John Walker

Lesson I


Not on display

John Walker born 1939
Acrylic paint on canvas
Support: 2675 × 6147 mm
Purchased 1968

Catalogue entry

John Walker b.1939
T01093 LESSON I 1968
Not inscribed.
Acrylic and pastel on canvas, 105×242 (266·5×614·5).
Purchased from the artist through the Axiom Gallery (Knapping Fund), 1968.
Exh: Hayward Gallery, 27 September–13 October, 1968 (7).
Lit: For a general account of the evolution of Walker's work see Richard Morphet, ‘John Walker's work since 1965’, in Studio International CLXXVII, September 1968, pp. 80–85, and Anne Seymour, ‘John Walker’, in Marks on a Canvas, catalogue of exhibition at Museum am Ostwall, Dortmund, May–July 1969.

Painted in Leeds, at the beginning of Walker's second ‘Lesson’ series. Walker's first ‘Lesson’ series, painted in 1966, was of rhomboidal canvases with straight lines (on a black ground) as the only figuration; this earlier series was ‘about trying to describe solid forms entirely by linear means, in fact diagrammatic, hence the Blackboard look’ (letter from the artist dated 4 March 1969, from which all subsequent quotations are taken). Walker completed three ‘Lesson’ paintings in 1968, of which this is no. I, no. II belongs to the City Art Gallery, Leeds, and No. III is in his own possession. In 1969, he has so far completed nine, numbered in the series I to IX, 1969.

The artist wrote that when he started T01093 he had just finished a series of coloured paintings, and as with the previous ‘Lesson’ series, ‘I decided to make some black paintings to compare them with the coloured group (to see if my colour was relevant). Because in fact the black were better I wanted to know why so the series went on. Usually at this stage the black pictures have destroyed all that has gone before and forced me to rethink my entire motivations and the look of the paintings has changed completely’.

The features common to all the paintings in the 1968–69 ‘Lesson’ series are ‘the use of black as ground with colour floated on top or chalked on. The placing of the trapeziums to the left bottom edge. The importance of this base line as the central point of the pictures, in fact the pictures are to do with this line’. A group of drawings for the series exists but there was no one specific study for T01093. The artist wrote ‘The painting should be hung no more than three inches away from the floor (as painted). The ideal distance away is no more than 14 ft. or nearer so that distortion can take place. I'm not interested in unity’.

Some further observations make clear that the range and contrasts of paint texture and handling and of shape in T01093 are fundamental factors in the experience of Walker's painting because they make formal clarity and given facts interact with uncertainty and change:

The trapezoidal canvas shape ‘was meant to imply extent and stretch and the shape had to have structure ...’. ‘The vertical horizontal lines’ functions are to compartmentalize the picture to add linear tension and scale. To contradict some of the more atmospheric colour and to make a point of the canvas surface (to make it noticeable). This enables the hollow square to float. The hollow square was placed where it is so that people are aware of the space between the trapeziums and that side of the painting also of course it disturbs if one cares to concentrate on the base or vice versa. Also the square is hollow because I wanted it to float away from the surface so that it feels insecure and could fall’.

Although collage is not used in T01093, its illusion is, as often, employed; it emphasises Walker's concern with the tension between reality and illusion: ‘the collage look to some of the shapes ... is part of my history ... It should be different to other parts of the picture like say peach pink is different to pink or strawberry red different to red or smooth to soft or rough and hard; it helps me to add to my use of paint. It is sometimes illusionistic. I prefer to think of it as real against other uses of paint which again can be realer or non real. It's mainly used to describe my feelings about descriptive colour and shape (a formal problem)’.

In some comments annotated on diagrams of T01093, Walker notes how the pastel-drawn lines bring the activity of drawing direct into the painting; how the overlaps of the three sprayed trapeziums at bottom left play off real against illusionistic overlap; and notes ‘real hollow square illusionistically painted, paint from a pot in evidence’. The graduation of colour around the square, the contrasts between deep and near space, ‘the change of pace in the line’, the highly localised colour of the trapeziums (where each mark is a spot), ‘all ... make the eye, though able and teased to settle, unsettled, to make the mind aware of the real scale of the picture’. Contrasts of colour and handling such as ‘real colour’ next to ‘non-real colour’, adjacent compartments of the ‘grid’ having contrasting colour and space, the function of the bottom edge of the canvas as a horizon, and the trapeziums placed like ‘obstacles in front of canvas plane or surface’, are intended to cause repeated shifts of focus and ‘to check entry’. ‘Pastel rubbed into surface to bring the canvas back from deep space caused by the saturated colour. If viewer concentrates on trapeziums bottom left, square begins to float away over right shoulder’.

Published in:
The Tate Gallery: Acquisitions 1968-9, London 1969

You might like

In the shop