Andrew Bick: David, the first thing I am interested to talk about is, of course, the history of Systems and the Whitechapel exhibition in 1972 which, more than anything, put the group’s activities in the public domain in the UK. Like with the British Constructionist artists, Systems was a fairly loose affiliation, but two artists from the previous grouping, John Ernest and Gillian Wise, were in the Systems exhibitions. By that time were they still talking about the supplanting of painting with construction or was it more about an experimental approach to all aspects of visual art?
David Saunders: It was in 1967 that I made my first systematic/experimental works. What experimentalism means to me is the setting up of conditions that make certain outcomes probable and make others, that are not predicted, appear as ‘emergent characteristics’.
David Saunders: Paintings and Works on Paper 1974-2014, installation image. Courtesy of Mummery +Schnelle
AB: This seems quite a supple and non-prescriptive approach to systematic art, how does it link to your current painting?
DS: What connects my current work with that of the ’60s and ’70s is what I call this ‘experimentalism’. A few days ago I came across a quote from Confucius in an essay by Merleau-Ponty: “Seek and you shall find, but do not seek that which you wish to find”. I have never seen systematic work in art as a pure intellectual exercise but as a way of realising sensations, (Cézanne and Merleau-Ponty). Rhythm and proportion are of primary importance. In the ‘sixties, when I first met experimental composers at the Portsmouth Polytechnic I found that they understood this ‘setting up of conditions’. I was intrigued by the ‘Improvisation Rites’ of the Scratch Orchestra, which seemed to do something similar in improvised music… Michael Parsons was one of the founders of the Scratch Orchestra and I still work with him.
AB: The documentation of your work in that 1972 Whitechapel Systems catalogue shows some free hanging painted ellipses, but it is very hard to tell exactly what the installation you made was, can you describe it and give an indication as to how it evolved in to the later paintings?
DS: I agree that the pictures of The Whitechapel installation in the catalogue as well as on my website are unclear; there are pictures of it in construction in Studio International from May 1972. There is also just one image of the completed state. The array is clear in this picture. All the elements are ellipses. The elements are positioned on acetate sheets. These positions vary by small increments left-right and up-down (first movement); the elements rotate by small increments, (second movement); the relative proportions of major to minor axes of the ellipses vary by small increments, (third movement); the proportions of the axes of the lower layer of ellipses varies in relation to the upper layer (fourth movement).
AB: Your collaborations with Malcolm Hughes and Jean Spencer, particularly with the latter in her period of making colour studies were quite open and generative. Can you describe Jean’s practice in particular at this point and can you also talk about the interconnections with your own?
DS: Malcolm Hughes had invited me as a visitor to the post-graduate experimental department at the Slade. This period of teaching lasted from 1970 to 1980. Malcolm and I had frequent discussions around our mutual interest in the array of prime numbers as an object of visual interest in terms of rhythm and proportion. During this period I did not see Jean Spencer very much as I was living in Liverpool and she was in Reading. Mostly we met together with the Systems group. I showed four paintings at a little gallery called S.East (Bermondsey, I think it was.) These paintings had quite an effect on Jean and also on the young painter Richard Bell, with whom I organised the Arts Council touring show ‘Colour Presentations’ in 1986. Bell’s role in this essay into colour should not be underestimated. Although he has worked as a civil servant for many years, he is still making important paintings and his work can be seen in the Sainsbury collection and the Mondrian House in Amersfort (along with John Carter, Norman Dilworth and Peter Lowe) as well as in the Arts Council Collection.
The work that I did with Jean Spencer and Richard Bell in the ’80s, particularly the celebrated pastels that Jean was making before her untimely death in 1997, developed a new sensibility of colour modulation, which could be both understood and felt – it was systematic but was seen as a transgression by the ‘stalinists’. The other ‘crimes’ I have been accused of are lyricism and dependence on chance. In reply to this I would like to offer my own translation from Baudelaire’s defence of Delacroix in his critique of the salon of 1846, when Delacroix was accused of reliance on chance effects: “There is no chance in art any more than there is in mechanics. A happy accident is simply the consequence of good reasoning, in which one has skipped intermediate stages, just as a mistake is the result of a false principle. A painting is a machine of which all the systems are intelligible to the practised eye, if the painting is good; where a tone is always intended to give value to another; where an occasional fault of drawing is sometimes necessary in order not to sacrifice something more important.”
AB: This idea of “transgression” within a rational approach leads to my next question. Gesture and measurement, the place of the intuitive decision within a system and the movement from a set of mathematical permutations towards a more openly improvised, yet still structural approach, these seem to be at the heart of your development as a painter. Can you talk about where the recent painting, such as the two 2013 works in your current [closes 5th July] exhibition at Mummery+Schnelle Gallery, connect with your earlier work?
