geometry he used, feelings and bits of the natural world kept creeping in. âI did do pure abstracts, using semi-circles, triangles, geometry a lot of things that were worked out mathematically. I did that quite religiously, because I believed in it. But even so, once you put a bit of colour on such as that pale ochre over there on the bench - that was to me the colour of the sand outside my studio, and I couldn't stop the relationship, even if I wanted to be purely abstract.'
After all, total abstraction is an impossibility. Every form in geometry is bound to suggest something probably many things in the real world. In this exhibition there are circles that are also suns, olives, and some lines that metamorphose into Niagara Falls. His breakthrough painting, Walk Along the Quay, came directly out of an experience of landscape. Every morning he took his oldest child for a walk in St Ives at dawn, to prevent him disturbing the neighbours.
âThe baby cried every morning, and every neighbour they were all local fishermen - would give my wife a hell of a lesson about what she was doing wrong with the child. So I used to get up at dawn and push it along the quay, if you are walking down the quay and the boats are down there you aren't looking at them from the normal direction. I was looking down, learning more about the shapes. So I'm seeing all the shapes and the masts, and as the tide came in you got a movement. So it was a true happening: a walk in the morning.'
In a world of forms, Terry Frost was strongly drawn to semi-circles, like those boats along the quay at St Ives. This exhibition is full of them. Suspended Forms, 1967, is a good example. You could say that curved segments were almost as characteristic of his art as rectangles were of Mondrian's. But he was well aware that they were full of potential meanings.
âI like that shape, I always have. It's a very feminine shape, or reminds you of hills. So it's part of natural form: bottoms or boats or breasts. There's no argument about that, but I don't think about that when I'm working I use it because I like it.'
Terry Frost was, it was immediately apparent from talking to him or looking at his work, a lover of life. A few years later he took part in âArtists on Art', a series of interviews I did for the Daily Telegraph in which contemporary artists chose a work from the past to talk about. It shouldn't have surprised me though it did, a bit - that he selected not a Malevich or Mondrian but Rubens' Judgement of Paris in the National Gallery. He'd copied that trio of generously curvaceous goddesses as a student at Camberwell School of Art, somewhat preferring it to the Seurat he also studied (âI like more juicy things'). Actually, some Frost abstractions Red Midland is a case in point - can get quite sexy.
Those hot reds and pinks seem to indicate sensuous passion.In origin, however, his approach to colour was robustly practical.
âI seem to get on better with red, black and white. At first it was just black and white because cadmium red cost money, but black and white didn't. So that's why I painted with black, white, ochre and Indian red originally, because they were all 1 shilling and 9d a tube. Compared with cobalt blue, which was 5 and 9d. So my colour theory was based on cost originally.'
He was still using that simple but powerful combination in 1968 for Red, Black and White Movement, long after the price of paint could have made much difference to his palette. He thought of the choice prosperity brought as a complicating factor. âNow it's quite tricky because I could use any colour under the sun. But very often I don't use many. Or I use different colours but often their values are about the same. I like to get the weight of each colour balanced, so one doesn't come down - wham! - in the scales. Then you can hold your surface better.' You can watch him balancing the colours just like that in Suspended Forms, 1967, or Frisky, 2003.
He liked to observe the behaviour of colours in differing lights. âIf you can keep that structural control of the colours as the light changes in the evening, the painting alters completely. It's wonderful how they move about.' One of his daily pleasures was watching the disc of the sun coming up over Mount's Bay from his house on the hill above Newlyn. Another was watching the colours slowly disappear in his garden at dusk.
Which, he asked me, is the last to fade? Answer: blue. It's a simple question, which I'd never thought to consider. Once you know the answer, you never forget it. Terry Frost's art can be rather like that, too.