Michael Kidner came to prominence in the early 1960s as one of many English abstract painters who, for whatever personal reasons, found themselves at odds with the dominant currency of the New York School of Abstract Expressionism. They were inclined to reject the intuitive gesture and the happy chance and fall of the paint: the work was cool and clean in tone and colour, flat on the surface and hard-edged in form and image, and entirely more cerebral and detached in spirit. More significantly perhaps, they looked back to the prewar European Constructivist and Suprematist tradition of Mondrian, Vantongerloo, Malevich, Lohse and Max Bill.
The 1960s were lively times to be a painter, and with Minimalist and Conceptualist ideas already significant ingredients in the contemporary mix, an instinctive formalist as a painter could readily be drawn towards a practice founded on visual and graphic patterns and systems, of which Op-Art was a natural fruit. Kidner indeed was to be one of its earliest and most consistent exponents, and it was in those overlapping of fields of systemic structure and optical effect that he was to find the creative substance that would sustain his entire career.
Colour itself, and the optical frisson afforded by close chromatic contrasts and complementary relationship, were what first engaged him. “An afterimage was the purest experience of colour I could recall,” he was to write much later. “However, it was too restrictive in its application to sustain my interest.” It was, perhaps, this, to him at least, necessary intellectual focus that would come to characterise all he did, in his sculpture and print-making quite as much as in his painting. “Through its working methods,” Lohse had once said, “systemic art is related to the structure of technology, science etc ... Before us lies a field of unknown laws and infinite flexibility.” Kidner would never profess any particular scientific or mathematical expertise, yet his fascination with the mysteries of science remained undimmed to the very end, he always alive to the novelties they were for ever throwing before him.
So, from pure colour, he soon moved on to experiment with formal structures, and so on again into number theory and further speculation into chaos and the big bang. At first it would be the structure or the system generating the image and pictorial sensation: but then came the reverse — the application of random principles to reveal a hidden order. “Since colour has to have a shape,” he once said, in looking back to his early work, “I became increasingly concerned with shape as an ingredient for colour sensation ... As time went on, the pattern of shapes came to dominate the colour intention. Colour became ... at best a code to help in deciphering the pattern ... I would like my painting to shift the context in which mystery occurs, towards a materialist interpretation.” But, already well into his forties by 1960, he was by any standard a late starter as an artist, for which career he had had no formal training. He was born in 1917, at Kettering, Northamptonshire, one of the six children of Norman Kidner, a successful industrialist who owned an ironworks near the town. Never robust as a child, he nearly died when he was 9 and was bedridden for a year. At Pangbourne Nautical College, where he was sent to be toughened up, he was bullied and deeply unhappy, remembering being “very isolated and turned in”. Identity, or the lack of it, was to prove a constant preoccupation throughout his life — well into old age he was to say, somewhat wistfully, “I sometimes wonder if I ever met myself.”
Removed to Bedales in Hampshire, however, he thrived, and from there went on to Jesus College, Cambridge, where he read history and anthropology, taking his degree in 1939. He promptly went on holiday to America to stay with an elder sister Betty, like him interested in art, and was there when the Second World War broke out. Persuaded to stay by his mother, Kathleen (his father had been killed in a motorcycle accident in 1936) [wrong - Norman died in 1931 - SK], he enrolled at Ohio State University to study landscape architecture. But he soon felt he should join up, and in 1941, while on his way home, volunteered for the Canadian Army, serving in the Signals Regiment for the next five years and seeing active service in France after D-Day.
