Exhibition Review: Alan Reynolds at Kettle’s Yard

Kettle’s Yard, Cambridge, 9 August-21 September 2003

The work represented in this exhibition covers the period 1951 (when the artist was 25) to 1953. For a brief period during the 1950s Reynolds produced the work for which he is known – to the extent he is known at all to art historians of the 20th Century.  These were usually landscapes. produced from a fairly consistent low-key palette of greens, greys, blacks and browns. They are instantly recognisable in the saleroom, where examples appear surprisingly frequently. Since they come from such a short period – not much more than five years – it seems as if many may have been produced and. if so, it would appear to be a feature of this artist that he works consistently at those aspects of his art which seize his attention.  There are, for example, many works exhibited from recent years and, again, they show him worrying at the thoughts he chooses to wrestle with.

The shock with the work of this particular artist is not that he worries at his subjects, but that his work has divided into quite distinctive phases, each at first glance sharply removed from previous phases. Following the landscapes now so commonly found at Sotheby’s and Christie’s come some years of abstracts, involving colour. Then the painting largely disappears from some point in the 1960s – although we were missing in this exhibition works of any kind from 1964 to 1974 – to be replaced by reliefs, initially involving occasional lines of black on white, but ultimately only white.  There has also been a phase of pencilled black and grey gradations.

Artists can only be what they are and what they are emerges from their studies, thoughts, influences and abilities.  Among English painters easy, but irrelevant, comparisons could be made with the career of Victor Pasmore, who famously swerved from the figurative to the abstract over a brief period and was never to return; Ben Nicholson, who started with landscape and followed some of the same lines of development as Reynolds, although never fully abandoning figurative elements when it suited him; and Patrick Heron, whose work moved inexorably from the figurative to the abstract.

It may be that Reynolds took some influence from Nicholson, or it may be that both took note of some common sources – Klee, Mondrian, Arp and so on. The Reynolds landscapes may have something of Paul Nash. They are devoid of people and charged with an element of mystery, often accentuated by a dramatically rising or setting stun, casting its rays across a stark landscape scene. Although something is made in the exhibition of the tact that Reynolds has local connections – he was born in Newmarket – in fact much of the landscape seems to have been painted in Kent. The hop-poles which were still a feature of the Kent countryside in the 1950s are certainly a distinctive feature of many of the landscapes, the sharp verticals being used as a balance to the horizontal landscape.

It is the tension between horizontals and verticals which also informs some of the recent white reliefs. In fact, the way Mondrian’s winter trees gradually evolved into grids, which we think of as characteristic of Mondrian’s mature work, together with the blocks of colour of some of Klee’s work (and even perhaps that great influencer of 1950’s British artists, Nicholas de Sta?l), seem to have influenced the evolution of Reynolds’ work. The fact that Reynolds’ distinctive phases turn out to be evolutionary rather than sharply disjunctive, as seems to be the case at first sight, is important to emphasise.

On the evidence of this exhibition, there came a point in Reynolds’ landscapes where he was giving a landscape title to pictures which could as easily have had abstract titles. The landscapes had been reduced to interlocking planes of watercolour – Rocky Headland of 1958 is it good example of this trend. From there it was not a large step to painting without alluding to what may still have been a landscape-derived inspiration.

Then he decided that colour was superfluous and there followed the long years of reliefs, eventually completely without colour. It is not easy to be enthusiastic about these. Just as there is a hint of the obsessive about the way Reynolds dealt with landscapes, there is more of a hint of it in the way he has worked at his reliefs, especially as one suspects that those on display are very much the tip of the iceberg. It seems that following ideas obsessively is the Reynolds way. Unfortunately, white reliefs can only go so far when followed like this. They do not lead to an experience which can easily be shared with the viewer and they are unlikely to instil a high level of enthusiasm in many viewers. Visitors to this gallery may have found themselves wondering about the extent of the communication which these works can deliver. Without representation or colour, the weight of these works bears upon slender supports. An appreciative viewer would need to have a developed interest in mathematics or geometry and be prepared to give minute attention to an extremely refined and remote series of graded reliefs. A cynical viewer would find the later works of any number of artists crossing his mind by way of comparison and would find these wanting.

Most of the books which attempt to synthesize the 20th-century British art world do not attempt – with the honourable exception of John Rothenstein –  to grapple with Reynolds and, in a broad context, it is right that they do not. He is a minor figure and interest in him in this country rests solely on his brief landscape period. The relief works are being honestly, if obsessively, pursued, but the pursuit is of little interest to most of us. They are a dead end.