The online editorial and curatorial project for systems, non-objective and reductive artists working in the UK

Website: Chestnuts Design

Intimacy and Distance | Alan Reynolds: A Small Retrospective. Works from 1951-2014

Annely Juda Fine Art, 14 February - 18 April 2019

A review by Duncan Bullen, University of Brighton

©Copyright Patrick Morrissey and Clive Hancock  All rights reserved.

Some years ago, I was making a set of lithographic prints with Andrew Purches at his Senefelder workshop in West Sussex. One day we had cause to go to his house to collect some crayons, paper, or some other material that we needed. We went into his home, Andrew went off to look for the materials, while I waited in the sitting room. On the wall was a drawing by the artist Alan Reynolds. The drawing held me captive and I talked non-stop about it in the car as we made our way back to the print studio. The following week, when I met up with Andrew again, I spoke about the drawing, so when Andrew invited my wife Lorry and me to Sunday lunch with Liz and himself, I gladly accepted the invitation, knowing I would be able to see the drawing again. Some years later, after a long absence and out of the blue, Andrew phoned me to say he was planning to sell the drawing and was offering me first choice. How could I refuse? Modular Study - Group II (L), drawn with 'lead pencil' in 1980, now hangs in my home.  Each day I see and feel the quiet presence of this profoundly concentrated, measured and skilfully executed artwork.

Modular Study - Group II (L) is one of many such studies that Reynolds began in the late 1970s, about ten years after abandoning a career as a highly successful painter of landscape and landscape-derived abstraction, to pursue a practice devoted to a form of non-objective Constructivism. This exhibition, Alan Reynolds: A Small Retrospective, Works from 1951-2014 contains many excellent examples, surveying work from all periods of Reynolds’ working life as an artist. The curation divides neatly over two floors, highlighting the two distinct phases of the artist’s working life. The painted landscapes of the 1950s, and their gradual transition through the 1960s to an abstraction based on the observed landscape, are exhibited on the 3rd floor of the gallery.

Modular Study - Group II (L) 1980, Pencil and paper on laid card, 46x46cm.

Each part of a Reynolds drawing carefully reflects the whole; each dark, dark-mid, mid-light, light tone complements and underscores the sum of its parts and, importantly, reflects every other element. In Modular Study - Group II (L) the L shape is mirrored along the axis of the picture, which intensifies the drawing’s optical and spatial configurations. Each element seems to fold into, or echo another, and continually returns the viewer’s perceptual reading.

Describing the making of the drawings, Michael Harrison describes the importance Reynolds attached to a particular type of drawing paper, and the process for attaching the paper to card. Once this specific preparation was complete, the methodical marking of the surface with different grades of pencil would begin. Reynolds’ aim was to achieve an even tone for each unit of the drawing “by touch and eye” (2011 p. 163) and in which “the artist's hand can always be seen” (2001 p.1). It is precisely the understated  quality of these structures, coupled with the tactility of the pencil markings, that sets up a perfect tension between distance and intimacy, allowing the viewer to dwell on the material syntax of the work.  The intimacy is found in the autographic rendering of the surfaces that are made by hand and can, of course, be read as an extension of the artist's personality.  The hard edges, the absence of illusionistic space, and the use of geometric structures and a logic internal to itself, set this work at a remove from any form of expression or representation.

Detail - Modular Study - Group II (L) 1980

For Reynolds, “the operative word is distance … it's the making of the thing - if a work is realised with due criticism the expression or the presence of the artist will always be there - through the working out - there's no need to pile it on ...” (2011 p.184). This is Deanna Petherbridge, writing about the work of Belinda Cadbury, but I propose it could equally well be applied to the work of Alan Reynolds. There is “a stately dance between disembodied geometries and embodied drawing: remoteness turns out not to be remote; nothing is rote and nothing is exactly duplicated within the decorum of the geometric fields …” (2013 p.4)

One can argue that drawing is the technique best suited to realise this fine balance between distance and intimacy. Drawing particularly requires a direct and physical process, however austere and restrained: the connection between the idea, the hand and the drawing material are paramount. David Rosand sees drawing in terms of phenomenology and as a “fundamental pictorial act” in which “to make a mark or trace a single line upon a surface immediately transforms that surface, energizes its neutrality; the graphic imposition turns the flatness of the ground into virtual space, translates its material reality …” (2002 p. 1)

Reynolds pursued Modular Studies until the late 1990s, mostly square, but occasionally rectangular, before setting forth with a new set of equally excellent pencil studies, called Rotations.  Like the Rotation Reliefs, which were made in parallel to the works on paper, they display perfectly Reynolds’ conception of “Light the transformer of white. White the vehicle for the colour of light” (2011 p. 136).

