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The online editorial and curatorial project for reductive, geometric and systems artists working in the UK

Website: Chestnuts Design

The Alice Walls: mural by Gillian Wise in the Barbican Centre


Alan Fowler interviewed Gillian Wise in February 2017

©Copyright Patrick Morrissey and Clive Hancock  All rights reserved.

Film-goers at the Barbican Arts Centre in London make their way to the Centre’s principal cinema by passing through a major artwork produced by Gillian Wise in 1982/3, soon after the construction of the Centre was finished. The only work by a modernist British artist in the whole Barbican complex, it consists of a relief spanning both walls of the three-level stairwell leading to the cinema. It is entitled The Alice Walls - a reference to Alice passing through the rabbit hole to Wonderland, just as visitors go down the stairs to enter the imaginative world of film. Wholly abstract, it incorporates geometric elements on metal panels, painted in carefully composed harmonic colour combinations, with mirrors which introduce a degree of optical ambiguity and dynamism when reflections of cinema patrons become integrated with the artwork’s geometry. It is a unique and important example not only of Wise’s own work, but of an approach to art promoted by the Systems group of artists with whom Wise worked in the 1970s. Yet in 2005 the Barbican decided to dismantle the work. Only the immediate intervention of the artist and the support of several organisations, including DoCoMoMo and the 20th Century Society, resulted in English Heritage banning the work’s removal.


In the following conversation with art historian Alan Fowler (AF), Gillian Wise (GW) explains how the work was originally conceived and constructed, and how it was eventually saved from demolition and then restored.       


AF

What were the origins of the work?


GW  

I was approached in late 1979 by Chamberlain, Powell and Bon (CPB) - the principal architects for the whole Barbican complex on which they had been working, for the City of London, since 1955.  Their own office had come up with a scheme for improving the ambience of the cinema stairwell, which was a rather depressing and claustrophobic space. Their scheme involved mirrors and a crude circular and striped op-art design which was both oppressive and dizzying. CPB realised this was not satisfactory and decided that only a professional artist could solve the complex visual and spatial problems in an orchestrated way. They provided a scale model of the stairway for me to work with, and although my first design was rejected they asked me to produce another version, which was accepted and installed in 1983.


AF  

Was there a design specification? How free were you to develop your own ideas and how did you evolve the eventual design?


GW

There was never any clear direction from the architects, and in reality I had a free hand. They could either accept or reject my ideas in toto.  Having seen their office’s original design sketch I thought they might like to see some elements of this in my work.  I found that the circle was the only element I could use, with extrapolation into diagonal and orthogonal relief bands and planes.


AF  

You also incorporated mirrors, which as well as prisms had been a feature of a number of your reliefs in the 50s and 60s.  


GW  

That’s right, though oddly, the use of mirror planes had also been a CPB idea, to do something to enlarge a fairly narrow and impossibly ugly space. However, my previous work with mirrors enabled me to exploit their spatial implication more constructively. Mirrors helped not only to open up the space but also to introduce an implication of movement in the visual imagery.



AF

Initially, you had to work with a scale model, presumably because the building was still under construction, but was there a difference when it came to the actual installation?


GW

Yes. I quickly discovered that the model was not wholly accurate and I had to make several important changes. Also, I had not previously been told that the design should descend into the lower level, so I had to improvise, even while my assistant – an expert in colour spraying techniques - was paint-spraying the panels above.


AF

I am getting the impression that assistance from the architects was somewhat sketchy. And I recently read an account of the whole Barbican project which said that at one time some 60 architects were involved in the design and construction of the Arts Centre, and implied that there was a lack of coordination between them. What was your experience?


GW  

CPB’s other tasks were overwhelming. The partnership had lost Chamberlain, their key organiser, and I detected a sense of panic to get the building completed. The involvement of an artist in just one small part of this massive project was treated as of minimal importance, and their knowledge of our group of Systems artists was close to nil.

AF  

Coming back to the work itself, I feel that its colours and the way they combine and interact is as integral to the work’s impact as the geometry of the imagery. I know how highly your Systems colleagues rate the work of the Swiss artists, Max Bill and Richard Lohse, and I wondered whether their ideas of systematised colour harmonics influenced you in the Barbican relief?


GW

I did not draw the colour directly from the Swiss, but there was a connection, as there was, too, to the treatment of space, light and colour in the work of Vantongerloo. But I quickly found that any preconceived idea did not work, and I had to try endless colour combinations before finding a satisfactory solution.


AF  

Can you explain more about this process?


GW

I decided to use cellulose car paint spray, as it had a sheen which provided the luminosity I wanted – particularly when using metallic-type paint for some elements of the relief. The colours were all selected from those used for contemporary car models, and those days, the selection available from commercial sources was far larger than today. By trial and error I identified some key ‘negotiator’ colours – those which did not seem particularly exceptional in themselves but had the ability to vitalise adjacent colours. ‘Light’ colours emphasised the spatial dimension of the work, so ‘strong’ colours were reserved for the green and orange squares as focal crossroads on the large plane.

AF  

Was the work physically constructed off-site and then assembled, or was it all done on site? A stairwell was presumably a very difficult space to work in.


