Terry Frost born 1915
Yellow Triptych 1957-9
Oil on board
2263 x 3664 (89 1/8 x 144 ¼) when hung: left hand panel 2263 x 1221 (89 1/8 x 48); centre panel 2263 x 1222 (89 1/8 x 48 1/8); right hand panel 2263 x 1221 (89 1/8 x 48)
Purchased from the artist (Grant-in-Aid) 1992
Keith Vaughan: Recent Paintings; Terry Frost: New Paintings, Leicester Galleries, London, June 1958 (3)
Terry Frost: Retrospective Exhibition, Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, 1964, York City Art Gallery, Ferens Art Gallery, Kingston-upon-Hull, Bradford City Art Gallery (22, reproduced with artist [p.2])
Terry Frost: Paintings 1948-89, Mayor Gallery, London, March-April 1990 (18, repr. in col. p.37)
Terry Frost: Six Decades, Royal Academy of Arts, London, October-November 2000 (12, reproduced in colour [p.43])
Michael Tooby, Tate Gallery St Ives and Barbara Hepworth Museum and Sculpture Garden: Illustrated Companion, London 1993, p.67 (reproduced in colour)
Chris Stephens, Terry Frost, London 2000, pp.48-9, reproduced p.49 (colour)
Terry Frost: Six Decades, exhibition catalogue, Royal Academy of Arts, London 2000, p.33
David Lewis, Terry Frost, Aldershot 1994, p.86 (colour)
Though this work is painted on three separate hardboard panels, the title Yellow Triptych is slightly deceptive. The panels are shown unframed and abutted, so that they effectively become a single composition in contrast to the trio of discrete but inter-related images that one might expect. It may be, therefore, that Frost, limited by the size of hardboard sheets, used three panels simply for ease of handling. That said, the composition is tripartite: each of the three panels consists of a central cluster of vertical lines (reds, oranges, yellows and blacks) partially enclosed by a red or black arc, and a few other linear elements, entirely surrounded by a field of greenish yellow. The isolation of the forms within an expansive field gives the images an iconic look which seems appropriate to a triptych, a format traditionally associated with religious imagery. A number of 20th century artists made triptychs, notably Max Beckmann and, in Britain, Francis Bacon with his Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion c.1943-4 (Tate N06171).
The large Yellow Triptych is one of a group of works which marked a departure from the type of paintings Terry Frost had made in Leeds, which had been based upon his experience of the Yorkshire landscape. It was shown in his third one-person exhibition at the Leicester Galleries in June 1958 but monochrome photographs of the installation of that exhibition indicate that it was subsequently repainted. Despite its size, the triptych as it now looks is not visible in any of the photographs, even though they show all four walls of the gallery space and the same number of works as were listed in the catalogue. They do show a painting on three panels which appears to be of the same proportions as this one and with similar details in its design. The dark vertical at the top of the right hand panel appears in both triptychs, for example, and the painting in the photographs seems to have the precursor of the clusters of verticals in the side panels of Yellow Triptych. If the current painting is examined under raking light further elements of its original state become visible, including the form that curves down from the top left-hand corner and the softened square near the top right-hand corner. In 1998 the artist was unable to confirm or deny that the two paintings were one and the same.
If the work in the photographs is an earlier state of the Tate painting, the inscription on the back of the central panel presumably refers to the completion of that initial version. In 2000 Frost recalled painting Yellow Triptych in his Leeds studio, which he left in the summer of 1958:
The painting was done in Leeds. I had the hardboard, which was cheaper than canvas, 8 feet by 4 feet as they are. I had to prepare them and I got the titanium white from ICI, half hundredweight bags at a time. That’s in all that yellow, to lift it up and give it power. I hadn’t got a studio and was living in a rented house. The painting is the size of the wall in the bedroom that I used as a studio. I couldn’t step back far because I had tins of paint all over the place. I suddenly realised I was painting in a different way from easel painting, right up to it. It meant that I was working from my concepts, very close to the idea: it’s about thought rather than walking back to see.
