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)

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