CHAPTER FOUR

 

As arranged in advance, Keith Logan met Martin Thurber outside the Fairborne Gallery in the Strand and, stepping through its revolving glass doors, they paid the requisite entrance fee at a nearby kiosk and calmly proceeded in the general direction of the exhibition, which, despite the early hour, was already attracting a fair amount of critical attention.

     "Have you ever been here before?" Thurber asked, as they respectfully approached the inner sanctum.

     Logan shook his head.  "Can't say I have," he confessed.

     "Well, as you'll see, there are two rooms here, and Paul Fleshman is exhibiting in one of them," the art critic revealed.

     "Who's in the second?" Logan asked.

     "A younger and less controversial artist by name of Joseph Philpott, whose works we shall also be viewing."

     They had arrived at the larger of the two rooms, in which a cross-section of Fleshman's work now reposed and, one behind the other, the two friends stepped into its brightly lit interior, where at least twenty people were already viewing the various exhibits.

     "Ah!" cried Thurber, who was positively dazzled by the profusion of lights.  "Just as I had expected!"

     "It's almost like walking into an Ivres Klein void," opined Logan, noting the spotlessly clean white walls and ceiling.

     "Quite," the critic confirmed.  "Except that, with Fleshman, there's something in it - as you can see."

     Almost immediately, they came to a halt in front of a large abstract canvas on which thousands of tiny silver points glistened and sparkled in the bright light, like the powdered-tinsel decoration on certain Christmas cards.  It appeared to be alive, as one moved slightly to-and-fro in front of it, with tiny insects, so unstable was the surface texture.  Towards its centre the glitter of the tightly-packed silver points was more intense than elsewhere, suggesting some kind of heart or cynosure.

     "Evidently one of his new optical experiments," Thurber observed, extracting a blue notebook and biro from his jacket pocket and proceeding to jot down its title, 'Dazzle 3', to which he added a brief outline of the work and a few terse comments.

     "It's pleasingly transcendental," Logan declared, stepping up closer to the canvas which, as one approached it, appeared to waver and then recede.

     "Quite," the critic acknowledged, and he scribbled down 'pleasingly transcendental' in his notebook.  "Not inclined to glorify the subconscious, at any rate."

     Before long they moved on, past another viewer, to the next exhibit, which was hung about four yards farther along the same wall and seemed to undulate as they approached it.  Composed, in the main, of closely-knit wavy black stripes on a white ground, the stripes becoming sharper and more closely packed towards the centre, this work was distinctly reminiscent of Bridget Riley and Jeffery Steele, being more traditionally Op than the previous one.  It took longer to properly come to life too, yet when it did succeed in giving rise to visual hallucinations of a predetermined character, the overall effect was much more interesting, with greater tonal shifts and more radical undulations.  Thurber again scribbled down the title, 'Forcefield R', in his notebook and added a few brief descriptive notes.

     "One of his more traditionally optical experiments," he remarked, moving his large head gently backwards and forwards in front of it from a distance of about three yards.  "Primarily focusing on heat rather than light energy, on movement rather than dazzle.  A little outmoded perhaps, but a competent grasp of optical techniques all the same.  What d'you think of it, Keith?"

     Logan scratched his head a moment.  "It's quite good," he replied after a few seconds, during which time he, too, proceeded to shift his point of focus according to the rules of their little game.  "Though I'd rather it gave off more light, since I tend to prefer the light effects to any others.  It's, above all, the effect of light rather than movement or heat energy which justifies Op in my eyes, prevents it from degenerating into a mere play of illusion, becoming a kind of technological game with no real claims to serious art.  Fortunately, the best Op never does that, but remains intensely relevant to the age and to our growing bias for superconscious transcendentalism.  Yet there is, however, a plentiful supply of examples from, in the main, lesser artists which strike one as being somehow less relevant and accordingly open to accusations of aesthetic superficiality."

     "To be sure!" the critic agreed, nodding sagely.  "I know exactly what you mean."  And he immediately scribbled 'would rather it gave off more light' in his notebook.

