An Interview with Artist Harvey Daniels ( 1936-2013 )

May, 2010

Harvey Daniels has been exhibiting his paintings and prints since the early 1960s. Born in London, Daniels attended the Willesden School of Art where he received a National Diploma in Design, the Slade School of Fine Art, London University where he received a Diploma in Fine Art, and Brighton College of Art (now the University of Brighton) where he received an Art Teachers Diploma. Daniels served as Principal Lecturer in Printmaking at Brighton College of Art from 1970-1989. He has taught and lectured at other universities in the UK, in the US where he was visiting Putnam Professor at Ohio University, Athens in 1990, and in Norway and Australia. Since 1963 Daniels has had 52 solo exhibitions in the UK, Scotland, Germany, the US, France and Norway. He has written four books on printmaking, including Printmaking (Paul Hamlyn, 1970) and Exploring Printmaking for Young People (with Silvie Turner, Van Nostrand Reinhold,1972). Daniels’ work is found in numerous private, corporate and public collections including: in the US, the Museum of Modern Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City; the Detroit Institute of Art and the Flint Museum of Art, Michigan; the Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, Connecticut; and the Kennedy Museum of Art, Ohio University, Athens, Ohio; in the UK, the Victoria and Albert Museum, the British Council Collection, the South London Art Gallery and London University in London;  the Hove Museum of Art, Sussex; the Aldrich Collection of the University of Brighton; the Shipley Art Gallery, Gateshead; the City Art Gallery, Leeds; the Towner Art Gallery, Eastbourne; and Trinity College, Oxford; and in Norway, the Bergens Kunstforening. Daniels maintains studios in Brighton, UK and Lézan, France. He is married to artist, Judy Stapleton.

Julie Karabenick: Your work has been described by art historian Norbert Lynton as “visual carnival.”

Harvey Daniels: My work is primarily celebratory.

Oo-La-La, acrylic on canvas, 105 x 222 cm (41 x 87 in), 2006

I want a sense of excitement and happiness in my work, and seek this through unusual and surprising juxtapositions of shape, color and line—juxtapositions that don’t necessarily follow an obvious logic.

Adjust, acrylic on canvas,
122 x 60 cm (48 x 24 in), 2009

Wit and humor are important aspects of my work. Most of the paintings I enjoy are both witty and joyful, for instance the paintings of Matisse, Miró and Stuart Davis. And for me, my work has to have an emotional charge, a poetry, even though my art is non-figurative and geometric.

Two by Two
Two by Two, acrylic on canvas, 122 x 183 cm (48 x 72 in), 2008

JK: Your palette is certainly celebratory.

HD: I’m currently painting in pure saturated color. I enjoy putting colors together that are not too easy to assimilate and that give a frisson when seen next to one another. This is not a theoretical or even an intellectual decision, but has to do with an intuitive feeling of what the painting needs, which, of course, evolves as I work.

Both color and tone help hold the work together. I usually include blacks of different hues—blue-blacks, brown-blacks. The blacks are accents that point up the color and enhance the sense of carnival; they provide a feeling of both solidity and excitement and temper the potential sweetness of my palette.

That my color is bright and “sings” may be the reason why so many critics describe my work as “musical.” And, yes, music is important to my work—not as a response to music, but making music in the work itself, so that a painting may arouse feelings that one might get from, say, a piece of jazz.

Art History II
Art History II, acrylic on canvas, 26 x 31 cm (10 x 12 in), 2009

The way I put together colors and shapes—the harmonies and dynamic contrasts I use—contribute to this feeling of musicality. They create visual rhythms and a sense of excitement. The brightness of a viridian against a black, the contrast of ribbons of color against rectilinear shapes—these are just as much a part of the musicality as the overall vibrancy of color. I seek an overall visual harmony in my work; however, within that, I allow some parts to behave in unexpected ways.

Close Call
Close Call, acrylic on canvas, 41 x 60 cm (16 x 24 in), 2008

JK: Your works are populated primarily by geometric shapes.

HD: Since 1980 I’ve used geometric imagery in various ways. I may use only about 20 or 25 motifs, which include the square, circle and triangle. I develop these simple motifs into what are often very complex works. My marks and shapes become autobiographical and personal due to how I use them—their particular context and handling make them mine.

Warmth, watercolor, 30 x 26 cm (12 x 10 in), 1998

I sometimes use curves and asymmetrical ribbon shapes to counter the rigor of the geometry. Often my smaller watercolors, like Bitter AO, may be fairly whimsical.

Bitter AO
Bitter AO, watercolor, 30 x 20 cm (12 x 8 in), 2003

JK: A grid—typically irregular or interrupted—helps to structure your work.

HD: I find that now, even though my paintings may begin loose and open, they always seem to tighten up in a geometric way. I don’t start out with an allover grid, but I usually end up with a grid-like structure. With the grid I’m seeking a structure that emphasizes the hard edges and straight lines in my work and the way that light works within the painting.

Yet I avoid the complete regularity of the grid. For example, in Art History III, shapes continue across grid boundaries, often changing color when passing through its divisions.

