Sir Terry Frost

June, Red and Black


Not on display

Sir Terry Frost 1915–2003
Acrylic paint on canvas
Support: 2445 × 1835 mm
Purchased 1966

Display caption

In the 1960s the forms in Frost's paintings became much simpler and the colours more pure. This reflected the art of the period and, in particular, paintings by the American artist Ellsworth Kelly. Kelly produced shaped canvases painted in single colours, which Frost might have seen in America.

Although paintings such as these are apparently abstract, Frost did relate the shapes to objects such as boats or women's bodies. A relief version of this work was sub-titled 'Mae West' after the famously curvy actress.

Gallery label, September 2004

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Catalogue entry

Terry Frost born 1915

June, Red and Black 1965


Acrylic on canvas 2445 x 1835 (96 ¼ x 72 ¼)

Inscribed on back of canvas in black paint ‘June Red | & Black | Top ↑ | Frost 65’
Purchased from the artist through the Waddington Galleries (Mara Savic Bequest) 1966

John Moores Liverpool Exhibition 5, Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool, November 1965-January 1966 (5)
?Twelve Artists, Reading Art Gallery, 1968 (no catalogue traced)

Norbert Lynton, ‘London Letter’, Art International, vol.10, no.1, January 1966, p.82, reproduced p.85
Tate Gallery Report 1966-7, London 1967, p.26
Chris Stephens, Terry Frost, London 2000, p.58, reproduced p.56 (colour)

G.S. Whittet, ‘Biennial on the Mersey’, Studio International, vol.171, no.873, January 1966, p.21

The artist wrote to the Tate Gallery about this work in 1967:

I would love to be able to tell you why & how I came to paint the Tate picture, but really it is no lie to say that its too long a story, for it’s a total of a hell of a lot of happenings. ... since I started painting these shapes have kept recurring & now I see them in everything – and you really know the way I fidget round an idea until I get the one good ptg out every now & again. There are in fact lino cuts & many drawings toward that painting. I’ve always known about positive and negative (who doesn’t) but when it works, so that everything is positive, well that’s it; that’s what I believe happened in that ptg. Sometimes I get the strength to have complete confidence in myself & every shape. Other times I find the shapes can be associative, but only after the painting. I can’t stand them being associative before, that puts me right off. I don’t mind what they turn out to be after how much they belong & they do belong to all kinds of things if they work.[1]

As the artist’s comment may suggest, this painting can be read formally or figuratively. It consists of six quadrants coloured alternately red and black within a white field of slightly varying hue. While there is a delicate tension between the six curved edges, between the lower two pairs of quadrants there are two horizontal strips of bare canvas. June, Red and Black is one of a number of works in which simple forms are so conjoined as to create a sense of tension between them. This aspect had come to the fore in Frost’s work a few years earlier with such pictures as May 1962 (Stays) (Tate T06603), in which quadrants were similarly brought together. The restriction of the palette to black, white and red accentuates the purity of the forms. This combination has recurred throughout Frost’s career. The roots of its attraction for him probably lie in his interest in the Russians El Lissistsky and Kasimir Malevich, to whose work he was introduced by Adrian Heath and others in the early 1950s. He has also acknowledged a link between this work and Roger Hilton’s paintings of red, black and white, such as February 1954 (Tate T01230).

Conversely, he has related such works to the female body, seeing the quadrants as suggestive of breasts or buttocks. That he saw paintings like June, Red and Black in these terms is confirmed by the sub-titling of one of several related work as ‘Mae West’. The reference to the Hollywood pin-up of the 1920s and 1930s, or to the life jackets nicknamed after her, was especially striking when Frost used it for a three-dimensional work of the same time: Mae West, 1966 (private collection).[2] Seen front-on, this looks like June, Red and Black but it is, in fact, made up of two quarter-cylinders, so that the coloured forms curve outwards from the middle, and away from each other, in a manner that alludes to the cleavage of the screen star’s generous bust.

June, Red and Black demonstrates the changes that Frost’s work underwent in the mid 1960s. He had developed an interest in heraldic imagery, which he associated with a visit to the stately home of Compton Wynyates, shortly after he moved from St Ives to Banbury at the beginning of 1963. In the chapel there, he was especially struck by the flags carried at the Battle of Edge Hill during the Civil War, including the chevron that had featured in his painting since 1959. These flags, along with the front of lorries and road signs, became models for a starker, flatter style. This change was in line with developments in painting in Britain and America, with the emergence of a generation of abstract painters who had consciously adopted the doctrine of flatness propounded by the American critic Clement Greenberg. Kenneth Noland and Jules Olitski were among the ‘post-painterly’ abstract artists whose work Frost might have seen when he visited New York in 1960 and 1962. In any case, such artists were already known to British painters. In its use of curving forms, flat colour, and in the tension between the forms and the edge and the forms and each other, it is perhaps to the work of Ellsworth Kelly that June, Red and Black is closest. By the 1960s Kelly had established himself with his canvases of fields of strong, flat colour, and had had his first one-person exhibition in London in 1962.

The simple curved forms of this painting and its flat finish, which contrasts with Frost’s earlier preference for an expressionistic handling of paint, reveal this adjustment. In a continuation of his desire for a flat picture surface, devoid of illusionistic depth, the white area can be seen as equally dominant to the red and black. This effect is enhanced by the slightly different whites in this central area. In related works, the different areas are so equal in value that the middle seems to become a stylised cross. The fact that, in June, Red and Black, the white paint was applied around the other forms supports the idea of their equal status.

Frost’s technique also reflected the change in his work. In 1964 he was introduced to acrylic paints while a visiting teacher at the University of California in San José. These man-made paints had been used in America since the 1950s and had been available in Britain for a few years. This, however, was Frost’s first encounter with them and he found that they offered ‘hot dry colours’ and that their ‘bright matt quality accentuated what he was already referring to as the “heraldic” character of his paintings’.[3] From that time he used mostly acrylics, but reverted to the medium of oil for certain colours in certain circumstances. For June, Red and Black the canvas was prepared with a pigmentless primer of the same synthetic resin as the paint. The design was drawn in pencil and the three paints were thinly applied, so that tiny areas of canvas were left bare in a manner typical of acrylic washes. In some places the colours overlap, in others a gap of varying width was left between the different areas.

At the end of 1965, June, Red and Black won one of five non-purchase prizes at the prestigious John Moores exhibition in Liverpool, the judges of which were Clement Greenberg, the critic John Russell, and Patrick Heron, the British painter and former critic. Reviewing the exhibition, Frost’s old friend Norbert Lynton saw this painting as ‘a convincing come-back ... a picture that manages to be absolutely personal while cutting out the fanciful bits that have sometimes weakened his work and that people have tended to see as his hallmark’.[4] His apparent abandonment of the more complex compositions of 1962-4 produced a new simplicity that Lynton associated with ‘his early abstracts based on the boats and water around St Ives’, such as Green, Black and White Movement, 1951 (Tate T01501). June, Red and Black represented, he wrote, ‘a new and fresh-looking development and a return to a formal theme that has interested him from the beginning’. Its simplicity of form and surface would persist in Frost’s work for over ten years.

Chris Stephens
December 2000

[1] Letter to Tate Gallery, [c.13 May 1967]
[2] Reproduced in Terry Frost: Six Decades, exhibition catalogue, Royal Academy of Arts, London 2000, p.63
[3] David Lewis, Terry Frost, Aldershot 1994, p.109
[4] Norbert Lynton, ‘London Letter’, Art International, vol.10, no.1, January 1966, p.82

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