John Plumb, who has died aged 81, was a distinguished and, for a while at least, conspicuous member of that generation of English painters who responded directly to the work of the New York school - and to American abstract painting at large - when it first burst upon Europe in the late 1950s. His misfortune was to be one among many similarly talented artists at a time when opportunities to show were far more limited than they are today.
American criticism has never acknowledged the intelligence and independence that characterised the English response to the New York school. Plumb's own immediate sympathy was with its large-scale, hard-edge colour-field abstraction, a commitment that was to sustain much of his own career. Here was no mere secondary imitation, rather an eager acceptance of new possibilities - of scale, simplicity and directness - to be explored and developed on purely personal terms, in the light of an English background and experience.
But in those days Britain galleries were far thinner on the ground, and the market for modern art infinitely more constricted. Any successful gallery's stable was soon full, competition was fierce and the economics of the art world were unforgiving, leaving those artists not taken on, or soon cast off, to forage elsewhere as best they could - which usually meant art-school teaching. For all his comparative early success, Plumb had always taught part-time, and in 1969 he accepted a senior lectureship in the painting school of the Central School of Art, London, where he himself had been a student 20 years before.
Born in Luton, Bedfordshire, Plumb served an apprenticeship at Vauxhall Motors, before enrolling at the independent Byam Shaw School of Art in London in 1947, returning briefly to the Luton School of Art in 1949 and then moving on to the Central, where his teachers included Victor Pasmore and William Turnbull - the latter would prove a particular and lasting influence. He had his first London one-man show in 1957, and in 1960 he was prominent in the Royal Society of British Artists' keynote exhibition, Situation, in which he and such other young spirits as Robyn Denny, Marc Vaux, Bernard Cohen, Tess Jaray, John Hoyland and Bridget Riley declared their abstract intentions.
Many exhibitions were to follow through the 1960s and 70s, including several major group exhibitions, and Plumb's work entered a number of important collections, including that of the Tate. Yet sustained critical success was to prove elusive. He failed to remain long with any of his dealers, and was unsettled in his own temperament, and in what direction to take. Perhaps the most spectacular and seductive period in his work came in the early 1970s, which saw his engagement with ideas current at the time, of formal systems and structures animated, indeed contradicted, by random choice and improvisation. He would lay linear grids or structures across his canvases, arbitrarily masked off or taped across each other, and then apply the paint in whichever combination came off the shelf, pot by pot.
Plumb's dissatisfaction led him to commit himself increasingly to teaching, and, in 1977, to abandon abstraction altogether and return to the figuration he had rejected so definitively in the 1950s - and to the landscape in particular. "I came to feel," he wrote, "that what I was involved with would not contain all that was exciting me in the outside world, so I decided to deal with these phenomena by familiarising myself through drawings, pastels and watercolours, taking these into the studio and distilling the information to make oil paintings." The pastels, in particular, were remarkably accomplished.
Plumb retired from the Central School in 1982, and nine years later left Shepperton, Surrey, where he had lived for many years, for Yarnscombe, north Devon, a move that saw him return, albeit tentatively, to abstraction. The mid-1990s saw the onset of the macular degeneration of his eyesight, which by 1997 forced him to give up painting altogether, though only for a while. With characteristic tenacity, he soon devised a way of working that, with its thick impasto, was as tactile as it was visual. He lived long enough to see something of a revival in his critical fortunes, in the wake of the general revival of interest in the painters of his generation, so long overshadowed by meretricious conceptualism and latter-day expressionism. Only last summer at Sotheby's, a colour-field abstract painting by him, from the 1960s, reached £17,400, though it was estimated at a mere £4,000.
On a personal level, though so long out of touch, I remember him as a most agreeable companion in his direct, gruff way, over a drink at a private view, or on a visit to his studio. He is survived by his wife, Joan Lawrence, a close friend from the Luton of his youth, whom he married while still a student at the Central. She was, in every sense, his support throughout his life.
· John Plumb, painter, born February 6 1927; died April 6 2008
--William Packer -The Guardian
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