Anthony Benjamin was one of British art's great characters. A one time fairground boxer, later a pupil of A.J.Hayter's print workshop in Paris (where he lived some time as an 'illegal' without the proper papers) and one of the second generation of St.Ives artists, following Terry Frost and Patrick Heron. Anthony rarely sat still, dancing about in front of his canvases, conversing in his excited and animated manner. In a sense this was his downfall. Not content to sit on one basic style he was continually experimenting, to the despair of his gallery. Within a few months of producing a series of collage prints based on a visit to Amsterdam he was throwing himself into the determendly abstract Wallace Stevens suite. When he asked me to write a preface for his Tate catalogue I was delighted. He asked me to name a fee. "Two prints" I replied. They hang behind me now as I write this. I wish I had asked for more. I never knew he had a weak heart until it killed him. He is sorely missed.
"Seven New Acquatints"
Chemistry has provided the artist with a greater range of intensity and colour than ever before. Anthony Benjamin has consistently taken advantage of this, both in his graphic work and in his painting. While there are hints of the geometrical in his new series, redolent both of his recent paintings and the paintings and drawings of the 1960s, there is an ebullience to the process which suggests more of a conversation between the artist and surface than aesthetic dominance.
As in the poems by Wallace Stevens, which inspired the new acquatints, the viewer's participation is required to bring past experience to the present object. We are asked to feel a response rather than experience mere recognition, in the same way that we would feel our own response to a poem or a piece of music. The image becomes articulate and speaks with us a language that we only recognise beneath our level of conscious thought.
While Benjamin declares one of his objectives to be "bringing more to the experience of abstract painting" the lingering feel of landscape still persists. This could be the flat fields of Norfolk or a depiction of the light falling across the fenlands. As the light here falls in successive curtains, so the layers of the acquatints meld themselves one upon the other. Instead of a flat surface we look outwards at successive worlds, none of which are discernible in their entirety. Vision is constructed with increased instances of attention. These larger irregular circles could be the smallest pixels, enlarged to lose all reference and revealed to have an unexpected tactile surface.
With their immense depth and expression through nuances of colour and surface the images become our keyhole through which we look into another world. Here is the directness and clarity that had been sought for forty years earlier in the "Seven Letters", together with a sense of control and discipline that were not even distant objectives in the earlier work. The artist has introduced his own restraint and sense of order; infinite possibility is still there but controlled by the will and aesthetic intelligence.
The depth is achieved by eschewing the drawn line. Instead, three or more plates are printed on top of one another, with the last plate often having a colour rolled onto the surface. This extra painterly dimension is further emphasised by leaving some of the plates in acid over night, giving them an intense 'bite'. Printing from the deep bite, a crusty surface has been achieved, analagous to impasto techniques in painting, denying the traditional smoothness once thought to be inherent in the print medium.
In "Winter's Air" and "Domination of Black" this is taken further by collaging fine Japanese paper over the first inked surface, a technique known as 'Cine applique', to produce yet another curtain of colour. The last two prints in the suite: "Mellow Yellow" and "Darkly Blue", use a mixture of carborundum powder and PVA glue painted directly onto the plate. Besides adding to the quality of the surface, the ability of the carborundum to hold large amounts of ink has enables Benjamin to reach a new daring richness which epitomises his whole approach to life and art.
Introduction to "Listening to Colour" (Hope Sufferance Press) catalogue for the exhibition of Anthony Benjamin's two print suites exhibited at the Tate Gallery, St.Ives.
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