Sir Terry Frost

Black and White Movement


Not on display

Sir Terry Frost 1915–2003
Oil paint on board
Unconfirmed: 1778 × 1016 mm
frame: 1860 × 1047 × 45 mm
Purchased 1992

Display caption

Terry Frost was based in St Ives, a harbour town and a centre for abstract

art. There he made a series of works inspired by the boats in the harbour, in which diagonal and curving lines intersect. These lines echo the shapes of the boats and their rocking motion, the curves of the ropes that secured them, the arcs of the swaying masts and the small waves coming into shore.

Frost was associated with a group of ‘Constructionist’ artists committed to non-representational art. He and they frequently based works like this on geometrical proportions

such as the Golden Section.  

Gallery label, February 2010

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Catalogue entry

Terry Frost born 1915

Black and White Movement 1952


Oil on board 1778 x 1016 (70 x 40)

Inscribed on back in black oil paint ‘Terry Frost | 52 | Black & White | Movement’ [circled], top

Purchased from the artist (Grant-in-Aid) 1992

Terry Frost Paintings; Walter Hoyle Watercolours and Drawings, Leicester Galleries, London, October 1952 (28 as Movement, Black and White)
Space in Colour, Hanover Gallery, London, July-August 1953 (10)
Terry Frost: Paintings 1948-89, Mayor Gallery, London, March-April 1990 (5, reproduced in colour p.13)

Michael Tooby, Tate Gallery St Ives and Barbara Hepworth Museum and Sculpture Garden: Illustrated Companion, London 1993, p.55 (reproduced in colour)

David Lewis, Terry Frost, Aldershot 1994, p.50 (colour)
Twentieth Century British Art: From Sickert to Hirst, Spink-Leger Pictures, London 1998, [p.108] (colour)

This is one of a group of works by Frost in which semi-circular forms seem to zig-zag their way down the painting. The first of these appeared in 1951, with such examples as Green, Black and White Movement (Tate T01501), and they persisted until 1954. The composition of one of the last, Long Yellow Painting, 1954,[1] is especially close to Black and White Movement, though its strong red and yellow colouring is in sharp contrast to the subdued palette of the Tate’s work.

The artist explained that these paintings derived from his observation of boats in the harbour at St Ives, Cornwall: the rocking movement of the hulls, the swaying of the masts that defined arcs in the air, and the taut and slackened lines of the mooring-ropes. In retrospect, he denied that the works were a series,[2] and this was reflected at the time in his desire to associate each painting with a specific experience. In an article published in 1954 and accompanied by several images of this type, he explained the way his subject was translated into paint and the intended result. He associated a specific work, Blue Movement 1953 (Vancouver Art Gallery)[3] with a number of evenings spent looking over St Ives harbour and the emotional effect of a specific moment.

On one particular blue twilit evening, I was watching what I can only describe as a synthesis of movement and counter-movement ... all this plus the predominant feel of blue in the evening and the static brown of the foreshore, generated an emotional state which was to find expression in the painting Blue Movement. ... I was not portraying the boats, the sand, the horizon or any other subject matter, but concentrating on the emotion engendered by what I saw. The subject-matter is in fact the sensation evoked by the movement and the colour in the harbour. What I have painted is an arrangement of form and colour which evokes for me a similar feeling.[4]

Lawrence Alloway identified the debt to Kandinsky that Frost’s statement revealed. The artist had encountered the work and ideas of Kandinsky through the London-based artist Adrian Heath, a friend of Frost, who had an extensive library and, at the time of this painting, was researching an introductory history of abstract art.[5]

Frost had lived in St Ives from May 1946 and the development of an abstract painting based on landscape sources was typical of the art made by many of his colleagues there. However, that idiom was part of a wider semi-figurative manner – reflected, for example, in William Scott’s treatment of the nude and still-life – which was presented in the early 1950s in opposition to the pure abstraction of such artists as Victor Pasmore and Kenneth and Mary Martin. This last group were known as the Constructionists, signalling their development of pre-war constructivism, and Frost managed to associate with them while being identified with St Ives. It may be that his proximity to Ben Nicholson – the doyen of St Ives and a father figure for the Constructionists – facilitated such flexibility.

