Sir Terry Frost

Through Blacks


Not on display

Sir Terry Frost 1915–2003
Acrylic paint and canvas on canvas
Support: 1981 × 2591 mm
Purchased 1976

Catalogue entry

Terry Frost born 1915

Through Blacks 1969


Acrylic and collaged canvas on canvas 1982 x 2489 (78 x 98)

Inscribed on back of canvas in black paint ‘Through Blacks | Frost | Sept. 69’ top left

Purchased from the artist through the Waddington Galleries (Publications Department Funds) 1976

Paintings by Terry Frost, Plymouth City Art Gallery, February-March 1970 (9, dated ‘Sept. 1969’)
British Painting and Sculpture 1960-1970, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., November 1970 - January 1971 (14, reproduced)
St Ives 1939-64: Twenty Five Years of Painting, Sculpture and Pottery, Tate Gallery, London, February-April 1985 (214, reproduced p.215)

David Lewis, Terry Frost, Aldershot 1994, pp.186-7
Chris Stephens, Terry Frost, London 2000, pp.61-2, reproduced p.62 (colour)

This was the first of a long-running series of works by Frost made up of swatches of canvas, painted with slightly different shades of a single colour, glued to a larger canvas. Though rather different in conception, Red Painting, 1970 (artist’s collection) has been alternatively titled Through Reds. A second Through Blacks, 1972-3, (private collection) followed and, in 1975, Through Yellows (artist’s collection) and Through Blues (private collection) were produced. Some years later, the artist produced Through Whites, 1981 (private collection), which does not employ collage and has a different configuration.[1] While he associated this last one with his experience of a blizzard in Canada, and so linked it to a series of the same time called Canada Whites, the others were purely formal exercises in colour and form.

The artist has offered two alternative accounts of the genesis of Through Blacks, 1969. In one, he wrote:
It is a picture I find difficult to talk about. I know the idea did formulate in my head while I was lying in the sun on my camp bed in Cevennes, Provence. I think it’s the only time that I’ve ever been able to work from notes made from a half dream come [sic] reveries state.[2]

Conversely, he has told how the concept for the work developed from a teaching exercise at Reading University, where he taught painting from 1964 to 1981. The process employed in the production of the painting was the same as the task that he set the students. Frost said:
I got them to do sheets of paper mixing red, yellow and blue, because they’d never done painting so I wanted them to learn to keep the paint clean ... So they made the red, yellow and blue towards black and then took it through the red side until it broke to red, through to the blue side, to the yellow side. ... Then I said, now cut out your mid blacks, the one that is not too warm or too cold, and they cut out one and collaged that up on another piece, a nine-inch square of hardboard.[3]
The result, Frost said, was ‘the greatest lesson of my life, when we put them up there wasn’t one like the other. Now this means that colour is totally subjective’.[4]

For Through Blacks a similar process was adopted. Frost said that he took three or four six-foot-square canvases which he divided into oblongs of 15 x 19 inches.[5] Each section he painted a different black, once again achieving his colours by mixing red, blue and yellow. Diluting the acrylic medium with water, the canvases were saturated with the paint. Section by section he would gradually increase the amount of one of the colours until the result ceased to be ‘black’, and then went through the same process twice more, changing the concentration of each of the other two colours in turn. Frost recalled that he ‘moved each “Black”’ at least fifteen times.[6] The results could be described as a range of colours, encompassing deep blues and greens, blood red and dark ochres. From each section he cut out a rough semi-circle, or perhaps a shape more like half an egg. These patches were glued to the main support with the same PVA acrylic. Frost had great trouble getting the canvases to stick down and, though some were ironed to aid adhesion, bobbling and lifting is evident; this is not, he has said, getting any worse. He has explained that his method is to glue both the back of the collage element, and its support, and to leave it under a heavy weight overnight; if the edges lift, he pushes adhesive underneath and pins them.[7]

In their configuration, the different black sections were mixed up, though in places they seem to be clustered so that certain areas of the painting are predominantly green, others blue, or red, or ochre. They are in twelve rows of ten pieces each, which have the straight edges of the collage elements towards the top or bottom alternately. This creates the effect of pairs of horizontal bands, which is echoed by the suggestion of vertical divisions in the ground. The brown ground colour gets progressively bluer towards the bottom and is more yellow further up so that it seems to glow at the top. The result is a pattern of unevenly shaped semi-circular forms in a range of ochres, dark reds, greens and blues, all askew in relation to each other, on a field of graded brown.

Though the ground was painted around the collaged shapes and overlaps their edges in many places, the white edges of the small pieces of canvas are generally visible. Small spots of paint on the right-hand canvas turn-over resulted from the artist’s attempts to match certain colours after the painting was slightly damaged in America (presumably in 1970); this may also explain a few instances where the collage colour spills onto the ground. Though the work was acquired by the Tate Gallery unframed, the artist agreed to a strip frame, possibly painted a warm black, for protection.[8]

If Through Blacks developed from Frost’s discovery of, and fascination with, the subjectivity of colour perception, it also reflects his interest in the symbolic functions of colour. Though, in the context of his earlier work, the shapes in Through Blacks inevitably suggest bobbing boats, or the abstracted still lifes of William Scott, Frost has recorded how he wished, in this work, to suppress all suggestion of imagery in order to focus on the particular qualities of black:

All kinds of imagery kept pushing itself forward and I didn’t want it. Too many rhythms hints of perspective all kinds of problems. I wanted the spirit of black. I worked on the collage quite a lot in paint until I made it simple but clear to me. Black can be so giving, so seductive, so cruel it contains all colour and emotion.