Art History III
Art History III, acrylic on canvas, 26 x 31 cm (10 x 12 in), 2009

JK: The diagonals in your work—whether they define individual shapes or function as larger structuring lines—further challenge the order and stability of the grid.

HD: Angles add dynamism. The use of a triangle in the right relation to other shapes adds potency to the work. In Open, the central area is lighter and tilts in opposition to the darker checkerboard it contains. There’s a sense of space and light and an overall quality that here is only gently disturbed by the diagonals.

Open, acrylic on canvas, 100 x 127 cm (39 x 50 in), 2009

New City, a large painting, is more geometric than many of mine. Repeating colors and shapes give it a more allover feeling. It resides at the moment in a boardroom of Imperial College designed by architect, Norman Foster.

New City
New City, acrylic on canvas, 180 x 150 cm (71 x 59 in), 1997

JK: In a highly energized painting like Adjust III, the grid elements along the borders appear to offer some stability—in sharp contrast to the jostling diagonals of the center.

HD: Unlike New CityAdjust III does not have an allover feel to it, and there’s a sharp contrast between the framing grid and the central area. This is something that’s happening increasingly in my most recent work.

Adjust III, watercolor and gouache,
100 x 67 cm (39 ix 26 in), 2009

HD: The edges of my compositions are very important. I start a painting with structural lines that are often parallel to the edges of the canvas. Then these framing areas are divided in various ways.

JK: As we’ve seen, you pay particular attention to outer edges.

All the Way
All the Way, acrylic on canvas,
122 x 61 cm (48 x 24 in), 2008

As seen in Go for Gold, below, the edges may be broken by assertively intruding shapes. Here, linear strips of small colored forms interrupt the edges and run towards the more focal center.

Go For Gold
Go for Gold, acrylic on canvas, 137 x 137 cm (54 x 54 in), 2005

My work has a lot in common with collage, although I rarely make collages as such. My shapes frequently overlap one another, adding a certain quality of the unexpected and a vitality that I like to exploit.

JK: You sometimes include black and white areas—as if the color had been selectively drained away. At times, these areas appear as grids within the larger grid.

Shifting Image
Shifting Image, acrylic on canvas,
122 x 91 cm (48 x 36 in), 2009

HD: The black, white and grey areas in many of my paintings since the late 80s reflect changes in mood within a piece. They are always geometric and meant to surprise. They present me with the challenge of using an area without color against saturated, rich color, something a viewer might find difficult to accept. For me, the main decision is whether to use a black line that emphasizes their diagrammatic aspect or only grey, black and white tones.

At times these grey areas have the character of plans or maps. This is especially true in paintings like Flamingo Map and Map II.

Flamingo Map, watercolor,
34 x 18 cm (13 x 7 in), 2003
Map II, watercolor, 57 x 22 cm
(22 x 7 in), 2005

JK: Looking back over your career, although you’ve worked abstractly with geometric forms for many years, you’ve said that you came quite slowly and gradually to abstraction.

HD: As a student in the 1950s, I felt that modern art had moved away from the important aspects of the great art of the past. I thought it was important to follow the masters, and delighted in the work of Chardin and Rembrandt in particular. I also greatly admired the work of British painter, Walter Sickert, painter of people and urban scenes.

However, I also recall staying with my parents at a hotel in Brighton at the age of eight or nine where I found a book on Matisse printed in black and white. I realized that here was something special even if I didn’t understand why—so influences and enthusiasms are not always straightforward.

At age 15 I began five years of academic training in the Art Department of Willesden Technical College. In my early student days, I painted still lifes, portraits, and landscapes in a traditional manner.

Still Life with Onions
Still Life with Onions, oil on canvas, 48 x 58 cm (19 x 23 in), 1955

Drawing is an important aspect of my work. The baths drawing, below, was made as part of an art examination for the National Design Diploma.

Hampstead Baths
Hampstead Baths, conté and white crayon, 46 x 58 cm (18 x 23 in), 1956

Next I spent two years at the Slade School of Fine Art of the University of London where I drew from the landscape, the figure and the urban scene. Paul Klee was the most modern of the artists I enjoyed at that time. I then spent 1958-59 at the Brighton College of Art—now Brighton University.

By the early 1960s, I was becoming very dissatisfied with the art I was making. My landscapes at this time were often sky, foreground and middle distance, usually in straight horizontal lines across the canvas or paper.

Hamstead Heath
Hampstead Heath, gouache on card, 28 x 36 cm (11 x 14 in), 1958

At most art schools in the 50s it was thought that by working in the style of recognized artists, one would eventually discover one’s own style; however, I felt my work was becoming overly influenced in this way. At the same time, my art was becoming too abstract to suit me.

I wanted to make work that had very little art world baggage. I enjoyed some of the Pattern painters, but I also wanted a certain simplicity. I found Stuart Davis to be one of the most exciting of the modern American artists of the early 20th century. I liked his directness and a seriousness that didn’t exclude a sense of playfulness.