In a commentary on the work of the Constructionist group, Alloway drew a distinction between ‘abstract’ and ‘concrete’ in artistic discourse: the former ‘meaning to draw out of or draw from’, while the latter was reserved for ‘works of art in which a process of abstraction is not perceptible’.[6] He divided the group by these terms and implicitly cast aspersions on the persistent reliance of Frost, Scott and Roger Hilton on external sources. Pasmore, the Martins, Heath, Anthony Hill and Robert Adams continued the pre-war project of Circle,[7] retaining a belief in the role that an objective, purely abstract art, integrated with design and architecture, and associated ideals might play in a future society. In contrast with their precise, systematically determined work, Frost, Scott and Hilton represented ‘the other extreme of non-figurative art – irrational expression by malerisch means ... belong[ing] to the painterly abstractionists who melt, bury or fracture platonic geometry’.[8] Through references to the critical writings of Harold Rosenberg and Michel Tapié, they were associated with recent painting in Paris and New York. This was seen to privilege the individuality and subjectivity of the artist in contrast to the objectivity to which the Constructionists aspired in their work.

Alloway saw the external references as detrimental to the painting. In contrast, Patrick Heron, an advocate of both formalist aesthetics and the retention of a degree of representation, described Frost as one of the artists who ‘construct with non-figurative units’.[9] Black and White Movement demonstrates the way in which Frost could be associated with a variety of different artistic groupings. He, himself, stressed the fact that, while the forms of the painting derived from St Ives harbour, the composition was based on geometrical formulae. In particular, in common with many artists who, like him, were educated within the regime of William Coldstream, he employed the Golden Section to divide his support. This geometrical proportion, given numerically as the ratio 1:0.618, had been used by artists since Antiquity and attained a near-mystical significance through its observation in nature. In paintings such as Black and White Movement lines were drawn between particular points along the painting’s edges to determine the arrangement of forms. Frost explained that, like Victor Pasmore, he did this with the use of a piece of string, which would be slackened to produce the curves that drop below the straight lines.[10] The relationship of the actual forms to the geometry is thus approximate and, though one might associate the composition with the Golden Section and other proportions, the geometry of this work appears to be especially vague. This seems to be explained by the artist’s recollection that the painting ‘used to be longer ... but I cut it off to make a library shelf. I cut it off deliberately because I didn’t like it’.[11] It is not known why he disliked the work. While typical of the casual attitude towards his work that Frost adopts, this comment is indicative of his tempering of geometric composition with intuition. By 1954 he wrote that he felt construction omitted the ‘mystery part of art’ and described purely abstract work as ‘a departure from life’ that excluded ‘any intuitive feeling’.[12] One might see such an intuitive approach registered in the bold, gestural manner of his painting style in Black and White Movement.

That the painting remained in the artist’s studio for many years is reflected in its condition. On acquisition by the Tate Gallery, the corners and lower edge were damaged and the hardboard had delaminated along its vertical edges. There were widespread losses, especially at the edges. Some of these had been filled and there was liberal retouching.[13] The back is splattered with paint and had scraps of newspaper adhering to it. Painted on the smooth face of the hardboard, the painting is made up exclusively of black and white paint. The various tones of grey were achieved through mixing the two and this was done on the board. That the composition was carefully premeditated is indicated by the fact that the paint is generally only one layer thick and discrete areas were painted separately. The white was applied first and there was some mixing where the wet white and wet black paint met. Some black was dragged over when the first layer was dry. By 1992, the painting had acquired a wax finish which was not original.[14] Some of the blacks were thought to have lost their intensity and it was unclear whether that was a result of this imposed surface layer, the type of paint used or the preparation of the board. Frost said:

In those days I used the cheapest black I could possibly find, I think it was out of a tin and it’s probably a blackboard black, something like that, not the normal stuff I would probably have used ... the black looks to me a little bit flat at the moment ... It is possible that I didn’t prepare the board, that I painted straight on.[15]

The last conjecture seems to be confirmed by inspection, as no ground is apparent.

