Jeffrey Steele obituary | Art
A strict adherence to formalism and geometric abstraction led Jeffrey Steele, who died at the age of 89, to become the pioneer of op art. In the artist’s most famous works, thanks to carefully planned and tightly controlled patterns, a feeling of optical movement occurs on the canvas. His 1965 painting, Baroque Experiment: Fred Maddox, produced for The Responsive Eye exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, features a twisting grid of black half-moons, the negative space filled with white paint forming triangles. curved lines that point to the center of this mesmerizing whirlpool.
Exhibition curator William Seitz wrote of Steele and his co-exhibitors – including Victor Vasarely, Bridget Riley and Josef Albers – that “unlike most previous abstract paintings, these works exist less as as objects to be examined as generators of perceptual responses ”. Throughout the 1960s, Steele’s fully monochrome paintings were characterized by a similar repeated use of ovals, ellipses, triangles, squares, oblongs, and other polygonal shapes, which he noted. It is a tower of seven white pyramids cutting the canvas against a black painted background in Triangulation (1960) or the busier motifs in Perpetuum Mobile (1963).
A sense of order and rationalism permeated his work for the next 60 years, Steele refusing to be shaken by the fads of the art world. By the end of the 1960s, however, he had grown bored of op art, fearing it would move into the gadget realm, and in 1969 he co-founded the Systems Group. Steele was a voracious reader of philosophy and political theory, and at that time a committed Marxist-Leninist, and his painting relied on a belief in rationalism and an interest in constructivism.
The curvilinear structure (Abakum) is typical of the artist’s desire to eliminate the accidental from the painting process. Avoiding emotion or intuition in the making, Steele carefully planned a composition with almost mathematical precision. The work has never been austere, its order countered by an exuberant color: the 1972 triptych presents undulating ribbons of yellow, orange, green and blue paint, of varying thickness.
“I would love for the whole category of the sublime and the genius to disappear,” the artist said in a 2012 interview, denouncing enlightened ideas about emotion in art. “He’s the sort of thing like this terrible man that Edmund Burke spoke about – such a bourgeois concept of class and just a form of mysticism that we have to get rid of.”
Jeffrey was born in Cardiff to Enid (née Washer), who worked at Woolworths, and Arthur Steele, a slate fireplace enameller. He went to Howard Gardens High School in 1942, where a few teachers encouraged his artistry and, as he later recalled, “helped me free myself from what I was beginning to recognize as the oppressive ideology of my family and my church education. ”.
He enrolled in the Cardiff School of Art in 1948 on a scholarship, but his anti-authoritarianism got him into frequent trouble and he switched to a painting class at the Newport Art School, which he did not finished. When he refused national service and registered as a conscientious objector, he was forced to leave the family home and stayed with a friend in a dilapidated part of Cardiff.
Inspired by Stanley Spencer (and having previously hitchhiked to the British artist’s home in Berkshire as a pilgrimage), in 1952, on an old stained bed sheet he painted Christ carrying the cross, which showed Jesus leading a funeral parade through the streets of contemporary Cardiff. Its inclusion the following year in the Royal Academy’s summer exhibit caused a tabloid storm, with the Mayor of Cardiff intervening. Steele both relished the recognition and was terrified of it. “I get a dozen letters from weird religious fanatics in every post, mostly name calling, also a few very nice ones,” he said. Echo of South Wales. “I don’t think I can take it any longer.”
An easy job of money overseeing broadcast equipment allowed him to study French, and in 1959 he was awarded a scholarship to study in Paris for three months. There he met the work of Vasarely, Max Bill and Albers and engage in abstraction. He says his trip “taught me the value of a systematic approach to painting and I definitely resolved to proceed from there through controlled and logical experimentation.”
This soon won him admirers and a solo exhibition at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, London in 1961. He exhibited again at the ICA in 1968 as part of Cybernetic Serendipity, a group exhibition that examined the emerging relationship. between art and information technologies. The same year, he began teaching at Portsmouth College of Art. He was promoted to head of department at the school, but preferred to keep the title of lecturer, holding the post until his early retirement in 1989.
In 1969 he co-organized Systeemi at Amos Andersonin Taidemuseo, Helsinki, which led to the formation of the Systems Group, consisting of five people. Together they then presented exhibitions at the Arnolfini in Bristol in 1971 and at the Whitechapel Art Gallery in London in 1972, as well as numerous others throughout Europe.
Steele’s brand of harsh modernism fell into disuse in the 1980s and 90s as the postmodern high jinks of the British young artist movement came to dominate, but he continued to exhibit at least once a year and his work is entered into the collections of the Tate, the British Museum, the Victoria and Albert Museum and the National Museum of Wales.
He did not feel the decline in attention and, increasingly reclusive, devoted himself to reading and writing, believing that they were as important to painting as working on a canvas. . His home in Southsea, Hampshire, slowly filled with manuscript essays on epistemology; notebooks of observations on Russian and French literature, which he read in the original; and LPs – Scott Joplin and Bach being various favorites.
More recently, his work has been featured in historic group exhibitions including A Rational Aesthetic: the Systems Group and Associated Artists at Southampton City Art Gallery in 2008 and British Constructivism at Pallant House, Chichester, in 2017.
Two marriages ended in divorce. He is survived by two children, Simon and Tamara, from his first marriage in 1957 to Glenda Reynolds, and a daughter, Clara, from a later relationship with Judy Clark.