Terry Frost – Beaux Arts Gallery Terry Frost was a fortunate man. He was getting on for thirty before poetry and art discovered him, hitting him, so to speak, amidships. Before the war, in his home town of Leamington Spa, he had from the age of fourteen done unremarkable short-term jobs. Called up in 1939, he went into the army and ended up in the Commandos. There followed four years in prisoner-of-war camps, finally in a Stalag in Bavaria, his ‘University of Life’. One of his uncles made drawings from magazines and photographs, and young Terry had enjoyed doing the same, only better. But there had been no talk of art. He just enjoyed doing imitative drawings, and also writing essays and stories as demanded by his teacher until a dismissive, unfair mark put him off. In the camp he read a lot, especially poetry, and drew portraits of his fellow inmates. These had to be lifelike and were judged for that, so it was a tough training in looking and doing lines and shading. But nothing to do with art, until Adrian Heath, from another part of the camp, noticed him and got him to join a small art group doing figure drawing and painting. As luck would have it, Heath was one of the most intelligent and able British artists, a man of wide culture and great energy. Moreover, Frost and he became close friends for life, with Heath providing guidance and help at several important points, especially when peace returned them to civilization. By that time Frost knew that he had to be painter. He combined a day-time job in Birmingham with evening art classes. He married Kathleen: a long, close, in every sense productive relationship. Again, various ordinary jobs in the Midlands, combined with evening art classes in Birmingham. After repeated refusals for lack of school qualifications, he got an ex-serviceman’s grant. Again, Heath’s help was important. He suggested that Frost should move to Cornwall where he might encounter living art and artists, and he guided him into Camberwell School of Art, where the most progressive teaching was to be found. So Frost spent part of the week in or near St Ives, painting when he could and beginning to meet and spend time with other artists. He worked as a waiter in hotels; Kathleen worked as a maid and delivered telegrams until the babies came. (Later, during 1950-2, Frost worked for Barbara Hepworth as an assistant carver.) He accepted portrait commissions, but was more intent on discovering the process – of the imagination as well as of eye and hand – by which live experience could become art that might communicate it to others. From 1947 on, he spent part of his time in London, at art school but also in the museums. The influence of Coldstream’s delicate naturalism was strong at Camberwell, but it was countered by that of artists moving into abstraction, exploring relationships of form, colour and space without declared visual subject-matter. Victor Pasmore was emerging as the leader of what was soon seen as a revolution in British art, hailed by a few, instantly reviled by others. Though it was stimulated by foreign example (Klee, Mondrian, Constructive art, etc.) much of the work done, it is now clear, retained a British flavour. Pasmore’s group had become an unmistakable force by 1951: the year of the Festival of Britain and of new buildings and displays of various sorts associated with that. His example was invaluable to Frost, and so was the advice he gave to his mature student that he should spend more time in museums than in the art school: steep yourself in the best art and artefacts you can find. Heath organized displays of the Pasmore group’s latest productions, gave Frost a studio in London and introduced him to a wider range of London painters. From 1952 on, Frost had significant solo exhibitions. By 1954, when the famous little book Nine Abstract Artists was published, Frost was there among his friends, Pasmore, Heath, Roger Hilton, William Scott and others. In 1960, Bertha Shaeffer gave him a show in her New York gallery. During the Sixties, his work was frequently seen in solo and group shows around the world. In 1976 the Arts Council of Great Britain mounted a retrospective Frost exhibition that toured the country and was shown also in the Serpentine Gallery in Kensington Garden, at that time full of natural light with windows giving easy views of its setting, ideal for Frost’s outgoing, generally optimistic art. He was proving to a reluctant British public that abstract painting not only was viable, even important, but could also be friendly, even funny. I had the good fortune of going up to Leeds, after studies at Birkbeck College and the Courtauld Institute, where one learned many things including a disdain for modern art. After some years teaching architectural history to architecture students, I was invited into the Fine Art section of the College of Art, to teach general art history and, yes, modern art history. I was learning just about everything from Harry Thubron, the recently appointed head of Fine Art, and his colleague Tom Hudson. I knew some aspects of art history; in Leeds I discovered art. Terry Frost was given a fellowship in painting, one of the Gregory Fellowships offered by Leeds University. How much good these fellowships did to the University remains arguable (the music fellowship was aborted with the first fellow, too avant-garde for the music department). The art fellows quickly learned to come down the hill to spend time with Thubron and to do some teaching with him. Thus I met Frost, and then also Hubert Dalwood the sculptor and Alan Davie the painter, and got to know them well: the artists, their families, their work. Dalwood and Frost pushed me into attempting at art criticism. Teaching full-time and reviewing modern art exhibitions became the weekly pattern. ‘Life is just a bowl of cherries’. I don’t think I had heard that before I heard Frost proclaim it, more than once. It was almost his signature tune, easily mistaken for a statement about his work. In St Ives, around 1950, Frost had made paintings that took familiar aspects of the world about him – often boats in the harbour, swaying with the water or settling into the sand at low tide – and distilling them into rhythmical compositions that referred to the visual motif but simplified it into geometrical forms set onto a flat or shallow pictorial space. Some of these, on narrow canvases or boards that lead our eyes upwards, suggest a sequence of sights and thus also time. At times he made abstract reliefs using spirals and the other basic forms Pasmore was giving currency to about the same time. These constructed works could express high spirits by playing with forms and using strong lines and colours. In Leeds, Frost’s paintings became more dramatic and assertive, often also larger. Later he spoke of his ‘true experience of black and white in Yorkshire’. I think of his large Red, Black and White, Leeds painting of 1955, all strong