Alan Davie at 90

July 2010

Publication: The Times

IT'S a measure of the prodigious productivity of Alan Davie as he approaches his ninetieth birthday that all of the works in this two-part show (the second opens at the end of September) were made within in the last five years.


Davie is a singular and accomplished painter from a modest Grangemouth family - his father was a teacher and printmaker.  After training at Edinburgh College of Art, Davie made good in Venice (an early work was bought by Peggy Guggenheim) and London, with shows at the influential Gimpel Fils gallery when he was still in his early thirties. Davie is represented in numerous international collections with a track record of exhibitions which is awe inspiring.


But there remains a lingering feeling that, in his homeland at least, Davie has not had the recognition he so obviously deserves. This may be partly because he lives in England and the Caribbean; but he is of that generation of artists who, in order to succeed, needed to travel further afield to seek what their own country could not provide: financial support and a certain metropolitan open-mindedness.


Davie began painting the kind of works with which he has become identified in the early 'sixties and there is a sense that the artist is immersed in his own painterly language which needs explication and decoding. These powerful, highly-coloured and energetic works are full of personal, universal and cultural symbolism; they are at once shamanistic and 'primitive', with a wide cultural sweep embracing such diverse influences as modern jazz, Surrealism, Art Brut and some of the main tenets of Zen. 


His work insists that the viewer must go to some effort to enter the painter's interior mind-scape. In doing so, there are great rewards. For Davie's is, in many ways, a private visual universe. Although his works are full of symbols, codes, patterns, shapes and motifs very few can be tied to a universal, generally accepted 'meaning'. His work conveys a feeling of Davie's enduring innocence and wonder. 


In 'As Described on Previous Nights' black text on a purple 'ground' is overlaid with symbols such as star with embedded concentric circles and a window giving on to a moon and a strange snake-like form. A similar set of symbols can be seen in the nearby 'Grangemouth Mural' completed by Davie with George Garson in 1975. Such visual parallels demonstrate not repetition but the evolution of idea and form, for Davie works thematically often painting  several pieces simultaneously – with themes which can take years or even decades to work themselves to completion.



His works can be read on multiple levels – their colour, vibrancy and immediacy have an instant and popular appeal; the paintings 'sing' joyfully and exuberantly. But beneath all  of this lies a painstakingly honed philosophy which has been refined over decades; and Davie has evolved a visual language to express this philosophy which attempts to assert the intuitive over the rational, and the emotion over the intellect. In playing improvised piano music he asks, where does that note go? It's not a whimsical question but a serious enquiry; we might ask the same of  the 'notes' Davie uses in his paintings. Where do they take us? How have they come about? And, most importantly, how can we hear them?