Michael Finn began painting in earnest only in the last twenty years of his life, when he retired from teaching in art schools and moved to Tregeseal in West Cornwall. This painting is typical of his work of the late 1980s and early 1990s, when he began to make rich colour field paintings, often featuring vertical bands in a contrasting colour marking the left and right edges of the picture plane.
Red Painting features a central expanse in a deep red, with a carefully worked surface of visible brushmarks which extend up the canvas in steep diagonals from bottom left to top right. At the left and right edges of the canvas, strips of black delineate the picture plane. Along the bottom of the painting, the upper layer of paint has been scraped back to reveal the dark underpainting beneath the red. These marks ground the painting, giving it connotations of landscape, while the bands of black at the sides delimit its expanse, containing the red field and lending the image a verticality and sense of uplift.
Finn’s belief in the transcendent potential of colour was a reflection of his deeply felt Roman Catholic faith (Knowles, p.3). His work may be read in the tradition of twentieth century colour field painting. Colour field artists were interested in the potential of canvases with large areas of solid colour to convey lyrical meaning. Finn’s interest in the sublime and in the spiritual connotations of pure colour and simple form ally his work with the American painters Mark Rothko (1903-70) and Barnett Newman (1905-70) and the British artist John Hoyland (born 1934). Like them, Finn invests his canvases with a palpable sense of spiritual longing. Red Painting is also in the tradition of the abstracted icon; it refers to Red Square: Painterly Realism of a Peasant Woman in Two Dimensions, 1915 (State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg) by Kasimir Malevich (1878-1935). The bands of black at either edge of Finn’s painting suggest the open panels of a triptych, again recalling traditional religious painting. The bands also emphasise the painting’s edge, recalling a similar preoccupation in the work of other abstract artists, including Piet Mondrian (1872-1944), Ellsworth Kelly (born 1923) and Bridget Riley (born 1931).
Finn worked intuitively, allowing chance to inform his painting style. He commented that his aim was ‘to say something about the density of experience and the wonder of light’ (quoted in Knowles, p.3). This is conveyed through a delicate handling of the picture’s tonal range. The rich, expressive colour of Red Painting offers the viewer what Finn termed a ‘gateway’ to a realm of spiritual transcendence beyond the picture’s surface.
Elizabeth Knowles, Michael Finn: Recent Paintings and Constructions & Sculptures, exhibition catalogue, Newlyn Art Gallery and Falmouth Art Gallery, 2001, reproduced p.1 in colour.