Arts: Time to Reflect ; It Can Be Hard to Discern the Beauty in the Severely Minimalist Style of Douglas Allsop, but Sue Hubbard Finds in His Work a Seductive Blend of Science, Philosophy and Poetic Vision

By Hubbard, Sue | The Independent (London, England), August 24, 2004 | Go to article overview
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Arts: Time to Reflect ; It Can Be Hard to Discern the Beauty in the Severely Minimalist Style of Douglas Allsop, but Sue Hubbard Finds in His Work a Seductive Blend of Science, Philosophy and Poetic Vision


Hubbard, Sue, The Independent (London, England)


Clement Greenberg might be considered the guru of Modernist art criticism. Broadly, the American considered art to be a process of self-purification, a process of reduction fuelled by a drive to strip away superficialities and inessentials. One significant feature of late Modernism as a form of representation was that it assumed a relationship between art and theory, art and language. The period extended roughly from the mid-Sixties to the mid-Seventies. The sculptor Richard Serra remembers: "It was your job as an artist to redefine society by the values you were introducing, rather than the other way around."

Some, though, might argue that minimalist art (happening alongside the emergence of the new, democratising Pop Art) was not so much an art of opposition or an instrument of social change, but rather the reductive last word in a fairly narrowly framed argument about what modern art should be. It was an art that could not be appreciated without a particular sort of intellectual connoisseurship or fluency in current critical theory.

Even Greenberg had his doubts as to the logical extremes to which his arguments had led, writing rather grumpily in 1967: "Minimal works are readable as art, as almost anything is today... including a door, a table or a blank sheet of paper... Minimal art remains too much a feat of ideation, and not enough anything else."

As the art was made from non-art, industrialised materials, from which all autobiography and personal expression had been deliberately expunged, lay viewers could often identify objects such as Carl Andre's 120 sand- lime bricks, Equivalent VII, only because they were legitimised by the context of gallery and museum, curator and dealer. Many female critics also felt uneasy with minimalism's implicit masculine characteristics: its slick surfaces; its uniformity of production and its hard edges; its forceful, authoritative and commanding presence; and its refusal to embrace the humanist elements of art. "A negative art of denial and renunciation" and "a rejective art", as Barbara Rose and Lucy Lippard respectively dubbed it in 1965.

Douglas Allsop, who is showing his series of Reflective Editors and his Blind Screen at Kettle's Yard, Cambridge, was born in 1943. He attended art school (which he left in 1964) against this critical background. His own work - which is very minimal indeed - appropriates, flouts and disrupts these classical minimalist positions in about equal measure. His main material consists of shiny black cast acrylic sheets incised with slits, bored with holes or cut into large grids. But what distances him from many of the etiolated dogmas of Modernist theory (despite the tight precision of his work, made according to mathematical systems and by machine with man-made materials that carry not a trace of the maker) is his poetics of vision and an inherent aesthetic lyricism.

His work is hung at Kettle's Yard both in the gallery and the house. The house was the vision of Jim Ede, the first curator of modern art at the Tate, who as a young man became friends with and a supporter of many of the early English Modernists, particularly the group who gathered in the Thirties in St Ives in Cornwall.

Within the treasure trove of English abstract art here, among the Ben Nicholsons, the Barbara Hepworths and the Naum Gabos, Allsop's work takes on different, softer references that have little to do with a hard-line Greenbergian approach. His black ink-based circles and rectangles on synthetic paper echo many of Nicholson's constructions. For Nicholson, circles and rectangles were far removed from "a conscious and intellectual mathematical approach". He wrote: "A square or a circle in art are nothing in themselves, and are alive only in the instinctive and inspirational use an artist can make of them in expressing a poetic idea."

While one would expect the mostly black and occasionally cream reflective surfaces to be totally at home in the white uncluttered space of the gallery, they also look surprisingly beautiful placed over the white sofa by the grand piano in the large living-room of the main house, or in the little alcove of the old cottage entrance above the narrow wooden dining-table.

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Arts: Time to Reflect ; It Can Be Hard to Discern the Beauty in the Severely Minimalist Style of Douglas Allsop, but Sue Hubbard Finds in His Work a Seductive Blend of Science, Philosophy and Poetic Vision
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