If you like the idea of abstract painting on a giant scale, it would be very instructive to make the trip from Tate Modern to the new Kings Place centre just north of King's Cross station. In these two venues, you would see two very different kinds of worlds, informed by quite opposing views of what the role of painting is in the world.
One, in the Tate, is American, and it is tied up with everything we know about New York Abstract Expressionism of the 1950s, the movement that caused Paris to cede to New York the title of modern art capital of the world. Rothko's giant canvases, symmetrically lined up like giant, brooding icons, link up with the works of Jackson Pollock, Ad Reinhardt and Robert Motherwell. They have a terrible inner intensity. They are all about inwardness and its desolations. Pollock leant over and poured out his expressions of desperate psychic release directly on to his floor-laid canvases; Rothko expressed his inner agonising by mounting tall ladders and creating ingots of colour, which are warm, but more often low-toned. Rothko's stark paintings feel as if they might burn your finger ends.
The Abstract Expressionists in general, and Rothko in particular, feel like religion secularised, or art as the substitute for religion – and is that not what we have always felt about the Rothko Room at the Tate? That it is a chapel made to do honour to some absent god?
Now walk up York Way towards Kings Place, and descend on the long escalator to Albert Irvin's show of work. It is all over the place, some in the giant lobby, others in the King's Place Gallery itself, and yet others – a selection of prints – in the floor directly down from this one.
The feel could not be more different. Everything about it is brightly lit, and as if waiting to suck us into some party-going atmosphere. Irvin's work feels not only as if it is out in the world, but as if it came from the world of non-stop bustle and strife in the first place.
The titles of individual pieces help to remind you that Irvin has been looking at places, people and things – Copenhagen, Borough, Charlotte. Rothko deals in glowing panels; Irvin's abstract shapes cartwheel all over the place. They jazz around. They seem to be on their feet all the time, jigging about. They collide or suddenly veer away from each other like dodgem cars. In short, they always seem to be in a teeming hurry. There is geometry here – circles, grids and so on – but it is not the rather severe geometry of Constructivism. It's not the geometry of the schoolroom, but the geometry of the five-barred gate and the Catherine wheel. It's applied geometry, which plays with the shapes of the world. The colours are out of some teenager's box of face make-up – airy, lightsome, do-look-at-me-please – tremendously noisy pinks and yellows.
The application looks reckless – huge splashy swathes of pink that stop just short of chaos. They cohere – but only just. You think for a moment of other British abstract painters – Ben Nicolson, for example – and you recognise how tight and prim and small and rather cerebrally constipated Nicolson feels beside all this no-holds barred shrieking of colour and form. It feels as if Irvin is trying to outshine the sun – or as if he has had the sun for breakfast. Irvin is a Londoner. He works in London. He seems to be soaking up everything that he sees, and feeling hugely cheerful about the noisy mess of it all. There are no low-toned duns, browns or blacks here, no breast-beating or brow-beating, no helpless stares into the void, no cries for help in the dark. It's all full-on, like a clash of cymbals in your ear.
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