The 1970s was widely experienced as a lull in British art. Pop and Minimalist moments having past, and new media offering no clear dominant direction, there was the sense of dissatisfaction – waiting (perhaps naively) for the emergence of the next recognisable ‘art movement’.
Trend-spotters would eventually seize on neo-expressionist or New Image painting in the ’80s, and even more avidly on the YBA phenomenon of the ’90s. But the artists working most strongly through the 1970s (and beyond) were often pursuing independent paths, not easily picked up on or promoted, critically or commercially.
Survey shows such as the Hayward Annual were looked to for aesthetic weather reports, and were often reproved for offering no coherent forecast. The 1978 edition of the exhibition was noted at the time mostly for its feminist stance, with an all-women curatorial committee, and with less than a third of its twenty-three artists being male. Beyond that it offered a typically miscellaneous a sample of UK art at the time, across painting, sculpture, documentary and installation.
A unique contribution to the show, however, was a group of sixteen works by London painter Adrian Morris. They depicted horizons and flat planetary terrains, marked by traces of habitation or intervention, and often seemingly viewed through apertures from one zone to another. The works were loaded with absent presences, and sometimes concealed ghost images of human figures beneath the final paint surface. Though aged nearly fifty, Morris had exhibited rarely, and for some visitors his Hayward showing was a revelation.
His dense, intensely material works reprised perennial painting concerns – the tensions of abstraction vs. representation, inner vs. outer and surface vs.depth – with a new particularity. He seemed to assimilate a very particular mix of earlier twentieth century art, from Hélion to Mondrian, and Albers, but also de Staël, Morandi, even Lowry. If there was a strong reference to the surrealism of De Chirico or Tanguy, there were also recollections of more elusive proto-metaphysical painters such as Spilliaert.
Morris’s work also related, closely or more obliquely, to diverse things happening concurrently in American art, such as Philip Guston’s absurdist figuration; Tom Nozkowski’s or Ron Gorchov’s allusive abstraction; Vija Celmins’s single-image paintings; Richard Artschwager’s psychological minimalism. And there were odd parallels with land art – Robert Smithson’s ‘Spiral Jetty’ or, closer to home, Richard Long’s circles and lines inscribed into the landscape by walking. Morris was indeed anticipating things that would only be fully identified later, from ‘Neo Geo’ in America to ambivalent post-minimalist painting in Europe, including Raoul de Keyser and René Daniëls.
Uncompromising and self-critical, Morris hardly exhibited again after the Hayward. Up to his death in 2004, however, he continued to work, developing his deep abstract structures into enigmatic depictions of interiors and enclosures, suggestive of trauma, loss and potential recuperation. Right through his work, Morris’s uneasy engagement with history, psychology, ecology, conscience and memory anticipated much in the resurgent painting of the twenty-first century.
Showing at 42 Carlton Place will be works dating from the early 1960s to the late ’90s.
Irrigation trench, Oil on board 1966, 39 x 32″
Concrete building, Oil on board 1972, 32 x 36″
Reservoir II, Oil on board, 1976, 32.5 x 39.5″
Ambulance truck, Oil on board 1994, 42.5 x 36.5″
For a recorded seminar on the Adrian Morris exhibition, visit: