In the 1970s, John Seery was at the forefront of a younger generation of painters associated with so-called Lyrical Abstraction. After the challenge of Minimalism and Conceptual art in the 1960s these artists were seen as reviving and reinvigorating a painterly 'tradition' in American art. In an article entitled 'The New Informalists' in 1970, the critic Carter Ratcliff argued that Seery, like a number of his contemporaries, had rejected the narrow trajectory of Greenbergian formalism to reinstate line and colour as material, as paint. This, Ratcliff felt, placed them 'after the "classic" color painters', such as Morris Louis or Jules Olitski, yet reinforced the connection with Abstract Expressionism of the 1940s and 1950s, Jackson Pollock in particular.
In an 'artist's statement' of 1975, Seery explained his approach:
Sometimes when I begin a painting I have an image of a color that I want to explore. I can be seduced by color. In fact, it is usually this seduction by a specific color that initiates the painting. Once I choose a color, I have to validate my choice. I do this by making the color rationalize itself on the canvas; as soon as that first color touches the canvas the rationalization begins. The initial color seeks to harmonize with the rest of the canvas (to me). It suggests options ─ flicking through a mental card catalogue of colors and when the right one comes I can feel it and apply it. Its purpose is to jolt the initial color into life. Other colors enrich and solve. Each new color must have its own identity and yet harmonize with each other. Each painting has its own logic and this logic is expressed through harmony.
East (1973), with its dramatic sea of yellow suggestive of the daybreak, encapsulates the vitality and dynamism of Seery's approach and technique of the mid-1970s. After stapling the 'unfinished' painting to his New York studio wall the artist wrote his name in capital letters, "S-E-E-R-Y", across the canvas 'in an act of frustration' before realising what he had accomplished in the work. The partially obliterated letters remain as traces of the creative process. It is, however, the black shaft, or 'pole', in the middle of the painting that acts as an axis around which the rest of the elements revolve, which gives East a particular resonance for the National Gallery of Australia.
East was exhibited in the artist's third solo show at the André Emmerich Gallery in 1974. Peter Schjeldahl, writing for Art in America, claimed that Seery's exhibition at Emmerich 'confirmed his pre-eminence' as 'probably the strongest and most exciting abstract painter of the moment'. As the critic observed:
Dominating Seery's recent show was East, a ravishing painting 19 feet long and nearly 10 feet high. Its major hue is a blazing golden yellow, with broad swaths of red and green at its bottom and right edges and incidents of white, blue, purple and other colors elsewhere. A thin black diagonal is imbedded in its center ─ a device recalling Pollock's Blue Poles and effective here in a similar way. The singing, intensely rhythmic expanse of East can only be experienced; it can no more be described than it can really be seen, from whatever distance one views it. Its impact is operatic.
In the formation of the National Gallery's collection an aim was 'to find key works representing major figures and styles which show the artist or movement at a moment of innovation, change or summation.' East, a quintessential example or 'summation' work of so-called Lyrical Abstraction, was acquired in 1974, less than a year after the National Gallery's spectacular purchase of Jackson Pollock's Blue Poles 1952. The 'pole' utilised by Seery in East, as Schjeldahl observed, provided references to Pollock's Blue Poles, whereby the art historical debt of Lyrical Abstraction to Abstract Expressionism was captured in a dialogue in paint.
- Carter Ratcliff, 'The New Informalists', ARTnews, vol.68 no.10, February 1970, pp.46-50
- John Seery 'Artist's statement' in Image, Color and Form: Recent Paintings by Eleven Americans, Toledo: The Toledo Museum of Art, 1975, p 24
- John Seery, correspondence with the author, NGA file 73/4888
- Peter Schjeldahl, 'John Seery at Emmerich', Art in America, vol.62 no.2, March - April 1974, p.108
- ibid, p.108
- Patrick McCaughey, 'The Modern Period', in Australian National Gallery: An Introduction, Canberra: Australian National Gallery, 1982, p.47
Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2010