Barrie Cook, abstract artist who championed the spray gun in his work – obituary

His use of a tool more associated with graffiti artists gave an inner glow to his paintings, which he saw as ‘opportunities for meditation’

Barrie Cook
Barrie Cook Credit:  Marea Downey

Barrie Cook, who has died aged 91, pioneered the use of the spray-gun – a device usually associated with car workshops and graffiti artists – in fine art and established his reputation as one of Britain’s most important abstract painters, with works held in national collections including the Tate, the Arts Council and the Government Art Collection.

His often huge canvases featured strong colours and geometric shapes and involved the application of hundreds of coats of paint to achieve intense images of shimmering trompe-l’oeil with colour combinations which seemed to invest the paintings with an inner glow as if lit from the back.

Cook regarded his paintings as “opportunities for meditation”, and their hypnotic effect on the spectator served to illustrate a dichotomy dear to his heart: the balance between truth and illusion.

Continuum, acrylic on canvas, 1974  Credit: Lemon Street Gallery

“There are certain truths about paintings such as if you paint a canvas blue, it is a truth,” he explained. “However, what I love is going back into that canvas and adding layers and depth to pull things to the surface and what you can then create is an illusion.”

“I like the idea of someone standing in front of a painting and saying ‘I can see the illusion, but where is the truth?’” he said on another occasion, “a bit like standing in the Houses of Parliament.”

He was born in Birmingham on May 18 1929 and spent his early life in the Midlands, becoming a lifelong Aston Villa fan, running for Birchfield Harriers and playing rugby for Walsall.

He was good at art at school, painting watercolours inspired by the Cornish coast around St Ives, which he visited with his parents on holidays as a child.

Cook at work Credit: Lemon Street Gallery

After National Service as a fitness instructor in the RAF he embarked on a five-year course in fine art at Birmingham College of Art, where he was trained in the figurative tradition, a training that underpinned his technical skill.

In 2011 an exhibition of his work at Lemon Street Gallery in Truro included a series of pastel studies of an artichoke seedhead, prompting Cook to joke that he considered producing a whole wall of still life entitled “So you think abstract painters can’t draw?”

“It’s an enjoyable thing to do, “ he explained, “but it doesn’t push the language of painting any further.”

Instead, inspired by “the huge amount of internal creativity and invention required in abstract painting”, he credited the abstract artist Harry Thubron as a formative influence, as well as the strong colours and geometric shapes to be found in works by Sonia Delaunay, Frank Stella and Russian Suprematists such as Kliun and Malevich.

Verticals with Red Stripe, acrylic on canvas, 1977 Credit: Lemon Street Gallery

Many years of teaching followed Cook’s graduation, punctuated by what he called a “sort of nervous breakdown”. After teaching art at Bournville Boys Technical School for 10 years, he lectured in Fine Art at the colleges of art in Salford and Coventry, where he had his first solo show in 1966.

He became head of Fine Art at Stourbridge College of Art and then, in 1974, Gregynog Fellow at the University of Wales. There, he settled in the Cardiff area, with a studio in the city’s docklands. Between 1979 and 1983 he was head of Fine Art at Birmingham Polytechnic, but he returned to the Principality as Artist in Residence at the National Museum and Art Gallery, Wales.

Cook’s early work often featured stark imposing vertical and horizontal forms, featuring mono and muted hues, evoking the dark satanic mills of industrial Britain.

In 1992 he moved to Cornwall, settling on the Lizard peninsula with a studio in a disused Methodist chapel a mile from the coast. The move led to a brightening in his palette, reflecting the clean air, ocean light and colour combinations of the Cornish landscape.

Give me Time, acrylic on canvas, 2013  Credit: Lemon Street Gallery

By the time he arrived in Cornwall he was an established artist who had had solo shows at leading galleries including the Camden Arts Centre (1969), the Whitechapel Gallery (1975) and a monumental show at the Serpentine Gallery in 1988, featuring 10 huge canvases, none of them less than three metres long and four metres high

A retrospective of his work was held at the Barbican Centre, in 1995 and in 1999 his work was shown at Tate Britain to mark his 70th birthday. Cook, who for many years exhibited in Cornwall with the Lemon Street Gallery, seldom missed a day in his studio. Unpretentious and kind-hearted, he was a brilliant teacher who influenced generations of art students. He loved his family, his garden, and going to the pub for a beer.

Cook married his wife Mary in 1951 while a student at Birmingham College of Art. She survived him by two days. Their son and daughter survive them both.

Barrie Cook, born May 18 1929, died July 13 2020