Free and open to all, since 1970 it has offered both a wide, varied programme of temporary exhibitions and a permanent display of selected pieces from the University’s own extensive art collection.
The latest show at the gallery is The Expressive Mark which focuses on a pivotal moment in post-war British art when a group of pioneering artists were beginning to explore the abstract.
Partly influenced by the burgeoning movement of abstract expressionism in the United States in the 1940s and 50s, spearheaded by artists such as Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko, and partly by the European equivalent of ‘tachisme’, British artists started to experiment with some of the concepts and techniques.
The exhibition highlights paintings from the University of Leeds collection alongside loans from across the country and features work by artists including Roger Hilton, Gillian Ayres, Albert Irvin, Peter Lanyon and Patrick Heron. “This was an exciting period in post-war British art history,” says the gallery’s curator Layla Bloom who co-curated the exhibition with guest curator Anne Goodchild.
“In 1959 there was an important exhibition at the Tate in London entitled The New American Painting which was very influential and many of those British artists went to see it. And one of the critics at the time said ‘I have never seen so many young gallery goers at an exhibition’ so it seems like young people really responded to those works as something new and fresh.”
This new style was characterised by bold colour, expressive mark-making and large scale which are all represented in the works that feature in the exhibition. The centrepiece of the show is Irvin’s Albion, on loan for the first time from the University of Warwick, a monumental, vividly coloured canvas.
“It is huge,” says Bloom. “So as with many of these works you get this power of size and colour and there was also this expressive element that was emotional, or subconscious or coming from an essential internal place.
"One of the interesting things about this movement was its rejection of earlier forms of abstraction, such as geometric shapes – the artists wanted to be more expressive and not bound by those forms.”
Another aspect which Bloom and Goodchild were keen to highlight was the part that Leeds and Yorkshire played in the development and support of abstract expressionism in Britain, particularly through the Gregory Fellowships for artists which ran at Leeds University from 1950 to 1980.
“A lot of the artists in the movement and some of the major players had a Yorkshire connection,” says Bloom. “And the Gregory Fellows include Trevor Bell, Alan Davie and Terry Frost.”
The exhibition was originally slated to open in April 2020 but had to be rescheduled due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Bloom is delighted that visitors are finally able to see it.
“The response so far has been really positive,” she says. “People have said how much they have enjoyed absorbing the colour – and they are sitting in front of the paintings for a long time. I love it when people respond like that – I think everyone is so happy to be back in art galleries again.”
At the Stanley & Audrey Burton Gallery, Leeds until April 2, 2022.