Terry Frost: The Radiant Moment
‘You make your myth and you paint it.’ TF
Twin forces propelled Terry Frost: other people’s art and his passionate response to the world around him. Coming late to the painting life (as a prisoner of war he learnt the basics and hit upon his metier), he had to make up for lost time and applied himself with all the seriousness of the mature student. He learnt through friends and colleagues: first from Adrian Heath, his mentor in prison camp, then from the teachers at Camberwell School of Art (1947-49), and particularly Victor Pasmore, but also from the artists of St Ives where he chose to settle after the war. Ben Nicholson was an inspiration, and so was Peter Lanyon, while Frost’s stint as an assistant to Barbara Hepworth (1951-2) taught him about form the hard way, especially when he had to carve ten tons of Connemara blue marble. He absorbed Cubism through Nicholson and Heath, and discovered landscape with Lanyon. Later he became allies with Roger Hilton, one of the most uncompromising figures in post-war abstraction.
Frost painted his first abstract in the early 1950s before going to Leeds University in 1954 on a two-year Fellowship. These severe early pictures are rigorously non-illusionistic, composed of flat shapes and colour, with no visible perspective. The thrust of the image depends on proportion and relationship. Frost’s heroes were Kupka and Malevich, El Lissitzky, Kandinsky, Tatlin and Rodchenko. For instance, seeing Lissitzky’s design CCCP! was an epiphany for Frost. In this he seems to have something in common with James Joyce, who adapted the Christian epiphany (or manifestation of Christ to the Magi – usually celebrated on 6th January, our Twelfth Night) to describe the sudden ‘revelation of the whatness of a thing’. Joycean epiphanies evoke that moment when ‘the soul of the commonest object seems to us radiant’. And this is what Frost did – paint the radiant moment.
Frost was first and foremost a romantic, by disposition and intent. Genial and gregarious, he was also subject to fits of melancholy and depression, the other side of his optimistic high spirits. Too often we think of Frost simply as the artist of joy, of ‘Life is just a bowl of cherries’, his oft-repeated and somewhat misleading mantra. Actually, Frost knew the dark side just as well as the light, which is why his work still has relevance and potency. As Adrian Heath pointed out, for Frost emotion was more important than reason, and he found that direct and spontaneous action produced more authentic results than calculation and planning. But he always needed a structure of formal discipline to present and contain his intuitions, and he first learnt the glimmerings of this at Camberwell, under the tuition of Victor Pasmore. It was Pasmore’s use of collage, for instance, that set Frost on the path of sticking cut-out canvas shapes to his paintings – one of his most successful stratagems and a recognized leitmotif of his work. Patrick Heron wrote in 1956 that it was from Pasmore that Frost absorbed ‘his extremely subtle feeling for surface, for a sort of dry opulence of touch, which conferred great sensuosity and a richness of texture and colour upon what might otherwise have remained an austerely architectural configuration.’
Frost painted generalized shapes in taut formal relationships to summon up the underlying structure of reality. A long-standing fascination for the curve was coupled with a love of swinging, suspended forms, but he was always prepared to drive a wedge between them should the picture demand it. In his imagery the crescent is a boat, but also a breast or a bottom. (Heron referred to Frost’s melon slice forms.) These jaunty shapes are also his grandmother’s stays or sails filling with sea wind. Essentially, Frost’s approach to painting was one of constructing with non-figurative units: discs and half-discs, ovals, chevrons and arrows, curves, loops and rods, zigzags, lozenges, spirals, beams and balances, slats and stacks, arcs and ripples.
The spiral, a distinctive growth form, was a favourite. In his early abstracts, Frost stretched loops of string across his canvases and traced their curves for his Quay paintings. He was adept at movement and counter-movement: the rise and fall of boats on the sea, the space drawings of the mast-heads. Frost evoked blue twilight, brown shore. He aimed to paint an arrangement of forms and colours that would be an equivalent to something seen, in the sense that it offered a counterpart to the feeling engendered by the initial visual experience. According to Arturo Di Stefano, who recalls making prints at the same time as Frost in Hugh Stoneman’s Cornwall studio, Frost referred to the adventitious, happy accident during the process of making art – the magic which takes place who knows how – as ‘the old kizwotzi’. Frost knew that this could not be explained, so adopted a typically blithe nickname for it. In part it is about the experience of colour, in part the emotional power of a drawn line. Then for him there is the deep strain of celebratory eroticism – with bikini shapes, pubic chevrons, chevrons as nipples and indeed as symbols of penetration adding an undeniably sensual texture to his work. Attention to the formal aspects of his work was crucial, but his chief motivating force remained ‘a state of delight in front of nature’.
