Catalogue entry

Barrie Cook b.1929

T01576 Painting 1970

Inscribed on the stretcher ‘Red and Black’.
Acrylic and charcoal on cotton duck, 96 119¾(244 x 304).
Presented by E. J. Power through the Friends of the Tate Gallery 1972.
Coll: Purchased from the artist through the Axiom Gallery by E. J. Power, October 1970.
Exh: Axiom Gallery, October-November 1970 (no catalogue).
Lit: Tate Gallery Education Department, Process, Mark-making, Structure Space, Scale, in British Abstraction in the Sixties; Six approaches to making a painting, January 1972.

The following catalogue entry has been approved by the artist.

In a letter to the compiler (7 May 1974) he wrote that this painting was one of a series of eight or nine. Within the series he regarded the Tate picture as ‘perhaps uncouth in its paint handling… if you like it was less slick than the two paintings which came immediately after it.’ And he responded to it ‘quite strongly’ in consequence. Other related paintings in the same format included a blue, black and white painting and a painting using the whole spectrum of primary colours. The series came about through several months of drawing (a customary practice for Cook), invariably using a spray gun and involving a number of formats and ideas. From these drawings about 24 were kept, of which about 6 were shown at the Axiom Gallery.

In the same letter the artist stated that the series became defined out of the geometrical image used. He explained that his intention in the Fate painting was ‘to demonstrate the build-up of paint to a state of illusionism, based upon a simple geometric device which at that time was a gentle source of wonder for me. I am referring to the horizontal lines on the right-hand side of the painting, moving across and downwards, which helped to form the triangle and broadening out at what I thought was a surprising width on the left-hand side. So that using the extremities of the stretcher and exposing the white canvas, I allowed the horizontal lines drawn in charcoal to be a beginning and gradually, via layer upon layer of paint getting denser into the middle, I demonstrated how an illusion could be built up. In other words I attempted to show each layer of paint that went on to the canvas.’

He went on to describe the process of painting itself, beginning with the first, Indian Red, stain sprayed on the canvas: ‘I worked from left to right, slowly building up to reach the triangle, which is black acrylic stain, moving through this and once more using Indian Red on the right-hand side of the painting. I then sprayed white paint from the triangular black area to develop further the illusion of these half tubes. It then became a process of further spraying each layer of paint, which came as much from the dictates of my belly as from my head. I can’t recall using a brush at all, although normally I would use 4” brushes to place any basic colours before over-spraying.’

Cook said he began to use a spray gun or air brush in 1965–66 when he briefly shared John Walker’s studio at Blackwell in Worcestershire. But he was not entirely a stranger to the technique: ‘I had used an air brush for some time from the age of 15 until I was called up into the R.A.F. During this time I was a junior artist in the advertising department of Joseph Lucas and was taught to use an air brush to process photographs for block making.’ However he emphasised that Walker was the first to use an air brush in the studio. (Cook also acknowledged Walker’s influence at this time with regard to his hardworking professional approach).

Superficially it might seem that Cook has reacted against colour painting in his illusionism and frequent use of black and white and somber colours. Having ‘looked toward American painters for inspiration for a long period of time’ he explained that his response was specifically a personal one. He was reacting less against colour painting ‘It is not that I believe colour painting is inadequate… far from it’—than to a feeling that he should ‘use those things which surround me day by day, that is the Englishness of colour and environment’.

With regard to his use of black and white he wrote that it ‘is in many respects much easier than painting with colour. I find that black can be used to unify a painting, it is my ambition to paint a successful series of paintings without black. The somber colour I use in my paintings does reflect my rather pessimistic character. Perhaps when I feel absolutely joyous (something I look forward to) the colour I use will reflect my optimism.’

Beyond the painterly structure of the work there are other perceptual gains to be made from a fairly lengthy confrontation with the picture. Many have been described in the Tate Gallery Education Department’s pamphlet. Cook has said that he agrees with most of the interpretation of his work given there; however he added ‘but I do see the painting much more as a language-debate-type piece of work without metaphysical overtones.’

Of his approach to illusion and pictorial space he said: ‘The gains that successive artists have made throughout [the] history of painting cannot be ignored and to some extent I see myself able to synthesize all of those pictorial devices.’ His use of scale in a painting is connected with this: ‘I have always been interested in the rapport one is able to set up between the painting and the spectator. My work became larger and larger because I wished the painting to spread beyond the peripheral vision of a person so that it might envelop one. This I felt would attack a person’s gestalt system and the mind [would] become a little disorientated. I am attempting at the moment through my painting, to make the spectator fully aware of his or her own body as well as mind.’

Published in The Tate Gallery Report 1972–1974, London 1975.