Noel Forster: Artist who believed that painting is the 'concretisation of light'


Noel Armstrong Forster, artist: born Seaton Delaval, Northumberland 15 June 1932; married 1962 Eileen Conlan (three sons); died London 7 December 2007.

In 1957, when he graduated from King's College, Newcastle, Noel Forster set off on a motorbike for the Netherlands with a fellow Northumbrian painter, Ian Stephenson. Ostensibly, this was to pursue his research into Rembrandt's drawings, for the PhD that Professor Lawrence Gowing had talked him into. His choice of travelling companion is revealing. They were both painters with a shared love of the culture of science. They were both inspired by the idea of the rational attempt to understand a system of infinite relationships between everything and everything else.

When Forster had returned to King's in 1955 after his National Service in Malaysia, he found a college transformed from the Euston Road-dominated school he had left in 1953 to a Bauhaus-inspired college with a basic course devised by Victor Pasmore, Richard Hamilton and the recently graduated Stephenson. The course enabled students to explore the elements of visual art a process that became fundamental to Forster. In 1962 he joined the celebrated "Ground Course" set up at Ealing by Roy Ascott (another Northumbrian student of Pasmore and Hamilton), where staff included Harold and Bernard Cohen, Adrian Berg and Ron Kitaj, and taught students such as Roger Ackling and Stephen Willats. He always referred to the tasks he set to students there as "experiments". These experiments often used light itself as the medium.

In the late 1950s Noel Forster had come to the clear conclusion that painting was the "concretisation of light". By 1964 he had also decided that his paintings would be constructed by networks of parallel lines drawn freehand. Although his original intention was to draw straight lines, he gradually curved them until they became arcs generated by the length of his arms. The sets of parallel arcs intersected because the canvas was rotated a number of degrees between each set of arcs.

The fundamental power of this method was that it unified the two basic elements of painting: line and colour, drawing and painting. It also brought together mind and body the intellectual analysis of light with a basic gesture of the body. Forster described his method as simple, rather like walking, an ordinary act possessing no special artistry or magic, "requiring more persistence than skill". Because he used both hands to paint left and right arcs the method has been described as "boustrophedon" or the "ox way", the term used to describe how Greek writing from the seventh century BC went alternatively left to right and right to left, line by line, as in ploughing.

This epithet has further resonance. Forster once described a recently completed work as "Rich umber, like a spadeful of damp earth deep dung" and referred to the broad arches of raw umber on a newly started painting: "that's earth, it will be covered with light and then growth, and then a tissue of lights". He picked out in white the parts where sets of colours overlapped. However, many recent paintings have so many criss-crossing sets of arcs that the eye cannot unravel their logic. The resulting paintings convey a complexity that reminds one of Czanne's engagement in his last years with the overwhelming multiplicity of the visual world.

Many of Forster's students report that as their tutor he would discuss anything other than the painting they were working on but they would come away from a tutorial inspired, full of energy and purpose.

He had scant regard for the contemporary fads of course documents, quality control diktats or the triangulations of course monitoring. As principal lecturer at Chelsea he might choose to stay at the Arts Club after lunch playing snooker, saying to the Head of Painting in his soft Northumbrian way "You don't need me this afternoon, do you?" or a simple "No" when asked to take some tutorials at Central, raising his newspaper to resume reading. His enormous value to students was his intelligence and quality as a painter.

He was a considerable musician as pianist, organist and singer. Wherever he lived he had to have, in close proximity, a baby grand, an organ, his bed and a wall to paint on. He played the recognised classical composers but he was also a close friend of John Tilbury, the major British pianist in contemporary avant-garde music. Forster performed in his friend Cornelius Cardew's The Great Learning and in recent concerts in honour of the 70th birthday of Christian Wolff.

Forster's life had a certain picaresque, improvised quality who can forget the field at the entrance to his house in France, full of dead tractors and cars, or the structure of the house itself, open-plan in three dimensions, holes cut in the ceilings to enable him to raise paintings to the next floor? He was always immensely positive. "Je suis toujours in the pink," he said, when extolling pink as a colour in painting. His mischievous personality, part Don Quixote, part Ahab, had a magical, life-changing, transformative effect on many more than his fellow artists.

His work addresses the major problems of painting; colour, line, edge, volume, space, painting as object, the relationship of painting to the support, painting as a non-locatable, non-material floating field, the relationship to the wall and the relationship to the world. He did not like the term "abstract" in painting, contending that all culture was abstract. His work took its inspiration from the world in all its complexity.

He holds an almost impersonal, iconic position in current painting as a nearly mythical unknown master, an Arachne, the anagogic painter, the master of the arcs.

Chris Yetton

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