In a sad coincidence, a new display of Alan Davie's work opened this week at Tate Britain just days after the artist's death at the age of 93. Here, curator Helen Little pays tribute to the great Scottish abstract painter – and we publish a recent interview with the late artist
In affectionate memory of Alan Davie who was born 28 September 1920 and died 5 April 2014
It is with sadness that the opening of Tate Britain’s BP Spotlight display celebrating the work of Alan Davie coincides with the artist’s death at the age of 93. This display, showcasing all eight of Davie’s paintings in Tate’s collection as well as material from the artist’s personal archive, is a timely opportunity to trace the development of his practice over the last 60 years, highlighting particular moments in his remarkable visual journey.
Davie is celebrated for being one of the first British artists after the Second World War to develop an expressive form of abstraction. He began his career as a poet, jewellery maker and jazz musician before becoming a painter, combining these disciplines throughout his career. The power and mystery of jazz, which Davie believed to be the creative medium of the 1940s, was a continual source in his search for ‘the mystery of life’.
Davie’s breakthrough moment as a painter came in the spring of 1948 when he took up a deferred art school scholarship and travelled around Europe. Unlike other British artists who made straight to Paris and stayed there, Davie ventured further afield. The time he spent in Venice coincided with the 1948 Biennale, the first after the war, where exhibitions of the work of Paul Klee and Peggy Guggenheim’s collection of surrealist and contemporary American art inspired him to begin painting. Stimulated by what he had encountered on the continent, Davie set out to free himself from the conventions of picture making. Working quickly with boards and canvases packed around the walls and floor of his studio using large brushes and pots of liquid paint, he produced a body of work without any consideration for subject or form, discovering that images appeared to him in magical moments when he was completely surprised and ‘enraptured beyond knowing’.
Back in Britain during the early 1950s, a time when British artists had limited exposure to the latest painting from America, Davie earned the reputation of being the nearest thing in England to an American Abstract Expressionist. Yet Davie always maintained that he was a Scottish artist and it is interesting to consider his work in the context of the abstract decoration of his Celtic tradition rather than in that of modernist American painting. During the 1960s when his work started to gain critical and commercial success, Davie’s improvisatory paintings continued to harness his engagement with jazz, Zen Buddhism and prehistoric cultures as well as his pursuits of fast cars, gliding, scuba diving and sailing that as powerful extensions of the body brought him closer to nature.
During the later 1960s when a younger generation of British artists were renegotiating action painting and moving towards post-painterly abstraction, Davie’s art began to shift towards a postmodern revival of figuration, narrative and mythology. His paintings took on a new direction during the 1970s when the artist spent part of each year living and working on the Caribbean island of St. Lucia. The move brought about a fresh dialogue with the art of ancient cultures, enabling the artist to tap into cosmologies less understood in the western world, his lyrical brushwork disappearing altogether in favour of more formally controlled cornucopias of pictograms, symbols and text.
Davie had an impressive collection of African, North-American Indian and Oceanic art that has on several occasions been exhibited alongside his paintings. Jainism, which believes the universe has always existed and is governed by cosmic laws and energy processes, became a particular obsession during the 1980s after Davie encountered Jainist diagrams in a New York gallery. Another was a group of ancient Carib Indian petroglyphs that Davie tracked down on a trek through the Venezuelan jungle. He discovered that these forms from 3000 BC are found in other cultures and delighted in the fact that, as in his images that exist in visual and non-verbal forms, no one has been able to explain their meaning.
Davie commitment to these principles and sources continued throughout the rest of his long career and are epitomised in his most recent and elaborately wrought ink drawings and oil sketches that capture his belief that art should flow out of the totality of life. The content and appearance of his paintings may have changed over the years, but as the works on display at Tate Britain suggest, Davie’s practice was underpinned by his idea that ‘Painting is a continuous process which has no beginning or end. There never really is a point in time when painting is NOT.’
Alan Davie on his 1955 work, Birth of Venus
How did this painting come about?
It was not preconceived. With all my paintings, I was trying to produce something very spontaneous. I had an urge to paint, much like a sexual urge, or another urge that one doesn’t have control over.
So there is no particular subject matter?
No, it is purely abstract. The title is not to be taken literally – it is a poetic interpretation of how the painting looked once it was finished. I chose it just as a form of identification, almost like naming a child or giving a title to a piece of music. Art and music are very much on the same footing for me. I still spend as much time every day playing music as I do painting.
How long did it take to paint?
It’s hard to say. My pictures can take several months to complete, or they can be done in an hour. Sometimes I think a painting is finished and realise later it’s not.
How would you describe your technique?
To produce something spontaneously, one had to work very fast, and to work fast one had to use liquid paint. You can’t use liquid paint with a canvas on an easel, so I worked with the canvas on the floor. Jackson Pollock was doing the same thing at the same time without us ever having met, though I did eventually spend a weekend with him in Long Island.
Which other artists influenced you?
I never really mixed with other artists, but I met some of my contemporaries when I came over to New York for my first show – people like Willem de Kooning, Yves Klein and Pollock came to the opening. My main interest is primitive art. I have a big collection of African and Oceanic things all round my house – they sit very nicely next to my paintings.
Interview by Louise Cohen, 2009
BP Spotlight: Alan Davie is at Tate Britain until 28 September 2014