New YorkPeter Joseph: The Border Paintings
Lisson Gallery presents an exhibition of works by Peter Joseph, the artist to have held the longest continuous association with Lisson Gallery. Joseph was in the process of planning this exhibition of important paintings from the 1980s and 1990s, when he passed away at age 91 in November 2020.
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Formally trained in graphic design, Peter Joseph pursued an artistic career only after surviving a dangerous, near fatal brain tumor in his 20s. He visited the exhibition The New American Painting at the Tate Gallery in 1959, at the age of 29, where he first experienced the work of Abstract Expressionist painters Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman. His own works before 1970 focused on primary color and performativity at scale, garnering critical and institutional acclaim. However, Joseph’s ultimate aesthetic epiphany came during a visit to the cinema in the late 1960s when he fell asleep during the film, waking to be bathed in just the residual flickering light of the projector on the silver screen. Joseph sat staring at this blank space, the faint central glow of the empty projection creating a darker border around it. This experience inspired the nuanced relationship of light and color between a border and a central motif that would come to define his oeuvre for many decades to come, containing what he described, in conversation with Hans Ulrich Obrist, as “a delicacy about it. It wasn’t just a simple tone or color. And I realized that this, to me, had more possibility in it for what I could only call a reflection.”
Gradually, with Joseph’s ever thoughtful and deliberate focus, and ‘less is more’ philosophy, the outline of these Border works became thicker as he began to play with the relative color and size of the two rectangles. By the 1980s – after a significant number of these works were acquired by the Panza Collection (now part of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation) – the paintings evolved again, foregrounding the emotional charge of the sublime over the intellectual pursuit of abstract, hard-edged painting. Reflecting upon that original cinematic encounter, Joseph began to experiment with subtle tonal difference by juxtaposing complementary swatches of paper one on top of another. These studies, and the subsequent paintings, were typically titled with the two constituent colors, for example Light Pink with Cobalt Blue (1994). Their simplicity sought to convey clarity and depth in both vision and feeling. The exhibition at Lisson Gallery traces this undulation between the scale and proportion of the rectangles, displaying studies and paintings created nearly 40 years ago.
Throughout his career, Joseph cited early Venetian and Florentine painting, as well as Classical and Neo-Classical architecture as his primary influences, and subscribed to methodologies more typically associated with Renaissance painters and the likes of Claude Lorrain and Tintoretto, than of his minimalist contemporaries. He painted in natural light, from his studio in the English countryside, and believed the work should be viewed in similar conditions, so that they could be ‘absorbed’. His appreciation for tonality and time-based sensibilities imbued his work with melody and harmony. As Nicholas Logsdail noted in his recent reflection on the artist’s life for Frieze magazine: “He compared his paintings to music and often spoke of music as the first form of abstraction, with many great composers, from Johann Sebastian Bach onwards, more interested in sentiment than narrative. This was what Peter sought: to remove the content while retaining the meaning, thereby amplifying the emotion.”
About Peter Joseph
Peter Joseph had, over the course of decades, dedicated his practice to seeking the potential in constraint. He rose to critical acclaim in the 1970s for his meditative, two-color paintings, which set one rectangle within a frame of a darker shade. These early works were characterized by perfect symmetry, where every decision about color and proportion could be seen to be redolent of time, mood or place. While comparable to the work of Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman, Joseph’s was an anomalous strain of Minimalism: his allegiance lay as much with Renaissance masters as with his contemporaries. More recently his format had departed from his established ‘architecture’ to divide the canvas into two planes, horizontally or vertically, wherein loose brushwork, natural tones and patches of exposed canvas tap into new feeling. As Joseph said: ‘A painting must generate feeling otherwise it is dead’.
Peter Joseph (1929 – 2020) was born in London, and lived and worked in Stroud, Gloucestershire, UK. He has had solo exhibitions at Unité d’habitation Le Corbusier, Briey-en-fôret, France (1998); Museum of Modern Art, Oxford, UK (1994) and Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, IL, USA (1983). He has been included in major group shows at Sotheby’s S|2, London, UK (2018); FRAC Nord-Pas de Calais, Dunkirk, France (2014); Nouveau Musée National de Monaco, France (2013); Neues Museum Weserburg, Bremen, Germany (2010); Musée d’art moderne et contemporain, Geneva, Switzerland (2008); MuHKA, Museum voor Hedendaagse Kunst, Antwerp, Belgium (2007); Northern Gallery of Contemporary Art, Sunderland, UK (2005); Kunstmuseum Wolfsburg, Germany (2002); Fundacao Serralves, Porto, Portugal (1999); Kunstmuseum Wolfsburg, Wolfsburg, Germany (1991); Stadtische Kunsthalle Düsseldorf, Germany (1984) and the Royal Academy of Arts, London, UK (1977). His work can be found in many public collections including Art Gallery of New South Wales, Australia; Arts Council of Great Britain; British Council, London; De Menil Foundation, Texas, USA; Fogg Art Museum, Philadelphia, USA; Fonds Regional d’art contemporain, France; Kunsthaus, Zurich, Switzerland; Migros Collection, Zurich, Switzerland; Museum of Modern Art, Geneva, Switzerland; Panza Collection, Milan, Italy; Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, US; Southampton City Art Gallery, UK; Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, Netherlands; Tate Gallery, London, UK; Victoria and Albert Museum, London, UK; Walker Art Gallery, Minneapolis, US.
Installation view of ‘Peter Joseph: The Border Paintings’ at Lisson Gallery, New York, 16 February – 24 April 2021. Courtesy Lisson Gallery