The curatorial and editorial project for systems, non-
After Image (Works 1956-
Flowers Gallery, Kingsland Road, London, 9 March to 30 April 2022
A review by Laurence Noga
©Copyright Patrick Morrissey and Clive Hancock All rights reserved.
Nothing sits still in Michael Kidner’s exhilaratingly-
Conceived initially for the Mark Rothko Centre in Daugavpils, Latvia, the exhibition interrogates Kidner’s approach to the irrational and unpredictable nature of colour. As he recalls: “what interests me is the area between the second and third dimensions, the order that lies between imagination and reality”.
Kidner’s brushy work on paper in oil and gouache, Homage to Rothko, calls to mind works by Rothko such as Red,Orange,Tan and Purple (1954). With a similar phenomenological approach to the layering process, these works are all about natural or artificial light and shimmer, with the edges not quite dissolved. For Rothko, poetry penetrated every microscopic particle on the canvas. Kidner clearly felt some affinity with this emotional anchor, but perhaps the tensions he explored through scale, interval, and symmetry were already making a more powerful impact.
Untitled (Colour Balance with Red, White and Orange), 1957, oil on canvas, ® The Estate of Michael Kidner, courtesy of Daugavpils Mark Rothko Art Centre, Flowers Gallery
Kidner spent some time in St Ives in 1957, working alongside Roger Hilton, Patrick
Heron, Trevor Bell and Terry Frost. Colour balance with Red White and Orange, painted
in 1957, is placed in the gallery to reflect this experimentation. Two equally-
In 1959 Kidner took part in a course in Leeds with Harry Thubron and Victor Pasmore, where Thubron’s colour exercises tuned Kidner’s thinking. After Image, cleverly located in the window at Flowers, sets up a scale and autonomy for the exhibition. This painting draws our attention to the retina of the eye, where light and images hit, and particularly calls to mind retinal imaging scans. The compositional decisions allow a simultaneous interpretation; the oval shape feels magically split. The viewer tries to connect the floating light red arc (on a deep pink ground) to the grey arc, but Kidner’s visual suggestion of magnetic repulsion doesn’t let this happen.
Untitled (Orange, Magenta, Brown), 1963, acrylic on canvas, (c) Michael Kidner Art, courtesy of Flowers Gallery
Kidner soon started to develop large vertical works with horizontal movement and alternating colours, like a Venetian blind being opened and closed very fast. Orange, Magenta, Brown, (1963) in acrylic on canvas, marks a shift towards chaos, optics, and visual perceptions. Kidner often made highly emotive and skilfully rendered oil pastels, or oils on paper, as preliminary studies, such as ‘Dog leg stripes’ (1962), and Lightbulb (1964). Looking now at the scale of Orange, Magenta, Brown, I can see the complexity in those drawings, and how Kidner decided to simplify the expansion or contraction in the painting. This is not an easy painting to look at, as it rolls like an electrocardiograph constantly in motion. It’s difficult to decide whether the magenta or the brown was used as the ground colour. The subtle burnt orange (the third colour) flickers in and out against the brown to orchestrate a fourth possible colour.
Homage to Rothko, 1956, oil and gouache on paper, ® The Estate of Michael Kidner, courtesy of Daugavpils Mark Rothko Art Centre, Flowers Gallery
Hung slightly away from the rest of the work in the gallery. Butterfly Wings (1966)
emphasises the phosphorescent colour and afterglow that Kidner was searching for,
and also explores a metaphor with which to contextualise the painting. Kidner was
fascinated by Edward Lorenz’s work, especially his seminal paper ‘Deterministic Nonperiodic
Flow’, first published in 1963, in which Lorenz questioned whether the flapping of
a butterfly’s wings could create micro-
But we really start to feel the impact of Kidner’s research into chaos theory as
the large work slides into view (the butterfly effect is highly sensitive, dependent
on initial conditions, in which micro-
Kidner’s paintings developed Lorenz deterministic interpretation, perhaps taking
into account the imprecision of human measurement of physical phenomena; in other
words, noting that nature’s interdependent cause-
Butterfly Wings, 1966, oil on canvas, ® The Estate of Michael Kidner, courtesy of Daugavpils Mark Rothko Art Centre, Flowers Gallery
Untitled, 1996, oil pastel on paper 36x25cm
Untitled, 1996, oil pastel on paper 28x25cm (Study for Butterfly Wings)
As we turn back into the gallery, we understand conceptually why Kidner used a constructed approach to develop another work in this series. In an instant I am compulsively inspecting the side of this work, moving in and out with it. Blue, green, violet, brown (1966) has a seamless fluidity in the way it operates. It calls to mind Cezanne’s Mont Saint Victoire series with its carved sense of colour choice. You don’t immediately appreciate the labour that goes into Kidner’s painting. In this work the system pulls us into the symmetry of the waves and the deeper space created by the brown and violet, which slowly expand the negative spaces. A similar stretching occurs in the relationship between the light blue and the minty green. We notice the waves returning, in symmetry, to the mystery of the initial composition that Kidner invents.
