Adventures in Colour Exhibition

Colour was the backbone of Alan Davie’s art. He described his sensitivity to colour in his essay ‘Notes on Colour’[1] which has informed this exhibition. After an initial period in the 1940s with the artist primarily using sombre blacks, browns and ochres, his palette changed to using brighter colours such as pinks, purples, blues and greens. Freed from the need to represent the real world, colour became an independent tool of pure emotion and spirituality. His interest in the use of colour in different cultures and periods was stimulated by extensive global travel. This knowledge was accelerated by extensive reading and collecting of art, alongside the immersive sensual experiences of gliding and underwater swimming. For Davie, colour was synaesthetic – conjuring up the multiple senses of sight, sound and even smell. Experimental and spontaneous works, often in gouache, draw on his musical sensibility for improvisation[2] with colour being equivalent to sounds and words used in jazz and poetry.[3] Describing his working processes, he wrote ‘a simple red ground must be closely worked with many reds, teasing pinks, and soft overlays and underlays of subtle orange...’[4] His love of the drama and impact of colour carried through into his way of dressing and the interior of his house Gamels in Rush Green. Guests were greeted by a bold geometric wall of red and black, the egg yolk yellow carpet downstairs and a cornucopia of his paintings, textiles and tribal masks. He wrote ‘I am breathing a colour-saturated air…COLOUR IS A VERITABLE STUFF OF MY LIFE’[5].

[1] (1992) Alan Davie with essays by Douglas Hall and Michael Tucker (London: Lund Humphries) 66-67.
[2] Worked playing the saxophone with Tommy Sampson’s Orchestra and published music records in 1971-3
[3] Davie wrote poetry inspired by Walt Whitman. Discussed in Horowitz, Michael (1963), Alan Davie (London: Methuen). Horowitz has been a life-time advocate of jazz poetry.
[4] Notes on Colour Essay written in 1991, see full reference in 2 above.
[5] As above.

Text by J Glasman

Curated by J Glasman and Sarah Mayson

Alan Davie (1920-2014)
Boxes For Moon 1963
Oil paint on canvas
Lent by the Artist’s Estate courtesy of Alan Wheatley Art, London

Davie’s earlier work, dominated by dark images of blacks, browns and ochres, gives way to a more optimistic Pop Art sensibility. This work and its pair ‘Boxes for Joy’ show him delighting in more artificial colours such as pinks and purples. He references one of the core subjects for artists – the still life. This theme had been tackled by him in the 1940s. He would have known the visual experiments of Cezanne and the Cubists, as well as the work of Gauguin. He creates a flattened colourful design, possibly drawing on the experience of seeing landscapes from above while gliding, as well as the decorative approach from his work making jewellery.

 

Alan Davie (1920-2014)
Boxes For Joy 1963
Oil paint on canvas

‘Boxes for Joy’ is a companion piece to ‘Boxes for Moon Dust’ both produced in February 1963 and likely to have been worked on at the same time. They draw on a very bold colour spectrum using red, blue and green alongside the pink and purple. Here references to actual objects have been made more abstract, while retaining a flat structure for the painting advantaged by the almost square proportions of the canvas and defining black lines. In both paintings Davie makes surfaces vibrate through juxtaposing contrasting colours, mixing and overpainting one colour with another and using sawdust or grit to add surface texture. Drips of red and yellow paint are used to add further vibrancy.

 

Alan Davie (1920-2014)
Carib Islands No.24 1976
Oil on Canvas
Lent by the Artist’s Estate courtesy of Alan Wheatley Art, London

Davie’s friendship with Mr and Mrs Caplan, who also collected his work, opened up his interest in the art of the prehistoric Carib Indians through his discovery of a book in their house in St Lucia. Davie got to know the author, Jeannine Sujo Volsky who identified examples of these rock engravings, known as petroglyphs, which he then explored on the island and elsewhere. This painting draws on the diagrams of petroglyphs from the book. The use of symbols was seen by Davie as archetypal and confirmed ideas from Jung of these kinds of images as fundamental to human society and therefore cross-cultural and cross-temporal.