DS: Concerning influences on my current work, the later paintings in the Mummery+Schnelle show, I was very impressed with the British Museum show of modern chinese calligraphy (2002). This work evolves out of an ancient discipline and breaks into new experimental territory; it is systematic in a fluid way. Living in the Pyrenees, I am able to visit the caves where I can see the art of the Magdalenians civilisation, here we see paintings made around twenty thousand years ago that exploit the bumps, depressions and cracks in the cave wall to find the forms of animals (chance). It is thought by some scholars of prehistoric art that the ‘artists’ who made these paintings were trained by itinerant ‘professors’ and that there were very strict rules for the production of signs depicting animals (a sort of system). It has been proven that changes in the ‘correct’ way, say, to depict the horns of a bison might happen only once in a thousand years. So it seems that there may have been, before the last ice age, a kind of systematic production of art that allowed the intervention of chance. I love going to see these paintings in the caves.
AB: And how do you see this train of thought, and of work-making, connecting back to your earlier paintings?
DS: The earliest measured works involve the setting up of conditions that build a form by increments, the final outcome being, to some extent, unpredictable. Also unforeseen are the feelings evoked by forms generated in this way. This is something discovered in the process of making and is what I mean by ‘emergent characteristics’. On the catalogue cover of the first ‘Systems’ show (Helsinki 1969) is a study that I made for one of these paintings in 1967-8.
The painting is entitled ‘Gulf Stream’ and can be seen on the website ‘BBC Your Paintings‘. It belonged to the Arts Council of Wales and was given, some years ago, to the collection of Bodelwyddan castle, Llandudno. The reason that this study is on the catalogue cover is that it was one of the two paintings that triggered the formation of the Systems group. The other work was by Jeffrey Steele. These two pieces shared the first prize in the Welsh Arts Council open exhibition in Barry Island in 1968. Malcolm Hughes, who had been one of the advisors on the purchase of my work for the Arts Council collection in 1967, came down to Newport to see Jeffrey and myself and it was on that occasion that the formation of the Systems group was mooted.
The way Gulf Stream, and other paintings of this type, were made was by weaving asymmetrical elements into a symmetrical array of loci. The array sits on a grid of straight verticals and curved horizontals. From each locus two lines of slightly different lengths move in slightly different directions. Call these linear elements ‘figures’. There are fifteen of these figures to the sixteen loci on each line. The fifteen figures weave their way cyclically through the grid and the form that grows from this operation can be clearly seen in the illustration. It seems to me that there might something in common here with the music of Steve Reich at that time and indeed, some of Reich’s music was included in the Whitechapel Systems show.
AB: Give me some detail on the developments and divisions within the Systems Group. Clearly, from my own research and conversations in the last few years, hardened oppositions and conflicts have moderated with time, I also see the inherent contradictions between different positions within the group as part of what makes its (varied) work exciting and interesting, I am interested in your account and thoughts now, all these years later…
DS: The thinking behind the founding of the original Systems group was that some aspects of cultural production took the part, unwittingly, of the repressive ideology and that what was needed, in the field of visual art, was something clear, open, and in principle, accessible. This would be the idea that non-figurative art should be open to investigation and should ‘give up its secrets’. The group was founded on democratic principles and was originally seen as a collective with no leader and no dogma in terms of style. Painting and construction co-existed happily. But before long the tone began to change and a kind of ‘leader centralism’ took over. Two camps began to evolve and a struggle for leadership was clearly evident to me. Some people seemed unaware of this, but at the core of Systems two antagonistic groups were forming, the one dogmatic and the other supporting free experimentation. These two groupings were one around Malcolm Hughes and Jean Spencer and the other around Jeffrey Steele and Peter Lowe. I feel now that I was rather indecisive; at heart I was with Hughes and Spencer but my head, because of my penchant for Marxism, was with Steele.
To understand the reasons for the loss of coherence and eventual break-up of the group it is useful, I think, to look at one passage in Steele’s notes in the catalogue of ‘A Rational Aesthetic’, p52. Here he quotes van Doesburg in the introductory issue of Art Concret (1930) p26: “some words which do not concern painting.” One of these words is ‘sensibility’. Art Concret was French so ‘sensibility’ is written sensibilité meaning ‘sensitivity’, something that can be measured; for example the sensitivity of light receptors or film, is measured as sensibilité.
