High Art with a Smile

Sophie Partarrieu 31 January 2010

There is nothing abstract about Albert Irvin’s friendliness says Sophie Partarrieu

As I cycle to Churchill between lectures to interview Albert Irvin, one of British art’s foremost abstract artists, I’m suddenly nervous.

However, five minutes later, once Barry Phipps (the charming curator of Churchill College) has introduced me to Bert and his spouse I find myself chitchatting away to one of the friendliest and most approachable artists I have ever met…

People often describe your paintings as ‘childlike’, has this always been the case?

“Well I suppose that the older I’ve gotten, the more childlike my paintings have become. Before, the colours were more sombre, I thought that for a painting to have gravitas it had to be sombre. Van Gogh went through the same experience, you know, he painted in the dark browns, like the Dutch masters, until he discovered the Impressionists.”

We continue to talk about Van Gogh for a while, for whom he clearly has great admiration. He mentions that he was at the opening of the Van Gogh exhibition at the Royal Academy the night before and that attending one’s own exhibition afterwards has a “rather humbling effect”.

The conversation switches to his years as a student at Northampton School of Art in the 1940s. I mean to ask if the war influenced his work in any way but he brings up the subject himself.

“Well, you know, my studies were interrupted by the war, I flew around like an idiot in the Royal Air force for 5 years and then went back to studying.” He then goes back to talking about art college, “We had classes in anatomy, and perspective and all this. When I left art school I was a figurative painter.”

Which artists influenced your work?

“Well certainly Turner has been very important. I have a great deal of admiration for him.” I mention William De Kooning.

“Well of course, there were all these great American artists in the 50s. When they had their first exhibition in London, well, we had simply never seen anything like it.”

From then on, he explains, his art became more and more abstract. He felt  less of a need to be figurative in order to express human feeling. You don’t need the “noses and the feet” he tells me, to get your point across.

We walk over to one of his canvases, a recent one, purchased by a Cambridge doctor. He points to the quatrefoil shapes and explains that they were inspired by the Doge’s palace in Venice. Yet there’s more to it,

“I felt there were a lot of lines in the paintings, they felt too straight, these circles help to add a sort of feminine element.” Indeed, as I soak in the painting, and try and imagine it without the circular shapes I see exactly what he means, they bring some sort of harmony to the whole.

Is there a reason that you saturate your paintings, fill them up, with colours, shapes and forms? There’s very little white…

“Well, imagine a white canvas, and I know you can argue about what is white, but let’s just say we have a white canvas.

From the moment you put a darker mark on it, whatever colour that may be, well it limits the potential and straight away you begin to work with that, it has an effect on the next colour that comes in…Turner called it ‘colour beginnings’. Often, I begin by sullying the canvas, or by making bands of colour…” (He makes a vigorous sweeping movement with his arm)…I interject and ask him if he plans ahead.

“No there’s no end in view, really. Beginning a painting is always a bit of an adventure…” But then how does he make sure he gets the right effect when he overlaps layer over layer? (Some of his paintings have over 30 layers I was later told by an enthusiastic art historian and member of the Hanging Committee, James Fox, at the private viewing in the evening.) “Well, I use coloured bits of paper that I place on the canvas. That way I can see if the shapes and colours and things are right, you know how Matisse would cut out these painted bits of paper, except I don’t stick them on, they’re just to help me decide along the way.”

I ask if he paints fast. “In the early days I used to use oil paints but now well, it is important to keep the paint fresh , the brushstrokes have to be decisive.”  He also says that “If painting is a language, then the brushstrokes are the verbs…but that analogy breaks down as soon as you try and pursue it further.”

When do you feel a painting is complete?

“Well, Bacon said that it is when the man comes to take it away for the exhibition. But more seriously, the painting speaks to you, it niggles at you and makes demands. Then there is a point at which it doesn’t and begins to live its own life so to speak.”

A slightly random question then pops into my head: Have you ever painted on non-rectangular canvases?

“Well, actually there was a point once, after going to see Peggy Guggenheim’s collection at the Tate, where I saw paintings by Delaunay on an oval canvas, so I tried a few paintings on ovals. But the problem is that the shape itself is so dynamic to begin with that whatever you do after, well the effect is eaten away by the dynamism of the circle.”

We move from these technical points to discuss his work more generally:

“The way I paint is informed by my being in the world. It is an urban world that starts with my studio in London, my walk to work through the streets and seeing what is around me. That is why you see these two severe lines, one vertical, one horizontal I began by painting the streets around the studio, but then, eventually I ran out of streets.” (He chuckles).

“I like to give paintings street names, paintings ought to be identi ied, I can’t stand when they’re called ‘untitled’. ” I fervently sympathise.

I mention the vigorous “push and pull” quality to the lines in his work, like they’re tugging at each other, and ask if any of his paintings have a more sombre theme, despite their constantly joyous and colourful appearance.

He tells me he doesn’t really self-indulge, “you move above pain.” And it is visible in his effervescent paintings.

I ask if they’re more like ” affirmations” of life, he nods and says it is a good way of putting it.

This leads us onto the topic of music, and how important it is to him. Abstract painting is similar to  music he says:

“It conveys all sorts of things without needing to be specific about it. Take Beethoven’s 5th symphony, that ” da da da daaa” at the beginning, those notes, you can play them loud or soft, repeat them…

“There is this whole configuration being put together that if the human race were to go on for a million years, well it would still be conveying something about being a human in this world. I like to think that I can do that,”da da da daaa” when I paint, without having to pinpoint things exactly to express human feeling.” (By the way, he does a very good ‘da da da daa’).

If he wasn’t a painter the next best thing would no doubt be composing, but he admits to not being particularly good at the piano.

We talk about his job as a teacher at Goldsmiths College and other art colleges throughout Britain. He taught at first simply because he needed the money: to live, to pay for materials etc, but adds that he got a lot from teaching. Students are “always questioning you, bringing you back to the basics.”

I wonder if he ever asks for opinion on works in progress:

“No. Usually once they’re done I enjoy getting feedback, the creative circle isn’t really complete until someone is standing in front of your work and looking at it.” He is looking forward to the evening’s viewing, saying: “You never know what the atmosphere is going to be like…I quite like the buzz.”

I wish him the best of luck and when I return later during the day for the viewing, there is indeed, quite a large buzz. Mr. Irvin looks happy and is wearing the funkiest tie I have ever seen: it matches his paintings. Who said 80 year old men don’t have style?!

The exhibition “Tabard: Paintings and works on paper” continues at Churchill College until the 9th of February 2010.

Sophie Partarrieu