What could be less fashionable than abstract art, writes James Dunnett? The 'cutting edge' art of the Turner Prize is concerned overwhelmingly with image, or with gesture (Neo-Expressionism, abstract or otherwise).
The search for the 'architectonic quality' in art, to which the artists in this exhibition - the restaging of an important exhibition of 50 years ago - were broadly dedicated, the exploration of pure formal relationships by self-conscious, rational or more subjective means, seems to inspire almost no one today.
This does not mean that the nine artists involved - of whom only one, Anthony Hill, is still living - were necessarily right. As another of them, Victor Pasmore, acknowledged in his statement at the time, the analogy between art and music or art and architecture, on which apologists for abstraction frequently relied, could be countered by an analogy between art and literature - implying that the power of brush marks, like words, lies in description.
But the dedication to formal concerns that these artists evince, and which is undoubtedly fundamental to artistic expression, is sorely missed today, and makes this exhibition worthwhile. One is transported back to the early post-war years, and it is by no means an unpleasant experience.
The book Nine Abstract Artists, with a trenchant text by Lawrence Alloway and illustrations of work with statements by each artist, appeared in 1954 under the imprint of a key publisher of the time, Alec Tiranti.
There was an exhibition of the same name with the same artists the following year at the Redfern Gallery.
Apart from Hill and Pasmore, those involved were Kenneth and Mary Martin, Adrian Heath, Roger Hilton, William Scott, Terry Frost and Robert Adams (the sculptor). In a few cases, the works in the present show are those illustrated in the original book, but otherwise they are similar, and there is a new catalogue matching in format the reissued facsimile of the original publication.
Ben Nicholson and Barbara Hepworth were not included, being regarded as prewar abstractionists who 'were tired of their thirtyish purity'. The departure of continentals such as Moholy-Nagy and Mondrian to America had, for Alloway, allowed a resurgence of Romanticism in English art. He recognised two categories among his artists:
those who abstracted their work from the natural world, and those who constructed concrete works 'without external reference'.
Pasmore's constructed reliefs, of which there are two in this exhibition, are certainly among the most impressive in the second category (see picture). One featured as the centrepiece of Ernö Goldfinger's pavilion at the Whitechapel's 'This Is Tomorrow' show (1956), in which many of the same artists were involved.
James Dunnett is an architect in London