Bruce Tippett


Bruce Tippett was born in England in 1933. After starting to draw and paint at a young age, he went on to study at the Slade School of Art, London. When he left the Slade School in July 1957, he took a night job and during the day 'painted the deep blues and silhouettes of the early morning light and the damp deep greens of the garden outside my window'. During his Slade years he had produced numerous charcoal drawings, often visiting building sites around London with his sketchbook before the men started work. He made lone trips by bicycle around East Anglia, Yorkshire, North Wales and the Southern Countries. In Suffolk he drew the marsh landscapes and explored the effects of water. His first 'authentic' abstract paintings (as opposed to student experiments) were initially based on these naturalistic charcoal drawings. As he told Alan Bowness in 1958: 'It was while drawing some stakes in water that I realised the inherent difference between my experience in front of nature and my experiences while actually working at drawing and painting. The realisation was all important, and eventually I eliminated all associative elements from my work.'

In 1957, Tippett saw the first Japanese films to come to London. They were shown at the British Film Institute in a series called A Light in the Japanese Window. That same year he also saw Japanese brush paintings for the first time at the British Museum (which now have nine drawings by Tippett in their collection). He recalls now that 'something awoke in me and I entered another realm'. The works of the Japanese calligraphers inspired him by their mixture of spontaneity and contemplation. Like the Zen masters, Tippett achieved spontaneity by constantly paring down the image and concentrating on its essential spirit, with no sign of the struggle involved.

When Tippett first saw a work by Hans Hartung at Gimpel Fils in May 1958, he was struck by the similarities of their respective calligraphic styles. These similarities had different had different origins. In Tippett's case the energetic strokes and lines came from his early drawings of reeds and stakes in marsh landscapes and the studies he had made of building structures, whereas Hartung's expressive calligraphy came from his early experiments with automatism. In Hartung's work emotional energy was expressed in graphic form as he allied improvisation and direct gestural action to a disciplined technique. In an introduction to the catalogue for the Graphic Action exhibition of 1958, John Coplans described how in graphic media 'the chain reaction of decisions' are recorded visually; how 'the images emerge from permutations of the repetitive gesture and the identity of the artist is revealed in the process'. Tippett felt that it was the energy expressed in this way which 'makes a 'thing' into a work of art'. Alan Bowness pointed out that 'having made the first steps on his own, Tippett realized that the calligraphic paintings of Hartung pointed in the direction he wished to go', although he acknowledged that 'by the end of 1957 Tippett had reached something that was recognizably an original manner'. Bowness praised the drawings from the late 1957 and early 1958 as having 'a remarkable ease and assurance: they are probably his most completely successful work to date'.

Although some references to natural forms lingered, Tippett's work became increasingly non-imitative as he isolated the purely graphic and chromatic elements. He began to transform his calligraphic style into something more painterly and his abstractions became increasingly lyrical, coloured areas floating in a subtly defined space. As Michele Nigro wrote around this time, 'a transcendent ceremony takes place when an image materializes on Tippett's canvas. The artist is not satisfied with merely transporting the image. It is essential for him to get to its core and assimilate its essence...'. Tippett's first solo exhibition was at Lord's Gallery, London in 1958, and he left for Paris on a French Government scholarship.

In Paris, Tippett was exposed to The New American Painting and became increasingly interested in the work of contemporary American artists like Morris Louis and Kenneth Noland. By 1959 he had stopped using oil colour and was using oil colour and was using plastic paint stained into raw canvas, poured in layers or applied with rollers, with technical advice from the Paris director of Dutch paint company Talens. By 1961, Tippett, now living in Italy, added elements of wood, plastic or cloth to his canvases. Giorgio de Marchis, writing from Rome in 1965 in Art International described Tippett's paintings done during the previous two years as 'still showing on the raw canvas elements such as wood (strips) combined with colour areas, both reduced to their simplest expression. They are combined in symmetries which repeat isolated motifs in the search for an image in which they are readable in constructional context. The movement which animated the field of the previous canvases is here replaced by an investigation or measuring of space beyond the canvas itself. Those material elements which scan the canvas project solidly beyond the stretcher frame, making the canvas area itself an element of the construction.'

In later paintings 'the colour field is organized in geometric figures or, better, in geometric sections inspired by the significance of mathematical or natural models which, like the spiral, have become archetypal. The canvas is almost always square... the shape determined by the colour area - often asymmetrical but always logically related to the framing edge - develops and continues in the rolling of the canvas itself along one of its edges.' Tippett met the New York gallerist Betty Parsons at the Venice Bienniale in 1966, and she subsequentlyvisited Tippett's studio in Rome, choosing some of his 'scroll' top paintings for her gallery. In 1969, Tippett had his first solo show in New York at the Betty Parsons Gallery, making radical work involving the use of fifty foot lengths of rubber matting with which the audience interacted. Tippett remained in New York and continued to exhibit with Parsons until 1981, the year before she died. Through the mid 1960s to the mid 1970s, Tippet travelled and worked in Paris, Rome and New York. From his innovative 'scroll' paintings and rubber matting sculptures of the 1960s, the spray-gun paintings and charcoal drawings of the 1970s, to his works of recent years, Tippett's concerns have remained unchanged. He has always worked 'towards clarification . . . to make contact by the sheer spirit of the image'. Lynne Green, writing in the catalogue for his 2008 exhibition in Leeds, describes how in the 1970s, 'Tippett used a spray gun to make grid-like paintings - Minimalism and control gave way to more organic forms, where the sprayed paint articulated the folds of fine cotton sheeting, and water, poured through the fabric, created ripples that echoed those created by wind in sand or on the ocean. This echo of organic and natural form continued in the work, with prolonged periods spent exclusively producing charcoal drawings - many of large scale. Evoking the simplified, gestural landscapes of Japanese brush paintings that had been so significant earlier in his career, Tippett returned to this medium and this theme again and again. The loosely landscape-inspired sense of form remains an important element in his contemporary drawings, whether in colour or black and white.'

Throughout his career, Tippett has maintained a consistent mastery of his techniques, together with the characteristics elegance and fineness of surface for which he is known. In the 1980s, Tippett returned to London to live and work, and over the next decade he travelled in India, and divided his time between London and France. Since 2005, he has lived and worked in a studio in Sainte-Foy-la-Grande, France.

Jane England


Aberdeen City Art Gallery, Scotland (UK)

Arts Council England, London (UK)

Betty Parsons Collection, New York (USA)

British Museum, London (UK)

Chase Manhattan Bank, New York (USA)

Chemical Bank, New York (USA)

Contemporary Art Society, London (UK)

Continental Group Inc, New York (USA)

Derby Museum, England (UK)

Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Moderna, Rome (Italia)

Graves Art Gallery, Sheffield, England (UK)

Huddersfield Art Gallery, England (UK)

John Carroll University, Cleveland, Ohio (USA)

Leicestershire Education Authority, Leicester, England (UK)

Museum of Modern Art, New York (USA)

Newark Museum, New Jersey (USA)

Rockefeller University, New York (USA)

Roland Gibson Art Foundation, Dunbarton, New Hampshire (USA)

Royal Albert Memorial Museum, Exeter, England (UK)

Southampton City Art Gallery, England (UK)

The Economist, London (UK)

The Financial Times, London (UK)

Unilever Ltd., London (UK)

Victoria & Albert Museum, London (UK)