John Walker – Perception in Paint
by Dr Claudia Milburn, director of programming
written in February 2023.
John Walker’s dynamic ‘Blue Series’, a sequence of electric, large-scale paintings, all created in 2022, are testament to an artist who, now in his ninth decade, is working with a spirit and confidence accrued through a lifetime invested in exploratory endeavour. Walker had long held the ambition to create a body of blue paintings and, finally, the eight or nine buckets of blue paint which had been sitting in his studio for a decade, have found their way to the surface of the canvas. Typical of the artist, these works are therefore the result of considerable rumination. They are also finite, with the paint gone, Walker will move on.
Pictorial and pattern motifs echo throughout Walker’s oeuvre and this Blue Series is no exception. Sinuous lines, geometric patterns, repeating shapes, families of flattened forms – each unique but with shared characteristics – run through, creating a body of work brimming with vitality that invigorates the eye and livens the imagination. They are, to my mind, the summation of an artist who has interrogated the canvas over years of questioning, driven by the belief that “The painting is only any good when it’s presence is greater than I am.”
In Pemaquid V, Pemaquid VII and Eel Running Pemaquid swathes of undulating waves traverse the canvas from opposite sides, colliding and merging centrally to create a dynamic meeting point while other shapes, rhythms and patterns dance across the surface. The paintings are dominated by the juxtaposition of two principal colours – a cobalt blue hue and a bright white. While other colours feature, notably shades of sienna, ochre and accents of jade in some of the works, it is the striking combination of blue and white which characterises the series. This colour coalescence, together with the fresh luminosity in the surface quality of the paint, brings to mind ancient Qinghua porcelain with its cobalt oxide pigment and translucent glaze. In Ripple II the blue and white oblique stripes zig-zag across the canvas, while in Resurrection I and II, a patchwork of horizontal and vertical lines criss-cross over areas of blocked colour with a textural quality reminiscent of basket-weave. In each case, the dominant patterns dynamically divide the picture plane. Walker’s mark-making is free, vigorous and direct; the paintings are immersive, enigmatic and atmospheric. It seems impossible not to respond to the all-consuming power and impact of the work.
A sense of place and the essential spirit of that place – the genius loci – are fundamental factors in Walker’s oeuvre. His life and career have taken him across continents to many different locations which have regularly provided core subjects for his work. In recent decades it has been his home territory in and around Seal Point in Maine, USA, that has provided the stimulus, this marine landscape inspiring countless canvases. It was, however, many years before he could use this location as subject matter, its scenic beauty had initially seemed too intense and overwhelming. This place had thus been absorbed and assimilated in his mind, time and time again, before it became a possibility to put brush to canvas. Located at the tip of the peninsula, Seal Point provides a unique panoramic landscape view of this part of the Atlantic coastline offering the ideas and impetus for Walker with the elemental drama of land, sea and sky. The ‘Pemaquid’ works relate to the picturesque peninsula in Maine, one of the region’s seven geographic ‘fingers’ close to the artist’s home. ‘Pemaquid’ is an Abenaki Indian term meaning ‘situated far out’ and representative of this coastal point, lying at the ocean’s edge. Tidal mud flats quilted with patterns of waves generated from the rhythms of the sea, currents of water rushing over the mud, rocky strata delineating the foreshore, reflections in the residual pools as light shimmers over – these are just some of the elements that characterise this inspiring location. It is a place in a constant state of flux forever animated by nature’s atmospheric conditions – shifting weather, time of day and the seasons. Walker is in tune with its sounds, shapes and sensations, its textures, colours and movement. These are the ingredients of his paintings, and it is his internalisation of these components, viewed at different times in different conditions, that coalesce on the canvas surface as a series of expressive shapes and forms. Moments and memories built over years permeate the works. All that enters the picture plane, every shape and gesture, has been absorbed by the artist over time, and his vision translated onto the surface of the work. These are not paintings with the intention to abstract, but moreover, to represent the veracity of the scene as witnessed and understood. They are emotive responses to his visual senses and his aim is to realise his impressions, to reflect a semblance true to his perception. In this way he is searching for the essence – a true Modernist in search for the fundamentals and authentic in his resolve. He believes in the power of painting to explore this quest and to investigate what it is ultimately possible for the medium to achieve. While Walker aims to know and understand this specific landscape around Seal Point like no other, the aspiration is always for the painting to take command, to tell him something he did not know before, to take him somewhere he has never been, and thus indicate a power of presence that has the ability to communicate truth, a higher state of reality.
The crescendo of sound created through the impact of Walker’s work has reverberated for generations. A prolific painter, he has continually confronted the issues that have plagued many artists in the second half of the 20th century and into the 21st and has faced up to the challenges posed by abstraction. In so doing, Walker has contributed to a significant narrative on Abstract Art and created a dialogue that has allowed for others to take heed and respond to the language of his work and its ability to communicate with such expressive potency. Walker represented Britain at the Venice Biennale of 1972 and has since taught across continents – in art schools in England including the Royal College of Art, at Yale University, during the 1980s as Dean of Victoria College of Art in Melbourne, Australia and, in more recent decades (from 1993 to 2015) at Boston University, Massachusetts, thus his influence on generations of artists has been far-reaching.
Walker’s first recognition of the potency of abstract art was in 1959 at the Tate Gallery’s exhibition The New American Painting where he encountered a work by Jackson Pollock entitled Number 12 that had a profound effect. Abstract Expressionism bore witness to a freedom of expression and a vitality of approach that was spontaneous and direct. For Walker, it was a visceral response – physical, honest and real. Urgent brushstrokes or paint liberally poured onto the canvas, colour interactions across the surface, a sense of active space, tensions in pictorial depth, the push and pull of forms, all evidencing pure unhindered expression. These works strongly resonated with Walker and fuelled a lifetime of exploration into the potential of painting as a medium to offer an impassioned language of authenticity. He comments, “When you paint something it has got to be perfectly honest and perfectly truthful. And that’s the only way. And that’s what New York has taught me.”
