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John Blackburn, Brown, Black, White, Red, 1962

Who made it?

This work is by the British abstract painter John Blackburn. Born in Luton, Blackburn studied at Thanet and Maidenhead Art Schools. After a period of National Service he spent seven years in New Zealand and the Pacific Islands where he developed his trademark style of indigo blue and black forms set against a white background. Blackburn was particularly interested in Abstract Expressionism, the work of Francis Bacon and tachisme, a type of gestural abstract painting which allows for a more intuitive and active approach to painting.

About this work

Painted in oil on hardboard in 1962, the painting depicts four rectangular blocks of colour hovering in a sea of burnt brown shades. The disjointed boxes of white, red and black echo American Abstract Expressionist painter Mark Rothko’s reverberating horizontal bands of colour, particularly in their borders which appear to recede into the background; and in the subtle tonal similarities between the two white boxes, which, juxtaposed with Blackburn’s deep red and opaque black, acquire an almost translucent delicacy.

This piece, along with 15 other works by Blackburn, is currently on show in Discovery Through Display at the Alison Richard Building until 24 March 2017. Visitors to the exhibition will have the opportunity to see the scope of Blackburn’s work, from the simple impact of black and white and the sudden intervention of other colours, to the variety and energy of the application of the paint; the use of impasto and thin veils and the dry crusty surfaces set against glutinous gloss. This versatility in the use of materials is present in the majority of the works and shows Blackburn’s experimental process.

Why is it in the Kettle’s Yard collection?

Kettle’s Yard creator Jim Ede wrote to Blackburn in April 1962 – the first letter in a correspondence that was to last for over a decade. Ede began by stating what a pleasure it had been for him to look at Blackburn’s paintings recently at the Woodstock Gallery in London, before going on: ‘I was distressed that they were not selling – I suppose they are mostly too big – the only small one I did not feel quite got you or I would have made a bid. But what I did feel was an immense vigour and sensitivity to texture and colour and a joy in the doing of it – really painting.’ The well-connected Ede went on to promote Blackburn at every opportunity and acquired over twenty of his paintings in the early 1960s.