Essays by James Hyman

Adrian Heath

Adrian Heath


James Hyman
Art Monthly
February, 1991

Adrian Heath. Works on Paper; focus on the Sixties with some recent work , Austin/Desmond Fine Art, November 20 to December 23, 1990
Adrian Heath Paintings 1990, Redfern Gallery, November 20 - December 21, 1990


Adrian Heath's seventieth birthday was marked by exhibitions at Austin/Desmond and at the Redfern Gallery. Although, sadly, these did not constitute a full retrospective they nonetheless provided a welcome opportunity of re-evaluation. They highlighted how misleading it is to characterise painting as either figurative or abstract by demonstrating Heath's increasingly confident occupation of a middle ground. Although he is discussed primarily in terms of Fifties abstraction and constructionism, these two shows suggested a preoccupation with man in his environment.

Heath's early years shed light on this development. He lived, until 1936, in a country house filled, appropriately, with paintings and engravings by the likes of Gainsborough, Romney and Leighton. In 1938, as a private pupil of Stanhope Forbes, he began producing elegant Academy-style nudes. During the war, in a POW camp, he discovered Emmons' book on Sickert and subsequent study at the Slade encouraged the depiction of modern life. But greater exposure to modern painting (Matisse and Picasso at the V & A in 1946; the discovery of Villon in 1947) and friendship with Pasmore developed in him interest in abstraction, an interest that led to Heath's Fifties paintings with their indebtedness to geometry, golden sections and root rectangles. However, although these were entirely non-referential, Heath continued, as he still continues, to fill his sketchbooks with figure and landscape drawings. These two shows displayed Heath's struggle, since the Sixties, to reconcile these dual interests.

At Austin/Desmond, works on paper from the late Fifties and Sixties (with a few recent drawings) accompanied by a well-illustrated catalogue with texts by and on the artist, showed Heath at his most free. They highlighted the direct influence of de Stael and the indirect one of de Kooning. But the exhibition would have benefited from a more rigorous selection. It included few pictures in which Heath really let himself go and he was exposed as a surer draftsman than colourist. However, gouaches such as Untitled 7964 (pale blue) achieve a considerable, though quiet, authority. They may use geometry but they are not about geometry Instead one senses references, often veiled, to landscape and the human anatomy.

Redfern presented a selection of recent paintings. Although Heath would once again have benefited if fewer works had been included, the works selected revealed a surer sense of colour, impressive scale and often dramatic ambition. In the best, such as Dirdal I and Dirdal III, 1990, pencil lines, left on the surface, underline Heath's care with composition, but the overall impression is of content and of life. There are hints of a location, of space and depth and man. Nothing is explicit and this is perhaps their secret for these paintings are strongest when most oblique.

The strongest paintings achieve something remarkable. Their roots may be in the visible, experienced world, but they combine a sense of presence with one of absence. Often concentrated around a central form, they frequently leave it unresolved, as though the subject had just left, but not before animating the surrounding space. Heath, in his Fifties abstractions, appeared to work his way inwards from the extremities of the canvas but these new paintings suggest the reverse. Their energy comes from a central, dramatically elusive, presence. Furthermore, through a sophisticated synthesis of the visible and the visual, the rooted and the constructed, Heath reconciles his twin interests to produce paintings that are, at best, metaphoric rather than literal.

At seventy, Heath is producing work that is at least as powerful as anything he has ever achieved.

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