John Plumb (1927-2008) is recognised as one of the most significant abstract artists working in post-war Britain. Inspired by American colour field painting, Plumb’s work’s are often large scale and explore both planes of solid colour as well as geometry and optics.
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Homage to John F. Kennedy, 1963
Ladder Series, undated
Ladder Design, c. 1970
Colour Steps C, 1971
Banner Design, 1972
Colour Planes, 1971
Colour Barrier, c. 1975
Banner Design (no 40), 1975
Banner Design (no 41), 1977
Early Life and Training
John Plumb was born in Luton, Bedfordshire in 1927. Artistically talented from an early age, Plumb secured an apprenticeship at Vauxhaull Motors design department directly from school. At the age of 20 he enrolled at the Byam Shaw School of Drawing and Painting in London, he studied briefly at the Luton School of Art in 1949 before moving to the Central School of Art, London from 1952 until 1955. At the Central School he studied under Anthony Gross, Victor Pasmore, William Turnbull and Keith Vaughan, where Turnbull, in particular, proved a lasting influence.
Following a spate of awards and accolades during his studies, Plumb had his first solo exhibition at Gallery One in 1957. He went on to hold further solo exhibitions throughout the UK and abroad in the following decade, including at London galleries Marlborough and Axiom and at the Arnolfini Gallery in Bristol in 1967. This success lead his work to be included in the A.I.A exhibitions of 1953 and 1957 and the important Situation exhibition, held in London in 1960-1961. Situation, the Royal Society of British Artists’ keynote exhibition, was a crucial turning point in post-war British art and brought a younger generation of British abstract painters to the public eye. The exhibition was focused entirely on abstraction, and each work was at least thirty foot square in size. Here Plumb’s paintings were shown alongside works by Bridget Riley, Tess Jaray and William Turnbull. His works were also shown with those of Josef Albers, Barnett Newman and Ellsworth Kelly in the touring exhibition New Shapes of Colour, which began at Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam in 1966 and toured to Stuttgart and Berlin.
Plumb’s compositions of the late 1960s were heavily influenced by American colour field paintings and during this time his works explored planes of solid colour as well as geometry and optics. Plumb moved to the USA in 1968, teaching briefly at the prestigious Bennington College, Vermont. During his time there, he often travelled to New York City, where he made affiliations with Barnett Newman, Mark Rothko and Ellsworth Kelly. Plumb found commonalities with the American sense of scale and ambition and assimilated the size as well as simplicity and directness of the New York School’s aesthetics into his own abstracted compositions. A feeling of being somewhat at odds with the emotionality of American painting lead Plumb to return to the UK just seven month after his arrival, in the spring of 1969. Once back in London, he took up the post of Senior Lecturer at the Central School, a position he held until 1982.
The early 1970s saw Plumb continue to work on a large scale. The early part of the decade also saw him engaging with improvisation techniques, laying linear grids across his canvases, arbitrarily masked off with tape, and applying paint in random combinations, left entirely to chance. Plumb would put unmixed tubes of paint into unidentified boxes, so that he could take each at random, applying the colour directly to the canvas in the order that he found it on the shelf. The pictorial structures of his works were often also left to chance, with the width and frequency of line determined by the rolling of dice. Plumb worked on these paintings, which he variously called ladders, banners and steps, until 1976.
Plumb continued to be shown in London in the early 1970s, although committed himself increasingly to teaching. A solo exhibition of Plumb’s work, consisting of 10 large-scale chance paintings as well as prints and drawings, was held at the Commonwealth Institute in 1973 and his work was included in British Painting 1974 at the Hayward Gallery. He suffered a heart attack in 1977, and began to work increasingly figuratively, often from nature.
Plumb took early retirement from the Central School of Art in 1982 and eventually relocated to North Devon in 1993. Here he returned to abstraction, working in a more gestural and expressive way, as a result of his increasingly failing eyesight. He had developed cystic macular dystrophy, which left him mainly with peripheral vision. Colour remained at the centre of his output, producing a lyrical and boldly painterly series of works that he called Hydrastructures. He stopped painting in the late 1990s and died in April 2008.
His paintings were included in Art & the ’60s: This was Tomorrow at Tate in 2004 and his works are now held in many public collections including the collections of Tate, London and The Arts Council Britain.