The work of Art seems to be something thrown off – a by-product of the process of being and working. Art just happens, like falling in love.The popular term Action Painting is generally tagged on to my work and the writers imply in the term the outward show and expression of the artist’s physical activity and emotion. Nothing could be farther from the truth as far as I am concerned. Activity and emotion have always inevitably played a part in the creative process. But they in themselves are only part of the mechanism of creativity and the processes involved. The struggle, the joy or the despair that went into the work are seldom apparent in the completed image and there is no question of the picture expressing the activity of its production or even the emotions of the artist at the time. Can you imagine a piece of music expressing the pianist’s activity of manipulating the keys of his instrument? Self-expression is something contrary to Art.I think the mistaken concept has come about mainly through the misinterpretation of what certain artists have said regarding their own attitude to the mechanics of painting and the writers are in effect confusing the creative activity with the finished product.

If a work is to be of any value it must convey something which transcends material. Confronted with it, one must not be aware of the separateness of artist and his material or of spectator and spectacle, in fact the experience must be of oneness with no hint of any separateness or awareness of activity or of becoming.

The artist himself is made up of two separate beings -the intuitive creator and the intellectual spectator. It is perhaps foolish to separate the two in such a naive way, but in order to explain what I mean, it might be useful to think of him in this way.

The problems of the artist today are the outcome of his possessing too much knowledge. Knowing as we do that creation is basically intuitive and that intuition is not born of knowing (there is no ‘know how’), we have to come to certain conclusions as to the kind of mental attitude to adopt whilst actually painting. It has been clear to us that one must concern oneself with the activity of painting, be it a physical one (like a dance) or an improvisation with ideas or concepts, and we must contrive to pay as little attention as possible to the end towards which we are moving – allowing the end to come when it comes, that is, at the end, when the right moment arrives.


And at that moment I must say one has no aim, striving, or expectation. ‘We are concerned with the activity of painting’ -that is what we try to say to ourselves. And the phrase ‘Action Painting’ has been taken and distorted without proper understanding. Our painting does not convey the drama of the moment of creation. Perhaps a better term for our purpose would be ‘Non Act Painting’ implying more accurately that the true artist is basically against acting and that he accepts the relative reality of existence and therefore is not infatuated by the image of himself as above it.

The critic of painting, then, must concern himself with the image which envelops him, without mistaking the marks on the canvas for that image. They are merely the stuff through which the image is evoked.

In what way can I describe what I feel art to be? Perhaps I could say: Art is the evocation of the inexpressible. But no definition can in itself be entirely satisfactory. Actually, what I am trying to get at is best expressed by the idea of pure intuition. We could define the function of art as being: to arouse the faculty of direct knowledge by intuition, and what we feel by intuition requires pointers or symbols more than concrete ideas for its proper expression; and these pointers have to be enigmatic and non-rational. They are shy of intellectual interpretation and come to us, as one Japanese writer has put it, Mike flashes of lightning’.

Sometimes I think I paint simply to find enlightenment and revelation. I do not practise painting as an Art; and the Zen Buddhist likewise does not practise Archery as an exercise of skill but as a means to enlightenment. The right Art is purposeless, aimless. The more obstinately one tries to learn how to paint for the sake of producing a work of Art, the less one will succeed.

The awakening of intuition is the opening up of a new world hitherto unperceived in the confusion of a dualistically trained mind. Intuition is man’s highest faculty of perception – a kind of spiritual illumination which manifests only when the thought and sense perceptions of personal life have been overcome.’ (Humphreys on Zen.)

But, you may ask: what of our reasoning? What role is played by the intellect in this realm of pure intuition? The intellect, so far as this search for truth is concerned, is useful in as far as it j can lead us to the point whence it may be superseded.

The artist’s work entails this same striving. For the final creative illumination which can come through the functions of his whole being only when he reaches the point of oneness, the abandonment of reason, desire, and ambition, and in the final moment even the attempt to acquire enlightenment must be abandoned. When this happens I am not capable of awareness of the particular and I do not experience any recognition of what has come to being.

This creative moment cannot be brought to birth by any amount of philosophical understanding (the evolving of my own philosophy of the creative act has not prevented me from continuing to make the same mistakes over and over again. The more I know, the more impossible it becomes), nor can it be forced into being by any violent action or emotion -although strangely enough it is necessary and inevitable that these attempts should be made. However, the creation itself, the illumination, only takes place when the futility of the attempt has been fully realized, and that realization can only come through making the attempt.

When I am working, I am aware of a striving, a yearning, the making of many impossible attempts at a kind of I transmutation – a searching for a formula for the magical conjuring of the unknowable. Many times the end seems just within reach, only to fly to pieces before me as I reach for it.

In this respect I feel very close to the alchemists of old; and, like them, I have in the end reached some enlightenment in the realization that my work entails a kind of symbolic self-involvement in the very processes of life itself. And having thought about it, I am able to come to some definite conclusions as to the essentially paradoxical and enigmatical nature of art and living.

- Alan Davie

Text taken from catalogue of retrospective exhibition, Whitechapel Art Gallery 1958


Alan Davie

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Alan Davie was born in Grangemouth, Stirlingshire in 1920, the son of a painter and printmaker. He studied at Edinburgh College of Art...