William Green


William Green was described in 1958 as 'our beat painter who became a world-wide scoop'. Filmed by Ken Russell and Pathé News while still a student at the Royal College of Art, Green was seen making action paintings by hurling bitumen and paraffin at a primed sheet of board before cycling across the picture, skidding over it in plimsolls and finally scorching the surface with fire. Green became infamous around the world, catapulted to a level of attention that made him the most talked about artist in Britain. Cartoonists and press had a field day as Green seemed to epitomise everything that the general public expected of an avant garde artist. His working methods were further lampooned by Tony Hancock in his 1961 film The Rebel.

Green's intentions were serious - he described his paintings in terms of the decisions involved in making the work, with the finished painting to be read as the record of his actions. Even the notorious bicycle was to him merely a way of 'disturbing the surface'. Soon afterwards he said 'My tyre period is over, from now on I paint with flames.' As a pioneer of performance art and auto-destructive techniques, his influence has permeated through to later generations. Gustav Metzger, the founder of Auto-Destructive Art, acknowledged him as 'a great influence', and at one point in the 1960s Green taught Pete Townsend, later of The Who.
William Green was born in Greenwich in 1934. As a schoolboy he developed a lifelong passion for German music, in particular the works of Mahler. After leaving school he worked in a drawing office and for an architect in Sidcup. While at Sidcup School of Art from 1952 to 1954, he made his first use of bitumen paint after discovering an old tin in his garden shed. It was used on a canvas, an easel painting on which he simply allowed the bitumen to drip down, cascading over the surface to make his first completely abstract work. This idea and process then lay dormant until the middle of his first year at the Royal College of Art.

Green was accepted for the RCA in 1954, but as a conscientious objector, he was imprisoned in January 1955 for three months. At the RCA, Green was in John Minton's tutorial group, and in his first year continued to be influenced by German music and Expressionist painting rather than the prevailing ethos of the Euston Road and Kitchen Sink painters. He made figurative drawings influenced by George Grosz, and used ideas from Kokoschka-like sketches of orchestras. He drew grouped players using lines like strokes of a musical score, and made ink drawings in which opposing armies of lines approached and met in battle formation. These drawings of massed forms became less organised and increasingly frenzied, evolving into the first really abstract paintings he made at the RCA.

Early in 1956 the exhibition Modern Art in the United States opened at the Tate Gallery, and included a room of works by Abstract Expressionist artists. The young painters at the RCA, including Green, Robyn Denny and Richard Smith, began to look towards New York rather than Paris. Although he was impressed by the precision of the French action painter Georges Mathieu's 'performance' of a painting, Green felt that his own main inspiration came from America. He had already been strongly influenced by reproductions he had seen of works by Jackson Pollock and made a conscious decision to be a non-figurative painter. From now on he followed Pollock's example and worked on the floor, treating the paintings as his 'arena', and using ever larger sheets of hardboard instead of canvas. Since late 1955 he had gradually eliminated colour from his paintings, and in Spring 1956 he decided 'to simplify' and only make black bitumen paintings, with their monochrome surfaces subjected to increasingly more brutal gestures and mark-making, including attack by fire.

In 1957 Green was approached by Lawrence Alloway and included in New Trends in British Art at the Rome-New York Art Foundation. Another of Green's paintings, Napoleon's Chest at Moscow was included in Dimensions, British Abstract Art 1948-1957. At the Dimensions exhibition Green met Stefan Munsing, the Cultural Affairs Officer at the US Embassy. Munsing, instrumental in promoting the new American painting in Europe, encouraged and helped Green, employing him to assist in hanging exhibitions, and inviting him to embassy lunches to meet visiting American artists such as Rothko, Kline, Gottlieb and Sam Francis.

During the winter of 1957-58 Green taught at a working man's college, making abstract etchings and experimenting with nitric acid on the metal plates as he was attracted by the possibilities of using acid to further traumatise the surface of his paintings. Invited to perform in a college revue, Green emerged brandishing a Samurai sword as fellow performers fled the stage, then slowly picked up buckets of paint and threw the contents one by one at the backcloth. The paint cascaded from ceiling to floor, colours mixing in frenetic chaos, although, as in all 'performance' processes of his work, he remained intensely calm and concentrated.

Through his fellow student Tony Messenger, Green met the young photographer and film-maker, Ken Russell. Russell made a series of photographs and the film that was to make Green notorious, Making an Action Painting. Russell's film, shown on the BBC's Tonight programme, was closely followed by newsreels and press photographs which were seen all over the world. In 1958 Green was included in Five Painters at the ICA, Young Contemporaries No.9 and Six Young Contemporaries. In the Royal Academy's Summer Exhibition, a portrait of Green, A Young Contemporary was exhibited by Ruskin Spear, a senior painting tutor at the RCA. Green was depicted, almost caricatured, grinning maniacally in front of one of his large black bitumen paintings in a wry tribute from one of the older generation at the RCA.

