Skip to content

Rebecca Salter

February 8, 2011

Untitled RR35 2009.  mixed media on paper  100 x 152 cm  39 x 60 in.


Rebecca Salter’s beautiful contemplative work stays with the viewer long after they have left the physical object behind.  Her labour intensive process retains that element of craftsmanship, which she acquired during her time in Japan at a formative stage in her career.  Her layering of marks, dashes, washes is worked on, removed, covered, building up residues of light, tone and line which fuse and meld into a quality of other-worldliness which is both ethereal and adamantine. Her work, frequently informed by a grid-like structure, has always been dependent on observation, sometimes leaving a horizontality which suggests the meeting of land and sky, at others and this seems more present in some of her most recent work, a strong verticality.  In 2003 Salter completed a three-month Residency at the Josef and Anni Albers Foundation in Connecticut and the work that she is currently doing has its genesis in that experience.

Untitled AB4 2010.  mixed media on linen  75 x 70 cm  30 x 27 in.

Untitled AB19 2010.  mixed media on linen  140 x 130 cm  55 x 51 in.


Rebecca Salter’s trajectory from Bristol trained ceramics student to the English Agnes Martin, as she is sometimes called, via Japan, is well documented. Her six years in Kyoto when her contemporaries where busy making names for themselves in London left her feeling isolated when she returned to England, more of an observer of the art scene than a participant. Now an exhibition which opened on February 2nd at the Yale Centre for British Art in Connecticut establishes her as a major player on the  British Art scene. She has been given the whole of the third floor at the centre, comprising some five thousand square feet and this huge show, over 150 pieces of work spanning the years 1981 – 2010, is essentially a retrospective of Salter’s work. The inclusion of watercolour studies and printmaking tools alongside paintings, drawings, and prints provides a history both of Salter’s processes and her career development. Most of the pieces, had been selected by the end of 2009 leaving her free to work towards her upcoming solo show at Howard Scott’s in NYC in March and a further solo show at the Beardsmore Gallery in London in the Autumn. Salter found the selection of work for the Yale show, “an interesting experience, “the curator made me get everything out of the cupboard”! With a watercolour in the forthcoming survey of British water-colourists at Tate Britain as well, Salter is having an exceptionally busy year.

I interviewed Rebecca Salter for AXIS Dialogue in 2007 and we talked then about the centrality of drawing to her work.  In the intervening years she has come to an absolute conviction that drawing sits at the centre of her practice and the show at Yale picks up this theme, alongside the Japanese angle, exploring the many ways in which all of her work always comes back to drawing.  Salter had no exhibitions in 2008 concentrating on drawing for the whole year. It was a year of research and development and everything she did in those twelve months fed into her work.  In fact she says, her drawing in the studio “is still feeding off that experience”. She has become increasingly attached to an isolated area of the Lake District near Wastwater and goes there regularly to draw the landscape from observation. Whilst there she works in sketchbooks in watercolour using her hands, sticks or whatever is available. The show consequently contains “quite a bit of watercolour and things to do with water”. She feels that familiarity with a place is important because, “When you keep going back to the same place you don’t start at zero”. Gillian Forrester, Curator of Prints and Drawings at the Yale Center for British Art, was particularly interested in Salter’s regular visits to Cumbria and although she does not regard her as a landscape painter, she sees her as a Romantic Artist, a label that fits with the curatorial ethos of the show.

Untitled RR31 2009.  mixed media on linen  190 x 180 cm  74 3/4 x 70 7/8 in.

A companion show at Yale University Art Gallery, Rebecca Salter and Japan, concentrates on the Japanese element featuring work that flags up the importance of that experience. This exhibition includes items from the extensive University Art Gallery’s Japanese Collection.  According to Rebecca, Sadako Ohki, The Japan Foundation Associate Curator of Japanese Art, who curated the show, “ was fantastic and very knowledgeable having a Doctorate in Japanese Calligraphy, and the show is done very intelligently”.  Salter has always sheered away from being labeled purely as an artist with Japanese connections wanting her work to be recognised for its intrinsic worth rather than for some version of the English artist abroad. This recognition is emphasised here by Salter’s work being shown alongside works by artists like Brice Marden and Mark Tobey, which are also informed by Oriental culture.  One part of the Japanese connection, which particularly pleases Rebecca is the inclusion of a group of four woodcuts of her watercolour drawings made by Craftsmen from the Sato Woodblock Workshop, Kyoto.  “I did the original watercolours and they decided which ones they were going to do”, and in doing so these spectacularly accomplished craftsmen have managed to capture the fluidity of watercolour in this apparently intransigent medium. Salter has specialist knowledge of these techniques having written two books on Japanese printmaking and is well aware that this type of woodcutting is a dying art.


Quadra 2 2010.  12×12 inches  Japanese woodblock on torinoko paper.  Printed by Sato Woodblock Workshop, Kyoto

Quadra 3 2010.  12×12 inches  Japanese woodblock on torinoko paper.   Printed by Sato Woodblock Workshop, Kyoto

In the last couple of years Salter has also become involved in architecture, making her first piece of public art for St Georges Hospital in London.  The Arts Officer for the project at the hospital visited the Beardsmore Gallery, which represents Salter in the UK, and initially wanted a painting for the new foyer, which was being designed for the hospital. She had seen an exhibition of the work of Agnes Martin and hence felt that Rebecca was an obvious choice. In discussions with the artist it was decided that a specifically designed environment would be a much better solution rather than just hanging a painting behind the desk of the nurses’ station.  In collaboration with the architects she designed a curved wall that contains white LED lights behind recycled glass, which lead the eye and visitors into the space. A different piece, sited behind the reception desk, is lit with coloured LEDs and the staff on duty can choose the colour , often choosing the less subtle options. Now that the unit is open the consensus is that Calligraphy of Light has significantly improved the welcome to the hospital.

Calligraphy of Light. St George’s Hospital, Tooting, London


© Fiona Robinson 2011

“into the light of things”: Rebecca Salter, works 1981-2010
3 FEBRUARY — 1 MAY, 2011

Yale Centre for British Art, New Haven‚ Connecticut

Rebecca Salter and Japan

will be held concurrently at Yale University Art Gallery.

A substantial monograph, Rebecca Salter:  Into the Light of Things edited by Gillian Forrester, featuring essays by Forrester, Sadako Ohki, Achim Borchardt-Hume, and Richard Cork published by the Yale Center for British Art in association with Yale University Press, is available in the UK from Amazon.

Rebecca Salter Recent Work

Howard Scott Gallery, New York
24 March – 30 April 2011

Tate Britain, London
16 February – 21 August 2011

3 Comments leave one →
  1. February 8, 2011 5:15 pm

    Thank you, Fiona, so very much for this piece on Rebecca.
    It is wonderful to get a glimpse into the new work, and of course her process…
    I was pleased also to have some insight into the architectural piece, which I had
    seen images of but had no background on — very interesting.
    I am looking forward to visiting the Yale show this spring.
    For now, it is just great to have 2 of my favorite artists here together.


    • February 8, 2011 5:43 pm

      Thank you so much Kate. There is more detail about the architectural piece on Rebecca’s website. I will obviously miss both the shows in the States but hope to make the Autumn one at the Beardsmore

  2. jon dibenedetto permalink
    February 14, 2011 4:32 am

    I went to the exhibit at the Yale Centre for British Art today & plan on going to the Yale Art Gallery later in the week. Thanks so much for a wonderful article~it helped me so much to understand the exhibit. Your a superb guide to art works~I learned so much from your writing.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: