John Walker

Labyrinth III


Not on display

John Walker born 1939
Oil paint and wax on canvas
Support: 2457 × 2988 mm
Purchased 1980

Display caption

Walker's art explores the tension between pure abstraction and the point where abstract forms begin to suggest recognisable objects. He has explained: 'Matisse and Picasso ...took figurative painting almost to abstraction and then they stopped. I'd like to come the other way and stop, just this side of abstraction'. Although abstract, 'Labyrinth III' suggests an interior space and the shapes within it may read as figures. Walker has acknowledged that there is a connection between this work and Velasquez's painting 'Las Meninas' which depicts the artist in his studio. Walker has commented: 'I want abstract paintings to have a human presence, to be as interesting as the human form...'

Gallery label, September 2004

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Catalogue entry

T03071 LABYRINTH III 1979–80

Inscribed ‘Labyrinth III 1980 oil on canvas John G. Walker’ on back of canvas
Oil and wax on cotton duck, 96 3/4×117 1/2 (246×299)
Purchased from Nigel Greenwood Inc. (Grant-in-Aid) 1980
Exh: John Walker, Recent Paintings (part 1), Nigel Greenwood Inc., March–April 1980 (no catalogue); 13 Britische Künstler. Eine Ausstellung über Malerei, Neue Galerie-Sammlung Ludwig, Aachen, December 1981–February 1982, Kunstverein, Mannheim, February–March 1982, Kunstverein, Brunswick, June–September 1982 (works not numbered, repr. in colour)
Lit: William Feaver, ‘The Faceless Infanta’, Observer, 6 April 1980; William Packer, ‘John Walker’, Financial Times, 6 May 1980; Alistair Warman, ‘John Walker’, Art Monthly, no.36, May 1980, pp.18–19; Matthew Collings, ‘John Walker at Nigel Greenwood’, Artscribe, no.23, June 1980, pp.55–6; Jack B.Flam, ‘John Walker: Objective Abstract Painting’, Arts Magazine, LV, December 1980, pp.156–60; John Roberts, ‘John Walker’, Art Monthly, September 1981, pp.20–21; Dore Ashton, ‘John Walker’, Flash Art, no.104, October–November 1981, pp.44–5
Repr: Artforum, XIX, October 1980, p.87; John Walker (exh. catalogue), Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C., February–April 1982, pl.11 in colour

‘Labyrinth III’ was begun in the artist's studio at Kew in the summer of 1979 and finished in the following spring. The first four ‘Labyrinth’ paintings were first exhibited in part 1 of his one-man exhibition at the Nigel Greenwood Gallery in March–April 1980. They are all about 8ft.×10ft. and are now in the following collections:

'Labyrinth I’. Nigel Greenwood Inc. Retouched by the artist in the winter of 1980–1.
‘Labyrinth II’. Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh.
‘Labyrinth III’. Tate Gallery.
‘Labyrinth IV’. Southampton Art Gallery.

A fifth painting, made at the same time or just before the ‘Labyrinths’ and using several of the same shapes is ‘Picnic’, now in the collection of Wendell Cherry, Louisville, Kentucky.

Walker continued to use similar subjects in his paintings and drawings of 1981, and three further ‘Labyrinth’ paintings of about the same size were included in his exhibition at the Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C. in February–April 1982. The numbering of the ‘Labyrinths’ does not refer to the order in which they were begun or completed, as the first four were all worked on over the same period, and does not imply that the finished paintings form a sequence.

The ‘Labyrinths’ are not totally abstract but present a scene in an interior space, and include touches of strong colour, incorporated into the thick paint texture. This texture is thickened by the use of both added wax and a gel medium, which preserves visibly the appearance of the brushstrokes. The paint surface is scraped through clearly in various places to reveal the maroon coloured ground. A number of straight edges in the composition are the result of masking, and the red of the upper part of the tall shape in the background is the ground colour, left visible when this shape, as a cut-out, was removed.

Walker has invented a number of individual pictorial shapes which are unique to him, and the title ‘Labyrinth’ in effect denotes paintings which use a particular four of these. These shapes are abstract and yet have a certain depth in space, and it is characteristic that they are difficult to describe in words. The family of ‘Labyrinth’ shapes had not been used by Walker previously in other paintings, although two of them are adaptations of shapes that he had used for a long time. One is the central shape with a white top, which is reminiscent of a shape like a folded paper bent forward at each side which appears in a number of large paintings of 1965–6 entitled ‘Study’ (such as the Tate Gallery's T01579); the other is the shape at the right like two spheres, which resembles the flat oval shapes in a number of very large abstract paintings of the 1970s. All the ‘Labyrinth’ shapes have been re-used by Walker in a number of subsequent paintings, particularly the central one, which often appears in paintings with ‘Alba’ in the title.

These abstract shapes, manipulated in different ways from painting to painting, take on the character of figures. In an interview of 1978 (Art Log, I, Summer 1978), Walker recorded that he designed shapes such as these partly for the contrast between them: ‘You want volumetric shapes, architectural shapes, soft and hard ones...’ He added that he had found early on a need ‘to invent abstract forms for the figures which told the story. So that painting told a story. I still want abstract paintings to have a human presence, to be as interesting as the human form ... You've got to get to know the shapes, you've got to teach yourself how to lay feeling into the shapes, otherwise it just becomes patternmaking or design.’ In the case of the ‘Labyrinth’ paintings, the relationship of the shapes to figures is made clearer by the similarity in composition to Velazquez's ‘Las Meninas’.

The Old Master paintings that Walker has echoed in his own are not only masterpieces he particularly admires, but are often compositions that have already been reworked by other masters. The ‘Numinous’ paintings of 1977–8, for example, explicitly refer both to the group portrait by Goya of Majas on a balcony and to the Manet which was derived from it. Velazquez's ‘Las Meninas’ was the subject of a series of variations by Picasso made in 1957, and Walker acknowledged his reference to both in a letter to the compiler of January 1983: ‘I admire the space in the Velazquez ... I have been aware of the picture for 25 years and have visited it many times... The Picassos I have seen many times.’

The connection between ‘Labyrinth III’ and ‘Las Meninas’, although not explicit, is undeniable, and has often been pointed out in reviews (first by William Feaver in the Observer, 6 April 1980). The arrangement of the shapes in space corresponds closely, and furthermore the way in which the space is depicted by grey and brown tones is similar. Specific parallels, such as the grey flat on the left that could correspond to the canvas in ‘Las Meninas’ and the ‘door’ at the rear, are secondary to the feeling for space. Velazquez's painting is of the artist in his studio, and a general reading of the shapes in ‘Labyrinth III’ from left to right as ‘canvas’, ‘the artist’, ‘his subject’ and ‘the onlookers’ is corroborated by a number of single paintings of the central ‘Infanta’ figure.

The preparatory studies connected with the ‘Labyrinths’ were mostly in oil or acrylic on paper, and have not been exhibited. Selections from a series of charcoal and acrylic sketches referring to the same subject but made later than the paintings, in both London and Australia, were exhibited in New Zealand in June–November 1981 (opening at the National Art Gallery, Wellington) and at the Nigel Greenwood Gallery in August–September 1981.

Published in:
The Tate Gallery 1980-82: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions, London 1984

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