     However, the particular species of Op Art to which Fleshman had paid passing tribute in his 'Forcefield R' was succeeded, in due course, by a large circular project, hung against the white wall at a height of about four feet from the ground, which appeared to radiate colours from its centre in a manner reminiscent of Peter Sedgley and Wojcieck Fangor.  Standing in front of it the two men beheld a small, intensely bright globe of white paint surrounded by a slender band of yellow paint, which was surrounded, in  turn, by a broad band of red paint, this latter duly surrounded by a slender band of blue paint - the total composition somewhat reminiscent of an archery target.  Overall, the effect wasn't particularly optic, though the small central globe could be seen to expand and contract as one stared at it over a period of 30-60 seconds, producing an hallucination of colour shift as the white expanded into the yellow and that, in turn, influenced the red to change into orange, with a corresponding transformation in the blue ring to mauve or purple, depending how long one stared at it.

     Thurber dutifully noted the title and scribbled a few complementary notes.  "One gets more light from this one, don't you think?" he commented, focusing his attention on the bright globe in the middle.

     "Certainly," Logan admitted.  "Although he might have made more of the white paint, had he wanted to create a stronger light-equivalence from it.  He seems to be more interested in colour and the fusings or clashings which result from their juxtaposition."

     "Yes, that could well be the case," Thurber conceded, blushing slightly as, disdaining further curiosity, he led the way along to the next exhibit, which, like the previous one, also took a circular form.  "But what of this one here, the central globe of which is so much bigger and the overall effect so much brighter?" he remarked.

     True, and it was with this exhibit that Logan took the greater pleasure - indeed, couldn't help but reflect on its transcendental nature.  For the large globe of white paint shone with an intensely pure acrylic lustre which quite dazzled the eye, whilst, in complete contrast, the slender band of black paint around the edge assumed a totally matt appearance, its three-inch width seeming to recede from the viewer as the white globe expanded towards him.  Where the latter fairly pulsated with energy, the former appeared dead, a mere negation of life.  Despite its extremely simple composition, this painting had more to say to the abstract novelist than the previous three put together.  For, in the complete contrast between the black and the white, he couldn't help seeing a parallel with the subconscious and superconscious minds - the one submerged in darkness and receding into the past, the other elevated in light and proceeding towards the future.  Whether or not Fleshman intended it thus, this work had all the trappings of great art, an art intensely relevant to the age and able, by the most straightforward means, to illustrate the progress of human consciousness away from the darkness of subconscious ignorance towards the light of superconscious enlightenment.

     True, it might be something of an exaggeration to contend that we were already as biased towards the superconscious as this painting, with its commanding white globe, could have led one to infer.  But the fact nevertheless remained that the imbalance it signified had a certain relevance to us which could only be heightened in the course of time, as we grew progressively more transcendental.  As a religious or psychological work, it undoubtedly possessed the qualities of insightful leadership one expected from genuine art.  To push it further into the future, however, the artist need simply expand the white globe's circumference at the expense of the black band by another inch or two, in order to signify an even greater degree of spiritual progress and thus attain to a still more radical manifestation of such leadership.... Though, of course, to get rid of the black band altogether would indeed be to point towards the post-human millennium, if at the risk of making one's art too forward-looking, at this juncture in time, to be properly intelligible to the general or, indeed, specialist public.

     But irrespective of whether or not, in doing what he did, Fleshman had aspired to spiritual leadership, the resulting impression it created on Logan certainly wasn't without relevance to his theories of psychic evolution, but, on the contrary, more than adequately confirmed them.  As long as the black continued to recede and the white to expand, everything was going according to plan.  The post-human millennium would come about eventually.  "Yes, I can't help but admire this work," he proclaimed, as he stood next to the scribbling critic and continued to gaze, as though entranced, into the acrylic lustre of its indisputable cynosure.  "It automatically marks Fleshman out as a major artist."

     "Indeed!" Thurber concurred, nodding deferentially.  "I've always thought highly of his abilities, though more especially so during the past couple of years, when he has matured so much.... Not that he doesn't have his lapses from time to time, as I think we've already seen.  But at least the general direction of his creativity tends increasingly towards the transcendent."

     "As this painting well-attests," Logan confirmed, crowning his bright smile with a nod of his own.  "To the uninitiated, it would simply appear the height of banality and tedious simplicity.  But to anyone with a philosophical grasp of what is happening in the world and where evolution is tending, it encourages the most optimistic and spiritually satisfying reflections!"

