“I always enjoyed the pomposity of academic sculpture, the grandiosity and rhetoric. The edifying or inspirational nature of the art has always led me to treat it with the greatest of disrespect.” Ivor Abrahams
The sculpture, ceramics, prints and drawings of Ivor Abrahams occupy a very particular place in British twentieth-century art. No artist has attempted to do what he has so successfully done – to create an entirely new king of polychrome sculpture which operates effectively between painting and sculpture.
But his achievement did not stop there. In a career spanning more than 50 years, the sheer inventiveness of his work and use of unconventional materials continued to astonish. In the 1970s his ironic exploration of the suburban dream, as expressed in the primness of the English home, it’s immaculate lawns and borders, trophy window boxes and characteristic house gables, was followed by the exuberance of his gymnasts and swimmers in bronze (notably in his Ocean Gate series). Abrahams’ print output included his garden series and the acclaimed suites celebrating Edmund Burke and Edgar Allan Poe and showcased in a Royal Academy exhibition in 2010.
Ivor Abrahams: Ocean Gate 1998
Throughout his career Ivor Abrahams has shown internationally in seminal group shows such as the ICA in 1961 and ‘The Art of the Garden’ in Tate Britain, 2004. Major group shows have taken place across Europe and the US as well as major retrospectives in London with his dealers The Mayor Gallery and Bernard Jacobson Gallery.
It was in 1975 that Abrahams met James Mayor who invited him to show the following year with the Mayor Gallery, then in South Molton Street; thus beginning a fruitful association between artist and gallery with Abrahams’ last solo exhibition taking place within the gallery as recently as 2013. Following Abrahams’ death in January, 2015 the Mayor Gallery has been working towards a major retrospective show of the artist’s work that will take place in January, 2016. Not only was Abrahams represented by the Mayor Gallery but he also had forged a strong relationship with Bernard Jacobson, who he first met in 1956. Their professional alliance was cemented when, in 1970 Jacobson published Abraham’s second sequence of prints entitledGarden Suite which was a huge success. Between them, these two galleries have helped to build and maintain Abrahams’ reputation in this country and abroad.
In some ways Abrahams was a classical artist (he once stated boldly: ‘in my work there is no self expression – no anthropomorphism’), and in others he was the epitome of the romantic, drawn ineffably to the sublime, But at the last moment he was always saved by his sense of the ridiculous, and the originality of his spirit triumphs over generalizations.
Abrahams was an outsider, a maverick. His work is independent and compelling, very distinct from what his sculptor contemporaries were doing over the half-century of this working life. Abrahams’ imagery – and his handling of it, especially in his innovative use of materials – is very much of his time, but he was able also to give the work an objective distance, in order to comment upon its ostensible subject. Thus one strand of his recent work would appear to have concentrated upon owls as a new theme. The artist as ornithologist? Then there’s the use of pattern to seduce the eye and disrupt preconceptions. This is evident in the earlier work, and becomes ever wilder in Abraham’s more recent ventures , as he revels in post-cubist fracturing. A tiled floor abuts a slice of wrought iron, book-ended by a wedge of drainpipe, a classical pilaster or a conch shell. A swag of net curtain might bisect a tray of sweetmeats, the sky take the place of architecture, which paving alternates with seascape.
Ivor Abrahams A Parliament of Owls 2007
These are visions of existence which need interpretation. In fact, Abrahams’ preoccupations remained the same as ever: to investigate urban/suburban imagery, and the reality behind the contemporary dream. That impulse had not changed since his earliest sculptures, and was the basis of all his garden period: to examine the myths of modern living through the making of polychrome sculptures and prints.
The garden imagery is perhaps what Abrahams is best remembered for but not because of the actual representation of the garden itself, instead it is more about the idea of the garden as the embodiment of the English vision. Indeed, the critic Edward Lucie-Smith identified a key impulse in Abrahams’ work: the impetus of the artificial within the apparently natural.
‘The garden image is not “my” image. It is a collective image – a manifestation of a consensual desire – a public aesthetic given concrete form’. Ivor Abrahams
Ivor Abrahams Garden Suite 1970
Throughout his career he has explored different ways of treating sculpture as if it were painting, or of uniting painting and sculpture in imaginative new combinations. He used the new materials of plastics and flocking (at some considerable risk to his health) to bring colour to his garden sculptures, and later, when he had returned to the figure, painted the resulting ceramic figure groups, or patinated or painted his bronzes. More recently he had used collage and photographic printing to bring colour and texure to the work. In him, the resolutely two-dimensional identify of painting and the three-dimensional presence of sculpture, merge. He had created a new type of sculpture, a variant on the relief, which by preference operates betweenpainting and sculpture – in a territory all of its own, which might be called 2½ dimensions.
In 1972, Bernard Jacobson arranged an exhibition called Fourteen Big Prints at his Clifford Street Gallery, accompanied by a substantial catalogue. Here, Abrahams’ works were exhibited alongside Peter Blake, Patrick Caulfield, John Joyland, Eduardo Paolozzi and John Walker – an intriguing mixture of Pop art and abstraction.
‘The elements of which Abrahams’ works are composed are so Pop in that they are sculptural realiztions of things in an easily imaginable Valifornia back yard as seen by Hockney , but their actual combination is quite different, something at once more intimate and more threatening’. Jospeh Masheck, Arts Magazine, New York, 1971
Abrahams’ post-Cubist architectural structures of the 1990s – epitomized by the magnificent Head of the Stairs – with their echoes of Expressionist cinema are among the most inventive products of recent years. More recently still, a series of owls and cockerels culminating in his Parliament of Owls and using various media including enamel on steel, flirted dangerously with the kitsch without quite succumbing. It is the wicked wit and edginess, that tight-rope riskiness, which continued to distinguish Abrahams’ approach from his contemporaries.
Like all true artists, Abrahams had the gift of transformation. He also knew that to leave legible the identity of his borrowed imagery would bring an added dimension, a frisson of recognition and amusement to his knowing audience.
Text taken from Eden and Other Stories, The Life and Works of Ivor Abrahams by Andrew Lambirth. ISBN 978-1-906593-81-0. Copies of this book will be available to purchase at UpDown Gallery for £30.