Over a career spanning four decades, Forster produced a remarkably focused body of work exploring the nature of painting: painting as object, painting as colour and light, and as a physical performance. The exhibition features works from the late 1960s and early 1970s, bringing together Forster’s paintings on linen and his monumental silk scrolls which together reveal a combination of extraordinary formal innovation and conceptual complexity.
Noel Forster had his own term to describe his work: ‘para-physical’ painting. His paintings seek neither to enter into pure abstraction nor to represent the world around us, but rather to capture through embodied mark-making our sensations or perceptions of the physical world. His compositions, built from repeated gestures of manual application of arcs of colour onto linen or silk, investigate both the material physicality of painting and the dynamic, mysterious images that his paintings create. Forster once wrote that his ‘objective studies – of light in painting, of mapping fields onto each other, of the representation of pictorial space, and of manual activity as a part of creative behaviour, came together in an approach that crystallised in the paintings’. In these works, theory and praxis are united through an ongoing exploration of the act of painting and its creation.
As well as providing a revelatory insight into Forster’s interrogation of painting and its core meaning, this exhibition highlights a key moment of experimentation and discovery in the artist’s career. When in 1970 Forster hung out a hundred feet of Shantung silk in his studio in the Fens (eastern England), the impulse to paint the whole length of the material resulted in what he realised was a transformation of the original object. This creative act entailed the same process – a repetitive sweep of the arm – which produced the nets of light and colour existing on the surface of Forster’s linen canvases. However, untethered from the conventions of display handed down from Western representational art, Forster described the silk scrolls as ‘living things’ that ‘subsist on the natural elements of light and air more obviously than a stretched canvas’. Inspired by the discovery of radically different display conventions in oriental art, he invited exhibitors to present the scrolls in whichever way they chose. The resulting works were later shown to the public – either stretched out to fill the length of the room or hanging from floor to ceiling – in a number of important institutions including the Camden Arts Centre (1972), Kunsthalle Bern (1973) and Kunsthalle Basel (1975). The performative element of the scrolls’ installation extends Forster’s concern with the physical act of painting in an exciting and original way.
The paintings in this exhibition – both wall-based linen works and monumental silk scrolls – encapsulate the centrality of the natural world and life itself to Forster’s unique mode of abstraction. Made shortly after Forster returned to England from his year-long residency in Minneapolis, the unfurled lengths of silk evoke memories of mid-Western America with its snow-ploughed roads and fields and open skies, as well as the vast flat landscape of the Fens studio where Forster devised his first scroll. Similarly, the sweeping horizontal lines painted by hand onto stretched linen canvases seem to reflect something of the sensation of movement through and the quality of light in the physical world. As Forster himself wrote in 1969: ‘My work renews itself with reference to life … Painting acts as a creative flux for this varied source material, tempering it, but to me the paintings themselves are ephemeral, shadows of a performance…’.