Pop Classical: Derrick Greaves Paintings from the 1970s

29 March - 28 April 2006

In 1967 the London magazine contained a lengthy review of the Beatles's newly released album, Sergeant Pepper, and an extensive illustrated essay by Mark Glazebrook, entitled Pop-Kinky/Pop-Classical. This essay focused on just four painters - Patrick Caulfield, Derrick Greaves, Fernand Léger and Roy Lichtenstein- and emphasised their shared qualities:

'They all avoid the handmade look, the expressive brushstroke. They all compose with thickish painted lines, which both delineate forms and strike up a strong rhythmIn the too little known recent work of Derrick Greaves the line is often a pale one, dividing two darker areas like the swap of black for white on a photographic negative. Partly because of their clarifying use of line and partly because all four use strong doses of flat colour, their paintings have great impact as designs. A relevant point about subject matter is that if it is familiar, either from everyday life or from artistic tradition, it helps establish communication.'

Comparing the work of these four artists to that of Allen Jones, then gaining notoriety for his fetishistic images of women, Glazebrook argued that:

'Whereas Jones is mostly what might be called Pop-Kinky, Léger, Greaves, Lichtenstein and Caulfield are all what could be called Pop-Classical. The latter four all take popular themes in order to establish at least the possibility of being understood. But very soon the picture takes overGreaves, though not above the odd surrealist device such as seeing a woman's body in terms of the sky, pares down the linear rhythm to achieve his own brand of more with less.
Finally, Glazebrook felt the necessity to extract Greaves from the milieu of the 'angry young men' and 'the kitchen sink' school:

'Since the 'fifties Greaves has become progressively more subtle in style, technique and use of imageryHis imagery now tends to reflect the more sophisticated hedonism that has pervaded a good deal of British and American art of the 'sixties. His sources are sometimes similar to Pop sources. But the important thing about his work generally is that it is beautifully classical.

Greaves's 'Pop-Classical' paintings were showcased in his one-person show at the Whitechapel Art Gallery exhibition of 1973, which included a number of paintings in the present exhibition, among them The Jungle (1970), Shadow of a Bird on a Road (1971) and The Source (1972). After the dominance of still life motifs in the early 1960s now the figure, the nude and portraiture gained increased importance alongside genre and outdoor scenes. The present exhibition, for example, includes a portrait of the artist Prunella Clough as well as a double portrait of Hollywood film stars Laurel and Hardy.

Greaves's paintings of the early 1970s attracted ecstatic reviews.

Pierre Rouve wrote of:

'A controlled radiance that can best be described as classical. This is a display of reconciled tensions and practical oppositions: an evidence of inner balance which is in turn a proof of artistic maturityfor once there is an artist who composes his work and whose work helps us compose ourselves. Derrick Greaves makes a brave stand against the devaluation of standards. He does it without any ostentatious din: his aims are stated, not proclaimedBut the truth remains: today, the plea for order is a revolutionary roar.'

For John Russell:

'Greaves is what he always was: a beautiful draftsman. Added to this is, now, a feeling for the grand slow eye-music of colour-areas left unadorned and most precisely and elegantly set off by fragmented images - a thorn, the shoulder of a pot, a girl's profile. Greaves disdains to push and shout for our attention, but it would be a defective survey of the period that left him out of account.'

Bryan Robertson asserted that:

'The paintings have absolute command over their selected terms of reference: the colour is weightless and strong, the use of line increasingly sharp and telling. Greaves is an abstract-symbolist.'

Marina Vaizey championed Greaves as:

'A formidably gifted artist who is modern, contemporary, strikingly individual... a master of line and colourHe is obviously one of the most interesting artists at work in Britain, and his work is memorable, distinctive and movingly beautiful.'

The present exhibition turns the spotlight back onto these important paintings and suggests that had Greaves not already gained a reputation as a 'kitchen-sink' painter in the 1950s, he might well have emerged as one of the most acclaimed 'Pop' artists in Britain.