Bob Law: a neglected minimalist

The two of us had been up all night at a terraced house in Twickenham, drinking steadily, wrangling (over something & nothing) and listening to vintage jazz recordings from prohibition era Chicago: Johnny Dodds, Louis Armstrong. The lager, wine and cider had all run out, and we were beginning to realise that the short summer night was nearly over. It was early Sunday morning, far too early, and the sun had crept into the back garden where we decamped and sat drinking coffee. My inebriated companion mischievously suggested a short expedition on foot to visit his friend from way back when, the painter Bob Law. “Let’s go and knock on his door.” I was circumspect, but needed a hair of the dog too. “Alright” I mumbled, aware it was far too early to decently call. However we set off through a maze of streets till the address was reached. His wife Gina came to the door. “No Bob’s not here”, but she offered us more caffeine, so we sat awkwardly in the lounge surrounded by arty objects and pictures, while she got ready for her bike ride. Through the French windows you could see a cottage garden and an outhouse that Bob had built himself. Later I learnt that he used to make his own clothes from canvas too.

Sadly Bob Law passed away in 2004, and so I only have this singular memory of his absence, his absent presence, which is apt somehow, seeing that so much of Law’s rather neglected output concerned itself with emptiness and space. Immateriality has now claimed the man too.

It has become almost commonplace, particularly at the tabloid end of the contemporary art press to talk about an artist as ‘edgy’. In the case of the late Bob Law (1934-2004), a figure seen by some as the founder of modern British minimalism, or a hoaxer by others of a more conservative persuasion, the literal edge of the canvas stretcher often represented a place where he disclosed most information both about the nature and intent of the work in question, and also his practice as a whole. The series of date-stamps habitually appended at the working edge of Law’s drawings and paintings became a way to encapsulate and transmit his life philosophy. Ironically this edge might also be the place of the viewer’s undoing too, as it could on occasions carry duff information, disinformation about the object’s original locus that is, adding an extra layer of metaphysical confusion and doubt about Law’s message, if there were one.

Following the progress of this trait, i.e. the dating of individual works, from its appearance in two early Drawings (1960), and in sequences such as Landscape Drawings (1961-66), Mr.Paranoia (1969), Open & Shut Drawings (1965-2003), Castles (1976-80 & 1999) and finally Kisses and Crosses (1999-2003), hopefully demonstrates that for Law, such tabulation of the moment the work was fully realised or abandoned, added up to more than an ordering principle or even a gift horse to archivers of his career post-mortem, and was in fact part and parcel of a set of systematic beliefs about the cosmic nature of art that relied heavily on a dialectical tension between the demarcation of space and absorption by time.

In one crucial respect Bob Law’s career trajectory echoes that of the Auto-Destructive artist Gustav Metzger. Both renounced representation, Metzger in the form of a clean break from his teacher the Vorticist sympathiser David Bomberg, Law more singularly (his artistic development took a thoroughly unacademic path) during the course of 1958, entailing a new-found facility to draw at speed. Hallucinogenic drugs, the writings of Gurdjieff and the Cornish land/sea/skyscape were the catalysts for this expansive phase of Law’s development, that placed him belatedly in a tradition of Cornish Modernist art practice that included such luminaries as Alfred Wallis, Ben Nicholson, Kit Wood, Barbara Hepworth, Naum Gabo, Peter Lanyon, Roger Hilton, Patrick Heron, and is carried on in the ambient soundwash, and ferocious industrial drum & bass of the Afex twin, who was raised at Lanner, near Redruth. So what you may well ask is Cornish modernism? I would argue that its key marker is a tidal inability to resolve the creative tension between figuration and abstraction, a restless interplay between an urge to fit the object into an Albertian grid on one hand, while on the other deploy the perceived object qua monument/tomb to withstand inhuman and relentless forces of engulfment and erosion.