Frost connected the quality of the colours to the emotional effect of the painting:

There is a certain distance between you and the black now, which is quite important. It separates itself from you because it is not a loveable, juicy black, which I have often used, I may have wanted something like that ... It is a very lonely black, it is a real sad black in many ways, different to the blacks I usually use ... it is a dead black with a certain purpose.[16]

In keeping with this observation, one of the most obvious formal comparisons for this work is with the monochromatic still-lifes made by Picasso during and after the Second World War. A restricted colouring and the inclusion of skulls have led these to be read as symbolic comments on the war and its aftermath. While such works as Goat’s Skull, Bottle and Candle (Tate T00145) were made in the same year as Black and White Movement and would not have been seen by Frost, Picasso’s wartime work had been exhibited in London in December 1945.[17] At the same time, in the United States several artists were making paintings that were entirely, or predominantly, black and white, including Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning and Franz Kline. Frost may have known such work through friends (St Ives artist Peter Lanyon had seen monochromatic works by de Kooning at the 1950 Venice Biennale) or through magazine reproductions.

The almost monochromatic palette is one of the features which distinguishes Black and White Movement from the earlier Green, Black and White Movement. In that work the softly modulated, often translucent green seems to allude to the sea in both its colouring and its suggestion of depth. Here, the starkness of colour emphasises the painting’s formal qualities while the zig-zag lines draw the eye from side to side across the surface of the painting. In keeping with contemporary aesthetics, Frost saw the flatness of a painting, the avoidance of an illusionary space, as a mark of quality. While the American critic, Clement Greenberg, advocated the flatness achieved through a complete balance between figure and ground, Frost’s friend Patrick Heron valued a shallow pictorial space. In Black and White Movement the stark colouring helps to prevent the eye being drawn into the picture, while such details as the vertical stroke of grey that cuts across the black triangle towards the bottom right-hand corner defines a shallow recession. The controlled, ruled pencil lines which are still visible in the 1951 painting have been covered with broad strokes of paint. This apparently informal application of colour, also indicated by the feint arcs which seem to have been made with an almost dry brush, suggest a rapid, intuitive studio practice which links the work to the emerging British interest in French Tachsime. Frost’s emphasis on structure has also been linked to the grid-like abstraction of such Parisian painters as Alfred Manessier, Roger Bissière and Pierre Soulages, whose work Frost would have known through his friend Roger Hilton.

The restricted palette also associated the painting with a group of related works by Hilton and Scott, some of which were reproduced in Nine Abstract Artists. Both made paintings, vaguely derived from the figure or still-life, which consisted of a minimal grid of black lines, with some flashes of underlying colour, through a painterly white field. In these works, the monochrome places a special emphasis on the structural form of the painting, while the attention to the surface emphasises the presence of the artist in its making in defiance of the claimed objectivity of constructivist approaches. Thus, the loose brushwork of Frost’s work may be aligned with the development of an art that was at once abstract (almost concrete in Alloway’s terms) but expressive of the artist’s existential state. The tension between abstraction and figuration would continue to be a major force in his own work and came to be the subject of a protracted correspondence between him and Hilton, who gradually moved away from a dogmatic adherence to total non-figuration during the 1950s. Until the 1980s, Frost became progressively more committed to total abstraction, a development the early stages of which are indexed in the differences between this work and the earlier Green, Black and White Movement.

Chris Stephens
December 2000

[1] Reproduced in Terry Frost: Retrospective Exhibition 1964, exhibition catalogue, Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, [p.18]
[2] Interview with the author, 4 May 1998
[3] Account published in Lawrence Alloway, Nine Abstract Artists, London 1954, pp.23-4; Blue Movement 1953, reproduced in David Lewis, Terry Frost, Aldershot 1994, p.61
[4] In Lawrence Alloway, Nine Abstract Artists, London 1954, pp.23-4
[5] Adrian Heath, Abstract Painting: Its Origins and Meaning, London 1953
[6] Alloway 1954, p.17 n1
[7] J.L. Martin, Ben Nicholson, N. Gabo, Circle: International Survey of Constructive Art, London 1937
[8] Alloway 1954, pp.3-4
[9] Patrick Heron, Space in Colour, exhibition catalogue, Hanover Gallery, London 1953
[10] Interview with the author, 4 May 1998
[11] Interview with Tate Gallery conservators, 17 February 1993
[12] Undated notes [c.1954] quoted in Chris Stephens, Terry Frost, London 2000, p.33.
[13] Tate Gallery conservation files
[14] Ibid.
[15] Interview with Tate Gallery conservators, 17 February 1993
[16] Ibid.
[17] Picasso Matisse, Victoria and Albert Museum, London 1945

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