I found it impossible to stop making things, so I decided to make work about what really interested me. At the time I lived in Brighton, which is on the coast. I began to paint beachwear, plastic objects, and accessories. I was a dandy and collected such things back then. I created imagery that was greatly simplified.

Two BikinisJug and Leaves

Two Bikinis, brush and ink,
76 x 50 cm 
(30 x 20 in), 1964

Jug and Leaves, brush and gouache,
63 x 51 cm (25 x 20 in), 1968

My work from this time and into the 1970s was written about as Pop art. However, I was never really interested in Pop art ideas, and I didn’t take my images from popular culture. I used personal and intimate objects—things that had a special meaning and emotional charge for me.

Paintings like Red and Green Bikini marked the beginning of my use of simple images in bright colors. Without the image of the bikini, this would be a nonobjective painting. It’s interesting that, as in my current work, the edges here are given individual attention. Areas of pattern would become increasingly important to me.

Red and Green Bikini

Red and Green Bikini, oil on canvas, 91 x 122 cm (36 x 48 in), 1965

My images were always autobiographical during this period—my ties, my shoes, and my shapes. I would place these objects in non-realistic structures that were often divided into discrete areas. As can be seen in Shoe in Box Twice, I was interested in repetition and difference and would often repeat motifs and use complimentary colors together.

Shoe in Box Twice

Shoe in Box Twice, acrylic on paper, 56 x 78 cm (22 x 31 in), 1966

JK: You were also experimenting with the simple and bold presentation of personally significant objects in various print mediums—like your wife’s beaded handbag in the lithograph below.

Handbag with Highlights

Handbag with Highlights, lithograph,
75 x 55 cm (30 x 22 in), 1968

HD: My style at that time was perfect for print mediums: simple motifs, the division of space into separate units, repetition and, at times, the introduction of photographic imagery.

Gentleman's Still Life

Gentleman’s Still Life, lithograph, 58 x 80 cm (23 x 31 in), 1969

I’ve worked in a variety of print mediums since my student days. I became very involved with printmaking when I started teaching because I could work on my prints alongside the students, teaching them by example.

JK: You continued using greatly simplified imagery in some of your work into the 80s.

Clarice Cup

Clarice Cup, acrylic on canvas, 60 x 122 cm (24 x 48 in), 1979

HD: Yes. The images are flat and akin to signs or letter forms. And I’ve always been interested in the breakup and juxtaposition of shapes and colored areas, which offer possibilities of infinite variety. Overlapping suggests collage and helped me to make the paintings I’m working on currently.

Cake and Rabbits shows my interest in and enjoyment of old printed materials, such as old illustrations of food products. The images of rabbits are taken from 30s and 40s napkin rings. Used as pattern, they become an abstract image. I also included my own designs, as in the black and blue areas.

Cake and Rabbits, acrylic on canvas, 60 x 122 cm (24 x 48 in), 1984

In Rabbits and Fabric the central area is an accurate painting of an actual piece of fabric. The left side is invented and the rabbits once again are used as pattern.

Rabbits and Fabric
Rabbits and Fabric, acrylic on canvas, 62 x 122 cm (24 x 48 in), 1985

JK: By the mid 80s, you were also making paintings without recognizable imagery.

HD: I held onto the idea of the traditional still life until I realized that I no longer needed this prop and that the paintings were better without recognizable imagery. I think it was pattern that enabled me to move towards totally abstract work. I was interested in pattern not as a move towards decorative painting, but as a move towards serious abstraction.

Elegant, acrylic on canvas,
122 x 31 cm ( 48 x 12 in), 1983-86
Verge, acrylic on canvas,
91 x 122 cm (36 x 48 in), 1985

HD: In the abstract gouache, Garden Party, I used a central image that I would use elsewhere—that I called a “modern device.” It looks as if it could have come from the 1930s. The edges of the painting are once again important. Here dotted areas in different colors decoratively border the piece.

JK: And as we’ve seen in more recent work, you were already including black and white areas—here they are patterned, later they will be gridded.

HD: Yes. These monochromatic areas help contrast one large area with another, making each more striking.

Garden Party
Garden Party, gouache, 56 x 75 cm (22 x 30 in), 1986

In Study for Classical Painting, I juxtaposed areas of pattern that are simple, direct and colorful. I was making up my own patterns of abstract shapes and again punctuating the areas of color with black and white. These areas of design could be seen as extending beyond the canvas.

Study for Classical Painting
Study for Classical Painting,
acrylic on canvas, 102 x 61 cm
(40 x 24 in), 1986-1987

This is the first completely geometric abstract painting I made. The title suggests a feeling of satisfaction on one hand and realistic subject matter on the other.

Just the Ticket
Just the Ticket, acrylic on canvas,
120 x 91 cm (47 36 in), 1988

Both of the gouache paintings below are textured and layered. They contain my characteristic circular dots and diagonals. Play Me relates to later works with its floating and sometimes overlapping shapes. Homage is less flatly painted and is richer in color and its intimations of depth.

Play Me, gouache,
107 x 38 cm (42 x 15 in),
Homage, gouache,
130 x 53 cm (51 x 21 in),
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