The Scottish-born painter Alan Davie turns 87 this year. He has been called one of Britain’s most significant living artists and one of its most famous beatniks. He wears a bushy, long white beard and is an accomplished jazz musician as well as a poet. Davie made a splash in the New York art scene in the 1950s with the support of Peggy Guggenheim and hung out with the likes of Jackson Pollock, who admired Davie’s paintings. The Museum of Modern Art acquired his work in 1956, but like many artists who remained unrepentant modernists, the changing tides of taste led to his relative obscurity in this country.
This exhibition includes paintings from the 1960s to 2003. It is interesting to see how Davie’s early work, which was much looser in design and coloration than much of his later work, connects with Pollock’s early stenographic abstractions and Adolf Gottlieb’s grid paintings. They were all impacted by the concepts of Carl Jung, especially his notion of archetypes. Their abstractions posited the notion of a universality of forms, a symbolic vocabulary that crossed all ages and civilizations. The charge of obscurity was to be countered by this notion of timeless and placeless human mark making. In “Turtles Vision No.2” (1967), Davie employs loosely painted ambiguous forms that are part-calligraphy, part-object hovering in front of gaily painted and off-kilter jigsaw puzzle shapes. The tendril or snake forms and diamond within diamond shapes call to mind Gottlieb’s repertoire of abstract symbols, but Davie’s work from the 1960s is more spontaneous, lending it a musical quality that is missing from Gottlieb’s compartmentalized pictographs.
There is a modernist romanticism present in Davie’s work, a belief in the communicative power of form, free from any literal meanings. Gottlieb’s pictographs painted in somber subdued colors almost read as fragments of ancient cuneiform tablets whereas, Davie pushed his invented and appropriated abstract signs and symbols forward by using hot and loud colors, connoting a wide range of emotions. Abstract forms can be read as musical notes in these early works because they are weightless, rhyming, disparate, and seep into the mind the way musical patterns or riffs do. In Gottlieb’s pictographs the asymmetrical grids he employed suggest the pages of a book or strips of film. Davie’s abstractions from the 60s clang, like the harsh cry of a bird, and have a corpulent quality.
In his work from the 1970s onwards, especially in such paintings as “Iniciacion Sexual” and “Indigenas Blind Reader,” both from 1988, Davie incorporated fragments of hand-painted text, in various languages, into his paintings. This adds a richer communicative dimension to his paintings. He focuses on the visual and sculptural qualities of words and makes them interact with shapes so that the two blend in unexpected ways. Since they share the same pictorial space there is an obvious connection made between written and visual language. These nonsensical combinatory works are inspired juxtapositions that are bold statements with hidden meanings. They appear to be pronouncements of some psychological or poetic truth, but their inscrutability keeps us at a distance and we become observers of some strange mysterious ritual that we can never completely understand.
Bucking art world trends and continuing to explore his personal mythology and the universality of forms, Davie unashamedly used and continues to use representational imagery. This could be a decision on his part to make his paintings and drawings less obscure, perhaps more legible to larger groups of people. Like many of his later paintings, “Little Island Phantasy No.2” (1998), an imaginary landscape of huts, minarets, trees, and rolling hills, calls to mind children’s art and folksy illustration, but the viewer remains aware of a sophisticated visual sensibility. Davie’s unpretentious and recognizable imagery, rendered in an abstract shorthand, is often placed alongside scumbled and expressionistic areas of painting. The juxtaposition of representational imagery and improvisational mark making perhaps symbolizes the transmutation of matter into a nebulous and spiritual substance. There is a jarring combination of the real and the subjective, marks that describe recognizable surfaces and shapes and marks that serve as surrogates for emotions. This creates a sense of timelessness and immediacy in the work. Formally, he combines crisp and minimal drawing, a modernist palette and use of pictorial space, and painterly mark-making that fits in just fine with today’s pluralistic stew.print