‘The Untold Want’ at the RHA

photograph by Eoin Mac Lochlainn of The Untold Want at the RHA Dublin

It’s not often we get to see paintings by Agnes Martin here in Dublin (the Hugh Lane Gallery has one) but there is a major group show on in the RHA Gallagher Gallery at the moment and it’s well worth a visit, if only to look anew at this one painting. “The Untold Want” is an exhibition curated by RHA director Patrick T. Murphy and Caroline Hancock, curator of the William McKeown Foundation.

Well yes, it actually is the same painting by Martin, “Untitled no.7” (1980),  borrowed from across town, but in the natural light of the main gallery of the RHA and with a great view of it from across the room, it makes a wonderful first impression as you enter the gallery. The director says that he comes up 3 or 4 times a day, just to see it in the changing light, to see the subtle greens (or grey blues?) and the almost imperceptable pinks in the near-white canvas.  Apparently this painting caused an uproar in the media when it was first bought by the city – Shock Horror £30,000 for a blank canvas  – except it isn’t blank, of course. It is quiet, but it has a significant presence, and I loved the quote by Martin in the catalogue – “I would like my paintings to represent beauty, innocence and happiness, I would like them to represent that.  Exaltation”.

But then, situated in front of the Agnes Martin is a little child’s chair, and on it a box of tissues. Underneath the chair is a silver drain – to collect all the tears of a young child’s life. The chair and box by Robert Gober are solid bronze, but they are painted realistically so that you wouldn’t realise it.  All is not as it first seems. The little chair makes the space seem even bigger and the painting takes on a new, even more expansive perspective.

There are two large paintings by William McKeown in this space also – one entitled “Meadow” with the yellow glow of a field of rapeseed, holding within its borders the promise of youth and Spring, and the other entitled “Ocean”, the warm grey of the sea, both paintings seeming to pulsate with an ethereal light.  “My work is not about nature”, wrote McKeown in 2002, “it is about a response to a particular type of space. A space where there are no rules, no morals, no laws, no judgements, no systems. A space that is unconditional, all embracing and free. This space, of course, is found in nature, but it can also be found in someone else’s eyes”. – I knew McKeown had died young but I wasn’t aware that he had taken his own life. This exhibition is not a retrospective of McKeown’s work but it has been put together with his artistic sensibility in mind – examining notions of nature, mortality and spirit, I would say.

Also in the first room are two large acrylic paintings of the evening sky by Byron Kim and some small delicate works by Vija Celmins.  In particular, her “Untitled”, charcoal on paper, only 43.2 x 55.9cm is a careful rendition of the starry sky, stretching infinitely into the great beyond, such a wonderful universe created in such a small space. How insignificant we are in truth, when we think of the universe and life and death on this planet…

This exhibition takes up the 3 galleries on the first floor of the RHA Gallagher Gallery – it is presented in 3 stanza’s, each one different but connected. The exhibition’s title “The Untold Want” comes from the Walt Whitman poem of the same name. In the final room hangs one of McKeown’s last works, untitled and undated (seen below).

photo by Eoin Mac Lochlainn of the Untold Want at the RHA Gallery Dublin

It was quite a moving experience, visiting this exhibition, it was good to go on a quiet afternoon, to experience the work in quiet solitude. I have been working on sky paintings myself recently, as indeed have a couple of friends of mine (at opposite ends of the world).  For instance, have a look at John O’Grady’s blog and also at the blog of Jacques Descoteaux :  https://jdcoto.wordpress.com/illusions-of-black-and-whitehttp://www.johnogradypaintings.com/blog

I don’t know, is it something in the air?  Are we all searching for something that seems nigh impossible to find?   And what is it about the sky, and paintings of sky? – I’m reminded of those wonderful paintings by Caspar David Friedrich from the nineteenth century – Do you think that we could see a thread here that links the work in this exhibition back to the Northern Romantic Tradition?  I’d love to hear your views.

painting by C.D. Friedrich
“Der Nebel”(1807) by Caspar David Friedrich

more about the exhibition on the Royal Hibernian Academy (RHA) website at:




  1. Thanks for the post and review Eoin, this is one I would have liked to have seen. A fitting time of day to take it all in – Agnes on a ‘quiet afternoon’ What did you think of the Byron Kim?

    Thanks for the mention.


    • Hi John, yes I thought that it was a welcome change for the RHA. I hadn’t come across Byron Kim before and I really liked the 2 pieces in the show. City skies at night, almost without detail, just the barest hint of a cloud. Amazing what one can do with paint…


  2. Eoin, I was reading an article about the evolution of painting from Northern Romantic to Abstract Expressionism. Also, there is a book on the subject by Robert Rosenblum, Modern Painting and the Northern Romantic Tradition From Friedrich to Rothko (you can find a used copy online for a few Euros). In Canada and the US, and I suspect it was not much different in Europe, you could not mention the word landscape in “serious art conversations”. It now seems like the art world has reconciled itself with with the idea that modern painting evolved from landscape painting. Landscape is good again.


  3. I was familiar with the work of Agnes Martin. There is a roomful of her paintings in the Dia:Beacon ( diabeacon.org ) gallery a few hours north of New York City. I’ve been there a few times and love spending time in that room. I’ve seen Vija Celmins’ work, but I was not familiar with either William McKeown or Byron Kim. I find both very interesting. Thank you for sharing this. J


Leave a Reply, I'd like to hear your viewpoint.

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

WordPress.com Logo

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

Google photo

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

Twitter picture

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

Facebook photo

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

Connecting to %s