Denis Bowen, the artist director of the New Vision Centre Gallery, who was also teaching at the RCA, gave Green a one-man exhibition in July-August 1958. This first solo show, following on from Ken Russell's film the year before, continued to attract the press. Some were serious reviews, but most were along the lines of 'Tarpot Art' or 'Take a painting, set fire to it - earn yourself £100.'

Green left the RCA in July 1958 and in 1959 began teaching part-time at Harrow and Ealing Schools of Art. Offered an exhibition in Stuttgart, he was forced to turn it down as it clashed with the school term, and he needed the financial security of a job. The RCA magazine Ark published Green's Errol Flynn, An Operation in the winter of 1958-59. This fictional documented 'operation' was illustrated by photostats made on a lightbox, reminiscent of images from a medical or biology textbook. Green was photographed at work by magazines including Life and She, filmed by a Canadian TV crew, and in December 1959 had his second one-man show at the New Vision Centre: The Errol Flynn Exhibition. The works for this show 'auto-destructed' when he miscalculated the amount of nitric acid he was using to react with the varnished surface and the acid ate its way through the hardboard to the floorboards below. He replaced them with two large bitumen paintings exhibited with clear cellophane stretched over their still wet surfaces. Once again Green provoked press attention, both for the exhibition and its title - by coincidence Errol Flynn had died a few days before.

In 1960 Green exhibited in the significant first Situation exhibition. He was then teaching at Luton with John Plumb, and they were invited by the Skoob Group of artists from Cambridge University to make a joint work in front of a large audience. Green was also invited by students at St Martin's School of Art to give a demonstration of his own brand of action painting. He produced a work in the central courtyard which he finally set on fire - the smoke rose to the top of the building while students watched from the windows on every floor. While teaching at Walthamstow, Hornsey and Goldsmiths College, Pete Townsend, Ian Dury and Neil Innes were among Green's students.

Green was attuned to pop culture, with romantic heroes like Elvis Presley, Errol Flynn and Napoleon forming an integral part of his thought process - as Alloway wrote in 1960, Green's titles declared his affiliations: he had already used images of Elvis in photograms, and in proto-Pop Art works like Bad Forgeries he used Monopoly money and paint to produce crude dollar bills. In 1964 he produced an installation of plain hessian stretched over large curved screens for an exhibition at the University of Sussex. Titled Cinemascope, this was to be his last exhibition for over a quarter of a century. He returned to Sidcup in 1967 and took a full-time job at Havering Technical College until 1981 when he retired from teaching. When a student asked if he was the same William Green that he had read about in Alloway's book on Pop Art, he replied enigmatically, 'William Green is a very common name.'

Green had a love/hate relationship with the art world and the publicity he had attracted so early in his career, describing it as 'the circus'. In 1958 Michael Chalk wrote that 'knowing William gets you complex conscious... Unpredictable, he often catches the more prosaic off guard with alarming bursts of enthusiasm and likely as not goes berserk on formal occasions.'

From about 1965 Green had withdrawn completely from the art scene - he retreated and virtually disappeared. His brief marriage had ended in the early 1960s and his son had been adopted by his ex-wife's new husband. He lost touch with old friends, and rumour had it that he was 'dead or in Australia'. Other artists of his generation recalled Green as a kind of James Dean of the art world and even wondered if he had been killed in one of the big American cars he loved. He was actually living at his old family home in Sidcup and he had destroyed the paintings he had stored there, burning them in a giant bonfire.

Green re-entered the art world in the early 1990s. His first new works were made on paper, but he soon moved on to large sheets of board and cans of bitumen, working outside the house and incorporating the effects of rain and fire on the surfaces of his black paintings. The result was The Susan Hayward Exhibition at England & Co in 1993, titled in the same generic way as The Errol Flynn Exhibition of 1958. These titles, and the titles of the works themselves, tell us more about Green's personal mythology and love of 1950s films, than about the paintings themselves. Margaret Garlake wrote in 1993, Green was 'a mature artist who nobody knows, whose development as a painter was for a quarter of a century entirely cerebral, in the form of projects imagined, but unexecuted.'

Dr David Alan Mellor featured Green in the exhibition he curated at the Barbican in 1993, The Sixties Art Scene in London, and in his book of the same title. The BBC made a documentary about Green for The Late Show that was shown at the same time. Green continued to paint and the entire house and garden became his studio as he worked relentlessly. A group of the resulting works - bitumen paintings and collages - were exhibited in the Gardner Arts Centre at Sussex University in 1999, forming a coda to his previous exhibition there in 1965.

Jane England

An illustrated catalogue is available.