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areas have been rubbed into the canvas with the artist’s hand. These are all matters of placement and emphasis, details, means rather than ends; they are fragments of the drama of composition. However accurate such observations might be they tell us nothing about meaning or subject matter, except as a narrative of forms. Basil Beattie, who left the Royal Academy Schools in 1961, began his career at a time when the scale, opticality, attention to materiality and the sharpened colour sense of American painting, from Abstract Expressionism to Post-Painterly Abstraction, were seen as the most radical and progressive new developments in post-war painting, and were a major influence on painters of Beattie’s generation. The critical writings of Harold Rosenburg, Clement Greenberg and Michael Fried (as well as British counterparts, like Andrew Forge) were percolating through the British art world. For those who rejected, on the one hand, the academicisms and moribundities of Kitchen-Sink social realism and the Euston Road School, and on the other, the heady seductions of Pop, territories which seemed already mapped out, occupied and claimed, the openness of American-style abstract painting provided an exemplar of a possible way forward. It took a long time for painting to disentangle itself from such a strong and seductive role-model. For Beattie it was clear that the lesson of a formalist approach to painting was learnt early on, but it was really only a lesson in grammar, a lesson in how, rather than what, to paint.What it left its adherants with, was a kind of Romantic belief in painting’s continuity, even though its rhetoric excluded any subject other than the painting itself. But Beattie’s paintings occupy mental as well as physical space, and their elements only exist as part of a structure, a structure which is itself an expression and a way of thinking, a way of being in the world. This structure impresses itself upon us - and is there to be wrestled with, just as the painter wrestled with the same elements as he worked. Looking, too, is a kind of work, an unravelling of experience in the present moment. If Beattie’s paintings have always been ‘difficult’: hybrid, too complicated, anxious or edgy (and for a long time, these qualities both distinguished him and made him a disquieting figure, an artist who never fitted in with 28

the suave mainstream of London art), it is because he wanted the paintings to be more than painting alone. There is what I would call a certain tremor in his work, the pressure of a kind of vital, seismic energy which destabilises his compositions and the forms within them, an un-nerving undercurrent which has now been given a concrete form. ‘Memory’, Paul Valery noted, ‘is thought’s body. Thought exists only when expressed; when expressed it is made up of elements of memory.’What is remembered, or memorialised here? Always, there must be the backlog of the artist’s experience as a painter, the history of his own development and struggle for identity. An artist’s individuality, maturity and power is attained after much has been assimilated, and even more has been rejected.The painter’s progress is a flight towards selfhood, a quality that must be achieved, - no artist springs from the ground, fully formed. The paintings contain within them the memory of the development of a language, a structure which orders experience just as it provides the framework for form, space and volume. It also structures behaviour, the way the artist handles materials and the decisions he makes. It is the structure of a mind. One might say that this is what a sensibility is. These paintings also contain within them other memories, other experiences. Nowdays when Beattie describes himself, he calls himself a ‘sort of Symbolist’, and it seems to me that his development has been charged with the desire to reintroduce that most fleeting of all forms, the human subject, back into his paintings. The Witness paintings and the related work Present Bound occupy the paintings as human presences, as disguised, muffled, compartmentalised, bound and divided figures. But they are not so much bodies as presences. The two forms in Squaring Up are at once like an object confronting its own shadow and a kind of fraught conversation. The disquiet in the painting might also have something to do with the stark black grille’s resemblance to the bars of a cage, or the grid upon which St Lawrence was martyred (‘Turn me over,’ he is supposed to have asked his torturers, ‘this side is done’). The repeated, rapidly drawn shapes in the painting Rivals are like two fallen figures, or a couple laying together

Basil Beattie LARGE WORKS 1986 2009  

Bail Beattie Large Paintings and Installations

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