David Aspden

August 26, 2011
David Aspden untitled

Like Tom Roberts before him, David Aspden (1935-2005) was born in rural England and arrived in Australia around the age of fifteen. This is a time of life when the biggest part of one’s adult personality is already formed. Roberts, who grew up in the age of Empire, was never quite sure if he was an Australian or a British painter. For Aspden, whose childhood coincided with the Second World War and that grim period of post-war reconstruction, there was no confusion – he was thoroughly Australian in outlook.

Aspden’s work reflects the brilliance of local light and the subtleties of colour characteristic of the Australian landscape. In this, it is completely different to the claustrophobic, unnatural ‘studio colour’ found in the works of British artists of both abstract and figurative persuasions. Aspden was not responding to the mere idea of a landscape or an environment, he was acutely sensitive to his surroundings. There is a tremendous sensuality in his best works, a sense of pleasure in sunlight and nature that should impress itself even on those who are unreceptive to abstract art.

David Aspden: The Colour of Music and Place is the kind of survey that the Art Gallery of NSW undertakes too rarely nowadays. There are a lot of artists who are still with us, notably Charles Blackman and Robert Dickerson, who have never been given a retrospective in the city where they have spent much of their working lives. Even the Aspden show is not a genuine retrospective because all the work comes from the permanent collection of the AGNSW. Aspden owes this unusually comprehensive representation to his widow, Karen Coote, who has donated many pieces. Nevertheless, there are major paintings in other public and private collections, and this is necessarily a partial portrait.

One suspects that with Edmund Capon’s retirement, the AGNSW will become less rather than more likely to put together retrospectives, although it should be treated as an essential part of the program.

It is timely to look at Aspden’s work because it is so antithetical to the kind of art one sees in today’s contemporary exhibitions. If the creations of the young British artists of the Saatchi collection currently showing in Adelaide are any indication, we are entering an era where formlessness is the order of the day. Paintings and sculptures are simply accumulations of forms, not compositions. The idea seems to be that one may simply keep adding bits on in the hope that something interesting will emerge.

With Aspden’s work, which is resolutely abstract, even the slightest pictures have a marked sense of composition. Although the gestural elements are important, Aspden never gives the impression of being carried away by his own emotions. He was always in control, orchestrating colours and forms with great deliberation. His aim, apparently, was to create an effect that was harmonious and often beautiful while avoiding the most obvious decorative constructions.

His colours are almost always carefully modulated. The lurid, neon lines of the earliest work in the show, Outer Spice (1969) quickly gave way to a more subtle palette. Aspden may have experimented with hard-edged abstraction in the sixties, but his temperament favoured a lyrical approach. As late as 1982 he would be complaining that abstract painting had become “too academic”, in contrast to the emerging Aboriginal art movement.

Like so many artists who are largely self-taught, Aspden retained his respect for the old-fashioned craft of the painter, conscious that tonality was the key to a successful picture. His paintings might be hot or cool, light or dark, spacious or congested, but they are always carefully calibrated.

Brazil No. 3 (1971) is perhaps the most dazzling work in this show. This large canvas pits hot tones of yellow, orange and red against cool patches of pale blue, grey, and brown. Although it has an instant impact on the viewer’s retina, it is a surprisingly complex painting. Every colour seems slightly different from the others, even though this is probably an optical illusion caused by the close juxtaposition of patches.

The edges of these patches, which seem so sharp at first glance, are actually soft and faintly blurred. The entire composition feels as if it is slowly shifting, as the eye focuses on one segment after another.

If we look at a later painting such as Black music (1995), one encounters a field of dense, sooty grey, punctuated by flashes of red, yellow, black, tan, and other shades. While grey is usually viewed as neutral, or occasionally as depressing and gloomy, this is not the feeling one takes away from this painting. Instead, there is surging activity, like a pitched battle being fought in darkness. Once again, the picture is full of movement, but not a slow shifting of forms. In this case the action is jagged and irregular, like bursts on a saxophone interrupting a busy rhythm section.

It is impossible to talk about Aspden for any length of time and not mention music. While there are unmistakable musical associations in the work of many artists, notably the landscapist, William Robinson, no other Australian artist has ever allied their work so closely to musical composition. Aspden’s characteristic mixture of intricate, deliberate structure and burgeoning lyricism is typical of a piece of music. We respond to music on an emotional level, but the triggers for that response begin life as a tightly plotted set of notations. Even a jazz improvisation requires an innate understanding of the deep structure of the piece from which a solo emerges.

Aspden had a passion for jazz and forms of classical music, which he did not treat as a mere backdrop to the lonely process of putting paint on canvas in the studio.
Stand in front of his paintings and their musicality is obvious – from the dense, smudgy forms that suggest the polyphonic complexities of modern jazz, to his 1981 works on paper made after a journey to New Britain. Here the forms are short and staccato, like quick, rhythmic drum-beats or chants.

Apsden’s musical preoccupations were combined with an instinctive, highly developed sense of place. A vibrant picture such as Brazil No. 3, suggests an entirely different quality of experience to the low-keyed Canal Street (1980) made during a residency in New York. In the latter the mood is introspective and unhappy. It almost feels as if the walls are closing in.

In Loneliness of the long distance painter (1985), a four metre-long triptych painted on a single canvas, Aspden creates a series of broken rhythms that could seemingly go on forever, as claws of black grapple with sand-coloured shoals of paint. It’s no surprise that there are several degrees of sand colour involved, and hints of dark underpainting that play at the edges. As one gradually becomes alert to the density of the picture it becomes more and more absorbing. It feels meaningful, even though there is nothing that may be identified apart from a faint allusion to the Australian landscape.

The dramas that Aspden created remained defiantly abstract although anchored in the world of the senses. In his experiments with collage he seemed to enjoy the process of tearing a piece of painted paper, exposing the whiteness of the edge. When these fragments were glued onto a coloured backdrop they took on a three dimensional aspect, creating the illusion of recessive space. This may not sound like a major achievement but it lends a vitality to even the most minimal configurations.

Towards the end of his life David Aspden came across as an unhappy figure, battling the effects of a life-time’s heavy drinking, and finally cancer. He felt, rightly enough, that he was being overlooked in favour of a new generation of artists that understood nothing about painting. This exhibition helps restore the balance in his favour. For while contemporary art seems to throw up a new gimmick every week, there are a diminishing number of painters who have such a thorough understanding of colour and form, and fewer still who are capable of using this knowledge as a stimulus to further experiment.

Despite the “loneliness” he experienced in his later years, Aspden’s work never stood still, and never sacrificed its vital, lyrical, celebratory qualities. That is the way these paintings will be judged by future generations who will have forgotten about the politics and fashions of the present day and see only an artist of exceptional sensibility.

Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, August 13, 2011

David Aspden: The colour of music and place, Art Gallery of NSW, until 4 September.