At a recent dinner, the conversation—fueled, I admit, by liberal amounts of very good red wine—became a kind of Socratic dialogue about the practice of art criticism. Is it more difficult to write about art you admire or art you detest? (Those abused terms “good” and “bad” were employed.) Which is harder to deal with, figurative or abstract art? Art of the past or of the present? Does intention matter? No consensus was reached about the relative problems posed by historical versus contemporary art, since we veered off into an extended argument about the obligation to understand context and “decode,” as they say, narrative. There was, however, general agreement that it’s easier to find the rapier phrase to puncture inadequate or pretentious work than to come up with a verbal equivalent for the wordless experience of being deeply moved by something you believe to be first rate. There was agreement, too, that art that depends wholly upon the visual, devoid of irony, obvious narrative, or recognizable imagery, art equipped with neither integrated nor accompanying text—especially if you believe it to be first rate—is harder to deal with than art that is inherently literary. Some of us even maintained that the best art is not only difficult to write about but can make explicatory texts irrelevant and inadequate; the most appropriate response seems to be to remain silent and, if you must, point. (One dissident insisted that it made him want to participate.) Someone raised the vexed question of whether artists themselves are the best interpreters of their own—or anyone else’s—work, but then dessert arrived and hypothetical distinctions gave way to real decisions.

All of which is a rather oblique and long-winded way of saying that trying to write about Andrew Forge’s remarkable retrospective exhibition at the Yale Center for British Art this past summer seems presumptuous and possibly even silly.1 In the first place, Forge is himself a distinguished critic. (He is, in fact, known chiefly in some circles for his criticism and for his important contribution as a teacher, particularly during his twenty years at Yale University, notwithstanding a career as a painter that began in the 1950s.) Forge’s reputation for being incisive and articulate was borne out by his brief, trenchant comments in the exhibition’s wall texts and catalogue, a collection of level-headed observations that not only illuminate his motivations and his process, but, it could be argued, obviate an article like this one.

As if Forge’s ability to say enlightening things about his own work (something he shares with few of his colleagues) were not inhibiting enough to anyone attempting to write about his exhibition, further difficulties are posed by the nature of the pictures themselves. They are fiercely intelligent and extraordinarily hard to pin down, especially those made after 1963, when the forty-year-old artist abandoned the loose perceptual realism of his earlier paintings for a cerebral, but utterly sensual “abstraction” of perception. The show was, of course, dominated by works made after 1963, more specifically by pictures made during the past two decades or so, from intimate works on paper to small canvases to large canvases that have rarely been seen before. This astonishingly ambitious, consistent body of work (and the paintings of the last fifteen years in particular) made it plain that Forge, despite his gifts as a perceptive critic, is first and foremost a true painter’s painter, someone wholly absorbed by fundamental issues of seeing, not in terms of theory or ideology, but in terms of making pictures, a position that reinforces the suggestion that language might not be fully up to the task of dealing with these works. It might deal adequately with intention, perhaps, but not with effect.

The show began with a selection of landscapes and figures from the 1950s and early 1960s that made evident Forge’s origins in a quintessentially British brand of painterly realism based on dispassionate scrutiny that can be traced to one of his early teachers at the Camberwell School of Art, William Coldstream. Confronted by his intimate, rather hermetic early pictures, it was easy to remember that Forge the critic had written intelligently about Vermeer, but at the same time, it was equally clear that his loyalties were wide-ranging, that his admiration was extended also to masters who regarded the world around them not with detachment, but with passionate engagement. If his early landscapes and clothed figures seemed particularly British in their attachment to the special qualities of English light and scale, there was at least one vigorous portrait that reminded you that Forge had also written about Soutine, while his powerful nudes suggested still other, even more overwhelming enthusiasms in their overt homage to the robust domestic goddesses of Courbet and, especially, Rembrandt. It’s impossible to look at the paintings of women undressing in the first part of Forge’s show, their chunky torsos dominating an urgently worked “sea” of pigment, without thinking of that thundering paean to the humanity of human flesh, Rembrandt’s A Woman Bathing (1654, National Gallery, London); a perceptive colleague has called this iconic image of a wading figure hiking her shift to expose sturdy legs, “Beethoven’s Ninth for figurative painters.” (It would not have been possible to guess solely from the evidence of the exhibited pictures that Forge had written extensively on Klee.)