Demobbed in 1946, he became a schoolmaster, teaching history at a prep school at Pitlochry in Perthshire and using the summer holidays to paint, which had been a consuming interest since his own schooldays. He had become particularly interested in Cézanne, and so travelled to Aix-en-Provence to work in the same landscape. There he joined the summer school run by the painter André Lhote, under whom he would later study informally in Paris. In 1954, by now married to Marion Frederick, an American actress who had come to England after the war, he bought a house in Belsize Park, North London, complete with a studio, and there turned properly at last to his art as a career, sustained, as is so often the case in England, by intermittent teaching. He had also come to his true self as an artist. “What I realised was that painting the landscape wasn’t respecting the space of the landscape, which is what I was trying to do ... A painting was something different from the landscape ... So I stopped being an illusionistic painter ... I distrusted illusionism and I turned to the notion of construction.”
But not until the turn of the decade did he appear fully as a painter, with a small show at St Hilda’s College, Oxford, in 1959, and a one-man show at the old Artists’ International Association (AIA) Gallery, off Leicester Square, the following year. But things then picked up with remarkable speed. He was a prizewinner at successive John Moores Liverpool exhibitions, in 1963 and 1965, with another solo London show, at Grabowski, in 1964. Also in 1964 he secured the safety net of a senior lectureship at the Bath Academy of Art, at Corsham Court in Somerset, which post he was to keep until 1980 — he was also to become, from the mid-1970s on, a visiting lecturer at the Slade.
In the mid-to-late 1960s English abstract painting, and especially in its cooler colour-field and systems aspects, was at its high-water mark, with such painters as Hoyland, Vaux, Tyzack, Bell, Huxley, Copnall, Richard Allen, Kenneth Martin, Dick Smith, Tess Jaray and Bridget Riley all for a while among Kidner’s prominent and successful contemporaries. He too would continue to show with a fair regularity throughout his life, in group shows at least, both at home and especially abroad. But with no major London gallery to support him, his public career at home then seemed to falter, in tune with the times, it must be said, as sculpture and Conceptualism between them took over.
He had but one solo show in London, with the estimable Lucy Milton at Notting Hill Gate, in the 1970s, and but two in the 1980s — though one was admittedly a full retrospective at the Serpentine, which still showed English painters in those days. After another in 1990, there would be none until he was taken on by Flowers East in 2004, the year in which he was elected to the Royal Academy as a senior academician. Yet latterly he was to see a considerable revival of interest in his work, as general critical interest itself returned to the abstract painting of the 1960s and early 1970s.
For the past ten years, he had suffered from cerebellar ataxia, which robbed him of the use of his legs and affected his hands. Yet still in full command of his faculties, he continued to work to the end, with the constant aid and support of Adrian Richardson, who was the companion of his last years. He had cancer diagnosed barely a month before his death, even as a small show of his working studies from the 1960s, Dreams of a World Order, opened at the Royal Academy. His wife Marion died in 2003, and their adopted son, Simon, was, like Kidner’s father, killed in a motorcycle accident, in 1982.
Obituary from The Independent of 16 December 2009:
Michael Kidner: Pioneering Op artist inspired by mathematics who strove to eliminate subjectivity from his work
Wednesday, 16 December 2009
When Marion Frederick, an American actress, wed her husband in London in 1949, a friend of the groom shook her warmly by the hand and said, "Congratulations! You have married the most well-mannered man in England." That man was the artist, Michael Kidner, whose death brings to an end an era in British painting and, possibly, in British politeness.
Good manners and artistic bent do not always go hand in hand, but in Kidner's case they were specifically allied. If his work is usually described as Op Art – Optical artists play tricks on the eye with geometric shapes – then it might more properly be seen as Systems Art. Broadly, Systems artists imitate the self-propagating processes of nature – cellular reproduction, say, or the formation of shells – to make work which generates itself. Thus Kidner's Four Colour Wave (1965), in the Tate Collection, works out colour and form as a kind of algorithmic equation, proceeding from A to Z by a set of rules which the picture itself purports to provide.
