Bert and the Americans: Albert Irvin and Abstract Expressionism

The major new exhibition at the RWA celebrating the work of Albert Irvin and the Abstract Expressionists has received rave reviews and national acclaim.

Stewart Geddes (above), President of the RWA and curator of the exhibition, spoke to us about his long friendship with the artist and the inspiration behind the retrospective…

 

Tell us about Abstract Expressionism…
Originally called Action Painting, it began in post-war America – the aim being to record not only thought, but physical action on a surface, expressive of the individual who made the painting.

Albert Irvin RA OBE RWA (Hon) was one of Britain’s most important post-war artists and is best known for his large-scale abstract colourist paintings.

 

Albert Irvin, Almada, 1985, acrylic on canvas, 213.4 x 304.8cm, RWA Collection. Accepted by HM Government in lieu of Inheritance Tax from the estates of Albert and Betty Irvin and allocated to the Royal West of England Academy, 2018. Photography by Colin
Albert Irvin, Kestrel, 1981, acrylic on canvas, 213 x 305cm, Private collection

 

What’s unique about the exhibition?
Firstly, there has never been a full retrospective of ‘Bert’ Irvin before; and secondly, 2019 is the 60th anniversary of the Tate’s show, ‘The New American Painting’, which marked Bert’s final drive towards becoming a painterly, abstract artist.

Our exhibition shows the whole development of his career, from art school until his death in 2015.

 

Albert Irvin, Priscilla in a Chair, c.1955, oil on board, 153 x 92cm, Courtesy of The Estate of Albert Irvin. Photography by Justin Piperger. Photo © RWA © The Estate of Albert Irvin. All Rights Reserved, DACS 2018
Albert Irvin, Rosetta, 2012, acrylic on canvas, 152.4 x 121.9cm, RWA Collection. Accepted by HM Government in lieu of Inheritance Tax from the estates of Albert and Betty Irvin and allocated to the Royal West of England Academy, 2018. Photography by Colin

 

You had a personal connection with ‘Bert’…
When I was a student at Bristol Polytechnic in 1981, Bert came to give a lecture. It was the one lecture I remember and I was lucky enough to have a short tutorial with him.

Two decades later, I was cleaning my car in Tooting, London, when I happened to look into the front window of a house. On the wall was an Irvin painting. A woman approached the house and I asked her about it – she turned out to be Bert’s daughter. Three weeks later she invited us to a party and he was there: and so began a long friendship which flourished despite the 40-year age gap, until Bert died aged 92.

A great supporter of young artists, Bert was a wonderfully warm, passionate painter, who believed that life’s glass was definitely ‘half full’!

 

What are the highlights of the exhibition?
We have a Jackson Pollock, who it’s possible has never been shown in Bristol before; two Willem de Koonings; and a painting by the only woman in the original Tate show, Grace Hartigan. We also have Northcote, a painting loaned by Goldsmiths, where Bert was a long-term tutor. The exhibition was opened by Sir Nicholas Serota, former director of the Tate, who has been extremely helpful and supportive of the whole project.

 

Jackson Pollock, Yellow Islands, 1952, oil on canvas 143.5 x 185.4cm, Courtesy Tate. Image ©Tate, London 2018. © The Pollock-Krasner Foundation ARS, NY and DACS, London 2018

 

How has it been to curate the exhibition?

It has been hard work and a great privilege to have access to Bert’s work and to organise the show.

The huge generosity offered by the Tate, all the loanees, and Bert’s daughters, Celia and Priscilla, has been indicative of the great affection and respect in which Bert is held.

 

Bert Irvin. Photo credit: albert-irvin.com

 

Albert Irvin and Abstract Expressionism runs at the RWA until 3 March 2019. More details here.

Interview by Susan Nott-Bower. Photo (top) of Stewart Geddes PRWA at the exhibition by Ann Farthing.

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