In North America in 1952 the critic Harold Rosenberg coined a phrase – ‘Action painters’. Action painters referred to those who today are more usually termed abstract expressionists: Jackson Pollock, Lee Krasner, Mark Rothko, and so on. Rosenberg wanted us to recognise these artists as performing an existential act in the studio. He had some words of warning too. He warned that abstract artists could end up producing nothing more than ‘apocalyptic wallpaper’ if they weren’t careful. The fear of wallpaper and domestic design is everywhere in American abstraction at this time. Mark Rothko, for instance, somewhat earlier, reckoned his paintings ‘must insult anyone who is spiritually attuned to interior decoration; pictures for the home; pictures for over the mantel’. Likewise the critic Clement Greenberg was constantly wringing his hands at the way that certain artists could descend into the decorative as if it were a bad case of the ‘dreaded lurgy’.
Across the Atlantic there didn’t seem to be such a fear of the decorative, nor of the domestic. For instance in 1955 the sculptor and collagist Eduardo Paolozzi with his friends Nigel and Judith Henderson set themselves up as a firm to produce wallpaper, textiles, furniture and so on. The firm was called Hammer Prints Ltd. Paolozzi was at the time having a huge success with his sculpture. I like to think that British artists like Paolozzi (and by British I mean Scottish-Italian-British) had read Harold Rosenberg’s essay on action painting, and instead of heeding the warning about apocalyptic wallpaper decided that that was precisely what they wanted to do. What, after all, would it be like to live in house papered with apocalyptic wallpaper?
One of my favourite set of paintings is by the wonderful artist Susan Hiller. I saw an exhibition of her work at the ICA in London in the late 1980s. One of the exhibits was a series of works of paint on the wallpaper used to paper children’s bedrooms: wallpaper featuring parachute jumpers floating through the sky, or action heroes, or cute aliens. These were the gendered wallpapers of a different sort of action: masters of the universe saving the world – not so much existential actors as testosterone-fuelled maniacs. The paint obliterated most of the figuration, but allowed snippets to poke through. The painting used scaled-up images of Hiller’s automatic writing. In some of the paintings it looked like the male action figures were drowning in an unconscious patterning of paint.
For a while I was an abstract painter. My dad used to say that my paintings would look really good in the corridors and boardrooms of a large corporation. I think he was imagining the money that might come my way if I could snag such a commission, but he was also keying into the way that the corridors of power for a while at least, loved the sort of tasteful abstraction that looked simultaneously expensive and inoffensive. I think he also couldn't imagine anyone in their right mind buying one my paintings for their home.