     "Quite so!" the critic seconded, and, quick to exploit the most apt phrase, he scribbled down the latter part of his companion's statement, underlining the fact that it referred to the exhibit 'White on Black'.

     They had got to the end of the first wall by now and were obliged to proceed in the direction of those works which lined the second one or, as in the case of a couple of larger exhibits of a vaguely sculptural appearance, stood just in front of it.  The thirty or so viewers of as many persuasions who had entered the gallery ahead of them had been augmented, in the meantime, to more than twice that number, with a consequence that the viewing of exhibits was not quite as straightforward a matter now as formerly, owing to the groups and even queues which formed in front of everything.  Nevertheless, with a little ruthless determination, one could still obtain a fairly advantageous viewpoint if one so desired, and it was precisely with a mind to obtaining such a viewpoint that the critic and his viewing companion elbowed their way to the front of the next exhibit - a kinetic-styled work with a distinctively moiré, or watery, background, above which three coloured plastic circles of slightly different sizes appeared to hover at indeterminate distances from the bright background, thus causing the viewer some difficulty in establishing the actual perspective before him.

     "Undoubtedly revealing Soto's influence," Thurber opined, going up closer to the work in order to get a better look at the moiré background in question.  "Except that where Soto uses squares and rectangles, our hero has opted for the circle.  Nevertheless, the result obtained is not without kinetic merit.  There is still a flickering of sorts, isn't there?"

     With an affirmative grunt, Logan agreed there was.  "Especially when one moves in front of it," he added.

     "Yes, the circles tend to float in the air at different distances from the background - the black one seeming, on account of the tendency of black to recede, the closest to it, while the white one appears to be floating towards us, and the red ... lies somewhere in-between," Thurber estimated.  "Rather effective, don't you think?"  He backed away a few paces and took another critical squint at it.  However, someone who had been standing in front of an exhibit to the right suddenly moved across to the left and interrupted his view.  He had no option, therefore, but to move in the opposite direction, which duly took him to a position in front of another Soto-inspired relief, this time one in which the moiré background, rather than serving to heighten the illusion of indeterminate spatial relationships between flickering circles suspended in front of it, served instead to optically disintegrate the thin, vertical metal rods which stood in their place, thus causing the entire surface to shimmer and quiver as though dissolved in a faint, ethereal mist of nebulous light.  Akin in substance to Soto's Vibrating Structures, the work nonetheless exhibited certain phenomena not characteristic of that master, the most prominent being the division of the moiré background into gold and silver horizontal strips, some ten in all, which had an effect of intensifying the vibration or flickering obtained through the viewer's movement.  In addition to this, there was the division of the vertically-suspended steel rods into two or more different colours, thus producing variations in the vibration-illusion which corresponded to the nature and tone of each individual colour, and further complicating the indeterminate spatial relationships which existed between each of the differently-coloured metal rods in relation to the moiré background and, last but hardly least, the work as a whole in relation to its viewer.  For example, in the case of the first rod on the left of the line, the white segment appeared to detach itself from the rest of the rod and to subtly approach the viewer, all the time vibrating in response to the moiré background, while the black segment tended, by contrast, to recede from him, creating the illusion of a separate rod - a procedure which was utilized on each of the ten rods either with further black-and-white divisions along their lengths or with the use of various other colours, including pink, orange, violet, red, yellow, and brown, each with its own vibration and spatial tendency.  "Rather complex, don't you think?" the critic thoughtfully concluded, after he had experimented with a variety of head and body movements in front of the relief, and this in spite of the close proximity of other viewers and the inevitable consequence of one or two minor cranial collisions.

     "Indeed!" Logan agreed.  "It would appear that the division of the rods into different colours and lengths has enabled him to dispense with the necessity of positioning them at various distances from the moiré background in order to establish a certain spatial indeterminacy.  Looking at them from the side, it's perfectly clear that they're all arranged in a parallel row."

     "So it is!" Thurber confirmed, going up to a position opposite Logan on the other side of the relief.  "Which shows that he is more than just an imitator, doesn't it?  I mean, Soto's influence has clearly led to novel results."

     Logan nodded with alacrity.  "And not just in terms of the colour contrasts and parallel arrangement of the rods," he declared, "but also in relation to the moiré background, which, in its alternate strips of gold and silver tone, undoubtedly marks a fresh development."

