Andrew Forge’s Work Takes Time to Reveal Full Scale of Beauty

The passing of a highly accomplished painter would be felt as a profound loss at any time-but in a period like ours, when the future of painting itself is so often seen to be in doubt, such a loss is bound to be especially painful. This is one reason why so many artists, art students and others with a keen interest in painting are mourning the passing of Andrew Forge, who died on Sept. 4 at the age of 78.

Another is that Andrew (as I shall speak of him here) was a rare example of a painter, teacher and writer on art who was not only admired but truly beloved by virtually everyone who came to know him. In an art world so often disfigured by contentious blather, runaway venality, herd mentality and sheer silliness, Andrew was a model of disinterested intelligence, integrity, generosity and tact. His career spanned some 50 years, first in his native England and then in the United States, and he achieved high distinction in each of the vocations to which he dedicated his remarkable talents: above all as a painter of extraordinary originality, but also as a critic renowned for the beauty and clarity of his prose and the authority of his judgment, and finally as a teacher and lecturer of exceptional eloquence.

In England in the late 40’s, he began painting in a conventional, figurative style under the influence of William Coldstream and the so-called Euston Road school, and had his first solo exhibition at Agnew’s in 1953. This was also the year in which he made his debut as a critic, first as a radio broadcaster, and then for such journals as The New Statesman and Studio International . What changed everything for Andrew, however, was the impact of the New York School and its Abstract Expressionist painting, which began to be felt in London in the late 50’s. By 1963, when he had his last show of figurative painting in London-a show that won him both favorable reviews and solid sales-he felt ready for a fresh start in the United States. He flew to New York while his show was still selling in London.

It was another measure of Andrew’s intellectual independence that he didn’t choose to become a camp follower of the kind of abstraction that had prompted him to make a decisive break with his own past. He embarked instead on creating one of the most subtle and sensuous styles of abstract painting, a style that eschews everything associated with the robust gestures and outsize forms of Abstract Expressionism in favor of a painstaking pointillism in which small dots and other tiny touches of brilliant color transform the canvas surface into shimmering constellations of light and space.

As Andrew himself said of this new work on the occasion of an exhibition at the Yale Center for British Art in 1996: “Time is important with these paintings. They take a long time to make. I would like them to be looked at slowly enough to allow the viewer’s eye to accommodate to their structure; and at as many different distances as the gallery allows.” And it is certainly true that these paintings are sometimes slow to reveal the full scale of their poetry and complexity. When at last they do, however, the sheer beauty of the experience is profound.

Needless to say, painting of this persuasion doesn’t lend itself to popular appeal. (And it cannot be adequately reproduced in a newspaper.) Yet I believe it to be one of the most original contributions to abstract painting in our time, and I suspect that posterity will find more to admire in it than in many of the flashier, more crowd-pleasing developments that have enjoyed their 15 minutes in the limelight.

It was as a writer, lecturer and teacher that Andrew was better-known to the public. In England, he had been a senior lecturer at the Slade School of Art in the late 60’s, and in this country he began teaching at Cooper Union in the early 70’s. His long association with the New York Studio School began in the mid-70’s, and so did his association with Yale University, first as a professor of painting and then as dean of the Yale School of Art.

The key to his success as a teacher was, first of all, in the example he set for his students. Andrew spoke clearly and beautifully and often with passion about the paintings he loved, and he had no inclination to impose his will. What he looked for in his students was not only talent but dedication, and his sympathy with his students’ endeavors was never in doubt. I heard him speak most often at the New York Studio School, and almost as moving as Andrew’s way of talking about painting was the evident affection that the students felt for their teacher. He was certainly one of the people who made the New York Studio School an oasis of sanity and standards at a time when the New York art scene was elsewhere swarming with every manner of frivolity and bad faith.

I understand that Andrew had been preparing a volume of his essays on art before he died; that’s a book that will be keenly awaited. But what’s also needed is a comprehensive retrospective of his paintings-in a New York museum. He was a marvelous painter, and it’s time to give the New York art public an opportunity to experience the scale of his achievement at firsthand. Why should we have to wait for some London institution to do that for us?