Modal Painting will explore the shared concerns and approaches of leading abstract painters crossing generations and geographies, bringing together works by Reginald Sylvester II, Sam Gilliam, Sir Frank Bowling Kt OBE RA, John Hoyland RA and John Golding CBE FBA. Although a complex web of aesthetic and contextual comparisons can, and should, be made between the artists, Wollheim seeks to gently draw together these connections through the concept of ‘modal painting,’ which above all considers the artistic process of the abstract mode.
In order to paint abstractly, the artist must have some guiding principles or concepts to rely, but never rest on. For Sylvester it is a strongly held faith in the process of painting. Both Sylvester and Golding originated in figurative painting and in each of their work traces of the figure remain, forming an armature around which their fluid abstract compositions emerge. Golding worked in a patient mode and sometimes would spend months on a painting, favouring an introspective and constantly reappraising approach. Hoyland took a comparatively robust approach, working rapidly and embracing the organic and inherently entropic behaviour of wet paint on canvas to guide his improvisational process. Gilliam and Bowling were both proponents of upending the tenets of painting, doing away with standard easels, stretchers and canvases and creating their own apparatus.
Aside from formal and working similarities, there are contextual echoes between them all. Each of these painters’ wholehearted adoption of the abstract mode followed influential encounters with other artists, exposure to a new environment or a reaction against restricting discourses around their output. Both Bowling and Hoyland met Barnett Newman, among others, in New York, with the famed Abstract Expressionist clearly influencing the subsequent works of the younger artists. The light of Mexico echoes throughout the work of both Golding, who grew up in the country, and Sylvester, whose time painting in the country resulted in not only a change of materials but advanced his understanding of the painterly process, resulting in richer colours and more immersive paintings. For Sylvester, the rigorous, inchmeal transition that he made into pure abstraction also resonates with the efforts by painters like Bowling and Gilliam to forge a space, against the grain of the times, for Black artists to make abstract work, in a contemporary climate that echoes similar schisms.
Modal Painting is a starting point, a concept which hopes to allow audiences to reconsider the work of five masters of abstraction through a renewed focus on the origins of the genre - the artist’s process - while inviting speculation around the significance of their contextualsimilarities.