The second state of Yellow Triptych had certainly been completed by April 1964 when it was visible in a photograph of Frost in his Banbury studio, in to which he had moved in 1963, published in the catalogue of his first retrospective. The work was included in that exhibition and the expansive dating in the catalogue, 1957-9, which one might expect to be accurate, suggests that it was begun in 1957 and reworked. An undated slide in the artist’s collection seems to show the painting at an intermediate stage. Though much of the original image has been painted over with white, the central linear clusters show that it is Yellow Triptych; the yellow was presumably reinstated later.
If there is an earlier state under Yellow Triptych it must have been thinly painted as the texture of the hardboard is visible throughout the painting. It is notable, however, that what impasto there is does not relate to the uppermost layer of paint. The work is apparently painted with commercial oil paint and some of what appears to be a white ground, but may be the earlier painting, is visible. It was painted quickly, with sweeping strokes, and the paint has dripped and run in many places. There is a subtle gloss finish, though the blacks have sunk a little; in the 1963 photograph the black areas are seen to have been especially reflective. Lumps of paint from a half dry lower layer were disturbed by subsequent applications and this too seems consistent with the conjectured reworking. Areas of the paint remain tacky and some of the impasto has been abraded and squashed; there was retouching in places prior to acquisition by the Tate. Losses along the edges and over nail holes, especially in the central panel, were consolidated, filled and retouched in 1993, when the board was given extra structural support.
In the late 1950s in Britain, a non-referential, but painterly, style became increasingly dominant within British abstract painting. This was, undoubtedly, influenced by the international pre-eminence of the American Abstract Expressionists and the formalist commentary provided for their work by the critic Clement Greenberg. Since 1948, Frost had pursued an abstract style which derived, by his own account, from his experience of places and landscapes and from specific moments of inspiration. Vertical bands, similar to those in the centre of the panels of Yellow Triptych had featured in the work made while he was in Leeds (1954-7) and derived, originally, from the Yorkshire landscape sub-divided by stone walls. However, while buried references to external sources persisted, the work shown at the 1958 exhibition and made in the next few years seemed to show a stronger commitment to formal concerns in line with the dominant aesthetic. However, three-part compositions recurred in his work at that time and the major painting The Three Graces, 1960 (Bristol City Museum and Art Gallery) revealed a figurative source, which the forms of several works hinted at.
It was in formal terms that Patrick Heron, the main champion of what became known as the Middle Generation of painters – which included Frost, Roger Hilton, Bryan Wynter and Heron himself – saw Frost’s new work. In a critique for an American audience he wrote:
Frost’s idiom is fundamentally calligraphic but not only are lines of all kinds still visible in the finished picture – both tube-drawn (and loose) and brush-drawn (and taut); but the larger planes in his designs (which occasionally have some sort of affinity with rounded tabletops) have been arrived at as shapes, by means of drawing, rather than by a process of plastic blocking-in, or solid scribbling. Frost’s looping arcs have an essentially serial connotation, and his pictures therefore are always on the verge of becoming formal analogies for landscape. On the other hand the vertical net-like screens of his composition do not recede as deeply as one might expect them to. Although his brush is rapid, fluent and quite capable of the tenderest dots and dashes as well as an iron rigidity, nevertheless he thinks always in terms of movements and forms which are analysable into arcs, circles and straight lines. In other words, his seductive calligraphies are based in geometry.
The balance between linearity and form through colour was a characteristic which Frost might have learnt from Roger Hilton, his closest colleague with whom he enjoyed a long correspondence debating figuration and abstraction. However, unlike Hilton, Frost worked on a scale that rivalled the American artists’, though he maintained that he had always produced big paintings, including one for his harbour movement series (1951-4) that was ten feet high. He had a half-brother in the timber business who was able to supply him unusually sized sheets of hardboard in large quantities.
The reworking of Yellow Triptych reflected the changes in Frost’s work in the early 1960s. The 1958 exhibition revealed a new sort of painting, in which calligraphic forms seemed to reach across the field to the edges of the canvas. This may have reflected his adherence to Heron’s belief in the importance of the edges, a point that was debated with Clement Greenberg, who insisted on centralised compositions. If so, his shifting allegiance is recorded in the changes made to Yellow Triptych, which became more centralised despite the retention of the forms at the top edge. The more iconic aspect of the work became increasingly important to Frost in later years when he drew on heraldic sources and enhanced that effect by seeking the flatter finish provided by acrylic paints.