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crowded market place. Seemingly wary of the authoritative gesture or emphatic statement, his paintings speak in other ways. They reach inwards, articulating uncertainty and fallibility, the difficulty of knowing and the need to know. Reluctant to declare, instead they probe, question and expose the disturbing ambiguity of things. In a world of material values, reliant on the predictable and the dependable, they are a reminder that such reassurances are illusory and that the confidence of knowledge remains a mutable ideal. A painting such as Trace, which Beattie made in 1996, intimates some of the uncomfortable truths entailed by this qualified view. Raw in execution, asymmetrical in arrangement and precarious in significance: the painting refuses to ingratiate. The allure of familiar aesthetic considerations has been discounted and there are no superficial sweeteners. Rather, the painting comprises a simple yet striking juxtaposition of different zones of activity. A horizontal area of unpainted canvas at bottom left abuts with a vertical passage of thickly applied black paint. Framed by these compartments, a textured rectangle of superimposed white pigment provides a focus of visual activity, movement and energy. As if incised into the paint, linear scars yield a record - or trace - of the artist’s hand as it moved across the surface, exposing the black paint beneath. Relatively simple to describe, the painting exists as a physical fact, the evidence of an accumulation of events that occurred in the isolation of the studio. But beyond its material appearance, Trace lingers in the imagination, its enigmatic significance murmuring like the disturbing whisper of some unpalatable secret. Its scratched lines not only traverse the surface of the painting. They also intimate an elusive implied meaning – evidence, perhaps, of the attempt to penetrate a veneer. Trace manifests a central characteristic of Beattie’s art, one arising from a vital fusion of his paintings’ assertive material presence and their evasive suggestiveness. Tellingly, this marriage of form and significance is realised not by reference to recognisable things but, instead, through a personal language of abstract shape and mark. In terms of its enveloping scale and avoidance of literal depictive means, Beattie’s early work may be traced to the impression made by 8

his seeing the exhibition The New American Painting held at the Tate Gallery in 1959. At that point Beattie was a student at the Royal Academy Schools, London, absorbing a traditional art school training and painting figuratively. As a consequence of seeing the Americans’ radical innovations, Beattie transferred his allegiance to a visual syntax of abstract form and painterly gesture. Indeed, so persuasive was the American painters’ example that the subsequent development of his art proceeded in that expansive vein. Beattie himself recognises that as late as the 1970s, there was ‘little distance’2 between his work and that of the earlier generation. However, while Trace retains an adherence to abstract form and mark-making, such later paintings are far-removed from the sensibility of such earlier artists as Rothko, Pollock, Newman or Kline. Those older artists define a triumphant chapter in the history of post-war modern art. Beattie, on the other hand, seems to inhabit another world. How is this difference to be understood? That question is posed by this book and the paintings reproduced within its pages, which cover the period from 1986 to the present, contain an intimation of the answers. Complemented by texts written by various commentators to accompany significant exhibitions of Beattie’s work, the story that emerges describes an artist who, from the mid-1980s, re-evaluated his work and reinvented his terms of reference. As the result of that redefined trajectory, Beattie may be seen today as a painter whose work has attained an entirely distinctive character: immune to the stylistic preoccupations of the present moment, but inseparable from the continuing relevance of painting as a contemporary art form. The turning point in Beattie’s artistic progress, which forms the beginning of the narrative that follows, was the artist’s remarkable exhibition held at the Curwen Gallery, London in 1987. Invited to exhibit there, the artist was wary of the relatively confined, well-like space. He responded by measuring this contained area and by making paintings that were not only tailored to its proportions but, in effect, made a virtue out of the constraints presented. The three paintings he showed, Threshold, Yielding Door I and Smallness Stirs, all made in 1987, occupied almost the entire wall space. To

Basil Beattie LARGE WORKS 1986 2009  

Bail Beattie Large Paintings and Installations

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