Abstract Critical

Lasting Impressions

Written by Katrina Blannin

Mary Martin, Permutation, 1969, gouache on paper, 53.7 x 71 cm

Mary Martin, Permutation, 1969, gouache on paper, 53.7 x 71 cm

I was excited to hear about the Mary and Kenneth Martin drawing show at Annely Juda [closed 20 December]. For me Mary Martin was where it all started. A woman representing Annely Juda at Frieze Art Fair some years ago kindly gave me a catalogue, which had good reproductions and some lucid and succinct essays about her life and work, and so (struck by the clarity and beauty of the work) I began my own inevitable shift towards a more methodological approach. It was a hesitant move but crucial: my research, as well as attempts at understanding what the ‘rational’ or ‘irrational’ in art could be, now often directly informs my perception of art I encounter and helps me to test its intrinsic aesthetic value.

Mary Martin, Untitled, 1950-51, gouache on card, 10.1 x 12.5 cm

Mary Martin, Untitled, 1950-51, gouache on card, 10.1 x 12.5 cm

But why Mary Martin’s work in particular? Gillian Wise: ‘Internal logic – this was Mary Martin’s definition of the quality which any good work of art or architecture has to have – the instrument via which the senses engaged – both between two and three dimensions there are significant shifts in the specific uses of the logic – adjustments have to be made and many artists do not cross the line.’ She goes on to say that: ‘In Mary Martin’s best work, she developed the area of shift existing between these two states – which identifies the relief as having its own unique language of space – within itself and vibrating beyond. If it is hard to identify the presence of internal logic in a painting, it is much harder to see success or partial success or not, in a relief form – subjected to so many variables. [1] I was inspired to try and explore the possibilities of these shifts – in painting – in two dimensions.

Mary Martin, Permutation, 1966, pen on paper mounted on card, 31.8 x 31.8 cm

Mary Martin, Permutation, 1966, pen on paper mounted on card, 31.8 x 31.8 cm

Of course, generative number patterns (such as Fibonacci, The Golden Section) are central to the work. Jonathan Hughes in ‘An Ongoing Legacy’: It is exactly this artistic approach, rather than any particular plastic outcome, which characterises Mary Martin’s ongoing legacy. Procedural experimentation within a structuring system, as much as established notions of formal content and beauty, lie at the heart of Martin’s art and it is this emphasis on the generative logic behind individual works which would continue to inform constructivist practice in the 1970s, and which would underwrite the very premise of Constructive Context, where preparatory studies were presented alongside finished works.’

Mary Martin, Permutation, 1969, gouache on paper, 71 x 54 cm

Mary Martin, Permutation, 1969, gouache on paper, 71 x 54 cm

The drawings and small colour studies on paper in this show, exquisite in themselves, are, however, important ‘workings out’. Martin (as quoted by Hughes) described her working process as: ‘starting from one unit, subjecting it to a logic and accepting the result without any artistic interference or “placing” and without any foreknowledge of the final appearance of the work’. David Sylvester put it differently in 1964: ‘Mary Martin’s art transforms severe inorganic elements into something that seems alive… the life is secretive; and it is not a life of forces but of forms, of vibrant matter.’ [2]

There are perhaps paradoxes here – or perhaps one could say general misunderstandings. One of Mary Martin’s ‘preparatory’ works on paper here is for Expanding Permutation 1969 (a fully resolved ten-part relief made in both stainless steel and black painted wood half-cubes or units). The drawings for Expanding Permutation are on aged brown paper now and look as if they were done with drying-out and poor quality felt tip pens. That aspect obviously didn’t matter at the time but it has given them a certain facture, a strange preciousness and the same dancing light that the final piece has.

