Terry Frost

British Artists
Chris Stephens, 2015

Publisher: Tate Publishing.

‘Moments of Truth’



Colour had been one of Frost's major concerns since the beginning of his career. At Camberwell, he had read Michel Eugene Chevreul's Principles of Harmony and Contrast in Colour (1854), which defined a theory of colour interaction. So, from the start, Frost was mindful of the role and effects of harmony, contrast and discord, and continued to use those ideas to the end. In the 1950s, one of the doubts he had about constructivism was artists' failure to recognise that form and colour were contingent - colour inescapably affecting the form that contains it. This notion had been expounded by Adrian Stokes in his Colour and Form (1937), which corrected Roger Fry's theory of 'significant form' by introducing the formal, sensory and emotional effects of colour.


Like Kandinsky, Frost used colour as a tool in his attempt to evoke emotion through painting: in such works as Blue Movement 1953 it was both illustrative and evocative. He believed in its innate emotional force and jotted in his notebook Ruskin's observation that:


All men completely organized and justly tempered enjoy colour, it is meant for the perpetual comfort and delight of the human heart, it is richly bestowed on the highest works of creation, and the eminent sign and seal of perfection in them, being associated with life in the human body, with light in the sky, with purity and hardness in the earth.1


If colour had previously served a figurative as well as sensory purpose for Frost the works made after the mid-1960s were based upon the emotive power of pure colour and abstract form. He conceived of colours in absolute terms, and desired to separate them from possible external associations:


I’m okay on reds and blues and yellows I can almost do it in my mind, but the greens take some holding on my mind screen. Perhaps I've never got green free, ie. from the sea and landscape. I must get it free for itself as green, or a particular green, otherwise I'll never get it to be as responsible as the green in nature. A colour is no good unless it takes full responsibility for its yellowness or blueness etc. 2


As we have seen, Frost often used a limited number of pure, contrasting hues. At the same time, he became interested in the range within a single colour and the subjective nature of perception. He has described how, in the late 1960s, he asked his students to investigate the boundaries of colour by mixing different blacks. They used red, yellow and blue, gradually increasing the amount of one colour until it 'broke' through, then following the same process with each of the others. He then told them to identify the colour they considered to be 'mid black'; the result was, he said, 'the greatest lesson of my life, when we put them up there wasn't one like the other. Now this means that colour is totally subjective.'3 Frost did the same thing, taking six large canvases, dividing them up into fifteen-by-nine-inch blocks, and painting each section a different black. He then cut out rough semicircles from each and collaged those onto a larger canvas (fig.48).4 The result is a composition in which red-blacks, green-blacks and blue-blacks harmonise and contrast with each other, and in which the ground and space between them becomes an active component. Over several years he made a number of these, a second Through Blacks and Through Yellows, Reds, Blues and Greys.


In the early 1980s, this series was taken further with Through Whites (figA9), which was accompanied by a number of 'White Out' paintings. In an echo of the 1950s, these were inspired by a visit to Canada, during which Frost drove through a blizzard so severe that the car seemed entirely engulfed by white. If Through Whites is made up of a couple of different whites within discrete areas defined by sparingly-painted black lines, Canada Whites (1985-6) consists of numerous whites, some towards pink, others a very pale blue, and so on. It is a triptych, but in each of the three panels the various colours are confined within half-ovals, which are themselves arranged within rhombi that appear to extend from one canvas to the next; the forms conjoin in such a way as to establish a sinuous linear effect. A similar effect is seen in Newlyn Rhythms (fig.SO), in which harmony and contrast of colours and forms can be varied by rearranging the twenty canvases that make up the whole work. In a manner typical of so much of his production over the years, Frost combines a formal structure with the overall sinuosity that had emerged in the art of the 1950s following the impact of Jackson Pollock. Newlyn Rhythms was, perhaps, the largest of a number of similar paintings from the 1980s and 1990s, in which small areas of pure colour interact in a polychromatic hurdy-gurdy.


In their almost total refusal of any external associations, the 'Through paintings' were among Frost's most non-figurative works. Their repetition and variation of the semicircle seems deliberately to avoid the expected implication of a boat. At this time Frost was passionate in his dismissal of the figurative painting of the Coldstream tradition, by then epitomised by his near-contemporary at Camberwell, Euan Uglow. He was, in particular, disgusted 'at that type of painting being hoisted on the old flag of "commitment and integrity'":


It is the opposite of love, it is hate through ignorance and a total misunderstanding of art, a safety net of false intellectualism. It is away from life, from reality, away from the spiritual, there is no magic, no connection with the 'spirit', no poetry, just dull academic 'rightness'. 5


In contrast, colour was a medium of mystery and spirituality. Certain hues, he would say, 'have depth and "life" and can take you through a spiritual Journey. Art was part of the mystery of human existence and abstract art offered a means of contemplating those non-material dimensions. While 'the spiritual and subjective emotions tend to be suppressed by the weight of scientific or mathematical learning', art opens them up, he believed:


If we dare to feel, if we dare to let our intuition or inner self really see, 􀁂hen we know we are mystery and art is part of our mystery ... logic is just a safety curtain to stop humans from feeling for the true inner light. Lift the curtain and see, stand in front of your next abstract and be true and feel and see for yourself. 7


Addressing the question of Matisse’s belief that art was an armchair of the tired businessman, Frost believed that his brightly coloured abstract paintings were not simply decorative. ‘To look at a painting which gives you the opportunity to have solitude, to be yourself and to be able to wander into reverie,’ he wrote, ‘is more than hedonistic, it’s spiritual’.



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