Albert Irvin at the RWA

A bold red abstract painting named Almada by artist Albert Irvin

... or: How I learned to stop worrying and love Abstract Expressionism

Amongst the gems on show at the RWA’s free The RWA Collection - Our Heritage, Our Future exhibition in Bristol this autumn are two extraordinary large-scale paintings by Albert Irvin.

Andrew Nixon of The Floating Circle explains why you should make a visit to see them – and passes on some personal tips for banishing any lingering fears you might have of Abstract Expressionism...

If you head down to the Victoria Methodist Chapel on Whiteladies Road this autumn, especially if you do so on a drizzly, grey English afternoon, then you’d better prepare your eyes for a shock. Specifically, for two blasts of dazzling, life-enhancing colour, delivered via a pair of paintings by the late Abstract Expressionist artist, Albert Irvin.

Almada (1985) and Rosetta (2012) are whopping great paintings in an array of vivid colours, but dominated by a glorious shade of what really ought to be called ‘Irvin Red’.

A bold colourful red abstract painting named 'Almada' by the artist Albert Irvin

Albert Irvin, Almada, 1985. Acrylic on canvas. RWA Collection. Photo © RWA  © The Estate of Albert Irvin.

A colourful abstract painting in reds, purples and greens, named 'Rosetta', by artist Albert Irvin

Albert Irvin, Rosetta, 2012. Acrylic on canvas. RWA Collection. Photo © RWA  © The Estate of Albert Irvin.

They were acquired by the RWA in 2018, and will be familiar to anyone lucky enough to have visited the Academy’s show Albert Irvin and Abstract Expressionism that year.

As a Friend of the RWA I’ve spoken to dozens of art lovers and even artists who mention that exhibition, and especially the accompanying talks by curator Stewart Geddes, as a Eureka! moment in their appreciation of abstract painting. Speaking personally, it’s no exaggeration to say that the way Stewart (himself a highly regarded abstract painter) talked about Irvin’s art opened my eyes to a new way of looking.

Stewart Geddes speaks into a microphone at the RWA, people stand behind him, with bright abstract paintings on the wall in the background

Curator, Stewart Geddes PPRWA, speaking at the RWA in 2018

It’s not that I was particularly sceptical or cynical about abstraction. I didn’t go around pronouncing that my five year old could have done that (indeed, I seem to recall that both my daughters were largely figurative artists at five). I knew I liked the big, shimmery-gloomy works of Mark Rothko and, to some extent, the splatters of Jackson Pollock. It’s more that I had a vague fear of the genre, a sense of being out of my depth; as if Abstract Expressionism had a secret language only accessible to a special class of people who ‘got it’ – a bit like calculus, or Love Island.

But Stewart’s talk, in which he discussed without pretension or condescension such things as the evolution of Irvin’s processes of painting, and the search for ‘resolution’ in a work, banished all that at a stroke.

And so, in a spirit of community-mindedness, I hereby pass on five revelations that helped me at that time. They’re not a summary of Stewart’s talk, more things that struck me personally after hearing it and reading a bit and looking anew at Almada, Rosetta and the others. I hope they do for you what they did for me – that is, they help you to stop worrying about Abstract Expressionism and instead begin to really enjoy it. Take them with you to Victoria Methodist Chapel and see if you don’t emerge a happier, more confident art-lover...

1) ‘Abstract Expression’ is a loose label for an infinity of styles

The ‘big bang’ moment for Abstract Expressionism in Britain was an exhibition at the Tate in 1959 entitled ‘The New American Painting’. Albert Irvin was one of the many young British painters to be blown away by the works of Rothko, Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Barnett Newman and more. But a key thing that struck them was the sheer variety of styles. None of the artists’ works looked anything like each other. So ‘Abstract Expression’ doesn’t refer to a particular style of painting, but rather to a set of other things that unite these very disparate artists. Things like...

2) An Abstract Expressionist painting is a real thing in the world

It’s not a picture of a bit of the world, like an abstracted landscape or a figure; nor is it a reflection of forms found in nature or even an attempt to visualise an idea like, say, ‘the eternal suffering of Mankind.’ We naturally think of paintings as little framed windows into created universes, and so that’s our default mode of seeing when we enter a gallery.

But an Abstract Expressionist painting is a part of the world in its own right: a physical object created by the artist out of actions and materials, and which, like all things, can evoke some sort of response in whoever sees it. (That’s also why they’re rarely in frames, and often very, very big - and ideally should be seen in real life rather than in reproduction.)