There were specific visual events that particularly inspired him, such as walking through Wells Cathedral and experiencing not only the fall of light (bright pool and shadow) but the magnificent inverted bracing arch under the tower and the ribbed vault of the octagonal Chapter House, like a great palm tree. Early in his career it was the landscape of Yorkshire: field patterns of black stone walls with sheep huddled in corners, the lines of white washing hanging behind the terraced houses of Leeds. Frost said of the whole experience, ‘you are walking through poetry really’, and the powerful abstracted landscape paintings he made were his heightened response. A lifelong passion was watching the sun dipping behind a mountain, firing the world with colour, separating light from shade.
Frost’s habit of work was to see things, let them be filtered by memory and imagination, and then trace an idea from the residue. This is essentially a process of re-discovering (and perhaps re-inventing) the moment. The majority of people blunder through life without being particularly aware of their surroundings, but artists are among the few who really look. Most people see, but do not observe; artists, like bird-watchers or botanists, are trained to use their eyes. Frost regarded this ocular awareness with mixed feelings. He wanted the innocent eye, not the tutored one. As he wrote in 1954: ‘To look with preconceived notions of visual experience is to destroy the possibility of creating again that experience in paint. If you know before you look, then you cannot see for knowing.’ And in 1973 he elaborated: ‘If you look you can’t see for looking. Looking for something to inspire you to work is an escape from taking action. The decision to take action is the only way of seeing.’
The painting itself should be a process of discovery, with the artist maintaining a freshness of looking throughout. Roger Hilton set a standard for the honesty of response, and the two embarked upon a fruitful and usefully competitive relationship which took them to the extremes of abstraction and back again. Frost, like Hilton, believed in the adventure of painting. (Hilton wrote: ‘Painting must be given back its soul.’) Their shared goal was to access the kind of truth that only painting can reveal: visual knowledge that is a mixture of the intentional and the intuitive, the shrewd exploitation of chance, the decorative and the conceptual.
Although 1959 saw a landmark exhibition at Waddington Galleries entitled Four English Middle Generation Painters, featuring the work of Frost along with Hilton, Heron and Bryan Wynter, it was not until the 1960s that Frost came fully into his mature language of signs. This was closely linked with his move to Banbury and the adoption of a more self-consciously urban imagery, incorporating a much more threatening vocabulary of heraldic road signs and lorry fronts, full of implicit warning. Frost had wanted to escape St Ives: Ben Nicholson had left and as Frost put it, ‘the thing has died on me’. Until that point the sea of Cornwall and the moorlands of Yorkshire had dominated his work. Thereafter, with the move to Banbury, his imagery became more universal.
In 1974, Frost moved back to Cornwall and settled in Newlyn, where he stayed for the rest of his life. The work of this last period is characterized by purer colour and more geometric forms, the earlier scratchy and abrupt marks giving way to an increasingly fluid and expressive paint-handling. Later some of his signs became more overt in meaning – two parallel verticals to suggest a tree, dense black ovals for olives, hearts. The sun (or moon) had always been present as itself, and bobbing quadrants or semi-circles, sometimes with angled spars, suggested boats or the female body. Frost spoke of having a crowd of ideas and images rushing around in his head; the difficulty lay in deciding which one to concentrate on. He described the moment of truth – ‘it doesn’t come by chance. You have to want to be carried away to the main idea. The real problem is then with you, sorting it all out to find the particular and find a simple way of saying it.’ (From a notebook, c1980.) Frost was a master raconteur with a selective memory: he relished embroidering or even making up his stories. As an artist, he claimed to rely on his memory, but as his increasingly wild and hilarious anecdotes revealed, imagination also played an important part. Despite his prolonged absences from Cornwall (or paradoxically because of them), Frost grew to be the living personification of St Ives and its artistic community. Perhaps one of the reasons he was seen as such a figurehead was because he outlived so many of his contemporaries (Lanyon, Hilton, Wynter, Heron all predeceased him), but also because of his outgoing personality. I remember Cornish taxi drivers (including a hard-bitten ex-lead guitarist from a rock band) loud in their approval of Terry and what he stood for. He became the acceptable and popular face of British abstraction, a status only confirmed by his knighthood in 1998. It’s impossible to imagine the cantankerous Hilton – even if he had managed to survive into old age – readily accepting such an accolade.
