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For the Love of Paint: Leon Kossoff Digs Deep

between kilburn
Leon Kossoff, “Between Kilburn and Willesden Green, Spring Afternoon” (1991) (All images by author for Hyperallergic).

Four years ago, Mitchell-Innes & Nash mounted an exhibition of Leon Kossoff’s early paintings, which spanned the decade between 1957 and 1967. That show was a revelation, chronicling the uncompromising force with which the artist entered his maturity in the wilderness of postwar British painting.

Next month, Kossoff will turn 87, and from the looks of his current show at the same gallery — a museum-worthy survey of sixty years of London cityscapes, from 1952 to 2012 — he hasn’t let up for a moment.

Kossoff’s paintings can be counted among the vanishing breed of artworks whose comprehension is entirely dependent upon being in their physical presence. When I wrote about the 2009 show, which was titled Leon Kossoff: From the Early Years – 1957-1967, for The Brooklyn Rail, I considered the question of whether his work’s resistance to reproduction explained its relative obscurity in the United States — especially when compared with the fame accorded Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud, the two supernovas of his School of London cohort: “While paintings by Bacon, Freud, Kitaj and Auerbach often bustle with graphic zing, Kossoff’s muted light/dark contrasts tend to congeal into an anti-photogenic murk.”

view of hackney
Leon Kossoff, “View of Hackney with Dalston Lane, Dark Day (1974)

When viewed in person, Kossoff’s “anti-photogenic murk” illumes into storm-tossed, chthonic color and deep, churning textures chockablock with slabs, scrapes and strings of oil paint. One of the most striking paintings in the current show is “View of Hackney with Dalston Lane, Dark Day (1974), a scene evidently outside the artist’s studio window, where the sky, teeming with horizontal smears, streaks and whorls of thick gray paint, is compressed into a narrow band by the relentless upward and outward pressure of the rooftops, building facades and trees.

This brooding picture is a perfect example of Kossoff’s uncanny mastery as a colorist. The colors are all within a narrow tonal range, with major passages bordered in black like a stained-glass window, and yet each one subtly reinforces the other: the individual colors smolder with a sulfuric intensity, while their sober, sunless aggregate interacts simultaneously as a solid wall of pigment and an exultation of shadows.

Kossoff’s colors seem to emerge, as if destined to be there, from inside the terrains of paint he scoops onto the surface.  Paradoxically, his most exquisite paintings are the ones whose tactility approaches the sculptural, their colored masses resolving into both representation and object. Works such as “City Building Site” (1961), which was included in the 2009 show, or “Between Kilburn and Willesden Green, Spring Afternoon” (1991), are as much chunks of paint, thrusting out into real space, as they are two-dimensional images.

city building site
Leon Kossoff, “City Building Site” (1961)

While the large oil paintings make the most immediate impression, the exhibition, which features 47 works, is dominated by drawings. It opens with “Train by Night,” a suite of six drawings from 1990 in charcoal and pastel (all 23 7/16 x 16 ½ inches) depicting a trolley car sweeping across the lower half of the sheet. The show concludes, if you go full-circle with checklist in hand, with another charcoal and pastel that treats similar subject matter on a much larger scale (47 ¾ x 47 ¼ inches), “Embankment Station and Hungerford Bridge” (1993-1994).

As you take in each work on paper, however, especially the three charcoals depicting the “Destruction of YMCA Building, London” (1970) or the charcoal-and-pastel called “King’s Cross Building Site Early Days” (2003), it soon becomes evident that for Kossoff, drawing is another form of painting. The shapes are roughed in, smeared out, shoved, squeezed, erased and attacked with the same aggression that he pits against his oils.

But then something happens around the turn of the 21st century, when the artist enters his mid-70s. I wouldn’t quite call it a newfound serenity, but an unforeseen sinuousness and limpidity find their way into his pictures; the surfaces feel less worked-over, and the coloration edges on vaporousness. The turbulent excavations of his prior decades give way to a quivering, vanishing translucence.

A marvelous pairing is “Cherry Tree, Winter,” a title shared by a charcoal and ink drawing and an oil painting on board, both 2006-2007. The images are nearly an exact match, a diagonal tree trunk bisecting the picture plane from the lower left to the upper right, sprouting branches that carve up the image’s four quadrants into flattened, arresting shapes.

cherry tree
Leon Kossoff, “Cherry Tree, Winter” (2006-2007)

The drawing, a vortex of charcoal hatches and short ink strokes, is a study in gorgeous knottiness, a fusion of Japanese elegance and German Expressionist grit. The painting, in contrast, is as light-filled as a Monet, and could even be mistaken for an Impressionist work if not for the rough paint handling. The whitened-up umber of the tree against the olive green foliage, the gray-blue sky and the strips of red and blue streaking across the horizon create a disconcerting admixture of frankly ugly colors that shouldn’t work as an ensemble, but instead spring into unruly, inexplicable life.

The latest works in the exhibition are a series of drawings done in the East End neighborhood where the artist was born. They are in charcoal and pastel, like many other drawings in the show, but the materials are handled much differently. The colors are pale, the lines are faint, and the surface is rife with erasures. The pink pastel of the buildings spills across the outlines of trees, as if they were invisible; everything seems to be turning into air.

After decades of wresting images from piles of impasto and smudges of charcoal, Kossoff has arrived at a point where his strokes are no less probing or anxious, but the openness of his approach — more concerned with removing than accumulating — seems to suffuse the jostling forms and skewed angles of his earlier work into an all-encompassing embrace. The images are still unstable and discordant, even threatening, but their lightness of touch feels like an exhalation of acceptance, forbearance and relief.

Leon Kossoff: London Landscapes continues at Mitchell-Innes & Nash (534 West 26th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through December 21.

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