It is dangerous to describe any artist in universal terms before (or worse, instead of) studying their actual work. It can lead to a sort of ‘cargo-cult’ art criticism that manages to fetishise them while simultaneously devaluing what they actually produced. So I will try to err on the side of caution and simply introduce David Blackburn as an abstract artist who depicted landscapes and worked almost exclusively in pastel; an accurate summation that does little justice to the man or his work, but at least respects a British tradition for understatement that can border on the religious.
When art historian, Sister Wendy Beckett described Blackburn’s1989 work Sunlit Moorland with Wall, however, she wrote: ‘The moor, large and generous, … the sunlight equally illuminated accept even the wall – and take it into their unity. Total love never sets up barriers, but if barriers are presented, it respects them – and works with them.’ This analysis is almost a parable of the soul, but it also astutely grasped what is fundamental to Blackburn’s work: his revision of the syntax of landscape. A romantic artist in the sincerest tradition of Turner, Palmer and Constable, it was by challenging the essential order of earth, sea, sky and the elemental hierarchies of horizon line and human viewpoint that Blackburn illustrated Blake’s paradox of the world in a grain of sand’.
A tension between the macro and the microscopic runs throughout his work: a sense of a worm’s-eye view exchanging with that of a bird. This focal inversion, coupled with Blackburn’s sense of form – which can suggest anything from liquid crystal to cellular biology – attests to both his grammar school education, and a childhood habit of walking and sketching in solitude on the nearby moors.
After first studying at the Huddersfield School of Art (as a textileartist), in 1959, he enrolled at the Royal College of Art and soon focused on landscape. The turn of this particular decade was unfavourable to both the genre and neo-Romanticism, both of which were viewed as somewhat retrograde. Some of his most talented contemporaries at the RCA, such as Hockneyand Kitaj, were not only defining their own identities but also a new genre in British art by exploring topical culture and images. Blackburn however, was not interested in ‘Pop Art’, and his committment to landscape drew him instead to the work of artists such as Prunella Clough (particularly herlithographs) and above all, Gerhart Frankl (1901–1965).
One of Blackburn’s most formative influences, Frankl was an Austrian artist and printmaker whose work was influenced by Cézanne, and one of the few artists actually opposed to his contemporary Viennese expressionism. Before National Socialism forced him into exile, he made frequent sketching trips throughout the Alps, and his print work particularly expressed a keen interest in balancing the formal demands of typology, space and light. Frankl introduced Blackburn tothe challenges and possibilities of pastel, a notoriously difficultmedium to master (and retain). Pastel’s inherently fugitive quality captivated Blackburn, because (as he later said): “I may get something that is totally unexpected and even magical … forms continually emerge, then disappear.”
Meanwhile, Blackburn also found an important advocate and patron in Sir Kenneth Clark. At his degree show in1962, Clark bought three of Blackburn’s drawings, perhaps recognising his potential for continuing the romantic tradition in landscape that he contended was (and would always be) endemic to British art. Many years later, Clark wrote: …‘I don’tknow any artist to whom I can compare him. [Blackburn] is not a landscape painter, not an abstractionist in the ordnary sense… He is a painter of metamorphosis.’
While Clark’s description remains just as relevant to Blackburn’s later work, it can only be fully appreciated in terms of the artist’s subsequent time in Australia, when, in 1963, he took up a teaching position at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology. According to Peter Fuller, author of the catalogue for Blackburn’s Retrospective at the Yale Center for British Art, his earliest critically successful works were Creation (1963–1966), and Metamorphosis (1966–1968), large serial arrangements of charcoals that visually suggest cellular biology, but were apparently meant to express spiritual concepts of generation, development and decay.
