New York CityMarlborough Gallery
Maggi Hambling: Real Time
March 10 – April 30
Maggi Hambling, age 76, has her first solo show in New York. This dumbfounding development for one of England’s most important artists can be chalked up to the usual reasons: a suspiciousness of, until recently, figurative art and especially portraiture; a bias against female artists; and a bias against British post-war artists not named Bacon, Freud, or Hockney. The decisive blend of abstraction and naturalism that is her métier runs through her paintings, sculptures, and works of public art. The present exhibition, after 9 shows with Marlborough in London since 1998, consists of 29 oil paintings in 3 series made over the past decade. They are installed on two floors of the Chelsea Arts Building space which, with the closure of the gallery’s longtime home on West 57th Street, is now its flagship New York location (with an additional smaller third floor gallery). New York has been the poorer for her absence, and as we wait urgently for the necessary career retrospective, we can at least see her most recent productions, in which she has taken on the elemental in nature (water, air, mountains, fauna), and produced works confrontational in their intense surfaces and feelings of personal and planetary melancholy.
In the “Wall of Water” series, each nearly square at 78 × 89 inches, Hambling brings considerable painterly power to pictures of great gushes of water, purportedly inspired by durational observation of the sea smashing against a concrete wall in Southwold, East Suffolk, a 25-minute drive from her studio in Rendham. Five works in this series are on view in the spacious room in the back of the first floor, some benefiting from natural top lighting. Hambling employs the white-ground canvas that she often used in her early portraiture and depicts the water as building up from below. Each has a kind of subtle, low horizon, maybe 6 inches off the bottom and demarcated by scrapes of paint. In some works, such as Wall of water VI and Wall of water II (both 2011), this lower strip reads as both repository for the drips that fill the bottom third of all the canvases and reflections of the bulk of water above. American audiences might see in those two works a kind of combination of Frederic Edwin Church’s grand images of icebergs with the Chicago painter Ivan Albright’s chaotic and coloristic impasto and Pat Steir’s focus on rising and falling abstract sheets of color. The most gripping of the works, Wall of water IX (2012), rages with an explosive fury. Here, a Krakatoa of an aqueous plume erupts from the lower center right, billowing straight up into curling towers, and arcing out, up, and across the left side of the composition. The two main, dark gushes part into a “v” shape just right of center, where a spectral image seems to form, part mask from the Scream film series and part ectoplasmic body like the soul of Count Orgaz being shepherded towards heavenly judgment in El Greco’s grand painting of that long-dead Spaniard in Toledo (1586). The overall color scheme in these works is monochromatic with, as in de Kooning’s early works such as Asheville (1948) or Excavation (1950), flicks of browns and turquoise and magenta and, in IX, glimpses of a daring cobalt blue. At the same time, it feels radical to see Hambling selectively use white as a topcoat, troweling long loops of creamy and thick and snowy paint across heavily worked color glazes. In the churning, frenetic, and more immersive Wall of water V (2011), the scraping of the white across the surface is so broken up, the bits of paint so finely dispersed across the rising and crashing frieze of water, that it resembles John Constable’s attempts, in his masterful late landscapes, to add sparkling highlights of pure white across trees and brush and river surfaces. That Romantic painter, who grew up and worked not far from Hambling, called this “the chiaroscuro of nature.” But it was derisively termed “Constable’s snow” by unforgiving critics in the 1820s. Hambling uses white to both unify the surface of such works and aggressively give a sense of the yeasty foam of frothed ocean water, something the 19th century critic John Ruskin wrote extensively about in terms of Turner’s work. The results are exceptional.
The idea of turning away from the marine vistas in her dramatic series of North Sea pictures starting in around 2002, and back towards the limited purview of a surf continually battering against a wall removes us from Romanticism’s interest in the sublime, the unknowable, the vastness of the world and our puny relationship to it. Instead, these pictures, in their emphasis on the frontal picture plane, in their chaotic scrum of fluid rendered material and scrims of alternately diaphanous and murky liquid, put us in a different kind of place from all those Germanic Rückenfigurs, Géricault castaways, and Turner sailors on listing shipboards. Instead, human creation is under assault, subject to nature’s continuous attempts to batter this stretched out and panoramic view of a concrete dike that remains invisible in the pictures. Nature has all the time in the world. Humanity, and its insufficient attempts to put off disasters of its own making, does not. Appropriately, the series was also conceived in the wake of a friend’s death, giving the pictures a further evocative and desperate impetus.
Hambling’s combination of the personal and the perceptual is also on display in 15 pictures from her “Edge” series, visible in the front of the first floor and in a small rear gallery. Here, links to Asian art abound as detailed in informative catalogue essays by Sarah Wilson and James Cahill. For his part, Ruskin wrote not just of Turner’s sea pictures but also whole volumes on mountain glory, and Hambling’s slender, vertically oriented pictures, shown singly or as joined diptychs, impress through their communication of earth bursting close to sky in the forms of rising peaks. Like Monet’s Nympheas, the best of these energetically painted pictures, such as Edge XXVII (2021), operate in distance, depth, perspective, closeness, and the void simultaneously. Three Edge images include lightly outlined forms of ghostly bears, and upstairs the animal theme continues in an even more melancholy vein in a series of works similarly oriented in a stretched portrait form of loosely painted single lions, rhinos, and elephants prone and in states of distress, more warnings of an ecosystem in peril. But the large sections of primed white canvas, along with the thin white frames and white walls dulls their impact. In the end, it is the “Wall of water” series that crackles with the greatest energy and shows the artist at the peak of her powers. New York, and the world, needs to see more of this student of Cedric Morris and Arthur Lett-Haines, this first teacher of Cecily Brown, this protean and incisive artist, Maggi Hambling.