Walker’s impact and his importance, stems partly from his constant innovation, he has been ceaseless in his quest, never settling, always charging forward, each time with renewed vigour and conviction, motivated by the mission of the work. As writer and critic Dore Ashton described in the introduction to Walker’s exhibition at the Hayward Gallery in 1985, he “works with the exuberance of a tinkerer or with the solemnity of an old master.” He has long been preoccupied by shape, questioning its impact and significance. Through his work, he has persistently embraced the possibilities of form and considered how it is possible to truly imbue such form with meaning. As he expressed in 1972, “But if I was going to make non-objective art, the shapes I was going to use would have to have dignity, if you like. They would have to have a presence, always, which made them a sort of phenomenon. They conveyed feelings. They could not just be a red shade next to a black shade.” In this, Malevich offered a touchstone to Walker, “One of the most inspiring things I ever read was by Malevich who, when asked what his ambition was, said to imbue a square with feeling. Somehow that square had to act figuratively – not abstractly, even though it was an abstract form.” This, he realised, was the same mission undertaken by Rembrandt, to convey human emotion through the parameters of a pictorial image, and it was the recognition of this parallel that enabled the door to open into the potentiality of abstraction.
For shape to have substance and the composition of elements to have true merit, Walker has embraced a journey which has barely left a page unturned in the history of art. References to the European masters Rembrandt, Vermeer, Velazquez, Goya, Manet, Matisse and Picasso, among others have infiltrated the work. Walker comments “I am a painter, and I respond” acknowledging the importance of this dialogue with the art of the past to provide the core building blocks to channel his direction in the present.
In his ‘Labyrinth’ series of the late 1970s and early 1980s Walker pays homage to Velazquez’s Las Meninas (1656) evidently relating to the multi-layered depths, interrogation of pictorial space and compositional drama in the iconic painting. A similar level of inspiration can be traced to Vermeer. Walker has referenced Vermeer’s View of Delft (c.1659-61) as an image that endures with him, no doubt influenced by the clarity of detail and gleaming richness of paint, comparable to the compelling diffused light and luminosity of intimate portraits within his interior studies. Walker has long been deeply affected by the intense pictorial language of Goya who he has described as his enduring hero, omnipresent in his mind and who has reduced him to tears on seeing his work in the Prado.Goya’s virtuosity of composition and the emotional, psychological drama of his paintings evidently resonate on a level that has penetrated Walker’s psyche and impacted his own approach.
Walker’s interrogation of the picture plane owes debt to the visual and structural analysis of Cubism and the possibilities opened by Picasso and Braque for their spatial invention and interpretation of form. Equally, Walker finds a close affinity with Matisse in a shared visual dialogue. The compression of depth and flattening of form, moving to the use of linear rhythms, colour interactions, evocative distortion of shape and composition as depicted by Matisse clearly struck a chord with Walker in his search to realise his own vision of the subject experienced. Walker, like Matisse, tenaciously pursues an idea in a process of interrogation and reconfiguration until achieving something close to the semblance of his perception, probing the very essence of painting. Matisse describes, “For me nature is always present. As in love, all depends on what the artist unconsciously projects on everything he sees. It is the quality of that projection, rather than the presence of a living person, that gives the artist’s vision of life.” This same sentiment can be seen observed in Walker’s uncompromising determination to achieve his aim.
Integral to Walker’s practice, and his ability to gain proximity to the essence of his subject, is the process of drawing. For him, drawing is the essential lifeblood, the connection between heart, hand and mind. He draws daily to enable him to look, to think and to feel. Drawing enables him to examine and to understand, to deconstruct and reconfigure in order to get beneath the surface and reveal the essence. Walker’s engagement with drawing is revealing of what, for him, drives the creation of the work. His drawings are never preparatory, in fact, quite the opposite. He frequently draws from his paintings in a process of assimilation and questioning, a way to assess whether his paintings have achieved that which he is striving to convey. From drawing to painting back to drawing, he works assiduously until the image that he arrives at has this necessary vitality, as he describes, “I’m interested in what the painting has become not its intention. If the painting is going well it creates its own representation, its own reality so then I’m totally convinced it is reality.” For Walker, one work leads into the next and then the next in a pursuit of perpetual discovery. It brings to mind the first line from T. S. Eliot’s poem ‘East Coker’ from the Four Quarters, “In my beginning is my end.” The great gift of Walker’s work is in its presence, a result of his steadfast resolve and his belief in the transcendental power of painting.
© Dr Claudia Milburn, February 2023
 John Walker, Interview with Bowdoin College, 2017
 John Walker, “John Walker on his painting,” Studio International, June 1972, 244
 Dore Ashton, “Introduction”, John Walker, Hayward Gallery catalogue, 1985, 5
 John Walker, “John Walker on his painting,” Studio International, June 1972, 245
 John Walker, Interview with Colin Smith, associate editor of Turps Banana in Paintings, Prints and Works on Paper 2008-2018, Messums Wiltshire
 John Walker, “John Walker on his painting,” Studio International, June 1972, 244
 Matisse – In Raymond Escholier, Matisse ce vivant. Paris, 1956. Translation: Matisse from the Life, London 1960.
 John Walker, Interview with Bowdoin College, 2017
 T. S. Eliot, ‘East Coker’ in the Four Quartets, (London: Faber and Faber, 1944).