14 . 02 . 20 – 16 . 02 . 20
Cape Town International Convention Centre
Convention Square, 1 Lower Long Street
Cape Town, 8001
Hannatjie van der Wat
With a critical focus on hard-edge painting, SMAC Gallery is pleased to present the works of Kevin Atkinson (1939 – 2007), Christo Coetzee (1929 – 2000), Trevor Coleman (1936), Albert Newall (1920 – 1989), Douglas Portway (1922-1993), Cecily Sash (1925 – 2019), Larry Scully (1922 – 2002), Fred Schimmel (1928 – 2009), and Hannatjie van der Wat (1923 – 2020) in the Past/Modern section at Investec Cape Town Art Fair, at booth P1.
Hard-edge painting was a term first coined by Californian-based art critic, Jules Langster, in 1959. Characteristics of this movement included contrasting colours, clean edges, geometric and organic shapes, combined with the careful and purposeful arrangement of its compositional design and formal elements. Pioneering this style in the early 1950s in South Africa, British-born Albert Newall saw a liberation from his commercial photography practice to a painterly aesthetic completely devoid of any sense of representation, in hard-edge painting. Upon his move to Cape Town in 1953, he was able to focus on the mathematical science of painting in his creation of meticulously harmonized images. Despite early success, including representing South Africa throughout the 1950s at the Venice and São Paulo Biennales, he gave up painting in 1961 to focus on other pursuits.
Douglas Portway, a contemporary of Newall’s, left South Africa at the end of the 1950s and settled in St Ives near Cornwall. The focus of Portway’s compositions became aligned with personal exploration of Zen Buddhism whilst he continued to investigate the effect of light on objects and his surroundings. While retaining a measured seamlessly between Op Art, Performance and painterly-and-post-painterly Abstraction. In 2007 he established a Trust to look after his work. The collection was shown at the Iziko South African National Gallery in a restaging of his oeuvre titled “Re-opening Plato’s Cave: The Legacy of Kevin Atkinson”; followed by a refined iteration of the exhibition at SMAC Gallery, in Stellenbosch, in 2016.
Cecily Sash, the only female member of the Amadlozi Group [exhibited in Johannesburg in the first half of the 1960s by gallerist Egon Guenther], transitioned to working in hard-edge abstraction after being awarded an Oppenheimer grant. She spent 1965-66 traveling abroad studying art education. She returned to South Africa inspired by the Op Art movement, specifically the distortions and illusions common to this style of abstraction. Sash was painting on a parallel timeline to Bridget Riley and Viktor Vasarely—her work oscillating between Op Art and hard-edge abstraction with measured nods to representation. She left South Africa shortly after her retrospective at the Pretoria Art Gallery in 1974, due to tensions caused by Apartheid,
“I had the police coming in and taking books, thinking I might have been a communist… people who taught at Wits were always under suspicion. One lived in fear of doing something wrong. I was quite afraid that I might be stopped before I left.”
Hannatjie Van Der Wat segues from painterly abstraction to post-painterly hard-edge and back again. The title of her 2013 retrospective, In Retro, provided insight into this transitioning. It became apparent that the constant in her work is an extroverted take on colour and form, most evident in her approach to the hard-edge works from the late 1960s.
Christo Coetzee, subject of a career retrospective at the Standard Bank Gallery in 2018, worked between painterly abstraction and post-painterly hard-edge work. ‘The Enfant Terrible’ of the Johannesburg art scene rose to notoriety after deliberately slashing his own works in the 1970s.
Whether it is a case of arriving tardily to the aesthetic savouring of hard-edge abstraction or a long overdue recognition of this all important component of mid-century South African art within a larger global conversation, it is evident that abstract art is revelling in its newfound appreciation.
Text by Phillippa Duncan