     "Quite," the critic concurred, briefly inspecting the closely-packed horizontal strips in question.  And, once again, he made judicious use of his notebook.

     There were, however, one or two other exhibits in the immediate vicinity to view and, despite the general crush to get at them, it was towards these that the two art lovers now advanced, momentarily shielding their eyes from the dazzling diffusion of light being emitted by the exhibits in question.  For there, no more than four yards from the second relief, stood the first of two kinetic light-sculptures which attested to the influence, as Logan interpreted it, of Dan Flavin, and shone with a fluorescent splendour worthy of the superconscious.

     "Another surprise for me, I must admit," Thurber confessed, as he approached the nearest exhibit - a cube-shaped arrangement of fluorescent construction in which some twenty tubes of equal length though, in the main, unequal diameter shone with a variety of intensities, some slightly less forcefully than others.

     "A lot of phosphor for the electrons to bombard," Logan pedantically observed, standing to one side of the exhibit and endeavouring to ascertain which of the tubes was the brightest.  But it was virtually impossible to fix one's attention on even the slightly less-dazzling and narrower ones for very long, so he sensibly abandoned the attempt.  Undoubtedly the variations in light-intensity were either a consequence of different amounts of phosphor being used in each of the tubes or, alternatively, down to the nature and thickness of the glass itself, which could well have varied in proportion to the degree of light allowed to pass through - some of the tubes being either more or less translucent than others, and so on.  Whether or not different intensities of electron bombardment could simultaneously be directed onto the phosphor in each of the tubes ... was a matter about which Logan didn't feel qualified to speculate.... Though it seemed rather unlikely in the event, as here, of a single electricity source.

     "Rather puzzling, isn't it?" Thurber declared, before scribbling down 'Light Variation 7' in his pocket-sized notebook.  "It must cost a bloody fortune to run."

     Logan smilingly agreed.  "But a rather fine work all the same," he opined, moving between a couple of other viewers to a different vantage-point.  "It's by no means a discredit to sculptural light-art."

     "You think Maholy-Nagy would be impressed, then?" the critic joked, referring to the father-figure and most consistent early practitioner of the genre.

     "At least he'd be gratified that light is being given the importance it deserves," Logan conjectured, turning away from the work in question and approaching its counterpart, which stood at a relatively safe remove in an ambience of its own and shone not with varying degrees of white light but with a variety of different-coloured lights which issued from the variegated tints of its individual tubes.  Not only was each tube in this cube-like composition tinted a different colour but, as in the case of the metal rods on the kinetic relief, it was tinted from 2-5 different colours, making for a correspondingly more complex and intriguing, not to say mind-boggling, overall effect!  Thus at its most simple level, one tube might be equally divisible between red and blue light and be positioned vertically opposite a tube with blue and red divisions, so as to emphasize colour contrast.  Whilst, at its most complex level, a tube might be equally divisible into red, white, yellow, black, and blue segments, and be positioned horizontally opposite a tube with these colours in reverse, or some such contrasting arrangement, which gave rise to a much more puzzling and altogether intriguing relationship.  Depending on one's vantage-point, it seemed as though the lights were either trying to break away from one another, as in the examples emphasizing contrast, or to approach and mingle with one another, as in the examples where complementary colours had been juxtaposed or, alternatively, placed in parallel positions - the overall effect being a slight displacement of the tubular cube through colour, as though indicative of the triumph of mind over matter, of truth over beauty.  "Hmm, quite an interesting concept," he resumed, after his preliminary investigations of the colour relationships had run their technical course.  "The interplay of so many different colours is most effective, even given the blurs and violent disharmonies which occasionally result.  It's rather like Abstract Expressionism in a way, albeit the use of light rather than paint sharply distinguishes it from painterly precedent."

