Reassessing the St. Ives School through the Works of Terry Frost

Through Blacks, 1969, Sir Terry Frost, Tate

The unimaginable destruction and merciless rampage of the second world war had prompted artists, particularly those who came from the war ridden continent of Europe, to question, or even distrust, the notion of beauty and the promise of progress. From the primitive and decidedly brutish figures of Jean Dubuffet and Karel Appel to the distorted portraits and dismembered body parts painted by Francis Bacon and Jean Fautrier, the traumatic aftermath of the war and the inner struggle of the artists are as palpable as they are indelible. However, in St. Ives, a small town in Cornwall, Southwest of England, there emerged a group of artists whose diverse practices are connected not by the horrific experience of the war but by their engagement with the picturesque environment of the Cornish landscape, as if nature had a way to turn unpleasant memories into unparalleled creativity.

Terry Frost, who was captured by the Nazi while serving in Greece, moved to St. Ives in the 1950s to pursue his artistic career, a passion which he discovered during the distressing time in war prison. Finding his personal expression in this thriving artistic community under the influence of both local and international artists, Frost produced a prolific oeuvre that is not merely a response to the arresting atmosphere of the area; but more precisely, it is the culmination of the artist’s intellectual inquiries and emotions triggered by the sublimity of nature. His abstract works epitomize the distinctive yet variegated aesthetics of what is collectively known as the St. Ives School in their interpretation of the world and human existence through the fundamental elements of nature, namely colors, shapes, senses, space and time, looking beyond the darkest time in human history and seeking solidity with these timeless qualities.

Although natural beauty was undoubtedly a significant source of inspiration that challenged the aesthetics of this group of artists, it is the dynamic artistic exchange and interaction with international movements that gave rise to their diverse approaches and styles, greatly contributing to the development of British modern art. Yet, as the center of influence moved from Europe to New York after the war, artistic discourse was dominated by Greenbergian formalism which hailed Abstract Expressionism of the New York School as the international standard of modern art. Despite the vigorous and experimental artistic development that was happening at the same time in St. Ives, the works by these artists are often casted with a shadow of localism, hardly garnering a well-deserved position in art history. With a long artistic career of six decades where he had worked alongside such visionaries as Barbara Hepworth, Ben Nicholson and Peter Lanyon, Terry Frost provides a suitable entry point for the reassessment of the historical significance of St. Ives School, to situate it in a broader sociocultural context and critically examine the deeper meaning of these artists’ engagement with the place in relation to the global artistic discourse, rather than simply associating their works with the Cornish landscape.

Dominated by imperfect circles and semi-circles of highly saturated and contrasting colors, Frost’s canvases reflect his decades long inquiry on the interplay between colors and shapes which, to him, is entirely subjective. Simply titled with descriptions of colors or formal qualities, majority of Frost’s works resist representation and suggested imagery, giving colors and forms the full authority to communicate with viewers. The artist once talked about the perplexity of man’s preconception: “If you know before you look, you can’t see for knowing.” What he meant and tried to avoid in his works is how our received knowledge and previous experiences determine the way we understand not only a piece of art but also the world at large. After the war when artists were agonizing over the loss of beauty, Frost asked the fundamental question of what constitutes the ideal. What makes us prefer certain color and form over the others? Is there such thing as perfection in art and in life? Is modernization really taking human civilization to a better place? In their imperfection and asymmetry, Frost’s rough circles and semi-circles explore the artist’s existential concerns of man’s place in the world by presenting us with a harmony that is made up of seemingly irregular shapes and disordered patterns. While geometry is human’s way to make sense of the world, nature operates in its own mysterious order where every shape, pattern and line are unique and cannot be reduced into one single formula. Such is the wonder of nature and the awe that it instils in us that permeate the canvases of Frost and many of his peers at St. Ives. Although there appear more overt references to such natural elements as the sun, the moon and trees in his works later in his career, the same intuitive treatment of forms remains, and they are often rendered in such a way that suggests the artist is looking up from somewhere far below, emphasizing again the monumentality and unpredictability of nature and confronting man’s anthropocentrism.

