1 (this page) Both Ways 1 1965 Acrylic on canvas 150 x 230 cm 2 Connections 1969 Painted blocks with countersunk magnets, shown here in three configurations 3 The covers of the first ten Fontana Modern Masters in 1970 – 71 4 A point in time of a kinetic painting
Oliver Bevan has been a successful figurative painter for over thirty years so a retrospective of his earlier work from the 1960s and 1970s comes as a surprise. James Pardey looks back at the artist’s optical, geometric and kinetic art.
Oliver Bevan: in search of Utopia Students forty years ago did not have Wikipedia to mug up on Camus, McLuhan, Wittgenstein or Chomsky. Books were the thing back then, and for many students the books of choice were the Fontana Modern Masters, a groundbreaking series of pocket guides on the thinkers and theorists whose ideas had shaped the 20th Century. Today, however, the books are remembered not for their contents but their eye-catching covers, which featured brightly coloured abstract art by a young English artist named Oliver Bevan. The series was launched in 1970 although its cover story starts in the early sixties, when Bevan himself was a student at the Royal College of Art and struggling to find a direction. It was, he says, ‘a period of coffee breaks and confusion’ that lasted until he attended a lecture on Victor Vasarely. Vasarely wanted to democratise art and make it accessible to everyone irrespective of background or education. For him this meant art based purely on vision and his abstract geometric paintings made extensive use of optical effects, where the brain alternates between different interpretations of an image. This ‘Op Art’ struck a chord
RWA magazine Autumn 2012
with Bevan, as he later explained: ‘I had felt uncomfortable that many people didn’t understand contemporary art and thought it needed to be more accessible. In Vasarely’s own terms, geometry is accessible, and the day after the lecture I threw myself into it. I did hundreds of drawings and gouaches and occasionally produced a certain kind of visual ambiguity which I turned into a painting’. The paintings in his first solo exhibition at the Grabowski Gallery, London, in 1965 were based on interlocking geometric shapes and played on the viewer’s visual perception through tonal flicker, ambiguous perspective and figureground reversals. The exhibition attracted favourable reviews, with the critic Norbert Lynton writing that Bevan’s art ‘achieves its aim of intensifying our awareness of our perceptual processes, which implies our awareness of the visible world’. A second exhibition at the Grabowski in 1967 featured shaped paintings based on isometric projections of a cube and a larger colour palette which Bevan said was ‘intended to provoke the viewer into an active relationship with the work’. His interest in colour was influenced by Josef Albers, whose Homages to the Square and
Interaction of Color showed how colours seen separately appear to change when juxtaposed. Albers had called this ‘the discrepancy between physical fact and psychic effect’ and as Bevan’s fascination with colour grew so his paintings became less optical. The use of numerical sequences in his next two series of paintings led to the idea of incorporating time into his work, and one way to do this was by extending the concept of viewer participation from seeing to doing. This was made tangible in a third Grabowski exhibition in 1969 which included a tabletop piece of sixteen square tiles which were each divided diagonally into two of four colours. The tiles could be rearranged to create different combinations of figure and ground, as visitors to the gallery were soon discovering. The viewer thus became an active participant in creating the artwork on display which, being rearrangeable, changed over time. Bevan then developed the idea further, using magnetic tiles on a square steel sheet covered with black canvas. Connections used six such tiles which were painted with yellow triangles, emerald green stripes, and orange and dark blue