By working in this way, all Systems painters – Kenneth Noland's '60s chevron pieces are probably the best-known Systematic works – aim to eliminate subjectivity from art, and with it signs of their own hand. In Kidner's case, this self-effacement seemed part of that almost painful British politeness remarked upon at his wedding – a reticence instilled in him by another system, now pretty well extinct, based on class, education and a belief in the virtues of modesty. He wanted his waves, he said, to come to their own end rather than to his. To impose a conclusion on them would be to "express the personal taste of the artist," an indulgence Kidner abjured.
Born into a family of well-to-do Midlands industrialists, Michael Kidner was a sickly child: a streptococcal infection nearly killed him at the age of nine, and he was bed-ridden for a year. To toughen him up, he was sent to Pangbourne Nautical College, a notoriously robust school founded to turn out naval officers. (The soldier and SOE operative, David Smiley, the inspiration for John Le Carré's eponymous hero, was a contemporary.) Later, Kidner, much bullied, recalled that, "At Pangbourne I became very turned-in. I think maybe the habit persisted."
After his father's death in a motorcycle accident when he was 14, he was sent to Bedales. The more liberal regime there suited him better, and he passed his exams for Cambridge, going up to read history in 1936. On a visit to a sister in America after graduation, he was trapped by the outbreak of war. Crossing the border, he joined the Canadian Army and served in France after the D-Day landings.
It was only on his return to Britain in 1946 that Kidner took up art. At the age of 30 he travelled to Aix-en-Provence to paint in Cézanne country, meeting the Cubist artist and teacher, André Lhote. By now, he had also met Marion Frederick, who pushed him to continue his studies with Lhote in Paris. This was to set a pattern in their marriage which would persist until her death in 2003.
If Marion Kidner had wed the most well-mannered man in England, she had little time for politeness herself. Outgoing and abrasive, her style was a perfect foil for her husband's. Although there is little doubt that some gallerists were put off by her manner – a feud with Robert Graves, a neighbour in the Majorcan village of Deya, lasted for decades – it also provided the necessary dash of aggression missing in Kidner himself. It was Marion Kidner, for example, who invited the film-maker, Peter Sykes, to shoot The Committee in the basement of the couple's Belsize Park house in 1968, thus ensuring them a walk-on part in Pink Floyd's first movie.
With his wife handling the harsher realities of the art world, Kidner could concentrate on making work that was, like himself, ever more self-contained. From the 1970s on, his self-perpetuating mathematical systems came to include forms such as the stripe, the pentagon and the column; an early proponent of computers in art, he experimented with computer-aided design. For all their esoteric underpinnings, the works that resulted were often suffused with an emotionalism Kidner found difficult to express in life. One deeply moving silkscreen, Requiem, recalls the death of his adopted son, Simon, known as Og, in a motorcycle accident in 1982.
If his paintings gained recognition abroad, particularly in Poland and Germany, they tended to be eclipsed at home by the showier images of Op artists such as Bridget Riley. The Tate bought mostly works on paper, and none of these after 1984. It was only in 2004, at the age of 87, that Kidner was finally elected a Royal Academician. His wife, who dyed her hair turquoise in the late 1990s, had died the year before, and Kidner himself had recently been diagnosed with cancer. Despite suffering from a nervous condition which robbed him of the use of his legs, he continued to paint, with the help of an assistant, until the day of his death.
In an interview a decade earlier, Michael Kidner had summed up his attitude to art (and, perhaps, to life) thus. "Expression," he said, "exists in all of us, so why single it out as if to say, I'm the one? For me, I can only be expressive when I'm not being self-conscious. Or, you know, attempting to be."
Michael Kidner, artist, born Kettering, Northamptonshire 11 September 1917, married 1949 Marion Frederick (died 2003; one adopted son, deceased); Royal Academician, 2004; died London 29 November 2009.
Last updated on 16th December 2009
Left, Entangled Roots of Hyacinth Bulbs, 2007
Michael Kidner, Artist and Sculptor (1917-2009)
Obituary from The Times of 12.12.2009
Left, Entangled Roots of Hyacinth Bulbs, 2007