red and black shapes painted flatly side by side against a white background, his response to the Yorkshire Dales to the north of the city, the rising flanks of the moors and the drystone walls patterning them. Another painting, related to his but surprisingly different, is the vertical painting Winter, 1956, Yorkshire (Tate), made during a particularly cold winter, with its small patch of black and a lot of white but otherwise has no other strong contrasts, only feathery lines rising and falling. In both cases he was developing the pictorial space he had used in St Ives, neither receding nor advancing spatially but receiving marks that spoke of movement and time in abstract terms that reflected his experience of the world about him. For a while he lived and worked in Banbury – needing a break from the charmed artists’ circle in and around St Ives to which he now belonged: Patrick Heron, Hilton, Peter Lanyon, Denis Mitchell (also that excellent poet, Sydney Graham), as well as the artists who visited Cornwall, such as Pasmore and also Heath, whom he saw intermittently in London. Having taught at Corsham in Wiltshire and at the Willesden School of Art, Frost taught at Reading University from 1964 until 1981, becoming its Professor of Painting in 1977. Teaching could get in the way of his personal work but it also made him articulate his understanding of, for instance, colour. He also found that the students’ responses could stimulate his own: working with them counted as experience too. Much of his art was now unambiguously abstract, but some of it hovered between abstraction and figuration in a way that makes us feel we are being teased. All very well for him to say that a pair of large rounded forms needed tightening, each of them part of a semicircle, set beside each other so that their curving edges almost meet, and that he had tightened them by lacing and pulling them closer with painted lines like lacing or even actual string. Thank you, we say, but they look just like bikini tops to us. He can stack or suspend repeating painted forms suggesting sweets or fruit with their bright and cheerful colours, or build a few strong forms into Black and Yellow (1966) or Red, Black and White Collage (Pisa) (1971). Overlap becomes a key manoeuvre as shapes echo each other with or without colour changes in Red Yellow Blue around Black (1981). The black here is a little square set on its corner at the heart of a strong but subtle composition, a reticent jewel. It reappears as collage, tilted, in the centre of the square White Collage (1981), and it is up to us whether we see drama in that black visitor to a firmament of white or a wittily minimized composition, distantly related to Malevich.. By the Eighties, Frost could call on a vast range of signs and shapes and means, delivering them as though they had occurred to him that moment and he wanted to share his discovery, yet they all belong to a Frost family tree of forms, begetting each other or referring back to the art of his friends, notably Pasmore and Hilton. In his last years he could do, and did, everything, usually with a vigour suggesting high spirits. But life is not just a bowl of cherries. A round form spotted with red and cut by black bars turns out to be a Frost roadsign, one of several he half gathered, half invented around Banbury. His roadsigns, like ours, are warnings as much as encouragement. From the first, Terry Frost was a serious artist. Not everything he did was to be studied by us with knitted brows, and in his experimentation he always remained open to chance discoveries. He could work tightly as well as expansively, following a strict programme in the first case, in the second letting things grow on the canvas. Spring White Out (1977-87; note the reworking those dates imply) and Through Blacks (1998) developed out of colour studies he proposed to his students, getting them to make blacks by mixing primary colours and see how these blacks differ from each other according to how they were constituted, and how they reveal themselves in the context of other colours; also to tint whites a little this way of that, and put different kinds of white side by side to discover the richness to be had through that limitation. His compositions, in these cases, became quiet containers for the products of his visual research. One would not have guessed that Frost was capable of this intense self-control and this research-like process. Self-limitation takes us far away from the happy-go-lucky appeal of ‘Life is just a bowl of cherries’. But then art was never the jolly pursuit Frost made it sound. Making it was work and he could worry about that and whether it would be given its due place in the world, and he had the usual worries about money etc. that afflict people, as well as occasional difficulties with dealers. He learned early on that freedom had to be battled for; it is not given by fate or the artworld. Letters Frost and Hilton exchanged express gloom and disappointment, even when they were both producing some of their best paintings. Hilton died in 1975, in his early sixties. Other artists Frost admired and cared about died too, Lanyon as early as 1964, Hepworth in 1975, Heath suddenly in 1992 Pasmore in 1998, Heron in 1999. The world was becoming more raucous and rancorous, and Terry Frost must have felt increasingly isolated in it as the years passed, even though his knighthood, awarded in 1998, and a number of honorary degrees bestowed by British universities around that time, gave him a sense of being valued, and his paintings appeared to attract an ever-growing public. Perhaps it should not surprise us to find this fortunate man engaging so passionately with the dark, sometimes despairing poems of Federico Garcia Lorca. Lorca, now seen as Spain’s greatest twentieth-century poet, was executed by partisans in the Spanish Civil War at the age of thirty-eight. His themes were violence, death and darkness as often as passion and life. Another fateful, fortunate encounter? ‘I’ve been in love with Lorca’s poetry for fifteen years’, Frost wrote in 1989, when he produced his ‘Lorca Portfolio’ of etchings after years of working on paintings and collages with Lorca in mind. There followed Red + Black + White, For Lorca (1990), a very remarkable painting even among Frost’s ever-varying output. His marks and solid forms are here accompanied by an unusual array of sharp vertical lines, perhaps a stockade, two double spirals, and dancing, swarming Vs, all in red and in black, implying strife. Cante jondo, Lorca’s ‘deep song’, found many echoes in Frost’s imagination, and we realize that the painter’s work, like the poet’s, however much it is impelled by feelings, has to be fine-tuned if it is to communicate amid the hubbub of our times. NORBERT LYNTON I want to acknowledge the help I have received, at several points, from that fine and generous book, David Lewis’s Terry Frost, London (Scolar Press) 1994.