I think that without sensibility no serious art is possible. Improvisation, which has always interested me, depends upon being sensitive to what is happening as a system unfolds. Without sensibility we could not appreciate the work of Theolonius Monk or Gabriel Fauré, Joyce or Balzac, for example, and we could not appreciate the paintings of Mondrian. Only an insensitive person could think van Doesburg a greater artist than Mondrian in spite of the latter’s muddled philosophy and lack of mathematical rigour. You have to be sensitive to understand what I would like to call Mondrian’s ‘system of feeling’. Desensitization is the very basis of oppressive ideology. I feel sure that Merleau-Ponty was thinking about this when he wrote his essays on ‘Humanism and Terror.’ It is sensibility that is missing from the ‘stalinist’ side of Systems. Shortly before his death in 1997 Malcolm organised a show called ‘Testing the System,’1 in which he included my new, fluid, calligraphic work, which he recognised as a development of systematic art.
AB: Can we talk through your approach to the “Rational Aesthetic” and the arguments around this? Brandon Taylor’s new book After Constructivism takes a particularly skeptical line in relation to Jeffrey Steele’s position, citing Anthony Hill as a mentor and his Dadaist alter ego, Achill Redo as a conceptual reason why, from the start, Systems was not really quite so rational as it claims. I suspect that the truth is more complex than this, as usual. There are clashes of ideas between you and Jeffrey Steele, but also a lot of mutual respect. Where to you see yourself in relation to these ideas now? And more importantly, how do you see your work carrying forward what you called in your Systems catalogue statement “an ongoing and generative process”
DS: I don’t know Brandon Taylor’s new book and was never interviewed by him for it, nor in any other context, but you are right that the Systems Group was not as rational as was claimed. The group was not a coherent whole; Lowe, Wise and Ernest adhered to the European constructivist tradition, Jeffrey Steele had practised op art in Paris under the influence of Vasarely. Michael Kidner admired Patrick Heron and was much influenced by him, but had just shifted to making very measured geometric works. Malcolm and Jean were generous and pragmatic and had very broad interests. Up to 1967 I had been making mono-form paintings with colour modulation. I had started making these after I first saw, like most London students of that time, the ‘New American Painting’ show in 1959.
Something that sets my work slightly apart from the rest of the group is the way it has sometimes had an influence, without my intention, on very disparate aspects of contemporary culture. The first was my role in the founding of the Deaf School band in 1974. This was an art school band in Liverpool formed when I first started teaching there. A book published last year by Liverpool University Press, author Paul du Noyer, records my role in the formation of this band which now turns out to have been influential on popular music for decades on.
Even stranger is that a work of mine from the seventies was purchased by Dr Ulrich Grävesmūhl, head of the pedagogical mathematics department of Freiburg University, around 1986. He was so intrigued by what he called the ‘transformational geometry’ embodied in this piece that he wrote an article about it in the journal Mathematics Teaching. Years later an old student of mine, who had needed to study for GCSE maths in order to become a teacher, told me that he had found this work in the syllabus. I never saw the GCSE syllabus containing this question, but I heard about it from an ex-student. It seems that students were invited to try the perceived system out for themselves and to see if they could find out by what rules the geometric forms were generated.
AB: Can you elaborate a bit more on the need for generosity in reconnecting late modernist practices such as Systems with contemporary work, and talk about how your exhibition might be addressing these questions, perhaps how a system can be both rigorous and open ended…
DS: Returning to Malcolm’s ‘Testing the System’ exhibition, I think it just showed that you can look at any form of art production in a ‘Systems’ way and that this can lead in surprising directions. I think you mean by “open-ended” that an artist’s work can lead in any direction. I like the idea of purity in art but also that an artist can do several things without compromising the integrity of any one of them. I do not think, for example, that the fact that Ad Reinhardt made political cartoons in any way affects the interpretation of his ‘black’ paintings. I was pleased that my practice had an effect on popular music, because it seemed to be a benign effect but it could have been otherwise. At the moment I am totally enthralled by the work of Stewart Lee who gave his performance on the same programme as Michael Parson’s first piano concerto on 16th June this year2. Lee’s complex ‘structural’ comedy has made nearly all other stand-up look feeble. One night he constructed an elaborate joke about racism out of his own love for improvised music. He also parodies the mannerisms of other stand-ups. This is oppositional art. I think all serious art opposes the dominant oppressive ideology, not in an obvious way, but by a process of re-sensitisation and I hope that this came across in my conversation with Peter Joseph at Mummery+Schnelle.
This conversation was conducted face-to-face and online; May – June 2014. David Saunder: Paintings and Works on Paper 1974-2014 is on at Mummery+Schnelle until the 5th of July