While best known for his large, painterly canvases, Kevin Atkinson’s earlier geometric paintings produced in the late 1960s evoke the cool elegance and clean lines of British abstractionists like Robyn Denny and Bridget Riley, the Op Art painter who represented Great Britain at the Venice Biennale in 1968. Their interest in exploring spatial dynamics and modes of perception proved to be very influential on Atkinson.
In an article on the importance of painterly abstraction in South Africa, Marilyn Martin, Director of the South African National Gallery from 1990 until 2008 notes that ‘Kevin Atkinson was a powerful and inspirational force in South African art, particularly with regard to abstract art’.1
As an art student at the Michaelis Art School, Atkinson studied painting under Maurice van Essche, and graduated in 1962, winning the final year class medal. He went on to become a founding member and Director of the Cape Town Art Centre before joining the staff of Michaelis and heading the painting department. He was throughout his life a popular and provocative artist and educator who exerted considerable influence on generations of art students.
Atkinson was as impressed with the colour theories of Josef Albers as he was with the radical conceptualism of artists such as Joseph Beuys and Marcel Duchamp whom he met while studying and travelling in Europe. As a result of these engagements he developed an artistic practice that embraced conceptual art and performance. His works featured prominently in Dada South?, the 2010 exhibition curated by Roger van Wyk and Kathryn Smith, which examined some similarities in method, strategy and imagery, between socially critical South African art and the art of Dada.
In 2013 Iziko South African National Gallery will acknowledge Kevin Atkinson’s significant contribution to South African art with a major retrospective that should bring him the wider recognition he deserves.
1. Marilyn Martin, ‘At the threshold of seeing’, Art South Africa, vol 7, issue 2, summer 2008, page 73.