3) Abstract Expressionist paintings are ‘about’ themselves

The ‘subject’ of an Abstract Expressionist painting is its own composition: the colours, shapes and textures and how they relate to each other, complementing or conflicting. ‘Space’ means something different too. In most paintings, ‘space’ is recessional: the illusion of depth created by the artist’s skill. But AE paintings are completely flat, and space is explored laterally and vertically. And all of that together will resolve into some sort of harmony or disharmony, or balance or imbalance.

On another level, AE paintings are also about the physical actions of the individual artist, and the extent of the permission he gives to his subconscious to control his movements and choices (hence the subset of AE known as ‘action painting’, most famously applied to Pollock and his splatters). It becomes relevant and interesting to know how the artist went about attacking his canvases. For example, Albert Irvin sometimes placed them vertically against the wall and sometimes laid them horizontally, just above the ground, resulting in different physical gestures. And because gestures are instrumental in AE, you can also find things like ‘rhythm’ in the paintings, if you care to.

4) Abstract Expressionist paintings are also about emotions

Does this contradict points 2 and 3? Possibly, but then AE is large and contains multitudes. Many Abstract Expressionist paintings are profoundly emotional. Perhaps they all are. Mark Rothko’s massive, immersive works are famously designed to evoke universal human emotions, so that when we gaze at them all the things that divide us fall away and we are reminded of those nameless experiences and feelings we all share.

5) Go with your instinct

Colours and shapes are things we instinctively respond to, without being able to name that response. We can’t help it, it’s just something that happens. It’s perfectly natural and is presumably why children always have a favourite colour (an asset we generally lose as adults).

So even if you think you have a phobia of Abstract Expressionism, I strongly recommend that you head down to Whiteladies Road this autumn, switch off your rational mind and treat yourself to a few minutes of empty-headed receptiveness in front of Almada. Don’t worry about trying to articulate it – just lose yourself in that extraordinary Irvin red and enjoy whatever happens to you in there. You have nothing to lose but your fear.

See Almada and Rosetta and many other artworks from the RWA Collection at the free exhibition The RWA Collection - Our Heritage, Our Future – at the Victoria Methodist Church, Whiteladies Road, Bristol BS8 1NU (9 Oct-27 Nov 2021).

Andrew Nixon is a writer from Bristol. He is on the committee of the Friends of the RWA and is the editor of the Friends’ online art magazine The Floating Circle.

About Albert Irvin

Albert (‘Bert’) Henry Thomas Irvin OBE RA RWA Hon was born in London in August 1922. In the 1940s he studied at the Northampton School of Art, served as an RAF navigator in WWII and then resumed his education at Goldsmiths College, where he would later go on to teach.

In the early 1950s he met and was influenced by the St Ives artists including Peter Lanyon, Roger Hilton, Terry Frost and Sandra Blow, and he was elected to The London Group in 1955. In 1959, he visited The New American Painting exhibition of Abstract Expressionist painters at Tate. It was an epiphanic moment, and his work became increasingly abstract.

From the 1970s he worked in studios in London’s East End, becoming known for his large-scale abstract colourist paintings - some of the most distinctive to have ever been produced in this country. His work is exhibited across Britain and worldwide, including Tate Britain, the V&A and the Chase Manhattan Bank.

He was appointed OBE in 2013 for services to the visual arts. He died in March 2015.

About the RWA acquisitions Almada (1985) and Rosetta (2012)

Stewart Geddes PPRWA writes:

Bert [Albert Irvin] had had close association with the RWA since the late 90s, when Derek Balmer had invited him to do a show with us, and he was then appointed an Honorary Academician by Council.

Around the same time, I had moved to London just three doors down from Bert’s daughter Celia. Through Celia I got to know Bert, and although there was nearly a 40 year age difference, we became great friends. I became a sort of go-between for preparations of that 1999 exhibition.

When Bert died in 2015, part of settling the estate were paintings being offered to a number of institutions around the country for which Bert had great affection.

Celia, and Bert’s other daughter Priscilla, asked if the RWA would like to choose from the list of paintings available, and we were lucky enough to receive a classic 1980s’ canvas in Bert’s distinctive red-based palette, ‘Almada’; and a late work, ‘Rosetta’, from 2012. They’re not only both stunning paintings, but in terms of scholarship they represent different phases of Bert’s mature style. The timing of the acquisitions couldn’t have been better – they received their first ‘outing’ with us for ‘Albert Irvin and Abstract Expressionism’.