All Too Human: Leon Kossof / by Laurence Fuller

Leon Kossoff is the next artist essay by Peter Fuller in the All Too Human series, in co-ordination with the exhibition at TATE Britain.


by Peter Fuller

‘Although I have drawn and painted from landscapes and people constantly I have never finished a picture without first experiencing a huge emptying of all factual and topographical knowledge,’ writes Leon Kossoff. ‘And always, the moment before finishing, the painting disappears, sometimes into greyness for ever, or sometimes into a huge heap on the floor to be reclaimed, redrawn and committed to an image which makes itself.’


After the reclamation process is complete, a residue of ‘factual and topographical knowledge’ remains and it is crucial. I live in Graham Road, E.8. (The houses, including ours, are festooned with posters declaring, ‘Graham Road Says No to Lorries!’ The juggernauts are as yet unmoved. While I write they judder along beneath my window at the authenticated rate of three a minute.) Just a couple of minutes walk from where I am sitting typing is Dalston Junction: between 1972 and 1975 Kossoff had a studio here. He used to paint Dalston Junction Station, the tracks of the North London Line, the salmon curer’s yard in Ridley Road market, Dalston Lane, and the roofs of Hackney. These things happen to be part and parcel of my everyday reality. When I look at Kossoff’s Dalston paintings, I do not have to be told that whatever else they may or may not be they are also certainly vivid representations of this particular patch of London’s surface: some of their roots run deeply into a specific bit of the external world. The ‘emptying’ is thus perhaps not as ‘huge’ as Kossoff himself seems to feel.

Kossoff has always been attached to particular places and particular persons: he has spent long periods working from sites in the City, Bethnal Green, Willesden Junction and York Way, as well as Dalston. He did many, many paintings of a particular children’s swimming-pool, and more of the demolition of the old YMCA building. Characteristically, his work in this show centres around three subject matters: Kilburn underground station; nude studies of two women; and his father, who has sat for him now, as he puts it, ‘ever since I can remember’.


But the objectivity, the givenness of Kossoff’s subject matters, though undeniable, is only one side of the story. In a very short written note for the catalogue of a 1973 exhibition, Kossoff wrote that he was ‘born in a now demolished building in City Road not far from St Paul’s’. He added, ‘the strange ever changing light, the endless streets and the shuddering feel of the sprawling city lingers in my mind like a faintly glimmering memory of a long forgotten, perhaps never experienced childhood, which, if rediscovered and illumi­nated, would ameliorate the pain of the present’. He is an artist who is attempting to excavate his origins, not, like the Abstract Expressionists, by trying to plummet his un­conscious so much as by scratching at the surviving concrete relics of his history. He works, intently, from the fabric of the city within a few miles of the place where he was born; he gazes,- endlessly, at the bodies of the same women, as if searching for his origins, and over and over again, almost daily, he looks into and draws his father’s face. Even the most ‘topographical’ of his paintings form part of this search. This, surely, is the implicit ‘symbolism’ of those numerous paintings he did about the demolition of the young men’s hostel in central London. Like his own birth-place in City Road, it was about to be obliterated for ever. He went there in the hope of finding traces of that ‘long forgotten, perhaps never experienced childhood’; he looked with a desperate energy and exactitude, risked finding nothing at all except dust and greyness, but discovered instead that vivid images if not of the untraceable, utopian past, then at least of the painful actuality of the factual world in the present, emerged out of that ‘huge heap’ on the studio floor.

One of his most achieved paintings, in my view, is Outside Kilburn Underground (Indian Summer). The first thing that you notice about the painting is that it depicts a very ordinary, this-worldly scene of people hurrying about their day-to-day business in a street outside a London tube station. But, despite the muted greyishness of the hues, the ripe abundance of the paint insists itself upon you. In fact, in terms of sheer quantity, there is much less than in many of Kossoff’s earlier paintings; the paint was also thinned right down in consistency before it was applied. Despite that, it is still undeniably present as voluminous stuff rather than as just pigment or stain. It has manifestly oozed and flowed, and may still be doing so beneath the surface; it is still raw and smelly, and if not excremental, then vulnerably bodily and tangibly fleshly. If the term means anything (and one should not forget that Greenberg himself culled it from his misreading of Wolfflins Malerische) then this painting certainly constitutes an example of painterliness. Indeed, if one likes that language, one could also say that in all essentials this is an ‘all-over’ painting: it does not coalesce towards a focal point; all this paint flesh seems bound together and unified beneath a single, unruptured, containing skin.

But none of this could possibly give any encouragement to a formalist or ‘Late Modernist’ reading of this painting. These devices are quite manifestly not being used for their own sake, for art’s sake, nor are they inert assertions of the physicality of paint itself. Indeed, because he wishes to refer to his experience of the actual world, Kossoff has incorporated elements of traditional (one might almost say ‘academic’) pictorial practice: this leads to very strange conjunctures within this particular coagulation of paint; although Kossoff’s rigorous pictorial structuring even retains elements of modified perspective, they are linked with a liquidity of technique in which sheer accident plays a considerable part. Similarly, he yokes together arbitrary splattering (just look at the paint marks on the dress of the little girl) with the most acute, painstakingly accurate, observational drawing.


