John Blackburn

John Blackburn occupies an unusual position in British art. Born in Luton, he trained at Margate School of Art before doing National Service and going to live for a time in New Zealand and the Pacific Islands (1954-62). He returned to England and a period of early success in the 1960s, when his work was bought by Jim Ede (who founded Kettle’s Yard). After that, Blackburn largely dropped off the artistic radar until he was rediscovered in 2002; but since then, his reputation has deservedly gone from strength to strength, and he has become re-established as a name to conjure with. Now in his eightieth year, Blackburn is recognized as an abstract painter of originality and vision, an artist capable of taking the Modernist project of St Ives (Hilton, Scott,Wynter, Lanyon and Frost) into the twenty-first century, and breaking his own new ground.

Nearly forty years in the wilderness have neither embittered Blackburn nor deterred him from pursuing his own path. He divides his time between a studio in Kent and foreign travel. Recently, he has spent the early part of each year back in New Zealand, where he enjoys working in different personal and physical conditions. Blackburn responds to context, and the quality of light in New Zealand affects his sense of colour, resulting in some uncharacteristic pastel tints. This lighter (and perhaps more lighthearted) palette has begun to enrich the work he makes in England. Looked at overall, Blackburn’s paintings have been predominantly brown, black and white.Now, blue and pink have been steadily creeping in, vermilion even, while various ochres enliven the habitual greys and whites. ‘Pink Form’ (2010) (p17) is a fine example of this – also of the tall upright format the artist often favours. The constraints of this shape seem to suit him, and the group of upright paintings contain some of his best and most inventive shapemusic of recent years.

This is not to suggest that the work Blackburn generally makes in Kent is uniformly dark and doom-laden. But on home territory, the artist engages directly with his longterm preoccupations, and derives more inspiration from his internal landscape than from his external surroundings. His paintings are not directly of figure or landscape, but deal with relationships and states of mind, and these less readily definable qualities invariably involve both people and environments. Art is about making ethical and poetic judgements, about discerning nuance. It is also about bringing together a number of generalities to reach a concrete formal conclusion (the painting), which the artist hopes will act as a bridge between himself and his potential audience. This process of transformation can only be achieved through the constant practice of making art, but it is often the addition of happenstance which brings about resolution. In other words, the roles of intuition, juxtaposition and the irrational are just as important as anything intended. The unexpected is crucial.

The addition of extraneous matter to the picture plane is one of Blackburn’s favourite strategies for surprising himself into making a telling statement. In this he somewhat parallels the activities of the late Catalan artist and alchemist, Antoni Tàpies. There is too much talk of alchemy in modern art commentary (it’s an easy metaphor for the transformative processes of art), and in Blackburn’s case it’s preferable to concentrate on the witty way in which the artist extends his formal vocabulary. Several new paintings incorporate bits of old iron (one fragment even resembles a man trap or chastity belt) (p55), and ‘Shoe Picture 1’ (2012) (p47) includes several pairs of shoes. The satiric aspect of Blackburn’s work emerges strongly here, in a painting which triumphantly appropriates a post-Pop idiom, with more than a genial nod and a wink to Rauschenberg.

Blackburn defines a great painting as a balancing act between self-expression and impersonal statement, the point at which form and content are held in fruitful dialogue, and ‘the artist has managed to extract himself when the painting’s at its highest level’. This is an operation fraught with risk, and the artist must be prepared to lose the painting in order to succeed. The exposure to risk is essential to the health of the activity. This is one reason why so often he paints wet on wet, in itself a risky procedure, and why he pushes his forms into three dimensions with collaged additions.

The material dispositions of his paint are surprising and intriguing, his mark-making generates an unexpected play of thoughts and emotions – the whole physical presence of Blackburn’s paintings is original and compelling. There is nothing polite here. There might be lumps in the canvas – folds or overlaps, different layers. These are intentional. If Blackburn wants a smooth surface he makes one. In the same way if he wants the paint to run, he encourages it; otherwise a form is carefully and precisely outlined.

Blackburn’s list of admired artists ranges from Goya to Roger Hilton, via Fautrier and Bacon. Twombly is one of his favourites because of the beauty in his work, beauty that does the spirit good. All have inspired him and some have proved very useful to steal from – as recommended by Picasso. One or two paintings seem to contain an echo of Hilton, but Blackburn’s personal vision has turned a shared formal device (abutting square, circular or boat-shaped forms; an inventive use of outline with vigorously applied paint) into something very much his own. There is a world of difference between using a gimmick – such as a specific unusual texture or material – and redeploying a shape which in its fulfilled ordinariness is a lasting one in the general vocabulary of forms available to all artists. For instance, the circle or sphere can never be exhausted because it is the basic form of so much central to our lives: the world itself, the belly, the sun, the womb, the moon, the breast.

Two paintings made earlier this year, ‘Brown/Black Squares’ (right) and ‘Black, Brown,White’ (p51), feature a row of black dots along the top, rather like holes or the perforations in a spiral-bound sketchbook. This similarity confirms in these large paintings the immediacy of the sketch that was already present in Blackburn’s paint-handling. There is an urgency and spontaneity to much of his best imagery which affirms the potent informality of his approach and suggests the work of a much younger man. It is this ability to question his aims and assumptions, and fruitfully to reinterpret favourite themes, which ensures John Blackburn’s continuing relevance as an artist.