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When a triptych by Francis Bacon (1909-1992) fetched over $142 million at Christie’s earlier this month, news outlets everywhere reported the sale, the most expensive artwork ever sold at auction. Beyond its cost, “Three Studies of Lucian Freud,” 1969, Bacon’s portrait of his friend and peer, is important as an icon of School of London painting. London Landscapes, now on view at Mitchell-Innes & Nash, presents over 60 years of drawings and paintings by Leon Kossoff, shedding light on the achievements of another School of London artist. Like Bacon and Freud, Kossoff played a critical role in revitalizing figurative art in Britain after World War II.
‘London Landscapes’ features nine oils and almost 40 drawings. Roughly scrawled pastel and charcoal pages, made on-location around the capital, capture a city in motion. Using rough-hewn, slashing marks, Kossoff’s cityscapes convey light and atmosphere with surprising grace. Scenes here include trains barreling through the city, demolition and construction sites and bustling stations of the London underground.
Christ Church, Spitalfields, an early-eighteenth century church with a soaring steeple, has captivated Kossoff since the 1950s. When Christ Church was in danger of being torn down, the artist made frenetic studies of the English Baroque structure. Kossoff says the Spitalfield series was driven by “the awareness that time is short, that soon the mass of this building will be dwarfed by more looming office blocks and overshadowed.”
While drawings are made on location, paintings are studio creations. Using his sketches as a guide, Kossoff’s heavily painted oils are done in just a few hours. Moving enormous amounts of paint, Kossoff’s wet-into-wet process results in cityscapes where buildings seem to slide into place. Drawn strokes outlining forms leave deep grooves in oozing paint.
In “View of Hackney with Dalston Lane, Dark Day,” 1974, London storefronts and trees sway this way and that while a pewter sky flickers with light. Small figures along the painting’s bottom edge move across the sidewalk. The tonal range in this dark grey scene is narrow.
“Christ Church, Spitalfields,” 1999-2000, based on years of drawings, also has a limited value scale, but here the painting is made with a pale palette. Cockeyed perspective tilts the columned façade up, into the picture plane, sending the church tower into a beige sky. Long strands of cream-colored paint are dripped across the entire surface of this painting, perhaps an homage to late-Constable’s flecked landscapes.
Other School of London artists include R.B. Kitaj (1932-2007), Frank Auerbach (b. 1931) and Michael Andrews (1928-1995). As Abstract Expressionism, Minimilism and Pop flourished in America, painters in Britain embraced representation, reinvigorating British landscape and portraiture traditions with a new physicality.
Kossoff and Auerbach, both pupils of David Bomberg (1890-1957), walk a thin line between painting and drawing. Kossoff, a life-long Londoner, has developed an approach that moves easily from charcoal to oil paint, saying “drawing is a springing to life in the presence of the friend in the studio or in the sunlit summer streets of London… painting is a deepening of this process.”
Leon Kossoff: London Landscapes is on view through December 21, 2013, Mitchell-Innes & Nash, 534 West 26th Street, New York, NY, (212) 744-7400, www.miandn.com
Leon Kossoff: London Landscapes, January 23 – March 1, 2014, L.A. Louver, 45 North Venice Boulevard, Venice, CA, (310) 822-4955, www.lalouver.com
More information about Xico Greenwald’s work can be found at xicogreenwald.com