     "Yes, and also the fact of its kinetic potential," Thurber averred, warming, in turn, to the spatial displacements on view.  In fact, the clash and fusion of so many different colours made him feel dizzy, obliging him to avert his gaze and grope for psychological support in his notebook.  Yet there were so many after-images in his mind from the glare of the fluorescent lights that he couldn't see the page he was intending to write on properly, and had to abandon it before he had so much as scribbled a single word there.  His mind was fairly aflame with vibrant colours, some of which were more elongated than others, almost causing him to lose his physical balance and tumble to the floor.  Fortunately, however, Logan was on hand to support him with arm at the ready, and together they slowly made their way through the crowd towards the next exhibits, which were arranged along the wall opposite the one their attention had been drawn to when first entering the gallery.  Here, to the critic's optical relief, the exhibits were mainly Op, and consequently less dazzling than the coloured and plain lights already encountered; though it was some time before the last of the glaring after-images completely disappeared from his mind and he was accordingly able to give them his undivided attention.  "Not wavy stripes or large circles this time, is it?" he observed, swaying slightly backwards-and-forwards amid the jostling throng of fellow-viewers.

     "Indeed not," confirmed Logan, who cast an appreciative gaze over the nearest of the four canvases which lined the third wall, its hundreds of tiny black-and-white squares arranged in contrasting areas of light and shade, suggestive of certain works by Morellet and Schmidt - notably the former's Aleatoric Distribution, 1961, and the latter's Programmed Squares II, 1967.

     "It's simply amazing how much thematic and tonal variation can be obtained from the simplest elements," Thurber remarked, as though to himself.  "How seemingly infinite are the creative possibilities inherent in such a form!  Even the placing of slightly different-sized white squares on a black ground, or the alternative arrangement of different-sized black squares on a white one, produces countless tonal and graphic changes."

     "Absolutely," said Logan, smiling.  "Although, in this case, the result isn't quite as optical as with the wavy-stripe works, is it?  Rather than suggesting movement or energy of one kind or another, it's more akin to computer art, in which the mathematical or serial placement of squares is of greater importance than any visual hallucination resulting from it.  One is dealing here more with the beauty of the tonal and geometric patterns than with any purely or predominantly optical effect as such."

     "A thing, presumably, which you find less satisfactory?" Thurber inferred, simultaneously scribbling down the relevant information in his, by now, image-free notebook.

     "Only to the extent that I personally prefer works with an emphasis on light-equivalence," Logan confirmed.  "Which isn't to say that this type of work leaves me cold.  On the contrary, I find much to admire in the finest geometric works of Vasarely, who generally employs the simplest means to obtain a complex and intellectually gratifying result.  But I still prefer works that give off more light, if you see what I mean."

     "Perfectly," admitted the critic, who quickly led the way towards the next exhibit - a similar cube-based work which, with the incorporation of small circles, was indeed more reminiscent of Vasarely - and, following a brief deferential pause in front of it, on again towards the remaining two canvases lining the wall, the first of which was pretty much a conventional zebra-striped abstract, whilst its neighbour, composed of thousands of tiny tinsel-like points which sparkled in the gallery's neon glare as one moved backwards and forwards in front of it, reminded them of the first exhibit they had seen.  Unlike its companion piece opposite, however, this exhibit was tinted gold and seemed to Thurber the more impressive of the two, especially with regard to the star-like radiance which appeared to emanate from the centre and to spread its dazzling rays beyond the edges of the canvas - a strongly centrifugal tendency about which Logan, by contrast, entertained some private reservations!

     However, if natural light-equivalence was what the artist had in mind here, then with the last exhibit on display one was brought very conclusively back to the realm of artificial light, and on no less a scale than a work composed entirely of slender neon tubing, which was attached to a hardboard base reaching to the height and stretching almost the width of the final wall.  On this hardboard base, the neon tubing had been curled and twisted in every conceivable direction, some of it forming small patterns of surprising complexity, some of it winding through larger patterns which covered as much as two-thirds of the total space, but all of it contributing to an overall impression of unity and harmony of design - the pink tubing no less than the light-blue, the white no less than the green, the red no less than the yellow.

     "Sheer magic!" Thurber exclaimed, as soon as the initial shock of encountering something that bore more than a passing resemblance to Piccadilly Circus or Times Square had worn off and he was accordingly able to formulate a coherent response.  "Just look at the way the tubing is twisted to form such graceful arabesques and intricate hieroglyphics!  And the way the colours blend!  Really, I had no idea Fleshman was into neon to such an alarming extent.  It's a veritable revelation!"

