Ian Stephenson

Polychromatic G

1961

Artist
Ian Stephenson 1934–2000
Medium
Oil paint on canvas
Dimensions
Support: 1270 x 1270 mm
frame: 1342 x 1342 x 48 mm
Collection
Tate
Acquisition
Purchased 1962
Reference
T00523

Not on display

Summary

Boon is a large oil painting on canvas by the American artist James Brooks. The canvas is covered with abstract forms in shades of black, grey, white and yellow that are rendered in various thicknesses of paint using multi-directional, gestural brushstrokes. In the left of the picture a tumble of rounded, greyish-white billows of paint travel down the image from top to bottom, becoming wider as they reach the lower edge of the picture. To the right of this, a series of black, white and yellow abstract shapes knit together and overlap each other in a rhythmic fashion, seeming to flow from top centre to bottom right. The areas of black paint are the most visually pronounced, while patches of brilliant golden yellow punctuate the background and bring coherence to the otherwise chaotic central area of the shallow pictorial space.

Boon was made by Brooks in 1957. To create it he applied oil paints to cotton duck canvas that had been treated with rabbit-skin glue. According to Brooks, the painting’s title does not share any deliberate resonant meaning with the painting and exists merely as a means of identifying the work. The artist initially numbered his paintings sequentially throughout each year, before moving to a system of lettering in alphabetic sequence from A to Z. Since neither system worked well in terms of recalling individual paintings by name, Brooks moved to a new method, as he described in 1960:

I use the same sequence but complete the initial with a made up word, without too much attention to its evocative value, depending on its long association with the picture to develop a meaning. The titles are an attempt to avoid a name whose associations will be read into the picture, except in rare cases (such as a dedication, as ‘Jackson’).
(Quoted in Alley 1981, pp.83–4.)

In the same statement Brooks clarified that Boon is entirely abstract in nature. It is devoid of figurative content, having been developed by Brooks from an improvised starting point and progressed in a gestural fashion.

Brooks was a first-generation abstract expressionist painter, along with his friend Jackson Pollock. He was employed as a mural painter by the Federal Art Project of the Works Progress Administration during the American Depression in the 1930s. His early work in mural painting meant he was confident working on a large scale (see, for instance, Flight 1942 at New York’s LaGuardia Airport Marine Building). Between 1942 and 1945 Brooks served in the US army and was sent to fight in the Second World War; he was therefore absent from New York during crucial years in the development of abstract expressionism, when artists such as Pollock, Philip Guston, Mark Rothko and Robert Motherwell all had solo shows in New York galleries. Upon his return from the army Brooks changed direction from mural painting, crediting Pollock’s drip paintings from 1947 as a source of inspiration and encouragement to experiment. (Lisa Mintz Messinger, ‘James Brooks’, in Heckscher Museum 1988, p.8.) Yet it was not until 1948 that Brooks finally abandoned the figure for a new gestural, abstract expressionist style of painting. His first one-man exhibition came in 1949 at the Peridot Gallery, New York. That same year, he clarified the nature of his artistic process:

My work is improvisation to start with. My purpose is to get as much unknown on the canvas as I can. Then I can start digesting or changing. The first thing is to get a great many unfamiliar things on the surface. The working through on another side is an unfamiliar attack. There are shapes suggested that start improvising themselves, which I then start developing.
(Quoted in Messinger 1988, p.8.)

Boon was first exhibited in James Brooks at the Stable Gallery, New York, in spring 1957. The all-over rhythmic quality of Boon is typical of the artist’s work of the late 1940s and the 1950s. In contrast, the subsequent three decades would see Brooks deploying semi-geometric and biomorphic shapes of solid colour with calligraphic lines as a counterpoint (see, for instance, Obsol 1964, Museum of Modern Art, New York).

Further reading
James Brooks: Paintings 1952–1975, Works on Paper 1950–1975, exhibition catalogue, Martha Jackson Gallery, New York 1975.
Ronald Alley, Catalogue of the Tate Gallery’s Collection of Modern Art other than Works by British Artists, London 1981, pp.83–4, reproduced p.83.
James Brooks: A Quarter Century of Work, exhibition catalogue, Heckscher Museum, Huntington 1988.

Beth Williamson
January 2017

Supported by the Terra Foundation for American Art.

Catalogue entry

T00523 POLYCHROMATIC G 1961

Not inscribed.
Canvas, 50×50 (127×127).
Purchased from the New Art Centre (Grant-in-Aid) 1962.
Exh: New Art Centre, May–June 1962 (16, repr.).
Repr: Studio, CLXIII, 1962, p.236.

The artist wrote (20 June 1962) that this painting was completed in the spring of 1961. In the same letter he explained that he had been concerned with the problem of modern art in relation to tradition, the development from Impressionism towards abstraction. He sought to maintain ‘painting localized in things rather than universal in application’. There was also the element of ambiguity, symbolized in this picture by the letter ‘G’ which could be equated with ‘gravity, Gagarin, Giusti etc. Especially the latter, a non-dramatic échorché figure from which a series of paintings have been particularized.’ The picture also includes the letters ‘f’ and ‘o’.

Giusti, so called after the maker's name, is a two-foot high anatomical model in the artist's studio. Made of plaster, this battered figure of a man twisting and stretching displays the muscular tensions of the body. It is the changing forms and shadows cast by this figure which find an echo in the artist's work and provide the reference outside the painting that he feels to be necessary. (See Alan Bowness, ‘Ian Stephenson’ in Studio, CLXIII, 1962, pp.236–7.

Published in:
Mary Chamot, Dennis Farr and Martin Butlin, The Modern British Paintings, Drawings and Sculpture, London 1964, II

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