GW

It certainly was, and I had to rely on some aspects of the assembly and painting being done by technicians who were not always in tune with my requirements. A wood frame had first to be fixed to the walls, to which the metal plates and mirrors then had to be fixed. Paint spraying was done in situ. Difficulties were legion.


AF  

How was the finished work received by the Barbican or the architectural press?


GW  

I had no acknowledgment from the Barbican management, nor was I invited to the official opening of the Arts Centre, when many unrelated artists were, despite the fact that I was the only British artist to have been commissioned to provide an integral work.  One small colour photograph of the work appeared in the architectural press at the initiative of the architect Theo Crosby.


AF  

It seems extraordinary that this important new modernist art centre in the heart of London ignored the opportunity in the early 1980s to incorporate relevant work which, (with the exception of your mural), would have showcased the achievements of many of the British artists whom you and I admire. Did you put forward any suggestions about this at the time?


GW  

In retrospect, my commission seems little more than the chance result of a few personal contacts. It was certainly contrary to the prevailing prejudice of the influential art establishment against all forms of rationality in art and instead, the promotion of American-inspired practice as opposed to the European modernist tradition. At the time I lobbied for commissions to be given to Anthony Hill, John Ernest, Robyn Denny and Kenneth and Mary Martin, and suggested suitable spaces for their work within the Centre, but all these ideas were ignored. The whole situation was a dark episode in the annals of corporate culture so far as the support of national artists and, of course, women, was concerned. It was due in part to my disillusionment that I left the UK for good in 1984 and have since lived and worked in Paris.


AF  

Then for some twenty years you had no further contact with the Barbican. What happened next?


GW  

I had a letter from the Barbican at the end of 2004 saying that the work was about to be dismantled, and did I wish to collect the pieces.


AF  

You must have been shocked and angry – what did you do?


GW  

If I was to prevent this act of cultural vandalism I had to act quickly. Fortunately, I had maintained contact with a number of people in the British art and architectural world, and after a round of telephone calls and faxes we mounted a vigorous campaign. Of major help was the UK branch of DoCoMoMo - the international working party for the Documentation and Conservation of Buildings, Sites and Neighbourhoods of the Modern Movement, who alerted English Heritage, the City of London Protection Society and the 20th Century Society. All these organisations gave me their full support, as did my Systems artist colleagues Peter Lowe and Jeffrey Steele, together with Alastair Grieve of East Anglia University, and John Wood of the Henry Moore Institute.  DoCoMoMo obtained an immediate stay of execution from English Heritage and after many letters and messages of protest to the Barbican from all my supporters, this ban was eventually made permanent, as the Arts Centre is a listed building and alterations require the approval of English Heritage.



AF   

I gather that this successful campaign not only resulted in the barring of the dismantlement of the work: it also led to its restoration. How did this come about?


GW  

James Dunnett, the co-chair of DoCoMoMo in the UK, visited the Barbican and discussed the situation with the works manager, who pointed out some deterioration in my relief and explained how the stairwell was to have been redecorated after the removal.  Given the ban on its removal, the idea emerged of using the scaffolding that had already been erected to provide access for the repairs and repainting needed to restore the work to its original condition.  


AF  

Were you asked to take control of the restoration?


GW  

No, and just like 1982, communications with the Barbican were far from ideal. Their works department began the repairs without my involvement, and a muddle over contacting me in Paris resulted in my hearing that the scaffolding was about to be removed before I had even visited the project. I dropped everything, rushed to the Gare du Nord, booked a ticket and contacted friends in London who could offer me a temporary place to stay.


AF

What did you find when you got to the Barbican?


GW  

I found that a restorer with a team of four had been working on the mural for some days and thought the restoration was almost complete. But this was not the case, and over the next ten days I was on site for many hours each day, advising on further work.  It was a frustrating experience, particularly because I was not allowed onto the scaffolding platforms, despite the fact that when the work was originally installed I had spent days there, supervising the work. Some nonsense about safety regulations, I suppose.


AF  

So what were the main issues you needed to deal with?


GW  

Primarily, the loss of colour values caused by inexpert restoration involving the use of the wrong type of paint. The original spray paints had long been unavailable and we found that even in the big Halfords store in Battersea, the current range was minute compared with the number of colours available in the 80s. I eventually found just three ‘possibles’. However, it then transpired that the use of sprayed cellulose paint was banned and had to be replaced by brush-applied emulsion. Although it proved possible to get a good match with the original colours there were difficulties, particularly with grey and yellow. But although emulsion generally provides acceptable colour values, the luminosity of sprayed cellulose – particularly in the metallic form – has been lost in the matt, light-absorbing emulsion. The piece I was most concerned with was a damaged area on a metallic blue strip which went across one entire wall. Since colour matching proved impossible I took the decision to make a new separate area with ‘near blue’ – something the restorer would have had no authority to do. Another aspect which had to be corrected was the delineation of a white circle, and I advised on a string compass method which the restorer was not familiar with. My intervention in these ways saved a great deal of time – not that this was appreciated as throughout the whole process I was made to feel an unwanted intruder. And a small wall plaque giving my name and the title of the work was not installed until 2014.


AF  

Despite all these difficulties, the restoration was eventually completed and I would urge anyone interested in its history and in the way a modernist artist can transform an otherwise depressing and featureless space to go to the stairway to Cinema 1 in the Barbican to see it.


Thank you Gillian.