     "Yes, this is definitely the most transcendental work we've encountered this morning," Logan opined, fixing his gaze on the brightest of the neon patterns - a Catherine-wheel-like effusion of pure white light.  "Not that it's a particularly novel concept," he went on, "for there have been quite a few artists experimenting with slender neon tubing over the past 20-30 years, including the Hungarian-born Gyorgy Kepes, whose light murals are of course world-famous.  And more recently there have been interesting experiments from Keith Sonnier and Robert Watts, whom I believe are Americans.  But, really, this example is every bit as intriguing as anything I've seen in the genre.  It's a credit to Fleshman's genius."

     "I entirely agree," said Thurber, who immediately scribbled down a few lines about Gyorgy Kepes and the long-established tradition of light murals and associated works.  "The fusion of art and technology has really blossomed during the last few decades, hasn't it?"

     "Not only blossomed, but acquired the recognition it so richly deserves - certainly as far as the more enlightened elements of society are concerned," said Logan solemnly.  "For to rave about representational painting or even about certain types of abstraction, in this day and age, would indeed be to display an anachronistic bias!  The present and, hopefully, the future belongs to such art as we have witnessed today - that is, to art which has a real relevance to the age.  Whatever isn't unequivocally on the side of the superconscious is of little contemporary importance - indeed, is fundamentally outmoded and thereby deserving of our contempt.  It's to be hoped, however, that, in the future, art will be even more transcendental, that its light will be even clearer and more luminous than at present, so that we can be under no doubt that evolutionary progress is being made."

     A few nearby heads had turned in curiosity or bemusement, as Logan delivered this little spiel to Thurber in response to the psychic illumination evidently vouchsafed him by the brilliant neon spectacle before them.  One man coughed condescendingly and another, evidently an opponent of evolutionary progress in such matters, sniggered softly and made a deprecatory remark to a stern-looking woman standing beside him, whose mouth nevertheless remained shut tight.  The art critic, on the other hand, was too busy scribbling in his notebook to be particularly conscious of the negative responses of those who chose to react unsympathetically to Logan's radical harangue.  It was only when he looked up, to take another squint at the neon patterns and cast an eye to left and right, that he realized both the abstract novelist and himself were the subjects of a fair amount of critical interest from those in the immediate vicinity!

     Be that as it may, the task of reviewing this room's contents had now been attended to, so he was free to take his leave of it and conduct Logan on a tour of the other one - assuming, of course, that the avant-garde writer was still interested in touring it, which remained to be seen.  Underlining 'Neon Vortices', the title of the huge work before them, he closed his notebook with a sigh of relief and slowly proceeded towards the exit, scarcely bothering to look back.  Logan, too, had by now had his psychic fill of the largest exhibit on display and duly followed-on behind, content to wait until they were both safely out in the entrance hall again before verbally expressing himself to the effect that Fleshman was a much better artist than he had at first imagined.  "Even bearing in mind the incontestable fact that much of his work is somewhat derivative," he added, "it's sort of redeemed, in some measure, by the embellishments and refinements he brings to the influences which have shaped it.  Instead of getting bogged down in any given influence, he has enough native talent to enable him to contribute significant innovations of his own, which shed further light on the original influence."

     "Quite so," Thurber concurred, coming to a sudden standstill not far from the entrance to the second room.  "His work is really rather eclectic, isn't it?"

     "He's certainly very versatile," Logan rejoined, smiling gently.  "More versatile, in fact, than any other major artist I've had the privilege of viewing in recent years.  Yet that doesn't necessarily imply that he's superior to those who specialize.  On the contrary, he's more a jack-of-all-trades than a master of any given one.  But a very interesting and talented 'jack' all the same, whose creative eclecticism doesn't overlap the boundaries of abstraction, as could so easily happen."

     "No, that's quite true," the critic confirmed, with a thoughtful nod.  "At least, not in the exhibition we've just seen.  Though he does paint representational works from time to time when the fancy takes him.  But the artist we're about to view in this second room is far less abstract on the whole, if what I've already seen of his work in the past is any indication.  So are you still interested in coming in or ...?"

     Logan briefly consulted his watch.  "Hmm, 12.20pm," he mused.  "I really ought to be getting along, since I have a dental appointment this afternoon and must get some lunch in the meantime, just in case he gives me an injection and I have a numb mouth afterwards.  But I suppose I could spare another 20-30 minutes."

     "Excellent!" Thurber exclaimed.  "Then let's get on with it right away."  And with that settled, they boldly entered the second gallery.

 

 

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