You can trace this contradiction throughout Kossoff’s working processes: he returns again and again to the same specific scenes and persons in the world as if in some obsessive search for traces of the particularity which he needs to embed within his paint substance. Every painting is worked, scraped off, and re-worked to this end. But all the weight of paint that is there in the final version of Outside Kilburn Underground was laid down in a few desperate, even frenzied hours of work. Certainly, Kossoff is engaged in a solipsistic, ‘painterly’, expressionistic search; but he redeems himself from suicidal engulfment within himself by his ‘inside-out’ mode of looking Leon Kossoff, Outside Kilburn Underground, for Rosalind, Indian Summer 1933, Courtesy of Fischer Fine Art.

for his own subjectivity through a stubbornly empiricist practice, rather than through introspection. You could say that his constantly frustrated longing to transform the harsh facticity of the external world into ‘a faintly glimmering memory of a long forgotten, perhaps never experienced childhood’ is rivalled only by his equally inevitably frustrated desire to turn his transient perceptions and fantasies into real and literally sensuous things (hence all the insistence upon concrete paint substance in his attempts to transcend mere imagery). His paintings come to life at the intersection of these two projects. It may be rather crude to say that Kossoff embodies, simultaneously, the most contradictory aspects of Jackson Pollock and William Coldstream: nonetheless, it contains an element of truth. But the point is that the conjuncture of these opposing approaches has hitherto allowed Kossoff to escape the respective failures of Pollock and Coldstream alike: he is neither subsumed and lost within his boundless self; nor is he saddled with an arid and ‘un- transcendable’ set of historically specific representational devices.


You can see that what Kossoff achieved was not just an idiosyncratic, overpersonalized solution by comparing his work with Frank Auerbach’s. One has to go back a long way into history (possibly to the days of Lely/Kneller) in order to find two major British painters working in such a similar way. Taken together, their two projects amount to a contained but very definite moment in British painting — one which can be situated historically. Both Auerbach and Kossoff were pupils of David Bomberg at the Borough Polytechnic. Bomberg’s teaching at this time (the early 1950s) stood in the mainstream of that peculiarly British empirical current which can be traced back to Constable, Hume, Locke, Bacon and beyond (and whose social origins have been so brilliantly analysed by Perry Anderson). In Bomberg’s view, painting had progressed up to 1920 when it ‘dried up and lost the way’. He considered that what he and his followers were doing through their approach to physical mass constituted a ‘footnote’ to an essentially defunct practice. Auerbach and Kossoff were formed within this tradition, but it was also intersected, through them, by the immediate experience of that history which led (almost everywhere in the developed world, except in England) to that short, explosive, and otherwise quickly dispersed efflorescence of expressionism in the late 1940s and early 1950s. (This included the European COBRA movement; New York ‘Abstract Expressionism’ between 1947 and 1953, and such little known phenomena as Chicago ‘Monster Roster’ painting of the same period.) Auerbach, one should remember, was born in Berlin in 1931, and did not come to Britain until 1938; conversely, immediately before Kossoff was trained by Bomberg, he served with the army in France, Belgium, Holland and Germany. The crisis of the European and American expressionist movements was that although they were an immediate and despairing response to the horror of world history, the artists involved lacked any valid conventions which allowed them to reach beyond themselves and to express that response other than as subjective rage. (There were, of course exceptions, including De Kooning and Hoffman in New York, and Leon Golub in Chicago.) But it was only in England that anyone could have thought of combining this ‘expressive’ energy with the old empiricist representational conventions. When the dust of demystifica­tion finally settles on the American episode, the true stature of what Auerbach and Kossoff were able to achieve may yet be recognized.


And yet an important point about the limitations of their way of working emerges when you begin to explore the differences between them, which are becoming clearer and clearer as the years go by. Kossoff’s painting in the 1970s is, I think, as significant as any that he has ever produced: he knows that if his own way of avoiding ‘greyness for ever’ is to continue to be effective, he must cling to his empirical moment. That is not true of Auerbach: by the late 1960s, his work.was already showing signs of an escalating kenosis, or self-emptying, of this crucial component: Figure on a bed of 1968, for example, could almost (but not quite) have been painted by a European abstract expressionist — say Nicolas de Stael — some sixteen years before. In the 1970s, through paintings like Bacchus and Ariadne or even the marginally more topographically rooted Camden scenes, one senses that Auerbach feels the real world is slipping away from him: these are records of more or less expressionistic acts carried out in front of a object, traces of whose appearance no longer necessarily become embedded in the paintings’ forms. Auerbach at times seems in danger of becoming a virtuoso, whose only real subject matter is his own style. (I write this sadly, with the utmost respect for what he has achieved.) Some people might regard the widening differences between these two painters merely as a question of their respective ‘talents’; but I think the real reason lies elsewhere. It can be found in their respective histories: Kossoff can continue his unresolvable search for that utopian image of a childhood he may, or may not, have known in the fabric of London because his objective past was contained by the City which, almost literally, comes to symbolize his unconscious to him. It is not just that Auerbach is younger and somehow chronologically closer to the formalist art of the 1960s and 1970s, nor even that he could never become so deeply enmeshed in that highly particular English empiricism as someone who had lived here all his life: it is however, that for him, empiricism can never serve quite the same displaced subjective function as it can for Kossoff. Because he is an exile in Britain, someone whose concrete childhood was lived elsewhere, the real world, the stuff and fabric of London, does not carry the same cathexis for him. He ends up by slowly receding from it, by clinging more and more to paint substance, memories and unmediated subjectivity: his work, meanwhile, gets to look more and more like those other exiled, abstract painters of New York in the late 1940s and early 1950s.


This particular ‘moment’ was so deeply rooted in a specific historical conjuncture that it cannot be repeated, and it cannot easily be sustained even by both of those who originated it. In one sense, at least, their remarkable achievement seems to validate Bomberg’s claim: few finer paintings have been produced in Britain since the last war than those by Auerbach and Kossoff, especially, at their best; and yet their ‘solution’ still seems to have more of the character of a footnote than a promise.