The all-encompassing nature of black is a recurrent theme in Frost’s discussions of the colour and in a variety of literary references that he has collected over the years. One of his friends, for example, while favourably comparing Frost’s use of black with that of the Americans Robert Motherwell and Franz Kline, has written, ‘No wonder his favourite quotation from Rochester is “All colours are contained in black”.’[9] The same point as Rochester’s is made just as poetically in a passage from Gertrude Jekyll’s Wood and Garden (1899) in which the great gardener states: ‘What a wonderful range of colour there is in black alone to the trained colour eye. ... Is it not Ruskin who says of Velazquez, that there is more colour in his black than in many another painter’s whole palette’.[10] The totality of black’s composition from all other hues was of interest metaphorically and symbolically as well as for reasons of perception.

The dominating theme in Frost’s work over many years has been the use of abstraction derived from external, natural sources to communicate a sense of the enormity of existence. In this he has been especially fascinated by extremes of weather, and by the sun and moon, in ways that associate his art with the resurgent interest in the Sublime among abstract artists of the 1950s. As one might expect, there is an uncertain spiritual dimension to this, as such symbols of infinity invoke some notion of mystery, if not of a deity of some kind. Black plays an important role in these ideas, as is epitomised by Frost’s love of Sonnet to Black by Lord Herbert of Churbury (a statesman, soldier and lesser-known brother of the poet George Herbert):

Thou Black wherein’all colours are composed

And into which they all at last return;

Thou colour of the sun where it doth burn,

And shadow where it cools; in thee is closed,

Whatever nature can or hath disposed

In any other hue, from thee do rise

Those tempers and complexions

Which disclosed as part of thee,

Do work as mysteries of that hidden power;

When thou dost reign,

The character of fate shine in the skies.

And tell us what the heavens do ordain:

But when earth’s common light shines to our eyes,

Thou so retirst thyself that thy disdain

All revelation unto man denies.[11]

One might draw a parallel between the poet’s use of black as a symbol of the power of God and Frost’s view of it as a metaphor for the immensity of the universe and, by implication, our position within it. In later years, this notion would be further elaborated as he became acquainted with the poetry of Frederico García Lorca and the concept of the duende. Lorca explained the duende as a certain rooted spirit that informs the best art, an awareness of death that is necessary for a full engagement with life. The duende is especially associated with music, dance and spoken verse; Lorca specifies: ‘all that has black sounds has duende. These black sounds are the mystery, the roots fastened in the mire that we all know and ignore, the mire that gives us the very substance of art ... the spirit of the earth’.[12] In its suggestion of redemption, a comparison might be drawn between the duality of the duende and the Greek concept of catharsis. It is, in essence, the notion that a truly spirited art results from an engagement with the truth of mortality.

Frost’s large black painting may be seen, then, as a reflection of his engagement with abstract ‘truths’ about our place in existence, as well as a formal and technical exercise. He has, however, also associated the project with the Minimalist painting that had become prevalent by the time he made Through Blacks. He has said how he regretted cutting up the initial canvases of oblongs of different blacks to provide the collage elements, ‘because if I’d put them on show they’d have shattered everybody’.[13] The reduction of his compositions during the mid 1960s to simple shapes of strong colours, black and white should be seen in the context of the post-painterly abstraction with which he had been familiar since the beginning of that decade, and with the Op Art of such artists as Bridget Riley. The interest in monochromatic, or near-monochromatic, canvases suggests a further development in line with the work of the British painter Bob Law, whom Frost had known in Cornwall. The refusal of any suggested imagery would remain a feature of Frost’s painting until the late 1970s, when overt references to the sun and moon and boats on the water re-emerged.

Chris Stephens
December 2000

[1] Red Painting, 1970, reproduced in David Lewis, Terry Frost, Aldershot 1994, p.191 (colour); Through Blacks, 1972-3, reproduced ibid., p.189 (colour); Through Yellows reproduced ibid., p.22 (colour); Through Blues, reproduced in Terry Frost: Six Decades, exhibition catalogue, Royal Academy of Arts, London 2000, [p.73]; Through Whites, reproduced in Lewis 1994, p.134 (colour)
[2] Undated manuscript notes, the artist
[3] Terry Frost interview with David Lee, Art Review, vol.45, June 1993, pp.4-8
[4] Ibid.
[5] Interview with the author, 4 May 1998
[6] Questionnaire completed for Tate Gallery Conservation department
[7] Ibid.
[8] Ibid.
[9] Ronnie Duncan, ‘The Leeds Connection’ in Lewis 1994, p.66
[10] Quoted in Lewis 1994, p.187
[11] Frost’s transcription ibid. p.187
[12] Frederico Garcia Lorca, ‘Play and Theory of the Duende’ (1933) in Deep Song and Other Prose, trans. Christopher Maurer, London and New York 1980, p.43; see also Linda Saunders, ‘Frost and the Duende’ in Lewis 1994, pp.217-24
[13] Interview with David Lee, June 1993

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