The man who brought Cubism to New York

Plus: new shows of work by Derek Hyatt, Anthony Caro, George Kennethson and Eileen Agar

20 September 2014

9:00 AM

20 September 2014

9:00 AM

Max Weber: An American Cubist in Paris and London, 1905–15

Ben Uri, 108a Boundary Road, NW8, until 17 October

Derek Hyatt: Time Glides in Secret

Art Space Gallery, 84 St Peter’s Street, N1, until 17 October

The American Jewish artist Max Weber (1881–1961) was born in Belostok in Russia (now Bialystok in Poland), and although he visited this country twice (he came to London in 1906 and 1908), it was the experience of continental Europe — and particularly Paris — that was crucial for his development. The title of this exhibition is thus rather misleading: Weber never lived in England, and his ‘presence’ here is based upon a collection of his work made by his friend Alvin Langdon Coburn. Coburn (1882–1966), a boldly experimental photographer attached to the Vorticist group, was another American, but one who opted to settle in England in 1912. Weber and Coburn probably met in New York in 1910, two years later exploring the skyscrapers of the capital together, which became for both men a fruitful subject. Although Weber is not much known in this country, in America he has long been recognised as the man who brought Cubism to the States. He is best known for his early Cubo-Futurist works; after 1920, he abandoned Modernism for a more descriptive style.

The display in the ground-floor gallery at Ben Uri is slightly tepid: there’s a gouache of Coburn by Weber making him look likeD.H. Lawrence after a heavy night out; also a couple of rather dreadful sub-Matissean oils by Weber and a much better pencil portrait of a Jehovah-like Matisse, two good mixed-media New York views, and several of Coburn’s photos. The best is ‘The Octopus’, an aerial shot of Madison Square Park.

Downstairs the show shifts gear in a partial recreation of the 1913 avant-garde Grafton Group exhibition, organised by Roger Fry and including much better work by Weber (a couple of landscape gouaches, an energetic pastel and chalk drawing of dancers and a couple of still-lifes) and fine things by Wyndham Lewis, Winifred Gill and Frederick Etchells, with Duncan Grant’s enjoyably decorative screen of blue sheep. Even Roger Fry’s own paintings look good here: this is the best part of the show, for which it’s worth making the trip to Boundary Road.

Also in north London is a marvellous exhibition of visionary landscapes by Derek Hyatt (born 1931). Hyatt paints the heather and millstone grit of the Yorkshire moors, their myths and ancient history, in pale blue and grey-pink tonalities reminiscent of Paul Nash, but also in full-blooded colour somewhat influenced by American Modernism. But he has created an approach all his own, diverse but recognisable, fundamentally concerned with shapes and the dance of lines, in rocks and clouds, snow, seeds and barbed wire.

There is a mythic dimension to his ‘meetings on the moor’, which is what his paintings depict: rarely are they encounters with human beings, much more likely to be with birds or animals, or a particular effect of light on the landscape. Dawn and dusk are especially fruitful. Hyatt loves badgers, owls and hawks, the complex dynamics of the land he’s always lived in and the music of the shapes he finds in it. The large 1995 triptych of a snowstorm in the downstairs gallery at Art Space is clearly a masterpiece: the Tate should buy it and carry it back to Millbank in glory. Hyatt is an artist to be cherished.

When Anthony Caro died suddenly last year, he was at work on a group of new sculptures that employed sheets of Perspex along with the more familiar forged steel. Now these last works are on show at Annely Juda (23 Dering Street, W1, until 25 October) and demonstrate the continuing creativity of an internationally acclaimed figure who worked with undiminished zest and invention into his 90th year. It’s too soon for Caro’s overall achievement to be properly assessed, but in the meantime we can enjoy these vibrant new pieces, which inject an element of bright, synthetic colour (an echo of his 1960s work) into the predominantly brown and grey palette of his steel. I particularly liked ‘Spin’, with its opaque white Perspex, like marble or wax, and the way the rusted girders protrude through a white oval at the top, as if through a thick apron of fog. And ‘The Eye Knows’, a large stainless-steel sculpture with a clear Perspex sheet angled through its middle, creating all sorts of disorienting effects as if it were a mirror. Both are in the third-floor gallery. On the top floor, my favourite was the small and intimate ‘Card Game’ (after Cézanne, though you don’t need to know this), the cloak of yellowish painted steel like thick crumpled leather.

At the Redfern (20 Cork Street, W1, until 4 October) is a remarkable show of carvings by George Kennethson (1910–94), a sculptor hitherto largely unknown even to the cognoscenti. A book was published on him ten years ago, but somehow that didn’t manage to resuscitate his reputation in the way that this exhibition seems all set to do. A substantial catalogue with an essay by Richard Cork puts him in context, but the sculpture (hung intriguingly with works on paper by the St Ives artist John Wells) speaks loudly and clearly for itself. Not only are people coming into the gallery and exclaiming with surprise and delight, they are buying. And with good cause. Who else has attempted to sculpt the landscape (or more specifically, where sea and land meet) and made images of resonant originality from a subject that seems so sculpturally unpromising?

Kennethson was a direct carver, worked mostly on a happily domestic scale in a range of materials (from alabaster and Clipsham to brown Hornton stone and Purbeck marble), and continued to sculpt figures at the same time as his more abstract and experimental landforms. He was inspired by primitive carvings, medieval and modern architecture, the structure of machines. He made elemental sculptures of a potent compression and simplification that owe something to Gaudier-Brzeska, and something else to the torso of Epstein’s ‘Rock Drill’. He loved the movement of waves against cliffs, and made some of his most effective sculptures of this subject, studied endlessly on the Isle of Purbeck in Dorset. His stacked, architectural forms have unexpected emotional depth and finesse. Highly recommended.

Downstairs at the Redfern is a rewarding exhibition of mostly small works on paper by the still insufficiently celebrated surrealist Eileen Agar (1899–1991). If you go to the Kennethson — and I hope you will — don’t miss the gems below from all periods of Agar’s career, offering ample proof of an unusual and richly jewelled imagination.

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