Reynolds’ use of the word ‘operative’ is also telling, in that it implies a pragmatic, operational approach to making and indeed mark-making, in which what needs to be done is carried forth, with matter-of-factness, to achieve his intentions. It is Reynolds’ pursuit of balance, both in terms of idea and implementation, which allows his drawing to stand apart from the maker, to be a thing in and of itself, and yet also enables us to dwell within the very visceral act of making. It is precisely this dichotomy that makes, for this viewer at least, a drawing by Alan Reynolds extraordinary, and sets him apart from his contemporaries. He was not only an artist searching for an equilibrium of formal components, but one who sought this through the very act of doing and being, and through his investment in making, over time.

The work I have the pleasure to live with is modest in size; as Harrison suggests, Reynolds “shied away from any grandeur or heroism … preferring ‘domesticity of scale’ in which the artwork is a ‘one-to-one relationship of quiet contemplation for artist and viewer alike” (2011 p.112).


Juda, David, Harrison, Michael, Pfleger, Susanne, Robertson, Bryan, Reynolds, Alan 2019 Alan Reynolds: A Small Retrospective, Works from 1951-2014, Annely Juda Fine Art.

Harrison, M., 2011 Alan Reynolds: The Making of a Concretist Artist, Lund Humphries, Ashgate Publishing.

Petherbridge, Deanna, 2013 Narratives of Arrival and Resolution: Abstract Works on Paper; Belinda Cadbury, Sarah Cawkwell, Wendy Smith, Alison Turnbull, Art Space Gallery, Michael Richardson Contemporary Art, London.

Pfleger, Susanne, 2001 Alan Reynolds: New Reliefs and Drawings, Annely Juda Fine Art, London.

Rosand, David, 2002 Drawing Acts: Studies in Graphic Expression and Representation, Cambridge University Press.

The 4th floor is given over entirely to work produced after Reynolds turned away from painting, and away from his substantial reputation, to focus instead on drawings, woodcuts and constructed reliefs. In doing so, he “had to learn a new craft” (2011 p.80).

Alan Reynolds ‘Pastoral - Green and Grey’ 1959, Oil on board, 25 x 32 cm, © Kettle’s Yard, University of Cambridge, Courtesy of Annely Juda Fine Art

The work that hangs in my front room is a typical example of the drawn work to be found on the 4th floor of Annely Juda. While the white reliefs and small woodcuts sit perfectly in the context of Reynolds’ original investigation, it is Reynolds’ work with pencil on paper that particularly intrigues me. Drawing, with its associations with tradition and the artist's hand (and personality), was not a go-to medium of choice for his immediate contemporaries, particularly those associated with British Constructivism, Concrete or Systems Art.

Modular Study - Group II (L) is representative of the series and is typical of Reynolds’ drawn work. The drawing is 46x46cm and consists of a pencil-drawn square, which in turn is sub-divided by decisively ruled pencil lines that indent the paper with their precision into a grid of sixteen squares. Each of these sixteen squares comprises four tonal variations that are drawn equally and with attention across the surface of the divided paper. These shaded quadrants range from a very dense black to a barely perceptible light grey tone.

This particular investment in the hand-made allowed Reynolds to explore with rigour a “balancing of weight/darkness: lightness/light” (2011 p.98). Susanne Pfleger suggests that the ‘elements’ of the drawings “are arranged according to an almost scientific set of rules and yet they are convincing, above all from an aesthetic point of view. If one looks at the drawings for a while the surfaces begin to gently vibrate; the individual grey values change, depending on the neighbouring tone and a spatial movement begins: the dark areas retreat whilst light ones push forward” (2001 p. 2).  

Installation view of ‘A Small Retrospective: Works from 1951-2014’ by Alan Reynolds, 4th floor Annely Juda Fine Art, Courtesy of Annely Juda Fine Art