Rembrandt, I suspect, may have been more important to Forge’s early aspirations than anyone.

Rembrandt, I suspect, may have been more important to Forge’s early aspirations than anyone, his British teachers included, to judge by the overall weight and mass of image and paint in his early works. Yet even these apparently intelligible figurative paintings prove to be less straightforward than they seem at first viewing. Forge’s palette is quirky, often abrasive, less tied to place and time than his foundation in the British tradition of direct observation would lead you to expect. And curiously, his overwhelming concern even in his early works proves to be far less for fidelity to perception than for creating equivalents for the experience of perceiving with loaded, thick, almost visceral paint. (My having to resort to that kind of convolution, I submit, proves my point about the difficulty of writing sensibly about these works.) Much more than appearances are addressed by Forge’s insistently stroked images; they are, for example, not simply about what a woman looks like when she pulls a slip over her head, but about tactile memory, frequently combined with a kind of generalized nostalgia. I kept thinking of what Anthony Caro said of the thickset, earthbound bronze figures he was making at more or less the same time that Forge painted pictures like S. Undressing  I, (1959, collection of the artist), a solid nude who raises her arms with effort, both figure and surrounding space slowed and thickened by densely loaded paint. Caro described his rough-textured nudes struggling to pull off a shirt or to press themselves into a sitting position as being “about what it is like to be inside the body,” a condition, apparently, of being oppressed by gravity, an equivalent, perhaps, of the way Forge’s figures seem to be oppressed by the material of paint.

If Forge’s early figurative paintings demand clumsy phrases and complicated analogies to suggest their idiosyncrasies, his mature abstractions appear not only to defy the limitations of words but to defy ordinary vision, as though grasping them required sensory equipment beyond the usual human complement. Constructed out of slowly vibrating accumulations of dots, they are complex harmonic orchestrations of color that seem completely self-sufficient and resolved at the same time that they virtually elude being seen. (Yes, I know it sounds absurd to claim this as a quality present in any painting, much less one that I believe to be of a high order of excellence.) Each picture appears, at first acquaintance, to have a single dominant hue, but over time, internal rhythms, divisions, and sometimes startlingly explicit structures, all created by unpredictable color shifts, slowly begin to declare themselves. When you try to focus on them, to see them more clearly, they dissolve into the dominant expanse, so that you begin to doubt whether you have glimpsed them at all. On occasion, when you see a painting from a new vantage point, as you move across the gallery, these structures momentarily reassert themselves with startling clarity and then subside once again. It’s rather like the way things that loom in the dark become incoherent to the point of vanishing when you look at them directly but become intelligible when you look away, relying on the fringes of sight.

Forge is well aware of the difficulties posed by his pictures, but says simply that they “take a long time to make,” adding, quietly but firmly, that he “would like them to be looked at slowly enough for the viewer’s eye to accommodate to their structure; and at as many different distances as the gallery allows.” He is insistent, however, that while each of his post-1963 paintings is ultimately based on real perceptual experience—a specific place, a model, a studio setup—he does not strive to reproduce what has been seen in an obvious or direct way.

The apparent similarity of application is deceptive.

