Patrick Procktor: Works on Paper
In recent years the work of Patrick Procktor has found a new and appreciative audience. It resonates particularly strongly with many contemporary figurative artists – those both fully established, and those in the early stages of their careers – who relate to its lightness of touch, to the eloquence of its restraint. Though much admired during the artist’s lifetime, such qualities were sometimes prone to be misread as easily achieved, his facility perceived as the result of dandyist legerdemain. In fact Procktor’s accomplishment was hard won, the consequence of years of graft and experimentation, in which drawing was both central and constant. In this selection of works on paper one is able to trace the evolution of his technique and visual language over the course of five decades. Here, both in working studies and in pieces made as works in their own right, one sees him exploring a wide range of methods and styles, working both from direct observation, memory and imagination, and occasionally from photographic sources.
Procktor trained between 1958 and 1962 at the Slade, where under Professor William Coldstream’s directorship the emphasis was on the acquisition of a bedrock of academic drawing skills, with the first year of study spent making carefully measured drawings and paintings, very much along Euston Road School lines. Subsequently, influenced by a group of disciples of David Bomberg also then studying at the Slade, Procktor’s work became more expressive, his drawings built up sculpturally in layers of charcoal and ink, his paintings denser and more gestural. A handful of the artist’s Slade paintings and drawings were included in his first show, which took place at The Redfern Gallery in May 1963, less than a year after his graduation. The show was a triumph both critically and commercially, and immediately established the twenty-seven year old as a star of the London art scene. The following year he was included in The New Generation, Bryan Robertson’s survey of twelve young artists at The Whitechapel Gallery, a show that also included Patrick Caulfield, David Hockney and Bridget Riley. Understandably, given that his success came so soon after leaving the Slade, Procktor’s work of this period remained very much in transition, as he strove to capitalise on his initial achievement whilst at the same time finding himself more fully as an artist. Many of the drawings of this time show him working towards the formation of a personal iconography expressed in a more resolutely contemporary idiom. They reference a multiplicity of sources, with ideas and motifs mined from art of both past and present, with nods to Pop and surrealism, and to the stylistic devices of artist friends such as Kitaj and Boshier. Some of these drawings were made quite simply, in an abbreviated shorthand, whilst others were densely worked in combinations of graphite, oil pastel and ink. Throughout there is a sensitivity to placement, and to unmarked areas of the paper surface as integral compositional elements. There are amongst them drawings of great delicacy and sensitivity of line and tone, especially amongst studies of the figure made from life. The ensuing paintings Procktor made for his second Redfern Gallery show (1965), were generally more complex than those of his first; they were freighted not only with artistic references, but also with allusions to dreams, and the encoded convolutions of the artist’s private life.
Gradually, Procktor unburdened his work of stylistic and intellectual ballast, moving towards a greater clarity of subject and execution. By the time of his third exhibition in 1967 his imagery was simpler, with much of its source material culled from contemporary photographs in newspapers and books. The show included several very large canvases of figures disposed in theatrical settings, in tableaux depicting a gallimaufry of Chinese Red Guards, young Americans queuing to be drafted to Vietnam, The Rolling Stones in drag, and gangs of leather boys; the latter, posing in a bona drag of motorcycle jackets and denim, read as an ironic commentary on masculinity and the codes of metropolitan gay life. All were painted in dilute acrylic washes, with form and volume mainly indicated in brush-drawn line. The studies Procktor made for these canvases, in which he edited his source material to essentials of line with the odd bit of colour, were in felt-tip pen and coloured inks. He also made many drawings as works in their own right – of interiors, friends, his mother – done variously in pencil, pastel, crayon, watercolour, or in ink line. Though Procktor’s line drawings were clearly influenced by those of his friend Hockney, they are characteristically looser, more cursive, the work of a draftsman with a highly idiosyncratic sensitivity to touch and surface.
During the summer of 1967 Procktor accompanied David Hockney and Peter Schlesinger on holiday in Europe, and it was whilst there that Hockney, having become frustrated with his own efforts in the medium, presented him with his box of watercolours. Procktor had used watercolour before, but now he began to do so more consistently and with greater focus, working directly from life with little or no preparatory under-drawing. He soon realized a natural affinity, going on to become the finest exponent of pure watercolour painting amongst British artists of his generation. In London he made a series of watercolour portraits, many of them of friends and acquaintances from his predominantly gay social circle: Ossie Clark, Michael Duff, Kaffe Fassett, Christopher Gibbs, Derek Jarman, Andrew McCall, Mo McDermott et al. Each subject was posed informally; either seated, or reclining on a sofa, rug, or blanket. In treatment they are notably understated, with tonal values and relationships carefully weighed and considered. Backgrounds and other extraneous details are often edited out, to be left as white space. This exclusion of detail sometimes extended to sections of the sitter’s figure: for instance, legs might simply be defined by a surrounding wash of pigment describing the surface on which they rest, their shape left blank, like a missing piece of jigsaw. Certain of these portraits are marked by a subtle mannerist distortion, a quality which becomes all the more apparent when contrasted with watercolours Procktor made during the 1970s and ‘80s of his wife Kirsten and their young son Nicholas; these are quite different in nature, altogether more tender and subjective.
• Extracted from an essay published in the catalogue accompanying the exhibition: Patrick Procktor: Works on Paper at The Redfern Gallery, London, 2017
• Text © Ian Massey
• Images © The Redfern Gallery/Estate of the artist