In 1978, the esteemed British curator Bryan Robertson saw fit to compare the promise of painter Gary Wragg’s emergent career with that of the young Jackson Pollock. It is a comparison lent some weight by the fact that Robertson had written a monograph and organized a major exhibition devoted to Pollock’s work when he was Director of London’s Whitechapel Gallery.
Quoted within the pages of the recent two-volume survey of Wragg’s career, however, the comparison jars. The career of the English painter has been considerably longer and more sustained than his American predecessor (the survey, Constant Within The Change: Gary Wragg, Five Decades of Paintings: A Comprehensive Catalogue by Sam Cornish, spans from very early pre-student works of 1963 through to 2013), but what will certainly strike the reader is Wragg’s failure to achieve an appreciable level of international recognition. Indeed, while it was likely that Wragg’s innovative expansion of painting’s medium-specific possibilities underlay Robertson’s excitement, these self-same qualities might be taken to account for Wragg’s relative obscurity today.
Emanating from the other side of the neo-liberal takeover, the rise of post-structuralist criticism, and the expansion of a global art market pumped full of post-Modernist irony and post-minimalist literalism, Robertson’s statement reveals the extent to which the common sense assumptions of the 1970s art world have been torn apart. Within this new paradigm, Wragg, like many of his generation of British painters, holds an awkward position: too young to be welcomed into the ranks of Great British Modernists (Henry Moore, Ben Nicholson, Anthony Caro, Bridget Riley, et al), he has nonetheless developed his own particular mode of ‘unfashionably late Modernism’ across the best part of half-a-century.
The strength of the work grouped within the catalogue offers a challenge to the consensus of fashion. Wragg’s work reminds us of the considerable wealth and range of work that stands excluded from the record. Looking back to the works on which his career was launched, the signs of his strengths and future concerns are in ample supply. In “Promenade” of 1978, for example, an Abstract Expressionist sense of scale and gesture fuse with an interest in Color Field’s drifts, shared with many of his generation. But from the outset Wragg’s channeling of tradition steers clear of the many dangers and caricatured deficiencies embodied in these starting points.
Rather than fixed formats or object-defying endgames, Wragg brings together a dizzying cacophony of assertions: the charged color relations of the central passage, the angularity of the stickman-like form merging into a neo-Cubist grid, the cartoonish ladder and the graffiti-like arabesques whose casualness belies their subtle relation to the underlying tectonic ruptures. Individually these features call to mind a whole range of Modernist forbearers — from Picasso and Matisse, through Alan Davie, David Bomberg, Mark Rothko, Jack Tworkov, and Willem de Kooning — but the playfulness and Baroque insouciance with which they are overlain is quite distinct.
Combining a sense of contingency and a wide-ranging field of reference, with an undisputedly Modernist sincerity and faith in painterly meaning, Wragg finds liberation, in the “treasure chest” of historical precedent. As Sam Cornish’s essay points out, such an approach offers proof “that it is [still] possible to approach — to feel part of — the most ambitious examples of modernism without totalizing or unfeeling irony, and without repeating or being subservient to the past.”
A wide-ranging engagement with the history of art extends throughout Wragg’s career, with Matisse’s framing, the lure of geometry, the tension between gesture, contour and space, and all sorts of notations for painterly drifts, forming some of the more recurrent preoccupations across the years. Despite this, Wragg has steered clear of the formalist insularity to which much late Modernism has been prone. His pronounced receptivity to a diverse range of “external” sources has no doubt been crucial in this. An interest in process shared with many of his generation, for example, has seen Wragg use anything from impressed bubble wrap to paced Tai Chi steps to provide pictorial effects and compositional structures (see “The Oval,” 1996–97, and “Separate Foot,” 1991–2003).
He has also channeled visual experiences — with the shifting transition between his studio and the outside world over the course of the day finding form in his long-running series of “Gap” paintings, and the fragmented impressions and degraded surfaces of the urban environment looming large over much of his work (see, for example, “The Snake & Crane I,” 1987-89). Likewise, a broad and nuanced sensitivity to light and diverse color harmonies can be detected across the career. These departure points are never looked upon as ends — and identifying them rarely affects our interaction with the work — nonetheless, they provide ever-renewing sources for the continued vitality and exploration of a career that for all its learned reference has never veered into aloof academicism.
Wragg’s consistent open-endedness no doubt carries with it some attendant risks — the possibility of over-complication and dwindling clarity, for example — but what is remarkable is the extent to which, across many years, he has succeeded in pulling clarity and success from the melée of options thrown up by his practice. Such success is embedded in Wragg’s means of working, in which complex layers of quite divergent assertions are built up over extended time, with an intriguing admixture of intense contemplation and more casual improvisation. Wragg’s approach to layering pays tribute to his conviction that painting is a process of “cultivation, rather than expression.”
Instead of repositories for direct expressive or emotional appeal, or the one-hit image that fellow abstract painter John Hoyland once advised him to develop, Wragg’s paintings thrive in their ability to transcend image. They lure us into their complex, overlapping webs of assertion: spatial, gestural, textural and chromatic — micro and macro. As Matthew Collings’s contribution to the catalogue points out, this cumulative layering separates Wragg from the heroic embodiments of selfhood so central to the Abstract Expressionist mythology of gesture, and places his work within a more fluid, and temporally contradictory realm. In a work like “The Studio III” (1989), we do not read gesture or action as definitive expressive moments, but instead follow their complex accumulation into a tentative and fragile totality — with an emergent sense of structure.
There is indeed something akin to what Collings terms “an art version of personality” here — but it arises from a complex blend of moments and underlying patterns, which never quite succeed in settling down into a singular framing. As with friends, our mode of interaction and apprehension is dynamic, suspended and multiply inflected — but not irresolute. Like Henri Lefebvre’s theory of moments, structure is posited as an organic and evolving entity, in a perpetual state of becoming.
Across his career, therefore, Wragg has engaged in a wide-ranging consideration of the Modernist tradition with a deep commitment to what, in an interview included within the catalogue, he calls the “wonderful streams of colour, combinations and movements of weights, drifts and all sorts of things that the magic of painting does — only painting, nothing else, not photography, not any other art form.”
But in its open-ended field of reference, held in suspended and interlocking time, the work succeeds in updating that tradition. As the myriad contradictions and absurdities of the current relations between art and the wider world make themselves increasingly apparent, perhaps a crack may be opening up for the reassessment this work deserves. The current book provides a wonderful starting point.
Constant Within The Change: Gary Wragg, Five Decades of Paintings: A Comprehensive Catalogue by Sam Cornish is available from Samson and Company and other online booksellers.