More on Jock Macdonald

I’ve been giving some more thought to Jock Macdonald’s late abstract expressionist paintings. I may have been too quick to judgment in my previous post, so I’m going to take another run at them from a different angle.

My re-think was prompted by a comment made by Robert Amos in a review of the same exhibition in the weekend’s edition of the Times Colonist:

From a distance the paintings appear to be spontaneous gestures, but closer examination reveals the hand of the artist fussing over the edges and touching up the patterning of every image. []

I’d noticed that particular characteristic myself, but didn’t think it was important enough to mention in my review. The more I think about this group of paintings though, the more I think the deceptive appearance of spontaneity is probably their most interesting quality, and one that complicates my previous reading of them as well-made but basically derivative.

My new reading is at odds not only with my earlier take, but with Robert Amos’ take as well. Amos asks the rhetorical question “If they weren’t the spontaneous expression of his subconscious, what were they? It’s an excellent question, and I think trying to answer it might be a worthwhile exercise.

But first we need to situate these works in context. “Spontaneous expression” was a pretty big deal back in the late 50s. Thanks to the Surrealists, short-circuiting one’s conscious intentions had come to be seen as an act imbued with all kinds of significance. By mid-century, according to one of the dominant narratives, the technology-driven horrors of two world wars had wiped away any lingering confidence in Enlightenment values. In that context, the random spatters of a legion of Abstract Expressionists were seen to be frontal assaults against the bankrupt rationality of Western culture.

And yet from another point of view the same works were celebrated as an expression of the freedoms available in Western democracies, set against the conservative, rule-bound styles of painting prevalent in fascist and communist dictatorships of the day.

So gestural abstraction was beloved by yea-sayers and nay-sayers alike. But it was a consensus based on a contradiction, and it could not be sustained for long. Abstract Expressionism was still riding high in 1960 but would soon be eclipsed by a number of other styles, notably pop art but also post-painterly abstraction, op art, and the beginnings of conceptual art. All of these subsequent approaches returned at least some measure of conscious intention to the artmaking process. Conceptual art represented an almost complete about-face, from spontaneous gesture embedded in the physicality of paint, to the work of art as idea, whose physical embodiment was almost an afterthought.

Painted as they were in the heyday of Abstract Expressionism, Macdonald’s works participate in the valorization of the spontaneous gesture. But Macdonald, for what I think were probably excellent but largely aesthetic reasons, was never completely committed to that approach. True, he did some purely automatist works under the guidance of Pailthorpe and Mednikoff, but as works of art they were pretty bad, and he must have been aware of that. He got far better results when in the mid-50s he used automatist techniques as a springboard for developing more consciously constructed watercolours.

It’s likely the same forces were in play when he turned from his watercolours to the large abstract canvasses. These paintings probably began with a spontaneous gesture or two, but such were Macdonald’s aesthetics that he couldn’t just leave them in their initial, unfinished state. So just as he did with his watercolours, he went back in and very consciously fine-tuned their colours and forms, preserving the appearance of spontaneity (unless you look really closely), but improving the composition, adding subtleties of colour and texture, and generally working them up into finished designs.

One could, of course, simply dismiss that approach as a failure of nerve, and anyone who bought into spontaneous expression as either critique or celebration would probably have done just that. But in retrospect we could position it rather as an anticipation of things to come, a recognition of the limits of the spontaneity. An acknowledgement that, for better or worse, we probably need to think about what we’re doing at least some of the time. In the artworld of the late 50s that would have been an interesting and somewhat controversial stand to take.

Jock Macdonald at the AGGV

There’s a truly excellent Jock Macdonald retrospective currently showing at the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria. It runs to September 7th and if you haven’t seen it yet, you should. They’ve put together an impressive collection of his work with highlights from all the way through his career, including a whole room full of the abstract expressionist works that constitute the last and most critically respected phase of his 30-plus years as a painter.

He began his career as a designer, and it was as Head of Design that he was hired by the Vancouver School of Decorative & Applied Art back in 1926, when he would have been in his late twenties. He took up painting with the encouragement of his colleague, Fred Varley, and his earliest works show quite a strong Varley influence. In addition to picking up Varley’s technique Macdonald also seemed to pick up a lot of Varley’s nature spiritualism. A concern for the spiritual realm, the world beyond the veil, would remain a constant in Macdonald’s work, even as the outward forms of his expression changed over the next 3 decades.

The exhibition is called “Evolving Form”, and maybe that’s apt, but I have some reservations which I’ll get to in a minute. Following his Varley period, you can see Macdonald picking up ideas from other painters like Emily Carr, and less fortunate influences like Lawren Harris. You can see where Harris, with his Theosophical interests, would appeal to Macdonald’s mystical side, but Macdonald’s Harris-inspired geometrical mandalas are to my eyes his weakest work, along with a couple of paintings that reflect the Harris’ mushy deco landscape style. But then I’ve never been a big fan of Harris (can you tell?).

Macdonald’s style changed again under the influence of a couple of British Surrealists, Grace Pailthorpe and Reuben Mednikoff, whom the Telegraph once described as the eeriest couple in art, although I think “eerie” is perhaps a nice word for what they were. Macdonald met them in Vancouver where they had relocated during the war, and they inducted him into the surrealist practice of automatism, drawing without consciously thinking about what you’re doing. Initially the results of these exercises seemed pretty weak, but by the early 50s Macdonald was using a modified version of this approach to produce some really interesting watercolours. These are the works in the show I like best, which puts me at odds with the critical consensus regarding his late-period abstractions.

Not that there’s any question the large abstract works from the last 3 or 4 years of his life are by far the most accomplished works in the show. They’re fine paintings. But at the same time, at this remove it seems to me they’re a lot like what a lot of other painters, many of them Macdonald’s students, were doing in Toronto in the late 50s. In this they simply carry on a pattern evident from the rest of the show: Jock Macdonald was really good at picking up on whatever was going on around him and running with it. That kept him in the mainstream, but at a cost. I get the sense that he spent more time expressing other people’s pictorial ideas than he did expressing his own.

So I guess my question here is: did Macdonald’s approach truly evolve, as the show’s subtitle would have it, or did it just change as the fashions changed? Macdonald’s late-period abstractions are often touted as the culmination of a lifetime of artistic development, and perhaps they were. But I can’t help wondering how Macdonald would have handled the 1960s, if he had lived to see them (he was 63 when he died in 1960). Would he have spent his last years as an abstract expressionist even as that movement petered out, or would he have continued to follow the trends into, say, colour field abstraction, Op Art and minimalism? We’ll never know, of course, but based on the evidence in this exhibition I suspect his work would have continued to evolve, or simply change, along with the times.

No painting today

Forest fires in the northern part of Vancouver Island are spewing particulate matter into the skies which has now drifted down to hang over Victoria. Sunlight filtering through the haze is bathing the city in a beautiful amber glow. Unfortunately, I’m finding it impossible to paint in this light, so I’m packing it in for the day.

Were I to look at this objectively, I’d have to admit this is not one of the more significant problems these fires are creating. My sympathies to those whose homes and communities are threatened, and my thanks to those who are working to put the fires out.