The Prints of Terry Frost

Book Review

  • Terry Frost Prints: A Catalogue Raisonné

  • Dominic Kemp, with contributions by John Hoyland, Stanley Jones, Brad Faine and Charles Booth-Clibborn
  • 304 pages, 260 color images
  • Lund Humphries, 2010
  • £45

Terry Frost (1915–2003)—Sir Terry Frost after his knighthood in 1998—is one of those names that resonates in the British art world but never made many waves on the other side of the pond. A mid-century modernist of impeccable connections, Frost began making art while imprisoned with Adrian Heath in a German POW camp and lived most of his adult life in or near St Ives. In between he studied with Victor Pasmore, worked as Barbara Hepworth’s assistant, and palled around with Ben Nicholson and John Hoyland. Frost’s was a distinctively British mode of modernism, which embraced abstraction but shied from the self-importance that energized American Abstract Expressionism and Minimalism. Primarily a painter, Frost made prints throughout his career, and his printed oeuvre is now the subject of a catalogue raisonné, put together by Dominic Kemp, and beautifully produced by the publisher Lund Humphries.1

Terry Frost, Self-portrait (1979), etching, 9 3/4 x 7 1/2 inches.

Terry Frost, Self-portrait (1979), etching, 9 3/4 x 7 1/2 inches.

The 261 prints Kemp has documented run from a drypoint landscape made in 1949 and ends with a scratchy Sunburst in 2003. But it is the vibrant spirals and half-moons of the ‘60s and ‘70s that occupy most of the catalogue. It was when working with these forms—bright, flat, and abstract—that prints came to seem a natural component of what Frost was doing in painting and collage. That said, quirky landscape and figurative etchings crop up here and there throughout the catalogue, much like Ellsworth Kelly’s plant renderings.

The comparison with Kelly is almost unavoidable. Roughly the same age (Kelly was born eight years later, but they began their studies at the same time), both artists took their visual experiences of the world and distilled them into essences of color and shape. But Kelly’s art was always more radical—larger, simpler, flatter, bolder. Frost’s ambitions seem always to have been more modest, more intimate, more human in scale. Some pieces can look very Kelly-ish indeed—his 1968 screenprints of half-circles, for example—but on the very next catalogue page we find a goofily stitched up a print with leather laces, tied with a bow at the top. This is art at play, and unashamedly so, which is its charm.

At its best, Frost’s work has a disingenuous quality of being almost, but not quite, predictable. Frost frequently worked with collage, and it may be that the indirection of cutting a shape in one material to create a design in another material that acts as a template for third material, helped him to avoid the facile property that often seems to be lurking just round the corner. Shapes that at first seem blandly Euclidean reveal themselves as awkwardly imperfect, the result of some mysterious prior event, some logic of creation that did its job and then left the room.

Terry Frost, Orchid Tambourines B (2002), set of 25 woodcuts, 14 3/4 x 14 3/4 each, 73 1/2 x 73 1/2 inches overall.

Terry Frost, Orchid Tambourines B (2002), set of 25 woodcuts, 14 3/4 x 14 3/4 each, 73 1/2 x 73 1/2 inches overall.

About half the works in the catalogue date from the last decade of Frost’s life. Some of these can most generously be described as “decorative,” but others are as good as any of the tumbling, off-kilter, entrancing works of the previous four decades. When he got ambitious, as with the 25 concentric circles of the Orchid Tambourine woodcuts or the five foot long Timberaine series of modulated vertical stripes, the work is visually spellbinding.

This book does not spend much time on conceptual underpinnings: it offers a series of brief statements by Frost’s son, the artist Anthony Frost; the painter John Hoyland; printers Stanley Jones (Curwen Studio) and Brad Faine (Coriander Studio); and publisher Charles Booth-Clibborn (Paragon Press), all of whom pay loving homage to a seemingly delightful man in under three pages. Even the author’s eight-page introduction is less concerned with ideas than with the difficulties of cataloguing the prints of an artist who worked spontaneously and distributed his work generously.

This is not theory-driven work; there may simply be not much to say. But there is a lot to see. This is art about looking: about color and balance and formal tension and the ways in which those things can be abstracted from the familiar everyday world. What Terry Frost Prints offers—in addition to a great deal of careful documentation, continued through addenda on the website—is a collection of large, beautiful images, one per page, for 261 pages. If this book, with its almost irresistibly eye-catching cover, succeeds in attracting a new audience to Frost’s work, it will have done the world a favor.

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  1. Lund Humphries is a division of Ashgate that concentrates mainly on British modern art, but they have a growing specialization in prints—over the last ten years they have published catalogues of the prints of Julian Trevelyan (2010), Albert Irvin (2010), John Piper (1987/2010), and of Cyril Power linocuts (2009), and have coproduced Peter Parshalls catalogues, The Unfinished Print (2001) and the Darker Side of Light (2009) []