Mary Martin, Drawings for Expanding Permutation, 1969, pen on paper, 10 parts, each approx. 15 x 15 cm

Mary Martin, Drawings for Expanding Permutation, 1969, pen on paper, 10 parts, each approx. 15 x 15 cm

And then the important temporal aspect comes into play – the slower reading. The work is not just an experimental visual proposition, but a complex mathematical sequence decisively carried out: and so invites the viewer to learn more about its context, inception and journey. Hilary Lane in ‘The Writings of Mary Martin’: ‘She was at pains to counter a view of her work as impersonal: “In the mechanics of art precision is essential to expressiveness. I mean precision of choice not dry academic precision… experience shows that in many things, precision is the property of the hand rather than the machine.”’

Kenneth Martin, Chance & Order (3+5+8=16), 1976 pencil and ink on graph paper, 42 x 29.8 cm

Kenneth Martin, Chance & Order (3+5+8=16), 1976
pencil and ink on graph paper, 42 x 29.8 cm

Kenneth Martin: ‘In constructing these works movement for me is the relationship of one element to the next and to the next, a rhythmic sequence.’

Kenneth Martin’s first group of drawings here, from the 1950s, are the delicate and ultra-fine technical drawings for his Screw Mobiles. These elegant brass, bronze and steel hanging kinetic sculptures are carefully designed sequences of rods fixed at equal intervals to a central pivot creating helter-skelter curving gyrating forms, moving linear shadows and flickers of darting light. Like the drawings they are sharp and complete in their resolution – a difficult problem momentarily solved. It was at this time that Kenneth Martin began his journey of self-education in mathematics and practical geometry. He developed a premise, together with Mary Martin, and influenced by European protagonists such as Max Bill, that it was possible to create an art, which was in itself a ‘mathematical way of thought’. He was insistent that he was not just ‘reproducing’ a mathematical figure but was creating art out of a basis of form. [4] In 1953, Anthony Hill wrote about the work and theory of Max Bill, which served to further ideas of the ‘concrete’ taken from Van Doesburg and the aims established at the Bauhaus. Hill emphasised the difference between concrete and abstract: ‘“Concrete art” denotes pure plastic invention, where the work of art exists in its own right, whereas “abstract art” implies abstraction from something outside itself.’ An important statement by Bill translated by Kenneth Martin was circulated and highlighted by Hill: ‘in my opinion it is possible to develop art on the basis of a mathematical way of thought… it is thought that makes it possible to organise emotional feelings into a work of art.’ [5]

Kenneth Martin, Order and Change (No Chance)  - Generated from one straight line 1984, pencil, pen and gouache on paper, 29.5 x 42 cm

Kenneth Martin, Order and Change (No Chance) – Generated from one straight line, 1984, pencil, pen and gouache on paper, 29.5 x 42 cm

The second set of drawings here come from the ‘Chance, Order and Change’ series that Kenneth began after the death of Mary in 1969 and which developed over many years until his death in 1984. Due to his rather dark state of mind at this time he was looking for a way of working that could provide infinite possibilities and the added element of chance would enable this. However, as this extract from an interview with him by Alastair Grieve reveals he didn’t see this as a major departure:

‘AG: I was wondering about the start of the ‘Chance and Order’ paintings in 1969 and your use of a numbered pack of cards, drawn at random, to fix points for the lines. You talk, in your Townsend lecture, about some artists who carry through systematic permutations exhaustively, and I suppose an example might be Richard Paul Lohse, but your use of chance, of the numbered pack drawn at random, makes you very different. What gave you the idea?’

‘KM: Actually they’re just done with numbers, often written on the back of pieces of paper. That’s really as far as I’ve taken chance. I’ve not done any I Ching or anything like that because I have not wanted to; I’ve used the ordinary methods of European construction I suppose. I mean I draw the numbers out and it gives me an order straight away and I can use that order and I can turn it around. The order is changed by the event of the one meeting the other, but it gives me order. Chance gives me order. It’s almost like using landscape. It gives me a motif. I realise what I haven’t done when I look at John Cage, those things with Finnegan’s Wake where he goes through it and the change is going on right the way through and gets delightful, sort of scintillating. The way he does it is much deeper and more profound in a way…’ [6]

