Waddington Custot is pleased to present Paul Feeley: Space Stands Still, the first solo exhibition of Feeley's work in the UK for over 50 years. The exhibition shines a light on this significant but relatively overlooked artist who worked with Clement Greenberg and played a pivotal role in the careers of many seminal abstract artists, including Helen Frankenthaler.
This exhibition charts the development of Feeley's abstraction over the course of his brief but prolific career, presenting pieces from the 1950s through to those created just before his untimely death in 1966 at the age of 55. Over twenty works by Feeley, including oil on canvas paintings and three-dimensional sculptures in wood, are shown in the UK for the first time. The works are characterised by Feeley's distinctive approach to symmetry and pattern through curving shapes in vibrant colours. The central forms and repeated motifs, often in symmetrical clusters, are reminiscent of vertebrae and teeth, molecular structures or jacks.
Although often associated with Abstract Expressionism, Feeley broke with the movement in the 1940s. Speaking to Lawrence Alloway in 1964, the artist explained 'I began to dwell on pyramids and things like that instead of on jungles of movement and action... The things I couldn't forget in art, were things, which made no attempt to be exciting.' And so Feeley's work moved away from gestural abstraction and into 'a quiescent art of stability, poise, and space', as described by Douglas Dreishpoon in Imperfections by Chance (his 2015 essay on Feeley). This astute observation is echoed by Feeley's comment that in his paintings 'space stands still'.
The composition of Feeley's paintings and sculptural forms can be traced back to his polymathic fascination with myriad subjects, ranging from history archaeology and anthropology, to psychology, music, mathematics and architecture. For Feeley the genesis of these fields lay in classical culture, which for the artist and many of his peers, symbolised the longed-for return to order of those post-war years. Feeley's paintings from the early 1960s often bore the names of Roman generals. Three such works, Germanicus (1960), Vespasian (1960) and Tiberius (1961), all exhibit the use of two interlocking colours producing figure-ground compositions where 'the confluence of organic shapes creates an optical condition that flips back and forth, from positive to negative and from negative to positive'. Feeley's aesthetic ploy reflects the interplay of the contradictory conditions intensely felt in America during the 1960s, 'between war and peace, joy and sorrow, wickedness and righteousness, masculinity and femininity'.
Upon his return to America, after his service as a marine in Japan from 1943–1946, Feeley was struck with contrasting emotions: elation to be alive and the great pleasure of returning to his studio, yet simultaneously feeling isolated and disconnected from the New York art world elite. His response was to envisage an alternate world that was 'calm, stable and symmetrical'. Feeley's balance of stillness and dynamic movement makes his work poignantly relevant in today's chaotic world.
A pivotal moment in Feeley's career, was his student-teacher relationship, and then great friendship, with artist Helen Frankenthaler. The two met at Bennington College in 1946, where Feeley was director of the Art Department. Upon graduating Frankenthaler became Feeley's route back to the New York art scene via her network of friends and mentors, including Barnett Newman, Kenneth Noland, Jules Olitski, Tony Smith and Clement Greenberg. Feeley's sustained contact with this influential group allowed him to re-enter New York's art world in the latter half of 1955 with a solo exhibition at the Tibor de Nagy Gallery.
Both Frankenthaler and Feeley gained a great deal from their alliance. In 1968, Frankenthaler recounted to Barbara Rose that 'Paul had enormous vitality... his whole style was energy, curiosity, appetite', going on to describe him as 'a true artist, an inspired teacher'. Feeley too learned from Frankenthaler; his distinctive painterly texture came from his student's technique of thinning oil-based enamel paint before brushing it onto canvas.
Alongside Feeley's own artistic practice was his unwavering support of fellow artists and curatorial acumen. While at Bennington, Feeley and Greenberg organised 'prescient-mini-retrospectives' of Hans Hofmann, Jackson Pollock and David Smith before these seminal artists had received substantial institutional recognition. Feeley went on to stage a further twenty exhibitions in the Carriage Barn space at Bennington, with shows of Josef Albers, Theodoros Stamos, Adolph Gottlieb, Barnett Newman, Helen Frankenthaler and Robert Motherwell.
1962 was a significant year for the artist in which he developed his organic, anthropomorphic figure-ground compositions into diagrammatical, hard-edged works. This is evident in Alnitah (1964) and Arcturus (1963) where the forms exist independently and are suspended in space. Not only do these paintings allude to the sky, clouds and stars, Feeley makes the connection literal, naming them after stars. Feeley developed this notion further, moving his imagery from canvas into three-dimensions. From 1965, until his death in 1966, the artist created vibrant wooden sculptures by interlocking two or three colourful panels into one undulating form. El Rakis (1965) and Cor Caroli (1965) demonstrate Feeley's successful translation of his powerful, yet poised aesthetic, into a realm that viewers can experience on both a visual and physical level.
Press release courtesy Waddington Custot.