Alan Reynolds: Painter whose neo-romantic landscapes gave way later in his career to increasingly austere constructivist pieces

 

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The Independent Online

Seldom can the early and the later phases of a major artist's work contrast more starkly than in the case Alan Reynolds.

The Suffolk-born painter established his name in the 1950s, when his neo-romantic rustic landscapes met with critical and commercial success at the Redfern Gallery in London, where he enjoyed no fewer than ten solo shows between 1952 and 1954. From the 1980s onwards, however, he exhibited increasingly austere constructivist reliefs and drawings with Annely Juda Fine Art.

He was born in 1926, the son of a jockey from Newmarket. Leaving school at 14 and taking labouring jobs, he came of age in the Second World War, serving in an infantry regiment. The army was the unlikely setting for an auspicious artistic induction: at 19 he was an army instructor in Hanover. The later embrace of "purist" abstraction that would prove congenial to a responsive German market owed something to the formative months in Hanover in 1946.

Before the war Hanover had been an active avant-garde centre. A group of abstract artists flourished and Schwitters, Arp, Van Doesburg and Moholy Kagy had regularly exhibited there. Although Nazi repression called a halt to this, the postwar exhibitions of the work of these leading artists at the State Museum of Lower Saxony proved a seminal influence.

When he returned to England in 1948 Reynolds entered Woolwich Polytechnic School of Art on an ex-serviceman's grant then went the Royal College of Art in 1952. Under Robin Darwin's guidance the College was seeing a dramatic transformation, allowing experimental instincts to emerge and prosper. But despite this Reynolds' year on Exhibition Road was problematic; the enviable achievement of a maiden solo show at a prominent London gallery and a first acquisition by the Tate led to staff-room hostility, some tutors feeling their precocious student had somewhat jumped the gun.

He left after a year but fell on his feet when William Johnstone, Principal of the Central School in Holborn, offered him his first post, teaching drawing in the textile department. The start of a distinguished teaching career was followed by successes on the exhibition front; as well as Redfern shows he had two solos at Durlachers Gallery in New York in 1954 and 1958, helping him establish an appropriately international profile at an early stage of his career.

Reynolds's romantic landscapes of the 1950s perhaps owed more to Samuel Palmer's Kent than to the flat Constable country of his native Suffolk. The thorns, thistles and spiky botany of the foregrounds carried a faintly menacing air generic to much 1950s art, particularly sculpture. The elements of landscape, while turned into poetic or whimsical symbols in the manner of Paul Klee, were presented within schematic or architectural compositions. The formalisation of landscape into broad horizontal bands with vertical markers derived from telegraph poles, trees, buildings or hop poles, pointed towards his mature non-objective language of lines, planes, spaces and intervals.

Reynolds' development from early neo-romanticism to constructivism was, in contrast to Victor Pasmore's sudden conversion to abstraction in 1949, a gradual affair. The work of the 1960s and '70s was transitional; the flat landscape, straight horizons and large skies of his native East Anglia probably exerted the same hold that Dutch landscape had done on Mondrian's plastic imagination.

Not dissimilar to Mondrian's transitional "Pier and Ocean" series, Reynolds' painted compositions of the 1960s posited horizontal and vertical lines within oval formats. The dynamic symmetry of these canvasses satisfied sensual and intellectual requirements. Though restricted to black, white, ochres or beige the colour was relayed with thick paste-like texture. The hidden proportional system that gave those restful compositions their composure later emerged in terms of a more overtly architectonic arrangement of standardised shallow relief squares, rectangles or circles.

The introduction of collaged geometric elements represented a natured extension into the third dimension. Like Mondrian, however, Reynolds did not develop his reliefs into free-standing sculpture, though "Modular Construction" (1980) – standing like an architectural model in wood painted white – proved a rehearsal for a series, "Structures", which used a limited repertoire of flat white planes of card or board.

During the 1980s Reynolds produced subtly shaded drawings on paper using the lead of a pencil to create chequered square patterns of tonally shifting graphite, elicitingintriguing contrasts. The static plasticity and minimalism of his work made it stand outside the popular and eye-catching, but ultimately ephemeral, "op" and kinetic currents of '60s abstract art.

Reynolds' thoroughgoing interest in structure and in harmonious relationships between parts and the whole gave his art a classicism of spirit. He pursued a purist path, riding out the public indifference in Britain to the later hermetic abstract phase by winning many patrons and clients in Germany. The transcendence of indigenous romanticism in fact gained Reynolds an international reputation, his work represented not only in numerous British museums such as the Tate but also in major museums in the US, Australia, Germany and many other countries.

Retrospectives at the Wilhelm-Hack-Museum on Ludwigshafen am Rhein in 1996 and at Kettle's Yard, Cambridge in 2003 presented all phases of his work to receptive audiences. After 1978 he was represented by Annely Juda, the leading gallery in constructivist art. A highly successful 80th birthday exhibition there in April 2006, "Circling the Square", vindicated Reynolds' perseverance with purist abstraction, the white reliefs, accompanied by shaded drawings and small woodcuts, selling readily. Michael Harrison wrote at the time of Reynolds' "moral obligation to make things simple," the theme of rotating squares divided into rhythmic sequence eliciting variety and movement.

Reynolds latterly, became a senior lecturer at St Martins School of Art in London, and lived with his wife Vona in an old cottage in the historical village of Cranbrook in Kent. More in tune with the rustic romanticism of his early work, this property belied the modernity of his project as an artist of pristine clarity and purposeful vision.

PETER DAVIES

Alan Munro Reynolds, artist: born 27 April 1926; married 1957 Vona Darby; died 28 August 2014.

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