By Gareth Stevens

I am an atheist, but still cherish visiting temples and churches and the feeling of contemplation that descends on me when I enter old religious spaces. Similarly, I am not a believer in the fictitious history of so-called modern art, but I still enjoyed my visit to Hastings Contemporary to see the Victor Pasmore retrospective exhibition it is currently hosting.

As a graduate of Fine Art I have the residual mindset of someone who has been initiated into the rarefied world of contemporary art. I understand how abstract art came about and am familiar with its thesis, but really … is Pasmore’s work right up there with some of the great human cultural achievements? I think not.

The press release from the gallery suggests that Pasmore’s work is one of the “most significant achievements in 20th century British art”. What measure was used to arrive at this assertion? The answer is simply that an accurate metric doesn’t exist. Despite this being the case, I find it hard to consider that Pasmore’s work comes anywhere near that of some of his British abstract art contemporaries such as Gillian Ayres, Peter Lanyon or Patrick Heron, to name but a few.

Victor Pasmore, Voice of the Ocean, 1989, paint on panel

So why be so unconvinced by the standard narrative about the history of Art? Well we now know that, despite the accepted view that Kandinsky, Malevich and Mondrian pioneered the move to abstraction in painting in the first decade of the 20th Century, Hilma af Klint beat them to it several years earlier. Klint, who was based in Sweden, is not part of the pantheon of innovators because of her gender, the fact that she claimed to be channeling her work directly from the spirit world and also because she kept her practice very private. Another reason to distrust assured edicts from those invested in the emperor’s new clothes of modern art, is that there is substantial evidence to suggest that Duchamp’s acclaimed piece Fountain (merely a urinal laid flat and re-contextualized within a gallery), which is generally regarded as the birth of conceptual art, was in fact the work of his friend and artist Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven.

So as I enter the gallery I am deeply circumspect about whether Pasmore’s work is as significant or as good as everybody seems to be telling themselves. Linear Motive (mixed media), 1962 owes a huge debt to the work of Ben Nicholson. Its simple, yet elegant, arrangement of a few dark lines of various thickness and weight on a largely white background is accomplished. It is interesting to see where the artist has erased earlier decisions and to track the journey of the work’s production. I can immerse myself in it, but ultimately, if I pull the cameras back as it were, I am left thinking ‘so what?’. When talking about his abstract work, even Pasmore himself implies a certain vacuity. “Like all great styles, abstract form can take on the colour of whoever develops it, and its philosophy and social meaning are what the artist and what society puts into it.” Arguing for subjectivity in this way is a convenient ‘get out’ … an alternative claim to the essential one that abstract work is ultimately inconsequential, and (mostly) inherently bourgeois. 

Pasmore’s designs complement the architecture of the gallery’s internal spaces wonderfully well and, for me this is the best aspect of the show. Voice of the Ocean, 1989 – paint on panel, is a large monochromatic piece in Pasmore’s signature late ‘career’ style of crude swirling lines. It is semi-abstract in that it clearly depicts a view out to sea from the foreshore. The rolling waves look like paper scrolls or wood shavings put up under a carpenter’s plane. 

The best part of walking around Hastings Contemporary is when you have reached the top of the stairs to the upper floor and look right. The view out of the large rectangular window over the Stade with its fishing fleet and distant sea never fails to startle. It occurs to me that the view itself is a valid metric for judging the art on show. The vividness and beauty of that framed vista stares accusingly back in at Pasmore’s work, particularly Voice of the Ocean, and makes it look like very thin gruel indeed.

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