Paul Feiler was part of the influential second generation of St Ives artists, which included Terry Frost, Patrick Heron, Roger Hilton, Peter Lanyon and Bryan Wynter, who enjoyed much success during the 1950s and '60s. He was particularly close friends with Frost and Lanyon, with whom he famously welcomed Mark Rothko to his studio one afternoon in 1958. For Lanyon, Feiler's paintings stirred in him "a sense of pause ... to achieve that repose in the landscape I know one has to suffer the opposite", while his later series of shrine-like paintings were described by Alan Davie as "some of the most mystical pictures I have ever seen".
Born in Frankfurt-am-Main in 1918, Feiler fled to England from Nazi rule in 1933, studying at the Slade School of Art alongside Patrick Heron and Bryan Wynter. During the war, Feiler was interned, and received his diploma from the Slade in absentia. In 1941, he was employed as an art master at Eastbourne College, and in 1946 began teaching at the Royal West of England College of Art. In 1949, Feiler visited Cornwall, a trip which inspired minimal, painterly abstractions of the local landscape. Here he met up with schoolmates Heron and Wynter - with whom he exhibited at Bristol Art Gallery - and was introduced to William Scott and Peter Lanyon, who became lifelong friends. After a successful solo show at the Redfern Gallery in 1953, Feiler moved to Kerris, near Penzance, buying a disused chapel. He began teaching at the St Ives summer school started by Terry Frost, and his work was included in group shows alongside that of Wynter, Lanyon and Scott. His abstracted, heavily encrusted landscapes, likened by Scott to the paintings of Nicolas de Staël, immediately distinguished Feiler's work from that of his St Ives contemporaries. Examples were soon bought by major museums; for example, Large Welsh Bay was purchased by the Arts Council of Great Britain, from his Redfern show, in 1953. The paintings became more abstract by the end of the decade, and the Redfern selected Feiler for its seminal show, Metavisual Tachiste Abstract, in 1957. He was also part of the British Council's British Abstract Painting, which toured Paris, Milan, Montreal and Melbourne, and British Painting in the 1960s at the Tate, in 1961. In 1964, Feiler showed alongside Lanyon, Roger Hilton and Alan Davie at the Arnolfini Gallery, Bristol. His paintings during the early 1960s grew more abstracted, consisting of heavily painted, subtle modulations of white, as Feiler sought to evoke the chalk cliffs, wind and sea-spray of the Cornish coast.
However, Feiler was uncomfortable with the idea of being part of a group, and so by the late 1960s, his work had taken a quite different turn; inspired by the lunar landings, he began making simplified compositions of circles and vertical bars, reminiscent of Malevich's pure Supremacist studies. Feiler was inching ever closer in his quest to capture what he termed 'elusive space'. This fascination with 'elusive space' had been inspired by several childhood experiences, notably when seeing the effects of light and shifting perspectives when mountaineering in the Alps, and when visiting the Market Gate of Miletus in the Pergamon Museum. In 1969, he painted a series of concentric squares, at the centre of which a circle was enclosed. This was the first of his so-called 'shrine' paintings, which he spent the next four decades developing and refining, taking inspiration from early sights of classical architecture. The delicate colour gradations also hark back to his Cornish landscapes, even if the paint by this time was applied in flat, meticulous strokes. Examples of these new paintings were unveiled as part of a solo exhibition organised by the Scottish Arts Council; curated by Bryan Robertson, it toured the UK and Germany from 1980 to 1981.
From 1995 to 1997, Feiler worked on the 'Janus' series, which took on the patterns of his earlier 'Sekos' and 'Aduton' series, but were painted in dark colours; some were painted entirely in subtle modulations of black. The following series, 'Janicon', saw the introduction of gold and silver leaf, and gessoed board. In 1995, Feiler was given the first of two retrospectives at Tate St Ives; in the second, The Near and The Far, of 2005, Feiler juxtaposed his own paintings with those he had chosen from the Tate's permanent collection, including works by Cézanne, Lanyon, Malevich and de Staël. From 2008 until his death in 2013, Feiler broke new ground with a series of 'Square Reliefs', where the collaged composition incorporated both painted and Perspex elements, before being enclosed under a Perspex frame. This was partly inspired by his amusement at the palindrome of his surname (FEILER-RELIEF), and so the use of collage, in which he cut out and overlayed vertical strips of gessoed board onto the painted surface, allow a more advanced exploration of pictorial space. For his centenary, a large-scale retrospective was held at the Jerwood Gallery, Hastings, while Janicon LXII was presented to the Tate. Examples of his work are currently on show at Tate Britain, as well as at Tate St Ives.
Paul Feiler's estate is represented by The Redfern Gallery.