What lies beneath

Having moved to London a year ago, I am still revelling in the opportunity to compare and contrast a huge number of exhibitions that are available in the capital. For example, last weekend I accompanied an OCA group on a study day to the Hoyland exhibition at the Damien Hirst Gallery and the Auerbach at Tate Britain. This week I was reminded of our visit when I was looking at one of the permanent displays, Making Traces, at Tate Modern.

28. 5. 66 1966 John Hoyland 1934-2011 Purchased 1966 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/T00886

The display in question is quite a challenging affair in which many of the works comprise recent post-modernist responses to painting and abstraction. For example, among them is Christopher Wool’s Untitled of 2009, in which the artist sent a computer file with a photo of a black square to a printer and then fed a bulky, folded canvas through it. The result is a faint and blotchy grid of lines in which the printer’s flailing attempts to register the file replaces traditional and more personal attempts at mark-making.

Black on Maroon 1958 by Mark Rothko 1903-1970

In the middle of the display are Rothko’s Seagram murals, which were intended for a corporate restaurant at the company’s headquarters. Rothko’s comment that he painted ‘feelings’ rather than paintings suggests the contrast to the more tight-lipped effects of Hoyland’s early works whose primary aims seems to have been to create works of presence and authority. However, there are somewhat superficial similarities to Hoyland in the use of colour and staining, his preoccupation with image and ground, his concern for the flatness and perimeter of the canvas and for the articulation of a space through a series of vertical forms. Not only is Rothko’s work much superior in quality, he is a reputed to have had a secret agenda in his alleged determination to put his corporate customers of their food. To do so, he based his series on Michelangelo’s Laurentian library, which he had recently seen on holiday in Florence. The artist had blocked out the windows of the library in order to create a room that was deliberately claustrophobic and oppressive.

Rothko implies that there is something behind the rectangular spaces in his works through the ragged edges of the shapes and the way in which the darker colours beneath the surface push themselves towards the viewer. I was reminded of this effect when looking at the reds and golds in one of Rembrandt’s self-portraits at Kenwood House the next day.

Rembrandt Self-Portrait Kenwod House

In the room next door in Making Traces there is a more contemporary analogy in Mark Bradford’s painting, Riding the Cut Vein of 2013. The huge work is said to have been inspired by an aerial photographs of Los Angeles in which the city was sliced in half by the diagonal of a freeway. This in turn became a metaphor for other kinds of division such as the separation of black and white areas and even the underlying geography of the San Andreas Fault. The artist created its extraordinary surface by applying the same kind of wet tissue papers to the canvas that are used for hair-curling in black beauty salons. These were then dried, varnished and roughly sanded down.

Riding the cut vein 2013 by Mark Bradford born 1961

The work recalls both the post-modernist idea of the palimpsest and the modernist tradition that a painter’s removal of paint through thinning, wiping or abrading the surface is almost as important as its application.

This takes us back to Frank Auerbach, one of its best-known practitioners, who repeatedly erases what he has accomplished in order to start again. The result – whether it is a portrait, a landscape or the kind of urban scene that the Camden Town School, Lowry and Bradford himself have painted – depends not just on the final image but on the different surfaces that lie beneath.

Frank Auerbach

Images: John Hoyalnd, 1966,

Mark Rothko, Black on Maroon, 1958

Rembrandt, Self Portrait

Mark Bradford, Riding the Cut Vein, 2013

Frank Auerbach


  1. Steve Cussons 4 February 2016 at 10:25 pm

    I was really disappointed that this study visit was full when I applied for it. As always, Gerald’s wonderful knowledge and perspective opens unexpected doorways of thought. It must have been an inspiring study visit.

  2. smgilmore 5 February 2016 at 2:31 pm

    Great that someone else has noticed the work of Mark Bradford- you don’t hear his name mentioned that often. I have spent quite a lot of time looking at his work, exploring his methods and enjoying the surfaces that can be achieved.


    I quite like that the materials he chooses- like the tissues used in a hair salon, make in a way a physical connection to his own life. If I recall correctly he was the child of a single parent and spent much of his early years in her work place. In other works he uses old bill board posters, sometimes multi-layered, from the neighborhoods in which he has lived.

  3. Rebecca moore 14 February 2016 at 10:47 pm

    I love the rhythms and textures within Mark Bradford’s. His interest in divides such as that seen in aerial perspectives of cities along with his use of strong hues, such as red, remind me of the work of NZ artist Robert Ellis.


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