This is not to suggest that Forge’s later paintings are optical puzzles, that he is amusing himself with sophisticated visual games or systematically exploring optical phenomena. If this were the case, his pictures would be mere curiosities capable, at best, of arousing interest only for as long as it took to discover the way their devices functioned. I suppose that at some level, Forge’s work could be looked at this way, but I suspect that even if they were approached as optical diversions, other qualities would begin to insist on being acknowledged. If you invest the time Forge requests from his viewers, his best paintings provide ample, sustained emotional—as well as intellectual—rewards. These demanding, elusive abstractions turn out to be surprisingly similar, in intent if not in form, to Forge’s landscapes and figures. As the artist has alerted us, his shimmering abstractions, no less than his sturdily constructed early works, are based on direct observation of a kind—“heightened awareness” might be a more accurate phrase. Their unstable structures and color shifts are somehow derived from Forge’s sensitivity to particular places, seasons, times of day, and the like, so that the most powerful paintings function as concentrated, distilled essences of intense, personal experience, without, however, being in any way illusionistic. Forge’s dotted color application has nothing to do with replicating the visible, nor does it have anything to do with pointillism. The apparent similarity of application is deceptive. Seurat’s way of applying paint in repetitive uniform dots was a means to an end, a necessary function of dividing color into discrete units that would mix in the eye in order to render form convincingly. Forge’s touches of paint, far from being subservient to some sort of depiction, as they are in Seurat’s pictures, are declaratively “real.” Each of the obsessively repeated colored dots—whose size and shape vary subtly across the picture, setting up rhythms that Forge calls “drumming”— refers to itself and nothing else. It is simply evidence of the act of transferring a given quantity of pigment onto a given expanse of canvas; initially, Forge tells us, he simply decided, intuitively, to use the smallest brush and the largest canvas he had at his disposal. In many pictures, eccentric trails of widely spaced, contrasting dots and/or staccato, linear marks—which Forge calls “sticks”—set up counterrhythms. They track perceptual paths or diagram trajectories through space and then take their places once again as incidents in the silt of dots, to read as punctuation, as accents, or as incipient, wholly metaphorical tears in the tenuously woven color fabric. The last is more evident in paintings where the veil of dots frays conspicuously at the edge of the canvas or the sheet of paper, revealing both the artifice of the tissue of accumulated touches and its inherent instability. The result, however, is not simply an assertion of surface and extension, but a pulsing declaration of intuitive logic, perhaps even of intuitive order. Mood and temperature vary, most dramatically, perhaps, in the eleven paintings of the on-going “Months” series, from the cool, confrontational implied geometry of brooding gray November (1980–81, collection of Ruth Miller) to the dazzling golden heat of August (1995–96, collection of the artist).

Forge is probably the most lucid guide to how his pictures develop—a textbook example of the painter in the role of what Michael Fried would call the first beholder of his work—whose discussion emphasizes the way pictorial meaning evolves out of process:

Each painting starts with a single dot, and it grows as dots accrue over the field of the canvas. During the early stages, the formative principle is simply the vibration of the dots, whether in ordered constellations or randomly dispersed. As the white field of the canvas is covered dot by dot, color reveals itself; the light of the canvas must be rediscovered and reconstructed out of the interaction of the colored dots. Slowly, ways of reading the picture come up. Areas press forward or drop back. There are alternatives of substance and transparency.

It all sounds simple. But even this unpretentious, hands-on description falls short of conveying the uncannily coexistent sensuous pleasure and intellectual challenge afforded by Forge’s most achieved pictures. Like so much of the most rigorous, serious, and—if you can still use the word in polite company—just plain best art, they are served most by being looked at, in receptive silence, for a long time.

The realities of the museum world being what they are, the exhibition is, of course, accompanied by words in the form of a modest catalogue with a short introduction by the artist, who also selected the works in the exhibition. Two essays follow. The first, by Forge’s friend, the poet and critic John Hollander, professor of English at Yale, is an erudite rumination on Forge’s history, as well as a discussion of specific works; perhaps the most enlightening passages, however, are Forge’s own comments. A quotation from a remarkable interview with Forge, conducted (not by Hollander) in 1986, for example, describes his excitement at the genesis of the dot paintings. Recalling the moment after placing the first dot “without any thought” on “the biggest canvas that I had,” Forge says, “that point looked back at me like an eye . . . but also it and the canvas were talking to each other, too, so it was just hanging there and I felt it was the realest thing I had ever done.” The second essay, by Michael Kubovy, a cognitive psychologist “known for his research on the foundations of human visual and auditory perception,” is a highly academic document that begins with the question “Why do Andrew Forge’s paintings look as they do?” and attempts to provide answers with diagrams of surprising optical illusions, replicas of the component elements of the paintings, and a lot of arcane prose with plentiful sidebar asides. The catalogue’s reproductions, with the exception of the 1996 gouache effectively reproduced actual size on the cover, range from inadequate to deplorable, providing no idea of the subtlety, vivacity, or richness of Forge’s work. Neither the camera nor the four-color process, it seems, is up to the demands of translating these difficult pictures into something intelligible and visually stimulating, at a reduced scale. But then, neither are words.


  1.  “Andrew Forge: A Retrospective” was on view at the Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, from May 15, 1996, through July 14. A catalogue of the exhibition, with an introduction by the artist and essays by John Hollander and Michael Kubovy, was published by the Yale Center for British Art (38 pages, $18.95 paper).

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 15 Number 1, on page 105
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