If you were shown Jack Knox’s 1968 painting How it is devoid of context, without an artist’s name, era or location, you might find yourself momentarily nonplussed. I confess I might. Was this painted in the East Village, by an artist playing around on the cusp of abstract expressionism and pop art? Or by a postgraduate student in Glasgow the week before last?
Jack Knox: Concrete Block, GoMA ****
Jack Knox: A Lifetime of Paintings and Drawings, Cyril Gerber Fine Art, Glasgow, ****
How it is is not exactly abstraction, it’s more like hieroglyphics; a dense arrangement of shapes and images on a big white canvas; a personal visual language for which no translation is available. It doesn’t fit easily into any defined time or place in the history of art.
This intrigued GoMA curator Will Cooper who saw the painting printed in a newspaper alongside Jack Knox’s obituary in 2015. That began several years of investigation into the artist, who was better known to many as a teacher, first at Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art and Design in Dundee, then as head of painting at Glasgow School of Art, where he taught artists such as Alison Watt, Steven Campbell and Jenny Saville.
This is the first major exhibition of Knox’s work in Scotland since his retrospective at Kelvingrove in 1990, and Cooper has chosen to focus on the decade from 1967-78, the time at which he was at his most experimental. A collection of slides offers a wider perspective, from his graduation from GSA in the late 1950s until his death in 2015.
Following his graduation from GSA, Knox studied for a year in the Paris atelier of André Lhote. His early work, which was the subject of a solo show at the Scottish Gallery in 1966, was in a free-flowing semi-abstract style owing much to abstract expressionism.
The paintings done around the time of How it is feel like the start of a new phase in which the paint was much more tightly controlled and the focus was on the placing of objects and shapes in white space. Motifs reccur, perhaps due to aesthetic or personal significance. Works have titles like History Lesson or make reference to Uccello’s 15th century masterpiece The Battle of San Romano, which was a source of inspiration. One feels as though one is watching a live experiment as the artist chooses objects and places them: will this work? Well, how about that? How does this motif speak to that one? How much space does it need?
Quickly, however, his style was shifting again, homing in on individual glyphs and rendering them more representationally: two birds in a tree, the brick moorings (the “concrete blocks” of the title) off the coast of Carnoustie, where he lived. A little further down the road, he seemed to hit an impasse (there is a painting called Impasse dated 1970 which shows a torrent of water hitting a brick wall). It was time for something new.
As a teacher, Knox would take students on trips to Amsterdam to visit the Rjiksmuseum and the Stedelijk. Encountering Dutch still life paintings on these visits prompted another line of enquiry. With (one imagines) one eyebrow playfully cocked, Knox painted his lunch – a pint, a hot dog and a bread roll – in the style of a 17th century Dutch Master.
He pursued this for some time (exactly how long is hard to say: he wasn’t given to dating his pictures). Arrangements of food were painted in the manner of Dutch still lifes, with dark backgrounds and smooth surfaces (often using PVA). Sometimes, he added backdrops: the shapes of stairs or modernist works of art. The food, in particular, was always painted with enjoyment: Knox might have been the first to introduce gateaux and ice-cream sundaes to the Dutch still life tradition.
Alongside this, other strands continued. Knox liked to paint ordinary things, sometimes with a hint of the absurd: a garden trellis, a cat under a tree. Art critic Cordelia Oliver described his work as “leap-frogging from life to art and back to life.” Sometimes he used highly textured paint, sometimes very smooth, sometimes both on the same canvas. Knox knew well the rules of art history, but he didn’t mind too much if he broke them.
A much broader spectrum of his work can been seen at Cyril Gerber Fine Art. Paintings and drawings spanning 50 years are squeezed into the three rooms of the gallery on West Regent Street, from early abstracts through the San Romano phase to the colourful landscapes and still lifes of his later years.
Knox and his family often holidayed in France, and there is a sun-soaked ease to many of these pictures: yachts on dark blue oceans; a bicycle outside a cafe; a book and sun hat left on a wicker chair in a garden; a coffee pot and a basket of freshly baked croissants. They almost never show people, yet a human presence is usually implied: the croissants will be eaten, the chair will be sat on, and they will be enjoyed.
The paintings have a clarity, a simplicity which can be joyous: you can be in no doubt about what you’re looking at, its colour, its solidity, its this-ness. At worst, they feel overly simplistic: big dark pyramids for mountains, with what looks like
icing on top. But a painting like Waterfall in the Wilderness blazes with a strength of form and colour. These don’t feel like an artist working on the knife-edge of experimentation. The only knife in these pictures will be the one used to slice the chocolate gateau.
The questions these exhibitions pose are to do with how we understand the trajectory of an artist’s career. It’s easy when there is a linear progression towards success, or when an artist works consistently in the same signature style. But, often, life isn’t like that. For most of us, there are times to balance on the knife-edge of experimentation, and times to steer well clear of it.
If Knox has left us any clues about how to understand his work, they seem to be to do with enjoyment. Some will enjoy deciphering his experiments from the 1960s and considering their significance in the light of other modern and postmodern works. Others will laugh at how he sends up the Dutch masters, or appreciate the sun-soaked plenitude of his holiday pictures. There is a generosity about this work which seems to say: “Go ahead, take your pick, enjoy.” We can be fairly sure he did.
Concrete Block until 13 January, 2019; A Lifetime of Paintings and Drawings until 28 July