Suspended Color Collage, 1968-1970

Negotiating between representation and abstraction, Frost’s works challenge the purely formalist reading of modern art that dominated the post-war era. Living in the tranquility of the town with breathtaking seaside scenery after undergoing many torturous years in prison, the artist experienced first-hand the tension between nature and modernization, and his works, like many of his peers’, cannot be separated from such situatedness; however, being inspired by certain conditions of a place does not necessarily suggest that the subject matters are confined to the locality of that place. In fact, in his inquiry on man’s existence through the subjective use of shapes and colors, Frost also converses with the global art movements and history. On one hand, his geometric compositions with large solid forms responded to the color field painting and Minimalism prevalent in the late 50s and 60s; on the other hand, his approaches reveal the artist’s rumination on the historical development of modern art. For instance, his use of collage in works such as Suspended Forms (1967) and Suspended Color Collage (1968-70) pays homage to Picasso, who, together with Braque, pioneered the creative method. However, unlike his predecessors who used everyday objects as materials, Frost cut out unstretched canvases, on which he experimented with color relations, into various shapes and overlaid them on larger canvases. His approach not only echoes with the modernist emphasis of flatness, but also further interprets the Cubist representation of three dimensionality on a two-dimensional plane through his careful choice of colors, “suspending” the circular forms above an imaginary space above the canvases.

Black Square, Kazimir Malevich, 1913

While St. Ives artists are often associated with the Russian artist Naum Gabo, who escaped his country and brought the ideology of Constructivism to Cornwall during the war years, the connection between Frost and other avant-gardes should not be overlooked. The use of primary and monochrome colors and the juxtaposition between a grid background and his signature imperfect circles, as seen in Stacked Red Pisa (1971), Summer Collage (1976) and Spring Dream (2002), seems to offer an antithetical response to Mondrian’s utopian abstraction – the rigid linearity of the grids gives way to his curvilinear compositions, and between the primary colors emerge more variations of hues, once again bringing forth his concern of the tension between preconception and perfection. Furthermore, Frost’s recurring motif of color black can find its root in Kazimir Malevich, whose seminal work Black Square (1915) was chosen by Frost himself to be displayed alongside his oeuvre in his retrospective exhibition. Believing in the supremacy of color and shape, both Malevich and Frost considered black as an all-encompassing color that symbolizes the origin of painting where no representation or logic is needed. Frost’s series of Through Blacks paintings, in which colored semi-circles with various degrees of blackness are aligned along horizontal bands of different dark hues, analogize the essence of art or what Malevich coined the “new realism in painting” – just as there are no two identical colors among the semi-circles despite all are mixed with the color black, art is a subjective decision and unique creation of the artist that comes from his or her inner thoughts. Not only do these paintings recall the hidden colors behind Malevich’s black square but they share the avant-garde’s belief in the purity of art.

Perhaps it was its remoteness from the battlegrounds of both the war and the art world that allowed St. Ives artists to develop the kind of unique languages that were entirely their own, yet their achievements reached far and wide around the world and attracted many influential artists and critics to visit the place, earning itself the name “the cradle of British modern art” and fostering meaningful cultural exchanges. To define their works based on where they were made is to take away a significant piece from the timeline of art history. Last year, 3812 Gallery organised Frost’s first exhibition in Asia, making a case for a cross cultural and multi-perspectival understanding of art in the globalized art scene. The gallery will deepen this line of inquiry this year by surveying a significant group of St. Ives artists and their connection with Buddhism and Eastern thoughts. As much as St. Ives artists should be re-examined through a broader perspective, as demonstrated by Frost’s works in this article, the study of contemporary art should also move beyond the binary thinking of East and West, old and new. Instead of asking where, we should seek for what and how local and global cultures interact and generate meaningful conversations.