This is another fine book in a line of worthy publications by Lund Humphries which seek to remind us of mid twentieth-century English artists who are at risk of being left out in any general assessment of the period's art. The publishers are to be congratulated on producing a volume which not only clearly demonstrates the quality of the artist through fine colour reproductions, but also is accompanied by an erudite text which both informs and entertains. By the end of the book, one is left with a good understanding of the motivations and accomplishments of an artist who surely deserves wider recognition. It is significant that the list of exhibitions, just before the bibliography, concludes with two in 2005 and 2007 at the commercial dealer Jonathan Clark in London. Since Heath's death in 1992, there has been no retrospective or any other meaningful gathering together of his work, which contributes to the overwhelming impression that his reputation is in need of a major reassessment.
Adrian Heath was born in Burma in 1920 and came to live in England with his maternal grandmother in 1925. He was educated at Bryanston School before World War II, and after the outbreak of war he joined the RAF in May 1940. In November 1941 he was shot down and spent the remaining four years of the war as a POW in Bavaria. It was while he was a prisoner that he met Terry Frost, and their friendship would last until Heath's death. Frost became known as the leading abstract painter of the late 1950s, had several one-man exhibitions, and was knighted in 1998, just a few years before he died. Although a myth has developed that Heath first encouraged Frost to paint, it is clear that their friendship began in the harsh conditions of prison life. Jane Rye's description of this period of his life is detailed and informative, and at one point she writes: "There can be no doubt that these experiences had a profound, if hidden, effect... It left him with a deep conviction of the importance of art in ordinary lives, which he devoted a considerable part of his very considerable energies to putting into practice, one way or another, for the rest of his life."
The post-war years saw Heath reluctantly return to the Slade in London to finish his degree. In the coming years he struggled to find a style of painting with which he was happy. Between 1948 and 1949 he produced a number of works which are clearly marked by this search. Landscapes reminiscent of Cézanne, Cubist-style works in the manner of Gris, even a rather beautiful pointillist rendering of Albert Bridge, all suggest that the artist was experimenting to find a style which would fit his purpose. By the early 1950s his search was over. Naturalism was gradually excluded from his work, and abstract constructions, with their strong emphasis on geometrical harmony and proportion, were becoming his favoured medium. Many of the works from this period are amongst his most popular and accessible, but they are all slightly impersonal and--almost certainly-- deliberately so. Shapes and colours are moved around, but emotion is absent. These paintings are exercises in mathematical and constructive manipulation, closely worked and meticulous in execution, but ultimately rather soulless.
The years which followed were exciting, with Heath and Frost at the forefront of the development of English abstract art. While Frost had moved to Cornwall and was part of the set of artists there who were basing their abstract work on the landscapes around them, Heath remained in London and continued his more methodical constructed compositions. He experimented with cut-out rectangles, which he would rotate on the canvas and draw around. This theme of rotating forms and developmental construction became central to his work, and this approach, combined with his rejection of natural colours such as blue and green, produced a group of works which are characterised by their elegance and calm assurance, but which have a quality of otherworldliness. One particular work, Growth of Forms from 1951, is reminiscent of an early Mondrian, with expanding squares and rectangles stretching across the canvas in muted shades of brown, white and cream, the calm effect revealing what Rye rightly calls a "delicacy of spirit."
Heath's first one-man show was at the Redfern Gallery, London, in 1953. His second was at the Symon Quinn Gallery in Huddersfield in 1956, where he showed works characterised by a solidity of shape and muted, rich earth colours of brown, grey, silver and ochre. These exhibitions set the tone for much of Heath's later art. By 1957, the geometric rotating shapes had been replaced by cell-like structures which were part-painting, part-collage, with hessian and polyfilla used to give the painted surfaces more structure and energy.
Heath was chairman of the AIA (the Artists' International Association) from 1954 to 1964, a period which has been dismissed as a time when the original political aims of the organisation were all but abandoned. Founded in 1933 and reconstituted as the AIA in 1935, it was a left-of-centre political organisation which supported the left-wing Republican side in the Spanish Civil War through exhibitions and other fund-raising activities. It also provided help and support for those artists who were persecuted by the Nazis, but by the end of the war there was significant internal squabbling, and in 1949 the organisation rejected any political affiliations—the point at which, according to many, it lost its relevance.
This, however, is not strictly true, for under Heath's chairmanship the AIA put on several important contemporary exhibitions, and artists of the stature of Prunella Clough and Patrick George were regularly given gallery space. Perhaps the best example, which Rye specifically highlights, is an exhibition from 1957 which displayed the works of Pasmore, Hill and John Ernest, alongside borrowed pieces by artists as diverse as Jean Arp, Man Ray and Moholy-Nagy. Although the AIA was finally put to sleep in 1978, Heath continued to be involved in its work right up to the end, and was instrumental in handing over its papers to the Tate in 1980.
The end of the 1950s saw yet another marked change of direction in his work. In 1956 he joined the teaching staff at the Bath Academy of Art at Corsham, a position he would hold for twenty years. This was a very special establishment, which sought to train both artists and would-be art teachers. In addition to the financial security that it brought, Heath benefited from an environment which was entirely in keeping with his belief that good art is the product of a process which involves communication, discussion and social responsibility.
Rye writes enthusiastically about Corsham and the effect that it had upon Heath, who seems to been a natural teacher, while the time that he spent with his students also had a positive impact upon his own work. He taught drawing in the life class, but sought imaginative ways of engaging his pupils, at one point requiring them to move around the model, sketching on long rolls of wallpaper and superimposing one image upon another. He would draw at speed with his students, and often selected a particular drawing to then build into a painting.
Not surprisingly, his art began to include the influence of the human figure. Whereas his early works had been notable for their absence of recognisable emotion, his paintings from the early sixties seem to be exercises in form and colour, which combine to create an emotional impact. Before, geometric forms were turned and pushed together and apart and muted colours eliminated any suggestion of naturalism, but now the shapes were non-symmetrical, and flaming red or intense yellow carried heavy emotional weight. One painting in particular (Black Painting, 1961), now in Bristol City Art Gallery, is typical of his work at this time. Measuring 6ft by 7ft, it is a huge canvas which captivates the spectator with its power and strength. The black forms seem suspended in space, with intense shades of red, silver and deep ochre seeping around the edges. The painting seems to freeze the impact of huge dark masses on the move. It is a work which can stand alongside any abstract painting of the twentieth century by any artist, European or American.
Heath's later, mature works maintain the power that he found in the early 1960s. He remained a searching artist, a painter who always seemed to be at the vanguard of new developments, and this fine monograph is amply illustrated with several exceptional reproductions of his art. Heath is not a familiar name to many now. Our regional galleries often contain one or two of his later paintings, as does the Tate. What this book provides, at last, is an opportunity to trace the development of one of the most interesting, and intellectually stimulating, painters of the latter part of the twentieth century. One obituary written shortly after his death in 1992 concluded that it would be fitting for one of our major galleries--the Tate or the Hayward, for example—to mount a major retrospective. Having examined the plates which support this well-written text, it is a matter of immense disappointment that no such exhibition has taken place. Perhaps this excellent book might nudge an artistic director somewhere to put this omission right.--Paul Flux