Florain Pumhösl, Lisson Gallery, London 15 November 2013 - 11 January 2014 © the artist; courtesy Lisson Gallery, London

Florain Pumhösl, Lisson Gallery, London 15 November 2013 – 11 January 2014 © the artist; courtesy Lisson Gallery, London

My day had begun at the Lisson Gallery with Florian Pumhösl [closed 11 January] who makes paintings and films, which set out to ‘mediate’ the imagery, art and architecture of early modernism. His work is described as a reflection on its diversity rather than an appropriation or direct historical reference. As soon as I walked in I realised that I was having that disconcerting yet refreshing experience of not knowing anything about the work. I wandered through the gallery empty of information, empty of people: a whiter than white space full of whiteness and solitariness – a calming, yet ‘time to think’, airy and uncluttered effect – although doubly disconcerting because now my ignorance forced me into a corner… a ‘visual’ corner. And I began to question whether the work was empty too.

Florain Pumhösl, Lisson Gallery, London 15 November 2013 - 11 January 2014 © the artist; courtesy Lisson Gallery, London

Florain Pumhösl, Lisson Gallery, London 15 November 2013 – 11 January 2014 © the artist; courtesy Lisson Gallery, London

The paintings are plain white plaster panels in groups of three, which although different sizes (small, medium, large) all have exactly the same motif to scale: a direct quotation of Moholy-Nagy’s 1923 factory made Construction in Enamel pictures (work which was ordered over the phone in order to present the artist as a producer of ideas rather than things). The dark indigo-blue, almost ethereal, drawings are, on closer inspection, meticulously executed prints. In fact they are made with specially produced stamps, which Pumhösl refers to as cliché stamps – cliché also being the sub-title to the show. Clichés, in early 19th century France (stereotype in English), were oft-used phrases typeset together in blocks in order to save time; they could be used again and again. Pumhösl’s stamps are produced from a transparent material so the motifs can be designed the right way round and which are an amalgam of his modernist interests in woven patterns, seriality and repetition, as well as European Constructivism and design. The series is called Spatial Sequence and the spacing of the works in groups further alludes to typography or musical notation/scores – I wondered if the only work on paper – a cluster of components used in the paintings – should serve as a kind of visual key.

Florain Pumhösl, Lisson Gallery, London 15 November 2013 - 11 January 2014 © the artist; courtesy Lisson Gallery, London

Florain Pumhösl, Lisson Gallery, London 15 November 2013 – 11 January 2014 © the artist; courtesy Lisson Gallery, London

I am not sure what artists like the Martins would make of these works that directly ‘reflect’ on their original artistic, formal and ideological concerns. The narrative or theoretical backdrop to Pumhösl’s work is of course quite different (a fusion of the cliché story and the Moholy-Nagy story?). His research seems to be thorough, thoughtful and serious, but also eclectic and a little whimsical.  And yes the press release does grandly say: ‘Florian Pumhösl processes the tropes of art, architecture and graphics of the modernist avant-garde to create new aesthetic systems through painting, film and installation. He addresses the legacy of modernism through its canon of abstract visual language, from utopian architectural plans and buildings to innovations in publishing…’ The question arises – and in the light of the fact that in the end I found myself enjoying these paintings and they left lasting impressions – whether there is any harm in using your artistic practice to reflect on the ‘tropes’ and re-examine modernist approaches, especially if the generated work arrives at a satisfactory formal conclusion.

 

[1] Mary Martin 1907-1969 curated by Sarah Brown, Robert Hall 2004

[2] ibid.

[3] Alastair Grieve, Constructed Art in England – A Neglected Avant-Garde, 2005, pg 140

[4] ibid. page 225,

[5] Patricia Bickers & Andrew Wilson, Talking Art – Interviews with Artists since1976, Art Monthly, 2007, page 217

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

  1. Natalie Dower said…

    Good assessment.