My researches into Clough have very luckily coincided with the current exhibition at the Jerwood Gallery, Hastings. This exhibition is a survey of her work throughout her life and, always so interesting, includes many sketchbooks. Many of the works are on loan from Annely Juda Fine Art, who represented her, and many of the included works can be seen on their website.
Her early works from 1950s are industrial scenes, and she had a fascination with workmen, lorries and ladders. She flattened out forms and piled them up, condensing them in the landscape. She said, ‘I was trying to update the classical Western concern with the figure without benefit of religious or mythological context’ (Jerwood exhibition commentary). This earlier work had cubist influences and she was compared to Braque by the French critic Pierre Rouve in 1953 (Jerwood exhibition commentary).
The sketches of workmen and fishing huts, drawn in Southwold, echoed the foreshore in front on the Jerwood. Of course, it was no coincidence that the sketchbook was opened at that page.
In the late 1950s, American art began to be seen in London and in 1959 the Tate exhibited ‘The New American Painting’. featuring abstract expressionist works and Clough said, ‘everything changed’ (Spalding, 2012). She moved into what is often described as a more abstract style, certainly more pared down, but she said said,’ I never painted an abstract painting in my life’, (Spalding, 2012). This transition may not be as surprising at it seems at first, ‘The landscape which preoccupies me happens to be in its nature fairly geometric, like…..the crossed bars of a gate or the circular shape of an oil drum seen head on’ (Jolivette, 2014). She did, in fact, later paint a series ‘Gate‘ paintings.
Her paintings are of the details of everyday life; a fence, a patch of pealing paint, a jumble of wire. She draws our attention to an object that our eye would have skidded over. She often took and worked from reference photographs (Gooding, Art, and Clough, 2009).
In one of the works in the Annely Juda collection, she has taken a found Parazone bottle (she was great beachcomber) which she has mounted on a textured board of the same colour. This seems to me a quintessential Clough. She is showing us how beautiful the shape and colour of this ordinary, unregarded object is. ‘Her paintings are machines for seeing with’ said her friend, Partrick Heron (Jerwood exhibition commentary).
In the 1970s, she was influenced by Donald Judd’s repeated shapes and crisp formality (Spalding, 2012) and her work became increasingly minimal and often much larger, with spare restrained marks and muted colours. An example is ‘Side Elevation, 1972‘. She experimented with ways of developing the texture in her backgrounds using an increasing range of materials and methods such as printing. In this Woodcut from 1981, she explores the textural possibilities of a simple print in white ink on black paper. Her approach was always experimental and her work never stood still. She used collage, applied materials (tissue paper, metal, sand, thread), stencils, stamps and scouring pads.
In the 1980s, she had an operation to correct cataracts. ‘I can see blue again’, she said and her paintings become colourful, in sharp contrast to the muted earth colours of her earlier works. One wonders how much the cataracts affected her work in the preceding years. My mother in law has just had the same operation and comments on how ‘everything now looks so much cleaner as well as less fuzzy’. She seemed to find a new joy in colour, as demonstrated in this painting of 1989, ‘Chinese Chequers’.
She continued to experiment and develop all her life and her later works were as vibrant and unusual as ever. In 1999, the year of her death, she won the prestigious Jerwood painting prize. a belated acknowledgement of the respect which she commanded in the art world. She remaining a modest artist with a disregard for the commercial world of art (once, famously, having a clear out of her painting via a garage sale with posters around the local streets). She was, above all, independent and original, always different, always unexpected, out of far left.
This final quote from the exhibition is telling; ‘Art makes art – it doesn’t just come from what you see, you know. You just have to keep on doing it’.
Gooding, M., Art, A.J.F. and Clough, P. (2009) Prunella Clough: 50 years of making art: 28 January-21 march 2009. United Kingdom: Annely Juda Fine Art