The earliest painting here is the realistic Self-Portrait, which must date to 1948-9, when Frost was at Camberwell School of Art and solidly under the influence of Victor Pasmore. Frost recalled that Pasmore grew a beard so he followed suit. He commented: ‘Lawrence Gowing looked at my beard one day and said: “Just do a self-portrait and you’re made.”’ This self-portrait shows Frost wild-haired and bohemian, with the beginnings of a beard which was to grow much fuller and make him look like an Old Testament prophet or a character from the Bloomsbury Group. The artist at the beginning of his career confronts himself in the mirror, wondering what it’s all about. That there’s no easy answer (except work) is apparent from the slightly defensive and embattled look in his eyes.
Red, Black and White Movement (1968) is a shaped canvas with the clean-edged quadrants of a circle or oval bouncing off each other like magnets in repelling mode. Here the expressiveness of the paint surface has been suppressed, though the sharply angled dynamic is both static and animated and surprisingly satisfying. A very different treatment of the same colour trinity can be found in Red, Black and White Delight, which features a square within a circle within a square, the paint handling bold, rhythmical and brushy.
Tears of the Sun is a large acrylic from 1995 in which five fat teardrops fall down a tri-partite canvas, horizontally divided into green, red and yellow. The tears are one black, two red, two blue. Typical Frost: exuberant and life-enhancing, executed with complete and infectious naturalness, with sure economy of gesture. Lizard Light, an acrylic of 1996-8, is a black and white evocation of different times of day over the Lizard Peninsula in Cornwall, from sunlight to moonlight with a ruffled reflective sea between. Frost was expert at black and white dazzle, and made consistently intriguing use of white, not just the virgin white of paper or canvas, but the liberal yet judicious application of white paint. (Three Drawings for White Out (1981) are pencil and pastel studies for possible arrangements of geometric colour elements against white. He was equally at home painting black olives or a great black disc of sun like a vinyl LP.) ‘When you paint black, it must have colour’, he declared, and emphasized that there is no such thing as pure black – there are, for instance, blue blacks and red blacks, each with a particular colouristic slant or emphasis. Frost used black and white with lyrical aplomb. He spoke of them behaving sensuously together: ‘almost copulation at times’.
There was a blue moon during the writing of this essay, and as I watched the huge golden orb sail through the cloud-articulated sky, I thought of Frost’s delight in the whole range of natural light, from moonlight to full sunlight and back again. A blue moon is a special dispensation, a gift from the gods – a second, additional full moon in a calendar month. It happens only rarely and its serendipitous nature appealed to Frost, who painted the subject several times and in 1952 made a lithograph with this title. In Frost’s late work there is an even greater liberation of knowledge and instinct, spontaneity and risk: painting and drawing merged, as did colour and line in the crisply cut collage elements he used. His simple, almost primitive methods of collage were entirely suited to the effects he sought, and are triumphantly realised in such late bright collage paintings as Frisky (2003) or Swing Purple.
In 1987 Frost declared: ‘People have got to be prepared to go overboard if they want to understand what artists paint. Otherwise they don’t deserve to know anything about art.’ His is an art of inner necessity, packaged and presented via external sources of inspiration. The vigour of his improvisation is as beguiling as the reverie it provokes. Terry Frost’s best paintings renew in us the sense of joy, inflected with humour and wise melancholy. The combination is irresistible.
Andrew Lambirth July-August 2015
Andrew Lambirth is the author of numerous monographs on Modern British artists, including Roger Hilton: The Figured Language of Thought (2007) and the forthcoming William Gear