Blue, Green, Violet and Brown Relief, 1966, acrylic on canvas on board, ® The Estate of Michael Kidner, courtesy of Daugavpils Mark Rothko Art Centre, Flowers Gallery
I sense that Kidner’s experience in the army often sits beneath his work; he took
part in the D-
Perhaps it’s important to reflect on Michael’s recollection of Bridget Riley’s approach at this time. He began to notice that her black and white paintings were playing with the transitory effects of light: a polyphony of experiences generating all sorts of colours in the eye.
Installation shot courtesy of Flowers Gallery
Diagonally opposite hangs a tall, majestic, symphonic work: ‘Prelude’ (1975). The
2D/3D approach builds a sense of relief and modulation, giving the work an acoustic
quality that permeates its character. It’s a deeply encoded painting, perhaps also
worth looking at from a bird’s-
Prelude, 1975, acrylic on cotton duck, (c) Michael Kidner Art, courtesy of Flowers Gallery
Talking to the Kidner family recently, I imagined Michael working and reflecting in his studio space. There seems to be an importance in the reading of the house and the family’s memories and recollections:
“There was a second uncarpeted flight of stairs to the floor with the studio. Then
the loft happened above that, with a respectably-
We feel a deliberate tension between the two large, significant, horizontal works
at opposite ends of the gallery; they act as slightly different emotional counterpoints.
Love is a virus from outer space, painted on board in 2001, gets deeply in to our
contemporary psyche. Firstly, as a prediction of our recent experience in the context
of a global pandemic and its cause and effect. And secondly, regarding Kidner’s personal
feelings towards intimacy. The vast cellular structure floats on a warm grey ground.
Each of the forms is constructed with straight lines that maintain the geometric
tone but also refer to more organic starting points such as roots or bulbs; the pink
circles feel like something breaking through the ground. A high degree of synthesis
is at play in this very moving painting, perhaps as Gaston Bachelard says: “Intimate
Washington no.3 Yellow, 1968-
Washington number 3 Yellow 68/69 relates strongly to Kidner’s time at a residency
in Washington with his family in the summer of ’68. He felt more at ease there, seduced
by painters such as Morris Louis and Kenneth Noland with their flooded fields of
colour. This work seems to evoke the memory of that kind of freedom. In 1969 Kidner
came back to England and became part of the highly innovative systems group, and
a certain rationality started to shift his thinking. He recalls picking up his son’s
building blocks and starting to play directly with shape, columns and profile. Looking
at this spectacular painting now I see it as a kind of hybrid. You get the playful
push and pull of American painting (the soaking and staining) but at the same moment
a slightly delirious rotation starts to kick in as the shades of white, and the almost
edgy combination of brown and grey forms, produce an after-
This is an extraordinary exhibition that not only explores and unpacks Michael Kidner’s personal journey but also allows his personality to shine through.
“I remember a private view at Flowers, which Michael attended, and where he spoke briefly about his work. During questions afterwards, the following exchange occurred: ‘About the triptych on the wall over there, are you sure it’s the right way up?’
Michael (following a long pause and dragging heavily on his pipe): ‘I’m not honestly sure if it really matters’.” Kidner family recollection, 2022
With many thanks to the family of Michael Kidner and the British Library.
Red, Green and Blue II (1964) Acrylic on canvas (C) Michael Kidner Art, courtesy of Flowers Gallery
After Image, c.1960, oil on linen, (c) Michael Kidner Art, Courtesy of Flowers Gallery
Between 1962 and 1964 Kidner exhibited at the Grabowski Gallery in Chelsea, showing fizzing, optically striped works and reliefs in aluminium foil, paint and wood. Grabowski had a chemist’s shop and imported and exported medicines between Poland and London. At the back of this shop he created an international gallery space, often showing systems artists such as Jeffrey Steele, Tess Jaray, Mark Vaux and Bridget Riley.
Grabowski’s support created a buzz around Kidner, bringing him wider recognition. In 1963 and 1965 he exhibited in the John Moores painting competition. Yellow Blue and Violet No1 (1963), which is still in the John Moores collection, sits between his colour experiments and his invention of more systematic procedures.
Love is a Virus from Outer Space, 2001, acrylic on board (c) Michael Kidner Art, courtesy of Flowers Gallery