Dave Ryan (2009)

Noel Forster (1932 - 2007) - an appreciation

In choosing an image by Noel Forster for the cover of this DVD, John Tilbury commemorates a long friendship with this painter, but also hints at connections that might be found with the music of Morton Feldman. In fact, we could go further and suggest a creative bond that links the piano player, painter and composer. Each could be seen as initiators of strong-willed and persistent projects: working and honing their materials and craft in the face of changing fads and fashions that have long since evaporated.

Noel Forster was born in Northumberland and studied at Newcastle University in the 1950s. By the early 1960s he had developed his characteristic procedure of working with accrued painted arcs instigated by the movement of both arms across the canvas. Forster made analogies with the music of Terry Riley, where simple repetitive patterns can construct a complex result. But we might also be reminded of Feldman—where a limited set of materials develop a potentially vast woven surface, full of richness. Within these processes Forster was interested in what he called “creative error”—whereby the trace of the body on the surface resulted in curved rather than straight units for construction. Forster’s discussion of this principle —of error, in fact, enhancing rather than hindering production—certainly influenced Gavin Bryar’s Portsmouth Sinfonia and the resulting musical experiments that ensued. His work in the early 1970s was shown at the Bern and Basel Kunsthalles and reflected growing appreciation abroad, including a residency in America. Around this time his paintings developed from monochrome to multi-chromatic works; and from a unified field to various experiments with format, cutting and interrupting the field—as in the work Painting in 6 Stages with Silk Triangle which won first prize at the Liverpool John Moores annual painting exhibition in 1978 and acquired by the Walker Art gallery in the city. Forster continued to produce and exhibit extensively until his death in 2007.

Forster remained a great admirer of John Tilbury’s piano playing and both had taught at the S.E. Technical College and School of Art (later to become Walthamstow School of Art) in the 1960s. Forster recalled that Tilbury, “held lunchtime concerts there, where the musical performance was considerably extended into the scoring of common-life behaviour.” Here, Forster is alluding to Tilbury’s championing of Christian Wolff, Cornelius Cardew and Morton Feldman—each allowing a leakage of the sounds of the environment into their work—which made a great impression on his own practice. He also recalled hearing Feldman talk at Wolverhampton art school as part of his brief tour of the UK in 1968, invited there by Tom Phillips, and was fascinated by the process of ‘decay’ that was present in Feldman’s art. Forster held Cardew in great esteem—and performed often in the latter’s Great Learning, and played the organ part in Paragraph One of that work in Portsmouth Cathedral in 1969. Forster remains one of the few British painters who managed to convincingly absorb many aspects of these ideas and yet also maintained a steady and very personal course of action. Like Feldman (we can think of his inspirational collection of woven rugs) he was captivated by the possibilities of surface and warp and weft, and constructed work with sometimes jewel-like precision, which remained—for him—not an isolated aestheticism, but revealing important connections with how we see and experience the world.