Tracking the said Wallis and Nicholson, in the summer of 2011 I visited Compton Verney House in Warwickshire on an away-day from London, in the company of critic Peter Suchin and local sculptor Stephen Lee. It was a drizzly Sunday in June, the car -park heaving, so we left the vehicle and set off on foot up the long drive, pausing en route to investigate Spiegelei a contemporary installation by ex Pogues songsmith Jem Finer. Finer had tweaked the classical camera obscura design, using multiple lenses to wrap an image around the inside of a stainless steel ball on the roof of a garden shed, and through it you could see the sky below and water above. Finer has remarked how “Gravity is, on reflection, absurd. It’s easy to take for granted but when one stops to consider it, we’re not standing upright at all we’re all stuck on at angles to each other. We literally are standing as if glued to the surface of the earth, pointing down towards its centre.” – a sentiment Bob Law might well have appreciated. Our feet firmly planted we strolled on through spacious ‘Capability’ Brown parkland ornamented with clumps of mature trees, nibbling sheep and a sweeping lake in front of the house and its galleries. The title of the show ‘Wallis & Nicholson’ was non-committal. As it turned out, of the two painters involved, Nicholson featured as the makeweight, coming over as a staid, modernist besides Wallis’s giddying deep sea pictures. Household black enamel hulls, cobalt and bottle green seas conveyed a sense of action happening there and then, their immediacy providing a lift, unlike Nicholson’s modish draughtsmanship. As Cornish artist Andrew Lanyon (son of Peter) has wittily observed “The abstract virus reached St. Ives from two sources. Gabo brought the variety developed by the Russians Kandinsky and Malevich, Nicholson a sample of the strain cultivated by Mondrian in Holland.”

There is sometimes a marine saltiness in Bob Law’s work too, and although Law unlike Wallis, was a landlubber he diced with these issues of dissolution, vertigo and emptiness in a group of drawings produced between 1958 and 1960. Often made outdoors in grassy meadows as a result of extended periods of time laying flat on his back, they show Law’s state of mind rather than convey picture postcard-like information about the geography round Penzance. Law made much of his encounter with Abstract Expressionism too in the exhibition New American Painting held at the Tate in 1959, and it is easy to see how both Barnett Newman and Mark Rothko’s colour field compositions might have influenced the ultra-Saturnine Black Paintings (1965-77) that Law is best known for.

It is fascinating to read Law’s account of how he set about making these notorious, labour-intensive black canvases. In conversation with Richard Cork he spoke of his methodology: “I think of a colour scale, I think about the last painting, and maybe I want this one to have a red beginning, because I just feel it should be red now.” The slippage from mental indexing to insistent painterly urge is striking in this statement. Law would probably not have accepted that the series of black paintings were strictly conceptual in nature, but his systematic approach (minimising chance), not to mention high failure rate, meant that the ones which made it through were actually the result of specialised instructions and honed technique (he made all his own stretchers), enabling floating layers of acrylic to shimmer below the final black topcoat.

Terry Atkinson, one of the founders of the radical group Art & Language, has devoted considerable time to analysing the monochrome. For Atkinson who has produced his own series Black Mutes, the monochrome is a ‘grandee’.

It is not so much that the interpretation of the genre of the monochrome suffers from slipshod reading, although no doubt there is plenty of that. It is not these kinds of mistakes which interest me in the monochrome. It is more the errors which, so to write are structural to the genre. It is precisely those yearnings for a transcendental essence, a being, in the monochrome which transcend matters of time and place, of historical contingency, that wanting the monochrome to show an essence of art.

For Atkinson such a claim is fated to always be determined by the limits of language.

What is interesting about the genre of the monochrome for me is not some ineffable quality of self-present access to truth, I don’t believe that of any art, but the particular reception-history of the genre. Its role in modernism, and this is a matter of ideology, of aesthetic ideology and modern politics.

Bob Law’s black canvases are situated inside an anti-epistemological realm of difficult reading, and dismay at their almost offensive lack of content, daring “exegetes and apologists” pace Atkinson, to use their opaque surfaces as a site to project increasingly circular and vapid thought processes, with such overused terms as the ‘sublime’ in constant attendance. As for Law himself though, he was forced to slightly modify his standard practice after 1974 due to Dupont’s Contracture, an acute condition of the hand, and so reduced his standard canvas size from 167-5 x 175cm to the more manageable 152-5 x 160cm.

Arguably Bob Law’s other most memorable and idiosyncratic series of works, the Castles, counter-pointed the all-engulfing Black Paintings during the course of his career, and divides quite neatly into two distinct phases: 1976-80, and the extraordinary burst of 1999. The earlier largely achromatic sequence possesses what Scottish poet Hugh MacDiarmid has called the “frail effulgence of eternity”, and yet the later works mainly accomplished in Penzance in 1999 really showcase Law’s use of radiant colour, universal flat forms suggestive of building blocks, jauntily flagged sandcastles or tin mine silhouettes and of course his signature and cavalier date-as-text. The sign-language of these paintings is overt. So even as the David Hockney circus is in town at the Royal Academy of Arts, it is well worth re-appraising Law’s eloquent simplicity and trippy charm in our technologically hypersaturated world.

‘Bob Law: Colours’ was at Karsten Schubert, 5-8 Lower John St, Golden Square, London W1 from 16 Feb-16 March 2012.