John Plumb’s Martialled Abstract Expressionism

A ground-breaking British abstract painter, John Plumb’s biography reveals an exhibition history spent at the forefront of British visual culture in the 20th century. Having studied at the Central School between 1952 and 1955, Plumb’s work was presented through the Artists’ International Association exhibitions of 1953 and 1957, Situation (1960), as well as British Painting 1974 at the Hayward Gallery. Writing in the wake of the New Shapes of Colour exhibition, where John Plumb exhibited his work alongside Josef Albers, Elsworth Kelly and William Turnbull in 1966, Plumb outlined the purpose of his paintings: to ‘use banal structure to give colourful expressive reign.’ Despite their dispassionate appearance, making use of clean lines and neat forms, Plumb viewed his canvases as highly emotional, and not unrelated to the Abstract Expressionist project that was defining American art in the mid-century.

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. While the scale of his works – often several metres across – lend themselves to the project, his work is otherwise not explicitly abstract expressionist. Where proponents of the movement saw themselves as using colour to evoke a sublime feeling of boundlessness, Plumb’s practice seems to invoke the opposite, through his use of linear, neat colour planes. The artist’s claim that his practice was ‘primarily concerned with liberating colour as an emotional factor’ appears incongruous given that the artist’s canvases are typically characterised by flat, clean lines. As such, his pieces combine the improvisation of abstract expressionism – the automatism practiced by Rothko or Motherwell, for example – with a martialled precisionism.

A prime example of this is Colour Barrier (c. 1975), in which the artist uses negative space as a fundamental element within the composition. Using tape to segment sections of the canvas, the work was created through a complex layering of paint; the result being orderly, discrete sections of colour. From a distance, the canvas is linear: martialled, neutral, and unemotional. What looks at first to be mathematical in precision, however, upon closer examination reveals a human element: careful, precise brushstrokes, mitigating the picture plane. Plumb capitalises on a simplicity of form to make his colours have more impact, and because his abstract compositions are so simple, his use of colour becomes all the more distinctive, and all the more expressionistic.

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