John Walker b.1939
T01579 Study 1965
Acrylic and canvas collage on canvas, 87 x 121 (221 x307.5).
Purchased from the artist through Nigel Greenwood Inc. Ltd (Grant-in-Aid) 1972.
Lit: Jasia Reichardt, ‘Questions to the artists’ in Essays In Narrative—Paintings by Eric Brown, Norman Toynton,John Walker, catalogue, Zwemmer Gallery, February–April 1966; Richard Morphet, ‘John Walker’s work since 1965; in Studio International, March 1967, pp.80–85; Anne Seymour ‘John Walker’ in Marks on a Canvas, catalogue, Museum am Ostwall, Dortmund, May–July 1969, pp. 100–106;’John Walker on his Painting’; from a conversation with Tim Hilton in Studio International, June 1972, pp.244–247.
The following information was obtained from conversations with the artist (13 May and 21 August 1974) who has also approved this catalogue entry.
‘Study’ 1965 was one of a long series of paintings and collages done in 1965–66. The best known of these is the picture usually called ‘Anguish’, but more correctly ‘Study for Anguish’, which won the artist a prize at the 1965 John Moores exhibition and first brought him public attention. Up to this time he had been working in virtual isolation.
The series is divided into two with a second group of works on the subject beginning late in 1965 and continuing into 1966 and overlapping with another series of paintings with lozenge shapes, hard, shiny, metallic, lying at the very bottom of the picture or floating down it. The present work was done after the John Moores exhibition at the very end of the first series, probably in November 1965. The artist also made a companion picture to the Tate’s with coloured rather than black and white shapes (collection Dr Carter, London).
The title ‘Study’ is common to all the paintings in the series. They were all studies around the theme of ‘Anguish’ and were thus not definitive except as a group. In all Walker estimates that he produced about twenty-five paintings using the same kind of imagery. He also did a number of large collages, but here the folded shape which characterises the series generally appears singly. There are not many drawings of this kind : at this time drawing as an activity was not so important to him and he did not make drawings for the paintings, however of the few extant some are quite close to the paintings.
The formats and sizes of the paintings in the series varied. Some were very large, double the size of the Tate picture, with huge, long jagged shapes which seemed to attack the folded one. There were two variants of this basic shape—a double-fronted, open-book image, as in the present picture and a sideways view as in the John Moores’ picture. In some cases, as in the latter painting, the basic shape is accompanied by a tattered, jagged, fluttering image. (In this particular case in fact an unidentifiable piece of a figurative picture.)
In the very earliest pictures of the series the shapes were not collaged, but painted directly onto the canvas. They were usually single-shape pictures in which Walker had a clear idea of what he wanted in advance. He subsequently became more involved with the relationships between the shapes and using collage (the shapes were painted before they were stuck on) meant he could move them about on the canvas until he got what he wanted. That is to say, having isolated the shapes Walker began to work on the tensions between them. This led directly to the trapezoid pictures which began in 1966 where the shape of the canvas became part of the relationship between the forms.
The first collage paintings of the series were done on plain canvas; the grid was a later refinement to counteract the sensation of infinity which the whiteness of the cotton duck suggested. The grid thus marked the position of the surface and the shapes held their position in relation to it. It was simply a formal device, no metaphysical meanings were intended and its character was basically the result of purely practical decisions. For example the reason for its form and irregularity lay partly in Walker’s dislike of ‘smart art’, but also in that he did not want to involve himself ‘in a huge gestural thing’, and in the fact that an easy way of making a grid was to cut himself a rectangular plate of cardboard and to spray within it. When painting the grid Walker recalls that he was pleased to notice the analogy between it and the form of the lattice-work grids which held the price-tags on the counters in the more old-fashioned branches of Woolworth’s. He has said (Marks on a Canvas catalogue) that he has tried to give the shapes in in his pictures ‘a kind of Wool-worth’s look—the look household goods have in a catalogue put out by John Moores (postal shopping service) of Liverpool, where the image tells you straight away what you want to know without fuss.’
The folded shapes themselves reveal the need Walker felt to use an abstract shape which nevertheless alluded illusionistically to the third dimension. He in fact made three-dimensional cardboard models from which he drew. He needed something visual to work from, just as in his earlier work the human figure had been his starting point.
This was a time of crisis in the artist’s work when he was moving from figurative to non-figurative painting. He described it as ‘one of those situations where you realise that what is important in painting is not what you’re doing.’ It was a confused but crucial period which lasted perhaps eighteen months. There was no simple transition from one state to another. He was making models, ‘messing around with cardboard shapes’, drawing them and trying them out on canvas, but at the same time he was also painting figurative pictures based on the experiences of his father and his grandfather in the First World War. And he tried other ways of making the transition from figurative to abstract work, for example drawings using the method of strip cartoons through which he treated a subject progressively more abstractly; he also did a number of pictures using written words such as ‘Anguish’ or ‘Death’, where a verbal message seemed more effective than a visual one.
One of Walker’s chief concerns was to find in abstract painting the emotional content he could express traditionally in a figurative context. He has said that in the painting ‘Study for Anguish’ he wanted to ‘achieve a petrified scream, to isolate a scream’. Clearly his interests in this context have lateral connections with his vast admiration for Goya, and with his father’s wartime experiences. It was also directly influenced by a television programme about an earthquake—possibly at Skopje.
Certain other considerations connected with abstract painting in Britain at the time also influenced the course of Walker’s search for an individual approach. Most of what he had seen of current British abstraction seemed to be specifically flat, whereas he felt the need for a reference to the third dimension. Painters at that time seemed to him to have looked at sculpture but not to have understood its three-dimensionality. Thus the illusionism and hard, tight colour of the three-dimensional shapes in his pictures became a means of getting away from flat colour painting. Apparently the shapes, and the sense of a specific light source flashing across them, to a certain extent suggested their colour, and the ‘cheapness’ which characterises it relates to Walker’s liking for Woolworth’s art. An additional aspect of Walker’s desire for simplicity and directness (and one which offsets the careful illusionism) can be seen in his great regard for Pollock, whose picture ‘No. 12’ had had a profound effect on him since he saw it in the Tate Gallery American exhibition in 1959. It seemed to Walker that Pollock showed how important it was to work quickly and directly and that he used canvas not as something grand but as if it were paper and he were writing with a pencil on a pad.
Published in The Tate Gallery Report 1972–1974, London 1975.