Review by Tom Lubbock

How British art recovered its high spirits

Nearly 30 years after Jeremy Moon’s accidental death, a retrospective of his work is re-establishing his reputation for wit, delight and colour. Tom Lubbock welcomes his return.

I didn’t write the headline above this article. I don’t know what it says. But I’m pretty sure that in the manner of the modern arts page headline - it will involve some elegant play on words, some cunning pun or turn of idiom, to make a phrase that smartly encapsulates the letter and spirit of this review.

It wasn’t always like that. For example, about 35 years ago The Times newspaper published a review of some new paintings by the young artist Jeremy Moon. Plenty of room for play there, you might think, with new Moons or whatever. Not a bit of it. The headline told it absolutely, beautifully straight. “Mr Jeremy Moon experiments.” And the review, what’s more, was credited to “Our Art Critic”. Happy days. Jeremy Moon, perhaps you haven’t heard of him. I hadn’t either not before I heard about the Jeremy Moon show now at the Harris Museum in Preston. He was a British abstract painter. He was born in 1934, started painting in 1961, and was killed in a motorbike accident in 1973. But this is no Van Gogh story. In the short time available, Moon was appreciated, exhibited, reviewed -  the show has some of his press cuttings, like the one I’ve just quoted. There was a memorial retrospective at the Serpentine Gallery in 1976. After which he fell from view.

It’s curious how that happens, the process by which fame fades and is inherently difficult to trace. Sometimes, it seems, you need to stay living and working to keep your name up. If he was alive today Moon would be in his late sixties about the same age as Bridget Riley or Patrick Caulfield or Howard Hodgkin. Perhaps he’d have a room devoted to his work in Tate Modern or Tate Britain. Perhaps he’d be having major retrospectives. It’s impossible to know. There are living artists of his generation who thrived once too, and now are almost now unheard of.

But at least with Moon we can have another go. The exhibition in Preston is called a retrospective, but it’s quite a small one. Twelve years work are represented by only 20 paintings. Yet it does what it needs to do — it makes Moon’s place in British art look as obvious as if he’d never been away.

Go round the labels, and you notice two things. Most of these pictures, and the best among them, still belong to the artist’s estate - that is, they’ve not found a private or public buyer, and they’ve probably not often seen the light of day (which may explain their very fresh appearance). And also, to judge from the dates, Moon knew what he was doing almost at once. You can make connections between Moon’s work and some of the hard-edged, geometrical abstraction of his time. It’s mainly done with circles, and stripes and criss-cross grids. But from the start, it arrives surprisingly.

Take one of the earliest paintings, Eclipse, from 1962. There’s a background of broad scarlet and yellow diagonal stripes, and upon it lies a wiggly jet black ring, suggesting the shape of a biscuit-cutter. Or rather, it hovers. This black ring has sharp edges, but the stripes behind slightly blur into each other — and so a sense of depth focus enters the image. The ring is in focus, the stripes are just out. There’s a definite jump.

A jump, a twist, an aspect shift this is a mark of Moon’s work. You’re never allowed simply to contemplate a unified, synthesised field of form and colour. It’s not that the pictures don’t hold together, but there’s some jeopardy, fault-line, a way in which they also offer to come apart.

There are half-hidden geometries, for instance. An Untitled painting from 1970 is based on a grid that looks entirely lopsided, the straight lines crossing at all angles. But in fact two of these lines are dead vertical, and two dead horizontal, and they lie in a regular noughts and-crosses format that divides the picture into nine identical rectangles.

Or in Caravan from 1968, the image is simply cut in half by a corner-to-corner diagonal, yet the rest of the image is designed to prevent you from quite noticing this blatant fact. Or in Garland of 1962, there’s a large and perfect circle, with another line winding in and out of it, to make a shape like a ring of twisted ribbon - a shape that makes the circle almost undetectable.

These are optical illusions, in a way, but they don’t involve the eye- beguiling effects of Op Art. Moon’s wit is very different from Bridget Riley’s. It’s more that, like the duck-rabbit image, you can see the geometry and you can see the picture, but you can’t see them both at the same time.

Moon has other tricks that don’t take me so much. The non-rectangular canvas is a bit of rule-breaking that almost always looks naive. Moon will do, say, a picture shaped to suggest four rectangles overlapping; or that looks as if it has been folded back on itself, like a napkin; or Y-shaped, like a pair of high-waisted trunks. Sculptural, I suppose—but the loss of pictorial tension that goes with breaking the rectangle seldom seems a price worth paying.

I like it more when square paintings are simply rotated through 45 degrees to make a diamond format. It’s a device that originates in Mondrian, and like Mondrian, Moon uses it to give a sense of offstage, as if the picture was cropped from a larger field extending beyond its edges. In Cape Red and Green Chariot you find a uniform colour with little other-coloured rounds and ovals just peeping in to view at the corners.

He gets the same wit and delight into his colours. There are gorgeous resonances, but they’re often achieved with hues that should be as inert as the combinations in a regimental tie or a packet of sweets. Japan (1970) has black horizontals, crossing light orange verticals on a cream ground. It’s a really sharp find. As for the blue on browny-gold of Caravan — well, all I can say is strange, but true.

At their best, Moon’s colours don’t make harmonies into which the eye can relax. They stand off just a little. They blow hot and cold. And then there are pictures where you can’t help thinking about the invention of striped toothpaste, or winking dashboards, or board-games, and feeling that the trick involves picking up on these things and slightly retuning them.

Are Moon’s pictures pure abstracts? Is any picture? Like many artists of his day, Moon used to say that his art was purely visual, a position that seemed important to hold back then (something to do with distinguishing abstraction from design or decoration). Today that position doesn’t feel so important, and this revival of Moon follows the usual pattern of artistic revivals. A forgotten artist suddenly seems familiar to the sensibility of a much later time.

This exhibition is organised by Daniel Sturgis and Richard Kirwan, two contemporary abstract painters of very impure tendencies - knowingly jamming pure form with sharp real-world references. Moon, I guess, wasn’t so knowing an operator. He was, in a way that seems alienly innocent now, genuinely high-spirited.

And we should be grateful for that strangeness, as well as for his latter-day familiarity. The special satisfaction of a successful artistic rediscovery is that it feels simultaneously like news and history — and that’s what it feels like here. Once more, Mr Jeremy Moon experiments.

Jeremy Moon — A Retrospective: Harris Museum and Art Gallery, Market Square, Preston; until 7 April, then touring to The Nunnery 183 Bow Road, London F3 (12 April—20 May), and to Graves Art Gallery, Sheffield (22 December —2 March 2002)


Copyright Tom Lubbock/The Independent 2001