Catalogue entry

T03590 Empress 1982

Acrylic on canvas 84 1/8 × 120 (2135 × 3047)
Inscribed ‘Irvin '82’ on reverse on canvas turnover t.r.
Purchased from Gimpel Fils (Knapping Fund) 1983
Exh: Albert Irvin A Double Exhibition of New Works: Paintings, Watercolours, Prints, Gimpel Fils, September–October 1982, Goldsmith's College Gallery, October–November 1982 (18, at Gimpel Fils only)

The following entry is based on a conversation with the artist on 8 April 1986. It has been approved by him.

‘Empress’ is a work which is invested, in Irvin's own words, ‘with much personal significance’. By way of explanation, Irvin has recalled that it was the last work to be completed in a series of paintings which includes: ‘Samson’, ‘Beatrice’, ‘Prospero’, ‘Pegasus’ and ‘Portal’. These were also executed in 1982. ‘Empress’ and ‘Prospero’ were shown at Gimpel Fils, 9 September–2 October 1982 and ‘Samson’, ‘Beatrice’, ‘Pegasus’ and ‘Portal’ were shown at Goldsmith's College Gallery 13 October–3 November 1982. Irvin feels that, because these shows were imminent, ‘Empress’ was executed in a spirit of great optimism and confidence and with a sense of freedom to take risks. This may partly explain why in a number of respects ‘Empress’ is a reaction to and a development from the paintings which he had produced since the late 1970s.

During this earlier period Irvin had become increasingly dissatisfied with his practice of painting directly onto the white canvas ground. He felt that this inhibited the feeling of space which he wished to create within the picture. His solution was to begin subsequent paintings by staining the canvas with a single overall colour thereby creating a space which he felt he could ‘inhabit’. Between 1979 and 1982, all of Irvin's paintings, save ‘Empress’, were of this type. ‘Empress’ was mainly painted between June and September 1982. It is different in character from its immediate predecessors in that in this work Irvin reverted to the procedure which he had not used since ‘Trafalgar’ 1979. In ‘Empress’ Irvin began by making initial ‘sullying’ gestural marks on the periphery of the canvas (the green, oval and crossed forms in the final composition) and in its finished state areas of white ground are permitted to figure as part of the overall design. Irvin is unable to account for this isolated turnabout except by reference to the conditions under which the painting was created.

In ‘Empress’ the visual vocabulary employed in the works of the preceding five years achieves a greater state of refinement and is developed further through simplification of the constituent elements. With ‘Albion’ 1977, Irvin had broken with the landscape format which characterises the works exhibited at the New 57 Gallery, Edinburgh, and the Aberdeen Art Gallery in 1976. The common feature of these works is a thinly painted form at the top of the canvas suggesting sky above a more densely painted and textural area occupying the bottom half of the picture space. Irvin felt that this feeling of landscape was becoming too readily readable as such and was looking for a means of lending the dynamic elements within the picture greater possibilities of development. From ‘Albion’ onwards he evolved a structure which solved this problem. This consisted of a near diagonal set against a near horizontal suspended above the bottom edge. He found that this composition animated the rectangle better than before while the near diagonals directed from right to left were, in keeping with his right-handedness, a more effective ‘container for feeling’. In ‘Empress’ Irvin takes this further. He has described how, after painting a number of large blue diagonals across the face of the canvas, the possibility of a single large diagonal form suggested itself as a means of activating the space more emphatically. Consequently he overpainted these with the massive red diagonal which is the dominant and distinctive feature of the painting. This passage is particularly painterly and, in addition to the usual range of brushes, Irvin also used four-ringed dusting brushes (tradesman's brushes consisting of four ferrules containing long bristles and normally used for dusting surfaces prior to painting) in order to animate the surface. Irvin feels that the sensuous handling of paint in this area is closely related to his experience of visiting the Soutine exhibition at the Hayward Gallery, 17 July–22 August 1982, where the lively paint surfaces, particularly the red backdrops of such paintings as ‘Pastrycook’ 1918–19 and ‘Young Man’ 1920, made a profound impression. Irvin has stated that he feels a marked affinity with Soutine whom he regards as the paradigm of an artist who finds the image in the movement of paint.

A characteristic shared by ‘Empress’ with all Irvin's paintings since 1975 is that it is named after a street. In this case Empress Street is in Kennington, London SE17. Initially only London locations were used. However when the sheer number of paintings produced exhausted the availability of suitable names, Irvin began using titles from other places also. Prior to 1975 Irvin thought of his paintings as journeys. The titles of his paintings at this time - ‘Travelling Alone’, ‘Excursion’, ‘Wanderer’ - reflect this. Irvin maintains that he adopted this use of street names because he wanted a non-descriptive way of identifying his works without resorting to numbers of ‘Untitled’ labels. Nevertheless, although not used in any literal sense, the street names which Irvin selects have a significance above and beyond their function of identifying specific works. In some cases titles recall an acquaintance with or an experience of a place which has in some way contributed to or is connected with the making of the work in question. For instance, ‘Sul Ross’ 1981 is the address of the Rothko Chapel in Houston, USA. Irvin feels that the experience of his visit here subsequently fed into the making of this work. Alternatively, street titles are used because they have a ‘ring of relevance’. In this way ‘Boadicea’ 1979 (repr. in col., on the front of Albert Irvin, exhibition catalogue, Bede Gallery, Jarrow, November–December 1980) was used because Irvin felt that it conveyed ideas of femininity, the Heroic, and majesty which Irvin feels are inherent in the work. Irvin has suggested that these are qualities which are shared by ‘Empress’ and because the two paintings are related in character he used a name which carried similar associations. Irvin's earlier insistence on having been actually acquainted with the street in question is now less important than the idea of streets symbolising the passage of the artist through the world.

On a formal level there is in ‘Empress’ a tension between its flat painted surface and the suggestion of complex spatial relations. This is created, not by perspectival means but through a progressive overlapping of elements beginning at the bottom edge of the canvas with the circular and inverted ‘V’ shape in the foreground working through to the half-covered green forms at the top left of the painting. Irvin feels that this instinct derives in part from Kenneth Martin who was teaching at Goldsmith's College when Irvin was a student there. Its aim is to create what Irvin calls ‘a basket of space’, in which the spectator is free to exercise his own imagination. In subsequent works this is a tendency which has become more complex and sophisticated as forms are increasingly plaited and overlapping.

As with all his work, Irvin maintains that ‘Empress’ is not of anything. The subject is the painting and what has been ‘found’ in its making. The statement it makes is the record of how it was made. However he allows that its source is human activity and the experience of ‘being in the world’. As it was created at a time of singular optimism there is also a sense that ‘Empress’ is a celebration of this experience.

Published in:
The Tate Gallery 1982-84: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions, London 1986