IMPULSE at Pace Gallery, London

Pace is a leading contemporary and modern art gallery, representing over 70 artists and estates across the globe. IMPULSE is the latest exhibition to fill the vast expanse of Pace’s London space and features a collection of American abstract paintings from the 1960s and 1970s. The stark white walls of the room present the perfect blank canvas on which to present the vivid works by the artists, Ed Clark, Frank Bowling, Sam Gilliam, Morris Louis and Kenneth Noland.

The exhibition name ‘Impulse’ relates to the impulsiveness of the artists, who didn’t let the fear of attaining a “proper technique” hold them back from creating the images that stemmed from their minds. They let their ideas and creativity flow free, spilling over through the medium of paint onto the canvases before them.

Responding to the dominance of Abstract Expressionism in the 1950s, these artists boldly experimented with process, form and colour and the artworks on display at “IMPULSE” demonstrate the freedom and artistic breakthroughs of the time. Working against the backdrop of the jazz movement, which was also based on the freedom of expression, innovation and improvisation, many artists had the desire to break down the distinction between painting and sculpture, to create paintings that were physical objects as well as abstractions.

These artists discovered new ways to manipulate the paint by pouring, dripping or pushing the paint across the canvas. Brushes were altered, swapped for unconventional application tools or removed from the process of painting altogether. Artists also used new ways to shape their canvases. Sam Gilliam bevelled the edges of his canvases and removed them from their stretchers altogether, while Ed Clark was among the first artists to produce nonrepresentational shaped paintings in 1956 by extending his working surfaces beyond a rectangular canvas, and developed oval paintings in 1968.

Ed Clark’s work is incredibly liberating and calming. In "Chablis Blue, #7" (1989), colour is stripped down to muted tones of beige and blue, conjuring up the senses of freedom and lightness one might experience at a deserted beach.  Transplanting the viewer to the water’s edge, this painting is an invitation to leave all earthly worries behind and bathe the mind in the infinite possibilities presented by the stretch of blue on the horizon.

For a more vibrant approach, Sam Gilliam’s work is particularly striking. His marbled use of colour is astounding - almost every colour has been layered in splatters across the wide canvas of ‘Onion Skin’ (1975), which is a mammoth of a painting, engulfing viewers in a symphony of colour as they stand back from the wall to take it in.

Using thinned acrylic paint, the colours in Gilliam’s paintings have a watery quality and retain a sense of light and movement. He is renowned for his suspended and draped paintings, which are sculptural in form but are still considered paintings.  Albeit, paintings that are stretched beyond their common four-sided boundaries. ‘After Micro W #2’ (1982), is an example of such a work and stands out in the exhibition for its 3-dimensional appearance. The paint has been directly applied to an unstretched piece of canvas and hung on the wall, creating creases and folds in the sheet that partially hide the paint in areas, while creating new illusions from different angles. This type of work by Gilliam was recently on display at ‘Soul of A Nation: Art In The Age Of Black Power’ at the Tate Modern, cementing the fact that Gilliam’a significance as an artist for forging new paths in the world of abstract expressionism and American political expression is widely recognised.

IMPULSE is an exciting testament to the artistic innovation that took place in America between the 1960s and 70s. While the notions and movements that gave rise to the bold, seemingly simple works on show are deeply complex, the exhibition offers an easily digestible feast of colour and abstract expressionism that will bestow both pure joy and great wonder on anyone who has the pleasure of attending. And if one investigates beneath the surfaces of these vibrant colourful canvases, one will quickly see that “impulse” does not equate lack of thought but rather the infinite new possibilities that unfold when the rules of convention are removed from the art of expression.

IMPULSE is on at Pace Gallery, London until 22nd December 2017,  More information may be found here.

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