However, after his move to Australia and his exposure to Australian art, Blackburn moved away from such broadly philosophical ideas in favour of technical experiments inspired by the alien wonder of the outback. In works like Desert Orange he used a ‘hot’ palette and isolated, vivid blocks of colour to suggest trees, rocks and almost solid shadows. Scale and perspective in his work now became largely subjective, with the eye of the viewer alternately shifting from a micro close-up of a leaf at ground level to an aerial view of the desert floor. This rabbit-duck approach now became a defining feature of his landscape technique.
When Malcolm Yorke asked Blackburn what the Australian landscape meant to him, he replied: “I think it’s Paradise. At first … it was difficult to come to terms with … I couldn’t understand how one could draw where there was no apparent foreground, middle distance and background –only space.” To Blackburn, the outback was so antithetical to the European landscape that it – along with the influence of Australian artists such as Arthur Boyd, Arthur Streeton and especially, Fred Williams – liberated him completely from traditional landscape. Given that he had always credited Claude as one of his greatest influences, the impact of Australia and its art must have been cataclysmic.
Throughout the 1970s, Blackburn lived and worked between Britain and Australia, lecturing variously at the Universityof Manchester, at Melbourne University and at Merton College, Oxford. Australian landscape continued to be a key influence in his work, but in 1981, he began a lectureship at Georgetown University. The inherent horizontality of his work, which he interpreted as the essence of the Australian landscape, now became informed by the rectilinear, vertical perspectives he believed defined American topography. His work became more ‘urban’, more diagrammatic, reflecting his admiration of artists as disparate as Richard Diebenkornand Marsden Hartley. The suggestion of blueprints, what he called the “visual geometry” of the American city, appears in several works from this decade, such as Freeway, and Aerial Freeway, which incorporate strong directional lines and Californian tones of orchid, orange and cerulean blue. Compared to his earlier works inspired by the outback, however, these American compositions also echo Blackburn’s Whitman-like ‘yawp’, because they illustrate modern man’s persistant challenge to the vastness of space.
The ensuing years saw Blackburn sell works to the Phillips Collection, mount a major exhibition at the Dulwich PictureGallery, travel to Canada and open his retrospective at theYale Center for British Art. Blackburn also gave interviews for documentary projects commissioned by the BBC and ITV. At this peak of his career, he returned to Huddersfield in the early 1990’s, due to his mother’s declining health and cared for her until her death in 1993. Apart from a four month visit to Australiain 1995, and subsequent trips to Melbourne and Chicago, he remained in the north of England for the rest of his career. In a 2002 interview with Ron Philips, Blackburn agreed that despite all of his traveling, he still ultimately considered Huddersfield his home, saying: “It’s what I know – the hills and valleys, the history, the mix of urban and rural, old and new: the sheer texture of the place.”
In the late 1990s, Blackburn was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, but nevertheless continued to produce and exhibit his work until 2008. His pastels express his enduring and deeply held belief that landscape was the doorway to the divine. And he constantly experimented with scale, perspective and serial compositions that spoke of his fascination with metamorphosis. Blackburn’s ultimate artistic goal was to assert landscape as a series of elements that could be re-shaped to communicate “the relationship between the unnoticed and the infinite”, which he believed was the only sincere response any artist could offer their world.
There is a sense of cartography to Blackburn’s work that suggests in Road, Australia and Pink Metropolis a mapping of both his mind and an actual place. In other images, like Grey Tree Study or Leaf Beach he seemed to take a more cross-sectional approach; his forms and patterns almost imply crystal geometry or plant cell walls. Equally, in some of these works, perhaps he simply meant to depict the dry-stone walls of his Northern countryside.
By using polarised contrasts and electric colour, Blackburn achieved depth in the two-dimensional in much the same way that the monocular back-lit view through a microscope suggests worlds beyond the edges of a slide. One hesitates to use phrases like ‘jewel-like’, but Blackburn’s glowing command of pastel and economy of scale in these works reminds me of something the Australian critic and journalist, Clive James once wrote: ‘the best art appears to compress coal into diamonds.’
Text by Andrea Gates, Art Historian and Archivist, Messum’s Fine Art