Leon Kossoff: “A tortoise obsessed with oily stuff?”

Memorably described by Robert Hughes, the art of Leon Kossoff can be seen in London this month

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Exactly a year after it was given a preview in the British Pavilion at the Venice Biennale, the exhibition of recent paintings by Leon Kossoff, the painter memorably described by Robert Hughes as “a tortoise obsessed with oily stuff”, is opening at the Tate Gallery (6 June-1 September).

The exhibition has been shown at the Kunstverein Düsseldorf, and at the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, but has now been expanded into a proper survey covering forty years of activity, with ninety paintings, but no drawings. It provides a first opportunity to assess Kossoff’s recent work in the context of his long career and, according to Tate curator Paul Moorhouse who has been responsible for devising the enlarged version of the exhibition, it is expected to explode some of the preconceptions that continue to linger in any discussion of the artist.

The popular view of Kossoff as a painter of gloomy subjects portrayed in a dark, monochromatic palette and with a heavy and sticky technique may hold for the bomb and building sites that he was exploring at the beginning of his career, but is less applicable to the subsequent stages of his development.

A profound psychological change appears to have taken place in his art by 1969, when he embarked upon his series of swimming pool compositions, the four large versions of which will be shown together in Room III of the exhibition for the first time since they were seen at the Whitechapel Art Gallery in 1972. They are celebrations of the pleasures of life and convey a lighter touch and a more optimistic mood. Now the skeins of paint that decorate the surface of his recent pictures and that attracted so much comment when he held his first exhibition with Anthony d’Offay in 1988 will be seen to have been a constant feature in his art during the last twenty-five years, the result of his working practice of laying his canvases flat on the ground and passing his brush over their surfaces.

The final room of the exhibition will expand upon the front room of the Biennale installation by juxtaposing four paintings of a flower stall by the Embankment underground station, the new subject in Kossoff’s art, with six pictures of Christ Church, Spitalfields.

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