The years 1957 to 1959 formed a key period in Peter Lanyon’s artistic development. It was marked by a pronounced shift, in which the relatively concise forms of moorland and coastline found in his earlier work were replaced by an altogether more allusive, gestural approach. His focus now turned to the atmospheric effects of the weather, to the constantly changing movements of air currents, winds, tides, and rain. With it there came a concomitant change in palette, in which blues, greys, and whites tended to predominate. (See, for example, the painting ‘Low Tide’ (1959), in the British Council collection).
The initial catalyst for this change of direction was the artist’s visit to the exhibition Modern Art in the United States at the Tate Gallery early in 1956, where for the first time he encountered paintings by the Abstract Expressionists Pollock, Rothko, de Kooning, Hartigan, Motherwell, Still and Kline. A year later, in January 1957, he made his first visit to New York, where he held his inaugural show at the Catherine Viviano Gallery. There he was introduced to some of the painters whose work had so impressed him in London; amongst them, Rothko and Motherwell were to become personal friends. Another key event was Lanyon’s visit to the Pollock retrospective, held at the Whitechapel Gallery in November and December 1958. What he took from the Abstract Expressionists, and certainly from Pollock, was a liberation from pictorial constraints: the idea of the canvas as a continuous field, untrammelled by the conventions of spatial and linear perspectives. The result was in a more instinctive fluidity, of both composition and application. Concurrent with this exposure to American abstraction was Lanyon’s realisation of his place within the tradition of English landscape painting; an awareness that his weather paintings formed part of a lineage in which Constable and Turner were antecedents.
Lanyon was deeply attuned to elemental nature, exhilarated by its drama, and by its oblivious indifference to human concerns. He deliberately sought imbalance and disorientation, standing on his head in order to look at the landscape whilst upside down, or lying precariously at the edge of a clifftop; strategies that provided a heightened sensory engagement with both the physical and the intangible. A further intensification, one that was decisive in the direction of Lanyon’s painting, resulted from his experience of flight, initiated when he joined a gliding club in June 1959. The resultant impact on his work was in a more expansive, lighter application, less stolidly earthbound than in much of his previous work.
Made in September 1959, ‘Grey Shore’ dates from this pivotal period in Lanyon’s development. A work of barely contained energy, its mixtures and dilutions of chalky white gouache and Indian ink are applied in sweeps and scurries, the brush constantly changing direction as it moves across the paper surface. With its black column flanking the entire left-hand edge of the sheet, Grey Shore reads as a coastal storm on a darkening night, wind whipped to gale force in a primeval turbulence of air and water. In counterpoint to the bounding acrobatics of its curves and meanders sit small spatial recessions, pockets of relative calm in which fragments of white paper remain visible. At once oceanic and aerial, here the dramatic elemental conflict can be seen to symbolise the artist’s own bodily and existential engagement with the natural world, a relationship forever central to his artistic identity and purpose.
• Image: Peter Lanyon, ‘Grey Shore’, gouache and Indian ink, 1959.
• Text commissioned by Osborne Samuel Fine Art, London. © Ian Massey, June 2022.