 

Alan Davie (1920-2014)
Flag Walk No.6  1973
Oil paint on canvas

Flag Walk creates a bright yellow, stage-like interior within which a number of objects are placed. The colours and objects are fixed, in contrast to the floating and more gestural work we see elsewhere. The image is quirky and surrealistic, drawing on signs and symbols including the international code of signal pennants used in shipping and diving. For example the chequered flag means N or No. The circle references the Buddhist wheel of life and the snake / infinity symbol. This is typical of Davie’s synthesis in drawing from multiple systems of signs and enjoyment of diagrams.

 

Alan Davie (1920-2014)
Vision of the Holy Cow 1963
Gouache on paper
Lent by the Artist’s Estate courtesy of Alan Wheatley Art, London

Similar to some of the free use of pink and yellow in ‘Thin Man’s Magic’, this painting suggests a hallucinatory image and inner resonance through its blurred colours. The surrounding areas use the more illustrative black lines which appeared often in his monochrome prints and drawings. The cow is in the lower right hand corner. The centre of the gouache is filled with something like an atomic explosion, a moment of enlightenment. Higher consciousness is contrasted with the controlling black lines through clouds of bright colour, globules of white, signalling a possible divine presence.

 

Alan Davie (1920-2014)
Scented Music 1975
Gouache on paper
Lent by the Artist’s Estate courtesy of Alan Wheatley Art, London

Davie often worked in gouache which allowed him to work quickly and freely on multiple images simultaneously. This painting and ‘Zen Poem No 7’ show him working instinctively, allowing the unconscious to predominate. He draws on ideas of automatic painting inherent to Surrealism, for example in the work of Miro. He would also have been aware of ideas about synesthesia for example in the work of Kandinsky. The use of black is kept to a minimum and washes of colour are laid on, with shapes and dabs of paint seemingly forming themselves. Davie worked as a jazz musician playing tenor saxophone in the 1940s and continued to play music, as well as composing it, throughout his life. He wrote ‘I have always been a painter and a musician – to me the two are interchangeable’.

 

Alan Davie (1920-2014)
Zen Poem No.7 1977
Gouache on Paper
Lent by the Artist’s Estate courtesy of Alan Wheatley Art, London

Colour floats suspended in space, free from representation. In this gouache as in ‘Scented Music’, colour is related to the sounds and words in improvised jazz or poetry. Here the brushstrokes hover in the centre and colours run into each other and flare against the wet of the background wash. Davie was talented across multiple art forms, writing poetry and prose from 1940s onwards. This spontaneous way of working outside historical or traditional systems of art, was discussed in the monograph on Davie by the poet Michael Horowitz (1963) in which he notes the impact of the artist’s interest in Zen Buddhism from 1950s onwards stemming from Eugen Herrigel’s ‘Zen and the Art of Archery’.

 

Alan Davie (1920-2014)
Thin Mans Magic 1978
Oil paint on canvas
Lent by the Artist’s Estate courtesy of Alan Wheatley Art, London

The painting has a series of vertical gestural marks, scratches and flourishes in colour, seemingly hanging in in the air on a bare canvas. This relates to his earlier work and its strong use of a more unconscious, less designed or controlled approach stemming from the ideas of Max Ernst and the Surrealists. The calligraphic strokes and skeins of colour are applied freely and quickly, almost like exploding fireworks. A very strong component of the artist’s thinking was the idea of working ‘automatically’ without planning or prior thinking, reveling in the process during the moment of creation. Davie added his titles after completion as a kind of poetic afterthought, although there was a kind of circular effect since he repeated references throughout his career and worked in his studio surrounded by his other images.

 

Alan Davie (1920-2014)
Cosmographic Structures No.16 1993
Oil paint on canvas
Lent by the Artist’s Estate courtesy of Alan Wheatley Art, London

This painting mines Davie’s collection and use of cosmological charts and symbols drawn from global religions and beliefs. Floating symbols include the wheel of life and the black double hexagram which is a Tantric glyph for the moment of creation. The space relates to his series of Studio paintings in which his works stacked around the walls, were then drawn upon again in the current image. In this case the back wall is opened up to be infinite, similar to the way he was able to actually fold back the walls of his pole house in St Lucia. In ‘Notes on Colour’ he describes the studio. ‘The big studio fills a vast white space along the side of the garden… Inside is a place of magic;…a shifting environment of developing moods, spaces, colours, forms, poetry fragments, script, signs and symbols’ laughing and singing.’

