William Gear and Abstract Expressionism: Birmingham retrospective on now

ART BLOG volunteer Katharine Wade writes about encountering the work of William Gear for the first time…

The world of Abstract Expressionism is vast and certainly significant, but to many people it can also be a little confusing.

The movement has a long history stretching back across the 20th century. Artists often found their work met with reluctance, disapproval and even disgust from many traditionally-minded people.

Prevailing conservative attitudes – that art should look a certain way, be a certain thing and not be particularly challenging – made it an uphill struggle for many of those attempting to bring modern art to the British public.

I cannot say that the name of William Gear rang too familiar to me when I first heard the RBSA is exhibiting his work.

The more I read about him however, the more I was surprised that I didn’t know his name and the significant role he played in  bringing new and exciting global art to a Britain still healing from the wounds of the Second World War.

William Gear, as an artist, curator, collector of modern art, and fairly stubborn individual, was never deterred by those resistant to change in the art world, and persisted tirelessly in his quest to bring abstract art front and centre.

You can’t help but be inspired by early modern artists and their unswayable ambition to reach into the unknown, to push the boundaries of painting and expression and to develop new techniques and always be asking ‘What’s next?’

Find abstract paintings, drawings, sculptures, ceramics, printmaking, textiles and more at the RBSA Gallery in Birmingham
Caged Yellow, (1996, Acrylic and Ink, RBSA) – William Gear donated this to the RBSA as his diploma work.

It’s amazing to me that Gear’s name and his contribution to Abstract Expressionism has been somewhat forgotten, because he really did have an amazing life.

From a working-class background, this son of a coal miner won a scholarship to Edinburgh College of Art in 1932, then won a traveler’s scholarship and was able to travel all around Europe just before the start of the Second World War.

These years opened his eyes to the potential of his practice, and the direction in which art was moving. After serving in the war he returned to Paris and made quite a name for himself across France, Germany and the Netherlands.

William Gear in studio, 13 Quai des Grands Augustins, Paris 1949
William Gear in studio, 13 Quai des Grands Augustins, Paris 1949, Photo © David Gear

Today we can look back and appreciate the great value of art movements, but it wasn’t always a smooth transition!  When beginning his career as a curator in the late 1950s, Gear had to drag galleries kicking and screaming into the world of contemporary art.

He had a solid belief that the art establishment needed to embrace modern art if it was to stay relevant. William Gear knew that safe art seldom made history.

He came to Birmingham in 1964 to take up post as Head of Faculty at Birmingham College of Art (now a part of Birmingham City University) and became a member of the RBSA two years later.

Gear travelled the world, working alongside some incredible artists and was involved with the European art movement CoBrA. He built a career not only as an artist, but as a curator, collector and lecturer, living in Birmingham, where he died in 1997.

'Spring Frolic' May 1975 48x36ins (Dph)
‘Spring Frolic’ May 1975 48 x 36ins © David Gear

Visit the exhibition

Visit the RBSA during November and see for yourself the role William Gear played in developing and celebrating abstract art in the UK.

Form and Colour: William Gear (1915 – 1997) is essential viewing for all of those fascinated by British art born out of a post-war world.

Katharine Wade, RBSA Volunteer

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