ANTONY DONALDSON, A Painter's journey -

19 January 2024 - 17 February 2024

5 Rue du Mail fond de cour, 75002 Paris

Presentation

A Painter’s Journey
Marco Livingstone
 
On its emergence as an international movement in the early 1960s, Pop Art in its many forms had one thing in common: it was wholly immersed in its time and confident in its embrace of its boisterous teenage spirit. The original players who still survive, including the English artist Antony Donaldson, are now all at least in their early eighties and conscious of their mortality. In the most recent work included in this survey encompassing more than sixty years of production, Donaldson not only reconnects with themes and imagery from that classic early phase of his art but infuses it with a nostalgia for his own youthful passions: sex and sensuality, the allure of foreign travel, the excitements of motor racing and the air racing he has witnessed first-hand in Reno, Nevada. These reflections are filled not with melancholy but with the energy and delight of memories relived in the present, in the imagination, vibrant and alive. Couples are seen moving deliriously, whirling together around the dance floor as they return to the  jitterbugging and lindyhopping of their teenage years. The famed racing car driver Jim Clark, celebrated in Donaldson’s paintings six decades ago, remains helmeted in the cockpit of his streamlined vehicle, looking as he did in his prime and still a hero. 
 
The interplay between past and present, between reality and pure fantasy, reaches its peak in the sequence of fourteen paintings made in 2023, all in a square format, that recall half a dozen trips made by the artist and his wife to Japan between 1992 and 2005. Their crisply delineated imagery and strong, unmodulated colours – conceived in part as a homage to Kuniyoshi and the other great Japanese woodblock print artists of the 19th century – guide the viewer through a dreamlike voyage that takes in favourite moments from art history and architectural milestones: Frank Lloyd Wright’s spiralling Guggenheim Museum (completed in 1959), Rietveld’s Schröder House of 1924, the Sydney Opera House (completed in 1973), the Queen Mary ocean liner on which the artist and his wife once sailed across the Atlantic before it was taken out of service in 1967, the once ubiquitous yellow taxis that sped across Manhattan, and the Japanese high-speed Shinkansen (known colloquially as the Bullet Train), first introduced in 1964. 
 
All these motifs refer to memorable events in the artist’s life. More than any paintings he has made before, these constitute a form of visual autobiography memorialising highlights of his personal history both as an artist and in his private life. But as in dreams, time and space have become elastic and deliriously confused. The New York taxi has lost its way in a wintry Japanese landscape under snow, with deliberate echoes of Hokusai’s celebrated Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji series of woodcuts from the very early 1830s; however, the painting’s title, Baby it’s Cold Outside, brazenly lifted from the much-performed 1944 song by Frank Loesser, carries it back to its New York origins and to memories of happy times there. Another title familiar from popular music, Mustang Sally, references a song that was a big hit for Wilson Pickett in 1966, in which the sexy Ford Mustang sports car is used as a metaphor for the infidelity of the narrator’s girlfriend. But the Mustang Donaldson alludes to is the World War II fighter plane of the same name, painted a bright red and extensively modified to serve as a racing plane of the sort that had thrilled the artist as a young man.
 
Donaldson’s return to painting in 2005 after a quarter century during which he concentrated almost exclusively on sculpture still carries with it the elation of rediscovery, a renewed and long-lasting love affair with the medium that first defined him as an artist. While the spectre of mortality looms over the paintings he has made in recent years, there is nothing remotely gloomy about them, not even a sense of resignation about the inevitability of a final stop. On the contrary, these pictures are filled with optimism and an unapologetic joy even in the midst of these dark times. The hybrid Japanese/western encounters in particular suggest eternally sunlit uplands, punctuated by 20th-century signifiers yet serenely timeless. They are presented as safe havens, soothing dreamscapes in which the artist revisits favourite landmarks, drives the Cadillac Coupe de Ville cars regarded as the height of luxury when he first visited the USA in the 1960s, and gazes guilt-free at the voluptuous forms of the ‘eternal feminine nudes’ that will never lose their girlish allure. Against backdrops referencing 18th- and 19th-century Japanese woodblock prints by Hiroshige, Kuniyoshi and other masters, life floats by in a constant and untroubled present. One concludes that it is not just mortality that beckons, but the immortality that art itself can confer: and it is by appealing to our subconscious understanding of this process that the artist beckons us to share in his uplifting outlook.
 
There is a resolute flatness and decorative appeal to the interlocking of highly colourful shapes in Donaldson’s new paintings, some of which are made with recourse to the ‘jigsaw puzzle’ techniques on interlocking laser-cut shapes on board that have been one of his signature methods. He had first introduced this process into his art sixty years ago and he had returned to it in 2005-7 in the  ‘French’ paintings in tondo format, which rendered Ingres’s Bain Turc canvases in delightfully schematised form. Painted with dense, colour-saturated acrylic paints, they summon the presence of the early 20th-century French modernists, including Matisse, whose trailblazing works cannot fail to have made their mark on him in the decades during which the south of France has been his second home. There is a breezy and cheeky sense of connection with the esteemed precedents to which he makes reference, so familiar that he feels at ease sending them up affectionately. For instance Rodin’s burly male nude, The Thinker, the world-famous sculpture that exists in many different versions, is reimagined in 2023 as a svelte naked female, poised nonchalantly on a tall blue plinth in nothing but her high-heels; her facial features and long curls recall Chic Young’s much loved cartoon character Blondie, whose first appearance in 1930 was followed by many decades of syndication in American newspapers. Another painting of the same year, Mickey, depicts Walt Disney’s most famous invention, Mickey Mouse, his arms exuberantly outstretched, dancing across the canvas in triplicate in a kind of chorus line requiring a precision of synchronised movements, as if taking a curtain call. That Donaldson should turn to mass entertainments he would have first encountered as a toddler in the 1940s adds to the bittersweet atmosphere in which a tender return to childhood pastimes is tinged with an avowal that the artist’s life is entering its final phases. But if these Mickeys are stand-ins for the artist saying his farewells, they are going out resolutely on a high, still as light as ever on their feet. 
 
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Exhibition Catalogs

Antony Donaldson - A Painter's Journey, 2024