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Strong colour makes a statement; The Sixties Summer exhibition in Leamington Spa gives Terry Grimley an insight into the era's art.

Byline: Terry Grimley

One of my favourite exhibitions of 2009 so far was Geometry of Fear, the selection of 1950s British sculpture from the Arts Council collection, shown at Leamington Spa Art Gallery & Museum in the spring.

It presented a remarkably gripping and cohesive sense of the post-Second World War trauma and Cold War anxiety which underlay the decade of never-had-it-sogood gadgetry and consumerism.

Now Sixties Summer, also selected from the Arts Council collection and showing at Leamington, provides a sequel which could scarcely be more different in sensibility.

While it might be glib to say that in Britain the transition from 1950s to 1960s art was essentially from tense monochrome to confident bright colour, it would actually contain a large element of truth.

Along with growing affluence the new decade brought a new cultural self-confidence and excitement, with a sense of broadening expressive possibilities. But while the works in Sixties Summer reflect this - not least in the strong colour celebrated in most of them - they have been selected to give a particular and in some ways slightly revisionist take on the period.

The exhibition concentrates on just eight artists - in fact, eight works, one by each. Along with colour the 60s brought an increase in scale and the size of these pieces verges on the absurd in relation to the small temporary exhibition gallery at Leamington. The focal point is the shortlived "Situationist" movement, a form of hard-edged abstract art which drew inspiration from America and shared some of the sensibility of Pop Art. The painter Richard Smith has particular connections to Pop, deriving inspiration from packaging for his abstract paintings, of which Trio (1963) is a representative example.

Although all eight works were produced within a period of six years between 1961 and 1967, the artists are widely separated in age. The oldest is Michael Kidner, born in 1917, and the youngest Kenneth Draper, born 1944.

Kidner was 30 before he committed himself to art, having previously studied history and anthropology at Cambridge, trained as a landscape architect and served in the Canadian army.

He was a pioneer of optical art, al-thoughe pursued it in a less hardcore style than its best-known British exponent, Bridget Riley. His painting Orange Blue Pink and Green No 2 is an easygoing affair of wavy bands of seductive sugary colour. Two catalogues on display in the gallery show how Kidner, always a slightly peripheral figure in the 60s, has continued to pursue his interest in visual patterns and their scientific study into the 21st century.

Jeremy Moon was another who came to art late, after reading law at Cambridge and working in advertising. The first Situationist exhibition hit him as a revelation, and he began painting hardedged abstract canvases, minimalist in concept but - again - beguiling in colour. Moon has had his detractors, but coming across some of his paintings in a display at Tate Britain a couple of years ago I was struck by how strong they looked. The example here, a square green canvas tipped on one corner with four symmetrical shapes in contrasting colours, is typical of his work, which ended abruptly with a fatal motorcycle accident in 1973.

The only one of the four painters here who chose to turn the contrast down was Robyn Denny, whose painting plays on elements of symmetry and asymmetry with a tastefully muted range of colours. If anything, the passage of time has made 60s sculpture look odder. It's striking how much of minimalism - a development I have always associated with the end of the decade - is anticipated in pieces like Tim Scott's Round Midnight - two large wooden wheel-sets, painted in contrasting blues and separated by a sheet of glass - from 1961 and William Tucker's Thebes, in which three simple shapes, painted in strong and contrasting colours, lean against each other in semi-collapse.

Even more minimalist is The Three Frames by Kenneth Draper, an artist pretty much unknown to me. Three large black wooden square frames have various extensions added to them, with aluminium attachments which suggest that the three parts might somehow slot together like some enormous piece of flatpack furniture.

It seems a disconcertingly austere piece for its time, and contrasts with Philip King's Point X, an extravagant composition of squares, circles and triangles in purple and lime green which suggests a strong kinship with contemporary furniture design.

This exhibition doesn't tell the whole story, because a lot was going on in British art in the 1960s which doesn't get a reference here. But in just eight works it manages to suggest eddies in the current which undermine some stereotypes of the period even while reinforcing others.

n Sixties Summer: British Art from the 60s from the Arts Council collection is at Leamington Spa Art Gallery & Museum, Royal Pump Rooms, until Oct 4 (Tue, Wed, Fri, Sat 10.30am-5pm, Thur 1.30pm-8pm, Sun 11am-4pm; admission free).


Thebes (1966) by William Tucker
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Aug 18, 2009
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