EXHIBITIONS / A brush with the unexpected: A rare, new survey of more than 50 British abstract painters at Flowers East shows us what we're missing

I FEEL warmly towards the big show at Flowers East, 'British Abstract Art Part One: Painting' (there will be a parallel sculpture occasion next year). And I gather that the contributing artists have also been happy with the project. Sixty painters were invited; only four declined, and practically everyone in the exhibition has sent work of merit: not a token of what they do, but something new and heartfelt.

Other commercial galleries besides the Flowers operation have cooperated. So at London Fields, where a splendid new space has been opened, are many artists we normally see elsewhere, including Patrick Heron (Waddington), Gillian Ayres (Purdy Hicks, although she is leaving this summer), Clyde Hopkins (Francis Graham-Dixon), Therese Oulton (Marlborough), Albert Irvin (Gimpels), Alan Green (Annely Juda), Bridget Riley (Karsten Schubert) and so on. I think everyone has joined in because surveys of current abstract art are so rare, the last one of consequence being a Hayward Annual selected by John Hoyland a decade ago. Abstract painters have a harder time getting shown than people imagine. It's surprising to see how many excellent painters there are in this exhibition who are not represented by a gallery at all.

There's Sandra Blow, for instance, though of course she has a regular place at the Royal Academy. Her Brilliant Corner II is one of the paintings she showed there this spring, and anyone who missed that exhibition can now appreciate her informal layout and deft way with elements that might at first appear to contradict each other. This picture has a large area of sweetly brushed blue, then a jagged right angle in white, sheltering scraps of maroon, gold, yellow and turquoise. Their peaceful coexistence is a feat of pictorial understanding.

Scattered bits are also found in Jennifer Durrant's Shine Painting No 5 (Crossed) - why doesn't she get someone else to make up her titles? - but in this case the result is majestic. Recently I've preferred Durrant's smaller pictures to her larger works, but this big canvas must convince anyone that she can work on a large scale. Somebody ought to get Durrant (see also The Sunday Picture, page 58) to do a public mural, but how often do the people who commission such things visit exhibitions?

I think that contemporary abstract painters are better than their figurative counterparts when judging the size and scale of a picture. I'd like to say that they are also nicer people, but should stick to aesthetic comments. Abstractionists are better colourists, and manage something that representational artists can't conceive of: minimal painting. I mean pictures with simple formats that use internal squares or repetitions and are often monochrome. Not much mileage in such art, it could be said. But in practice, minimal painting turns out to be both varied and individual.

Chris Baker, Robyn Denny, Noel Forster, Alan Green, Malcolm Hughes, Edwina Leapman, Carol Robertson, Yuko Shiraishi, Trevor Sutton, Dillwyn Smith and others all contribute pictures of this pared-down and repetitious sort. Yet they are distinct, and their individuality is conveyed by the paintbrush. What an instrument this still is: surely the most primitive tool used by anyone who practises any contemporary art, and yet with boundless possibilities. In this minimal painting we see how delicacy of touch can speak of a whole personality - except perhaps in the case of Robyn Denny's Oh Quel Culture, whose drama is managed by a silky, almost machined finish.

By contrast to this group, there are abstractionists who use mauled pigment, broken colour and collage. For years, John Walker has lived in Australia and Africa. It's good to see him in Flowers East, because he hasn't shown a picture in Britain for five years, perhaps longer. His Study for Serenade is the most compelling painting in the exhibition, but I'm not sure that I understand what Walker is doing. Presumably it's a preparation for a larger and grander work, though Walker normally prefers to confront his big paintings straight on. Thematically, the present painting relates to such works as Mud Dance, shown in New York last year, which were clearly inspired by Australian aboriginal rituals.

Walker is one of those rare artists who can't put brush to canvas without augmenting the seriousness of the occasion. Hence his tonal colour, heavy drawing and fondness for old- masterish glazes. Walker can be among the most amusing of companions. But he is incapable of a light-hearted or even a relaxed painting. I relate this to his feeling for the brush. It's innate, not cultivated, and this is one reason why Walker has a feeling unparalleled in today's art for ethnic and disappearing cultures. The palette of this strange, beautiful picture might be Spanish no less than antipodean, and in places the surface is too smooth - just those places that in a previous Walker picture would have been built up and fractured by collage.

In their different ways, a feeling for surface unites Sheila Girling, Therese Oulton and Rosa Lee. Girling is a collagist, and her painting has boulder-like forms that she floats at the top of the canvas, thus giving an aerial feeling to a picture that has been scratched and rubbed. As has happened before, the hang of the exhibition (which inaugurates a whole new gallery space in the London Fields building) puts the friends Oulton and Lee together. Oulton's characteristic all-blue painting contains myriad movements, small strokes and patches of about the same size that wander and heave in subtle rhythms. This is Oulton at her best. Rosa Lee's painting will repay long consideration. Flat and faded wallpaper motifs are contrasted with crisp and encrusted passages of oil. She appears to be meditating on the transience of decoration, but the spirit of the painting is quiet and happy.

Another first-rate painting comes from Basil Beattie, who continues in his grand and sombre form of the past few years. A pleasure of the show is to see the older painters doing so well. To my surprise, Victor Pasmore contributes a canvas that is not only amusing but also figurative. It's untitled, but might have something to do with Icarus.

I would not have recognised the Terry Frost as coming from that painter's brush, so unusual is its conception. These painted lines that go from top to bottom of the canvas, then back again, make a wonderful bit of virtuosity. What a steady hand he must possess. Patrick Heron's ebullient gardenscape makes one look forward to his forthcoming show at the Camden Arts Centre. Wilhelmina Barns-Graham, now in her eighties, paints with the conviction of a person many decades younger.

What does it add up to? What unites all these artists, together with the meditative Michael Ginsborg, the increasingly ambitious John Loker, Trevor Jones, Richard Smith, John Hoyland and others? Bryan Robertson's catalogue essay doesn't give an answer, but he writes eloquently to say that such painters have often been underrated, if not ignored altogether. I agree, and think that the exhibition could have been even bigger. Flowers East has spread a wide net, but there are many more abstract painters who could have been on these walls. But I'm not complaining about this exhibition, because the whole enterprise is one of generosity and camaraderie.

Flowers East, E8 (081-985 3333), to 11 Sept.

(Photographs omitted)

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Arts and Entertainment
Place Blanche, Paris, 1961, shot by Christer Strömholm
photographyHow the famous camera transformed photography for ever
Arts and Entertainment
The ‘Westmacott Athlete’
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond in the Top Gear Patagonia Special

Arts and Entertainment
Game of Thrones will run for ten years if HBO gets its way but showrunners have mentioned ending it after seven

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
Mans Zelmerlow will perform 'Heroes' for Sweden at the Eurovision Song Contest 2015

Arts and Entertainment
Elizabeth (Heida Reed) and Ross Poldark (Aiden Turner) in the BBC's remake of their 1975 original Poldark

Poldark review
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    No postcode? No vote

    Floating voters

    How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

    By Reason of Insanity

    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
    Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

    Power dressing is back

    But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
    Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

    Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

    Caves were re-opened to the public
    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

    Vince Cable interview

    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
    Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

    Promises, promises

    But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
    The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

    The death of a Gaza fisherman

    He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
    Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
    Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

    The only direction Zayn could go

    We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
    Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

    Spells like teen spirit

    A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
    Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
    Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

    Licence to offend in the land of the free

    Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
    From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

    From farm to fork in Cornwall

    One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
    Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

    Robert Parker interview

    The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor