Yellow Painting : October 1958 May/June 1959 is a large abstract composition dominated by a deep yellow ground on which appear soft-edged rectangles and squares in shades of brown, terracotta, green and yellow. The yellow colour is built up over darker layers of underpainting, giving the work an appearance of depth and a muted, earthy tone. In certain areas the yellow paint is applied in dappled brush marks, while in others there are long streaks and dense patches of yellow. While many of the rectangles and squares that appear across the work have been painted over the yellow ground, the outlines of some are formed from areas where the yellow has not been applied, so that the darker layer shows through, creating the outlines of the shapes. A black rectangle appears at roughly the centre of the painting, with edges softened by blurry brown and mauve underpainting blended into the yellow ground, and the outline of a circular shape has been scraped into it, likely with a paintbrush handle. Other similarly sized squarish shapes float towards the edges of the black rectangle, painted in terracotta to its left, bright yellow below, and brown and yellow-green to the right. The paint appears to have been applied at a variety of speeds in different areas of the canvas, as is suggested by drips and flecks that are visible on the topmost layers.
This work was made by the British artist Patrick Heron in his studio in Porthmeor, Cornwall, in 1958–9. Heron’s practice at this time was characterised by the rapid application of paint, although he would occasionally allow the colours to dry before proceeding. He described the process with which he developed his compositions during this period as ‘merely pushing fluid paint this way and that, with a blunt brush, until each colour area met finally along a blurred and rather fuzzy edge.’ (Heron quoted in Vivien Knight, ‘The Pursuit of Colour’, in Barbican Art Gallery 1985, p.10.) The resulting brushwork is gestural and varied, and at this time Heron also incised marks into the paint using the handle of his brush, as can be seen in the dark rectangular shape in the centre of Yellow Painting : October 1958 May/June 1959.
In 1956 Heron wrote a review of the exhibition Modern Art in the United States at the Tate Gallery in London that featured the work of abstract expressionists including Mark Rothko, Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock, stating in it that he was ‘elated by the size, energy, originality, economy and inventive daring of many of the paintings’. (Patrick Heron, ‘The Americans at the Tate Gallery’, Arts Magazine, vol.30, no.6, March 1956, republished in Knight 1988, p.28.) That same year Heron moved from London to Zennor in Cornwall and was impressed by the quality of the light there and by the garden of his new house, Eagles Nest, a residence that he had visited as a child. The exhibition and the move to Zennor were followed by intense experimentation and change in Heron’s paintings: after an initial period during which Heron took direct inspiration from the new surroundings of his garden (see Azalea Garden : May 1956 1956, Tate T03107), Heron began to focus on abstract painting, creating a series of works featuring horizontal and vertical stripes such as Horizontal Stripe Painting : November 1957 - January 1958 1957–8 (Tate T01541). In slightly later paintings such as Yellow Painting : October 1958 May/June 1959, soft squares and rectangles were introduced as part of the artist’s effort to replace or resolve these bands or stripes and to complicate the pictorial surface. Heron stated in 1957 that with abstract paintings he could:
deal more directly and inventively … with every single aspect of the painting that is purely pictorial, i.e. the architecture of the canvas, the spatial interrelation of each and every touch … of colour, the colour character, the paint character … with a sense of freedom quite denied me when I still had to keep half an eye on a ‘subject’.
(Quoted in Knight 1985, p.9.)
However, abstract as his forms as may appear, in 1988 Heron acknowledged the enduring influence of his garden, suggesting that the ‘square-round’ shapes in his work might have subconsciously been based on rocks and hedges (see Heron in Knight 1988, p.15).
This work, which Heron described in 1999 as ‘a great favourite of mine’ (see the letter from Heron to Tate, 6 January 1999, Tate Acquisition file), was shown in the artist’s first New York exhibition at the Bertha Schaefer Gallery in April 1960. In his review of the exhibition published in the New York Times the critic Stuart Preston described Heron as a
juggler, balancing [his squarish shapes] in compositions of momentary equilibrium. Their state of suspended animation gives his pictures their extraordinary lightness despite the positive existence of his forms.
(Preston quoted in Gooding 1994, p.162.)
The emphasis on the relationship between space and colour as described by Preston reflects a 1969 statement from Heron in which he explained that he was ‘allowing varied quantities of colour to come to terms with each other. The soft-edged colour-areas exist not so much in their own right, as formal shapes; instead they come into being … in order to accommodate colour as such.’ (Patrick Heron, ‘Colour in My Painting’, Studio International, December 1969, p.204.)
Patrick Heron, exhibition catalogue, Barbican Art Gallery, London 1985.
Vivien Knight, Patrick Heron, London 1988.
Mel Gooding, Patrick Heron, London 1994.
Supported by Christie’s.