William Green



Not on display

William Green 1934–2001
Bitumen on fibreboard
Support: 917 × 892 × 4 mm
frame: 1109 × 1083 × 60 mm
Purchased 2002

Display caption

As a student at the Royal College of Art, Green developed an early combination of action painting and performance art by throwing bitumen and paraffin at the surface of the painting and setting it on fire. His actions were filmed by Ken Russell for the BBC, establishing him as a pioneer of auto-destructive art. By the mid-1960s, however, Green was disillusioned by the sensationalist coverage of his work and withdrew from the art world, only beginning to produce work again in the 1990s.

Gallery label, October 2012

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Technique and condition


T07905 William Green Untitled (1958)

The support for William Green’s Untitled (1958) is a medium density fibreboard (MDF) panel. It is a single 4 mm thick panel without joins. The work is executed on the smooth front face and the reverse face is flat and fibrous showing the pattern of the press. The panel was glued and nailed to an L-section frame that is not original to the work. The frame dates from the period of restoration and covers the edge of the inscription on the reverse, signed William Green ’58 R.C.A.

The reported paint media is bitumen with no added pigments. Bitumen or asphaltum is a blackish brown solution of asphalt in oil or turpentine there are differing qualities of bitumen, ranging from hard resin-like ones to softer more elastic types.

The consistency when the material was applied was fluid, as it dripped down the front of the board. It is now hard and brittle and susceptible to abrasion. There is no indication of any initial drawing or design. The entire front face of the panel is covered with the bitumen. The thickness is variable and the medium is transparent. In areas of thin application the colour and smooth texture of the panel are visible.

A Pathé video of a BBC 1960’s news programme shows footage of Green creating some of his artworks. In the video a sheet of hardboard was placed on the floor. Cans containing a dark media, presumably bitumen, were flung over the surface. The media was then worked in a variety of ways, using a brush, stamping, rubbing with his feet clad in running shoes or trainers and by dragging a bicycle or riding a bicycle across the surface. A clear fluid was flung onto the surface, probably paint thinner or kerosene and this appears to have dissolved the black media unevenly. Green then set fire to this and manipulated the board. On one occasion he was seen with a bitumen splattered board leaned against a wall, at which point he flung sand or a similar substance from a shovel across the surface.

The bitumen appears to have been applied in layers. Some thin layers were applied or manipulated with a brush and the texture is faintly visible in raking light. Thicker layers were applied either flung or pooled on, allowing the drips to build up thickness. Some areas were skinned, lifting the material off and leaving textured patches. The skinned areas may have been doused in paint thinner and set on fire to achieve certain characteristics. There is a surface contrast between these skinned areas and the smoother, glossier intact surfaces. There is no evidence that sand was flung onto this painting, although there are tiny inclusions of particulate material.

The panel is brittle, darkened and easily abraded. Aside from a few damages on the outer edge and corners it is in good condition. The painting had been restored and the majority of the abrasions and losses have been retouched to blend with the surface.

The surface is variable in gloss and texture. The bitumen has a smooth almost waxy appearance, although this is broken up across the surface with the texture of the skinned burnt areas and the particulates. There are areas where the bitumen has beaded on the surface and there are minor wrinkles, bubbles, craters and fissures in the media. These have all been exploited for artistic purposes.

The surface is generally in good condition. There is some local cracking, cleavage and flaking in the areas of the skinned bitumen. There is also cleavage of the upper layers of the hardboard support. There are physical damages along all edges corners generally taking an upper layer of the hardboard with it

The painting was treated in 2003. The cleavage was secured with heat-set Beva film, an ethylene vinyl acetate adhesive. The surface was partially dry-cleaned and partially cleaned with an aqueous solvent. The support remains fragile and the front face could be easily damaged but properly protected it should remain stable. A frame was created and it was glazed and given a backing board in order to house this work while it is in storage and on display.

Patricia Smithen
March 2003


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