John Carter is clear in describing his own work as “between painting and sculpture” rather than as construction. The purpose of this distinction would perhaps be to demonstrate how the components of painting and sculpture are held in tension within what he makes. Carter is an artist with profound connections to the tradition of concrete and constructive art, but despite his admiration for and extensive knowledge of the histories of constructivism, Carter does not personally subscribe to the traditional view of construction as something that supplants other art forms. Painting and sculpture are both very allowable terminology for his work, but not out of an innately British conservatism, rather because this allows him to create a sense of balance in between; betweenness is, in part, his subject.
In the particularity and subtlety of his position John Carter is a relatively rare thing among British Abstract Artists of his generation. He is arguably better known on the mainland of Europe than in the UK and his work is an elegant and sophisticated bridge between a European sensibility based in Concrete Art (think Max Bill and Richard Paul Lohse) and a particular aspect of North American abstraction characterised by Ellsworth Kelley, whose art Carter openly admires. A context for John Carter’s work would also embrace such divergent figures as Charles Biedermann, the mainstream Minimalism of Sol Lewitt in America and Klaus Staudt in Germany, whose interview with Carter appears in his RA Monograph published last year. Arguments in post war Britain that evolved around figures such as Kenneth and Mary Martin, Victor Pasmore and Anthony Hill and which later saw new developments in painting in the Systems Group and its followers are things that Carter views as important, but has remained outside in terms of being an intelligent observer and commentator rather than direct participant. Carter has nevertheless always been an advocate of the generation of British Constructivist who emerged in the 1950’s particularly of Anthony Hill and John Ernest, with whom he taught at Chelsea School of Art in the 1970s and early 1980s and in Hill’s case, with whom he still maintains a strong dialogue.
At the RA can be found vitrines of sketchbooks, notes and ephemera and a carefully selected group of drawings covering a career of some 50 years of art making. Essentially the exhibition consists of one example of each type of drawing, ranging from an early collage, “Study for Monument”, 1965, to “Vertical Cascade”, 2013. Carter considers drawing to be preparatory as much as an end in itself, and points out in his own concise text in the small booklet accompanying the exhibition that he has never developed a drawing practice as a singular and independent means of expression but sees it as a means of transition between thinking in two and then three dimensions (in the form of constructed painted relief).
The collages of his early career mark a transition out of Pop art in to various stages of geometric abstraction. The sharp edge originating from cut paper seems to remain a consistent factor in his work, however, both in terms of the works’ gestalt (in that a sense of a keen edge to each form remains constant), but also in that the microscopic shadow collage adds to a work on paper finds a stronger form in the shadows generated by Carter’s later wall reliefs. This seems a significant aspect of his approach, a position that ties it back to early Dada and in particular Schwitter’s geometric collages, as much as to British Pop Art of the 60’s, but which also has direct parallels with some of Ellsworth Kelly’s paper collages and the way in which Kelly’s long sojourn in Paris in the 1950’s makes him, in part, a European artist.
The rich interplay of light and shadow in Carter’s reliefs is more fully demonstrated in his Redfern Gallery exhibition than it obviously can be in a survey of his work on paper. Here pieces dated from 2008 to 2013 (with the majority from 2012-13) and all fabricated in plywood coated with acrylic paint and marble powder, revisit earlier aspects of his work, such as the warm colours of the late 70s and early 80’s and single panel edged plywood constructions that predate the more boxy fabrication that developed in the late 80’s. The exhibition thus reads as a form of reconsideration and re-iteration and in this sense underlines the idea of slow careful unfolding of thought and image that is central to Carter’s interests.
In a text published in Belgium by Editions Tandem, 1995, Carter describes his use of marble powder with acrylic paint as about creating the material shimmer of a sculptural surface, and while suggesting it was a shame that this moved the work away from a “truth to materials” ethos (where formerly the grain of plywood had been allowed to show through the paint on the surface), comes to the conclusion that it is more satisfying, in covering the support completely, to generate an optical sensation of materiality, with all its attendant powers of suggestion.
Refusing to stick blindly to an idea of material “honesty” that at the same time would have prevented the work achieving such balance between the qualities of painting and sculpture is typical of Carter’s nuanced thought processes and careful consideration of ideological fixities, which he then chooses to elegantly sidestep in order to generate more thought provoking work. Despite the sanding and manual labour involved, this is a position that could not be more antithetical to that of Nicholson and the “abstract pastoral” that dogged early English Modernism. It is work founded in rational geometrical propositions, but by choosing to be ambiguous about its status as painting, or sculpture, or construction, Carter’s oeuvre sits within the shifting positions of current abstraction in ways that have very contemporary implications. By this I mean that the subtle adjustments of space Carter deploys, never moving outside the known and knowable, but demonstrating great sensitivity in making such concrete elements hover in and out of optical certainty, provide a model for understanding how we look at the world that is acute and insightful.
Andrew Bick, October 2013
John Carter: Surface and Structure, Redfern Gallery, 08 October 2013 – 15 November 2013 and Between Dimensions, Tennant Gallery, Royal Academy, 2 October 2013 to 16 February 2014.