Alan Davie

Black Mirror


Alan Davie 1920–2014
Oil paint on board
Support: 1219 × 1219 mm
frame: 1245 × 1270 × 65 mm
Purchased 1973

Display caption

Black had a special meaning for the artist following a brief illness in 1946 during which he was temporarily blind. He described this traumatic visual experience as 'whiteness'. In contrast black came to signify life and 'the depth of life'. Davie's usual practice at this time was to produce each painting swiftly and violently through a 'flash of inspiration'. If he was subsequently unhappy with the result he would begin again, obliterating the image with a completely new painting. Davie resisted the notion of pure abstraction and his title emphasises this. According to Davie 'here is a picture which you would call abstract but is a mirror in itself'.

Gallery label, September 2004

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Catalogue entry

Alan Davie b.1920

T01749 Black Mirror 1952

Inscribed ‘Alan Davie/”Black Mirror” 1952/48” x 48”‘ on reverse.
Oil on hardboard, 48 x 48 (132 x 122).
Purchased from the artist through Gimpel Fils (Grant-in-Aid) 1973.
Exh: The Mirror and the Square, New Burlington Galleries, December 1952 (226); University Art Museum, The University of Texas at Austin, September–October 1970; Muséed’Art Contemporain, Cité du Havre, Montreal, November–December 1970; California College of Arts and Crafts, Oakland, January–February 1971 (5,repr.); Royal Scottish Academy, Edinburgh, August–September 1972; Herzog Anton Ulrich Museum, Braunschweig, November–December 1972; Badischer Kunstverein, Karlsruhe, January 1973 (1, repr.).
Lit: Alan Davie, ed. Alan Bowness, London 1967, No.61.
Repr: Motif 7, Summer 1961, pl.1, p. 14.

According to Bowness (op. cit., No.61 in the catalogue) ‘Black Mirror’ was the last painting made in 1952. The artist wrote: ‘It was painted in New Barnet where we had one attic room at the Abbey Art Centre, in which I, my wife and baby lived. I painted and made jewelry, all in the same small room.’

‘The paintings of the period that remain are few—the outcome of violent and mainly destructive work—most of them have many various paintings underneath them… each successive image being the result of the destruction of the previous one (obliteration by a new image, not removal of).

‘At that time I felt the need to produce a work by a flash of intuition—if it didn’t come off I did another on top. There is no doubt that many good things were destroyed in the process—but the result could never have been achieved by any other way. A lot of good ideas were disregarded and not developed.’

‘Another governing factor, of course, was the fact that I couldn’t afford to buy a lot of boards or canvases (boards were cheaper and more suitable to withstand my violent onslaughts!) and as I hadn’t another to hand, I would simply paint on top of something which was probably good but really not good enough for me.’

Although the painting was not painted specifically for it ‘the title was prompted by the title of the show The Mirror and the Square. It was really a kind of protest against the theme of the exhibition which I took to be a division between “mirror-visual” and “square-abstract”. I always insisted my work was never ABSTRACT— thus suggesting—“here is a picture which you would call Abstract, but it actually is a mirror in itself.”’

When asked whether the colour black had any particular meaning, the artist replied: ‘Black did seem to be a significant ‘colour’ for me—I still feel that black signifies infinity, and depth of life.’

He continued: ‘One of the most traumatic experiences of my life which made a deep impression occurred when I was not long out of the army (1946). A psychosomatic illness culminating in a sudden bout of sickness when I was actually blind for a short period—the “visual” experience was of “whiteness”!! The white paper or white canvas becomes a void, a vacuum—any mark placed there becomes a sign of life’.

Referring to the somewhat rectilinear paintings of the early fifties, with which T01749 can be grouped, the artist stated that ‘the structure in the paintings wasn’t put there for any specific purpose.’

‘Black Mirror’ is Opus 88.

Published in The Tate Gallery Report 1972–1974, London 1975.


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