 

Alan Davie (1920-2014)
Listen for the Blue Sound 2011
Oil paint on canvas
Lent by the Artist’s Estate courtesy of Alan Wheatley Art, London

This painting moves from the larger world of cosmologies into a more decorative and flat world. Davie had become interested in illuminated manuscripts and lettering, with their decorative forms and use of colour. Davie had started to use letter and text in his works from the 1960s onwards. He uses a rough finish and a bold colour scheme. As in ‘Scented Music’ he equates sound and image with his inclusion of text listen to the blue sound….look carefully and hear it.

 

Alan Davie (1920-2014)
Venezuelan Landscape No.5 2001
Oil paint on canvas
Lent by the Artist’s Estate courtesy of Alan Wheatley Art, London

From 1975 until 1991, the Davies spent winters in Coulibri in St Lucia in the Caribbean. Davie worked on drawings and gouaches, which were often reworked into oil paintings back in Hertford. Friends from St Lucia invited the Davies to visit Venezuela where he visited Caracas and other places. He undertook a series of Venezuelan Landscapes, drawing on the work of Barbaro Rivas which also bends and curves the spaces in his village scenes. Davie draws on the bright paints used on buildings in the Caribbean and in South America. The palm tree in the foreground includes curled brushstrokes of orange, yellow and red. Although these are some of the most representational of Davie’s paintings, the colour and space is filtered, as ever, through his imagination.

 

Alan Davie (1920-2014)
Hallucination with Giant Yellow Bird 1984
Oil paint on canvas
Lent by the Artist’s Estate courtesy of Alan Wheatley Art, London

Davie draws on Tantric signs and symbols, alongside other references to Caribbean landscapes. From the 1980s onwards he produced many paintings which are titled ‘hallucinations’, ‘meditations’ and ‘mystical visions’ which synthesize the external world with inner feeling. These are not strictly religious, but rather channel the generalized power of the divine. Bright colours are used to create this sense of vibrancy and otherworldliness and are more resolved and tightly structured than in other work. Davie used birds in many of his paintings, prints and drawings and often remarked on birds in his garden. Here the bird may well stand in for the artist.

 

Alan Davie (1920-2014)
Island Maps No.12 1998
Gouache on paper
Lent by the Artist’s Estate courtesy of Alan Wheatley Art, London

Davie’s use of the aerial view experienced during his gliding trips, was combined with his interest in maps and diagrams of the cosmos drawn from different religions and beliefs. Here, the imagined map unites the worlds of the spiritual and the actual, outer and inner worlds. The Davies started collecting art and objects from other cultures, buying from junk shops at the time of their first modest home in Edinburgh. ‘Notes on Colour’ describes the interior of the house-studio in Rush Green, Hertford with its accumulation of African, indigenous American and Australian artefacts interspersed with his paintings of equal intensity.

 

Alan Davie (1920-2014)
Jazz by Moonlight No.1 (diptych) 1966
Oil paint on canvas
Lent by the Artist’s Estate courtesy of Alan Wheatley Art, London

This painting scales up dramatically from the previous works into a bold and dynamic design. The exuberant colour palette is typical of his work from the earlier part of the 1960s. Purple, pink and yellow are balanced out with darker areas and the use of texture and pattern. The space of the canvas is flattened with the decorative effect emphasized by lines around the shapes. The design relates to his use vocabulary across many paintings of cards, birds, snakes, moons etc. Here movement is added by offsetting one of the rectangles and by the spots and dabs of paint in some areas, for example next to the yellow fish tail which is a counter-balance to the more static shapes. Music and art were seen by Davie as related and interchangeable, see label for ‘Scented Music’.

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