Turning away from Abstract Expressionism with its gestural brush strokes and impression of spontaneity, he embarked on creating an alternate world that was “calm, stable and symmetrical”.
Speaking in 1964, the artist said: “I began to dwell on pyramids and things like that instead of on jungles of movement and action… The things I couldn’t forget in art, were things, which made no attempt to be exciting.”
Brightly coloured patterns of symmetrical, curving shapes inspired by Moorish tile design and classical art dominate Feeley’s Post-war works. Big and bold, they are hard to miss – that is unless you’re in the UK where the Iowa-born artist’s sculptures and Abstract canvases have rarely been shown. Feeley’s last solo exhibition was held in London in 1964, two years before his death at the age of 55.
Now, nearly 60 years on, the artist is getting another solo show in the capital via Cork Street gallery Waddington Custot.
Paul Feeley: Space Stands Still, which the gallery hopes to hold ‘in-person’ from April 20 until June, charts the development of his abstraction over the course of a brief but prolific career, presenting pieces from the 1950s through to those created just before his death in 1966.
Working with the artist’s estate and their representatives at Garth Greenan Gallery in New York, Waddington Custot has selected more than 20 works, including oil paintings and sculptures in wood, to be shown in the UK for the first time.
Prices start from £50,000 to over £200,000 for the major works on canvas.
Jacob Twyford, the gallery’s senior director, describes Feeley as “an unsung giant of American Abstraction” and says the desire to show his work has been building over the last five years.
“I was aware of his presence in th background of my understanding of Abstract American art, but it wasn’t until we included a sculpture of his in our 2017 exhibition Colour Is that we decided to propose the idea of showing the work in a solo show,” Twyford says.
It was the success of Feeley’s academic career – he founded the celebrated art department at Bennington College in Vermont and taught there for nearly three decades – and the dominance of Abstract Expressionism that overshadowed his reputation as an artist. This has led to a “patchy” secondary market for the artist’s works, says Twyford. “Many of his paintings were unsold at the time of his early death and with so few works trading regularly, the market struggles to set a reliable value.”
Auction database, artprice.com, returns just over 50 results, with a top hammer price of $100,000 achieved at Christie’s New York for a wood sculpture from c.1965.
A major retrospective at New York’s Albright Knox Art Gallery in 2015 has rekindled interest and Twyford hopes the same will happen on the other side of the Atlantic.
“My personal feeling is that the best of this art has shown that time does not diminish its impact. We are keen to bring Feeley’s work back in front of a London audience,” he says.
The show highlights the artist’s fascination with a broad range of subjects, from history, archaeology and anthropology to psychology, music, mathematics and architecture.
For Feeley, classical culture underpinned them all.
Three works in the show bear the names of Roman generals: Germanicus (1960), Vespasian (1960) and Tiberius (1961). Each exhibits the use of two interlocking colours creating an optical condition that flips back and forth.
This, says the gallery, is Feeley’s aesthetic ploy reflecting the “interplay of the contradictory conditions intensely felt in America during the 1960s, between war and peace, joy and sorrow, wickedness and righteousness, masculinity and femininity”.
Another work, Alnitah (1964), belongs to a group inspired by the sky, clouds and stars. Named after a star in the constellation of Orion, the canvas features diagrammatical forms suspended in space.
Feeley developed this notion further, moving his imagery from canvas into three dimensions. From 1965 until his death, he created vibrant wooden sculptures by interlocking two or three colourful panels into one undulating form. Cor Caroli (1965) and El Rakis (1965) are two stand-out examples in the show.