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Interview with John Carter by Patrick Morrissey
©Copyright Patrick Morrissey and Clive Hancock All rights reserved.
First Spacer Painting No III 1967. Mixed media, 53.4 x 241.4 cm. Courtesy Pete Jones
John Carter, studio, 2019. Courtesy Jerwood Gallery
John, what were your early artistic influences? Did the Constructivist movement have any significant role to play in your early career?
This is a big question which I’ll try to answer succinctly. As a schoolboy I was
very fascinated by two of my father’s books on John Piper and Graham Sutherland.
These were part of the Penguin Modern Painters series which Kenneth Clark edited
during and just after the Second World War. The truth is, these two artists would
seem to be very unlikely sources of inspiration in view of what happened to me as
an artist. Both painters used extraordinary colour and their subject matter was startlingly
unlike the still-
Later on, my art master at school, who was interested in the Neo-
What is your opinion of older, international artists such as Ellsworth Kelly and Sol LeWitt?
Well, I think they are both wonderful artists in different ways. Kelly, the most supremely visual artist, is a master of scale and of the impact of a simple shape while Le Witt is almost the opposite.
His work needs to be read and the concept understood. LeWitt’s idea of following through a systematic sequence to its end without reference to aesthetic interference or preferences was a very interesting one in an artistic context. It also seems to have a certain moral aspect to it too. My generation were very impressed by American art of the time. The scholarships given from the “New Generation” exhibition by the Stuyvesant Foundation in 1966, of which I was a recipient, were all to the USA. No one wanted to go anywhere else at the time. It’s only now that an exploration of the European art of the 50s and 60s is revealing a more balanced view of that period.
Untitled Theme Pierced Blue Square 1986. Acrylic with marble powder on board, 122 x 122 x 21 cm. Courtesy George Meyrick
In regard to the British post-
Much as I like the work of all of these artists, to identify with them is another
thing. Alastair Grieve’s book “Constructed Art in England” covers the work of that
Painted Structure Squares 1983. Oil on plywood, 21.5 x 34 x 21 cm. Courtesy George Meyrick
What is your opinion on the work of the American-
John Ernest was a very good artist but a reluctant one. This has sadly been the case
with several of the Constructive artists in England. Perhaps lack of opportunity,
lack of a good gallery or museum scene, internecine strife, who knows what the real
reasons are? In John Ernest’s case, unfortunately, there are only a very small number
of his Constructive works in existence but each one is superb. I should add that
he was an absolutely meticulous craftsman; was it possible that the time and effort
he demanded of himself was a deterrent to making work? After he died, I was involved
in the rescue of the large sculpture which he had made for the “Systems” exhibition
in 1972. It was in a garden carefully wrapped in plastic but was in bad condition.
The doorways of the buildings around it had been altered so it was no longer possible
to get it out. Gary Woodley was the true hero of the occasion; he managed to finally
get the work out by removing the house window and door frames on the street. It was
then transported to his workshop where a marvellous restoration was performed involving
a new metal internal structure to prevent future warping. The Tate agreed to take
the work into its permanent collection and the Henry Moore Foundation agreed to finance
the restoration. There was a lot more to this story and my part in the negotiations,
but that’s the broad outline. The work then disappeared into Tate Britain’s storage
for some years but to my delight it later re-
Black Ring 1973-
What was your reaction to Op (and Pop) Art?
It’s hard to remember the exact sequence. As a student I was aware of Pop Art emerging from the Royal College around 1963 with Hockney, Boshier, Philipps and so forth. I had certainly seen Vaserely’s paintings at the Hanover Gallery. In 1963 I saw the Groupe de Recherche Visuelle display at the Paris Biennale, but you are asking for my reaction and not my first encounters. It was a very positive one; I was intrigued by the works of both camps, as contradictory as it may seem. The impact of these works is very apparent in the paintings and reliefs which I made in 1964 at the British School at Rome and continued after my return to England.
Regarding material approaches to making sculptural work, do you regard preparatory drawing as a significant means in itself, i.e. representing the final sculpture, or as a tool in the evolution of the final work?
This is not a simple question but I think it’s true to say that my initial ideas
are found in the little sketchbooks which I use. These ideas might then be tested
by making more accurate drawings with measurements. In earlier years more of the
development took place on the actual works themselves, which was hell to do because
of the board and wooden-
Superimposed Elements in a Square I and II 1990. Acrylic with marble powder on plywood, each part 100 x 100 x 15 cm. Courtesy Peter Abrahams
Works on paper, drawings, collage, prints -
Yes, they have become so to a certain extent. The works on paper were mainly made
as studies for my “wall-
Is there any form of two-
There are three things here but the answer is simply, yes, of course.
Squares in Blue 1978. Oil on plywood, 117 x 140 cm. Courtesy Pete Jones
Perhaps you could comment on the use of colour in both your sculptural and two-
This is a difficult question. Colour is still an unresolved issue in my work and
indeed it is unresolvable. It is easier to say what it is not than what it is. My
ideal is that one work should be one colour, but if it comprises separate zones,
the need arises to define them. There are three ways of doing this: difference of
tone (light or dark), difference of colour, or the use of a line to distinguish one
part from another. I have been much associated with the colour grey. This is because
if no colour idea was involved in a work, I saw using grey as the equivalent of a
black and white photograph. A work without colour allowed the sculptural aspect,
the shadows and slots, to come into play without distraction. However, there was
a serious fault in this reasoning because of course, grey is a colour itself and
brings with it all the associations that grey or that any other colour brings. I
admire Albers but I’m not interested in the ‘Interaction of Colours’ world and in
fact I really dislike the interaction of colours. I try to make works in one pure
colour if I can, or in the tones of one colour within the same colour-
The question of colour as energising a surface is one that should be given some consideration. Artists like Max Bill used the word energy for this concept, but it is another difficult thing to explain. The closest to my own attitude in this field is probably the way that an architect might use colour on a building or in an interior. Le Corbusier created a book of colour samples for use in his buildings, but for me, the virtue of a single colour is paramount in that it allows the particular character and atmosphere of that colour to ’speak’ without compromise. For example, there is a particular sulphur yellow which I find very exciting. I have used it on several of my own works as a colour statement. The single colour engages directly with the spectator but relates to no other colour relationships within the work.
The connection between colour and substance is an interesting one for me. Sulphur,
for example, but also the green oxide that appears on copper roofs, or bronze, and
this pale green is often referenced in my work too. In addition to marble powder
and slate powder, I have used bronze and aluminium powders in my work, particularly
in the earlier days. I often attempt to make pure white the colour of a work, only
to find it necessary to mix in a little blue or grey, simply to give a sort of ‘presence’
and to distinguish it from the white wall. The question of white is a very interesting
one. In traditional painting the canvas is started with a darkish or a mid-
Darmstadt Double Arch (second version),1993-
How much is the idea of “truth to materials” important to you these days? Do you intentionally refer to early English Modernism in which this phenomenon often featured?
No, this is not an issue for me. I mainly use plywood which I coat with a surface
of acrylic and marble powder. When I started using this technique, the plywood could
be clearly seen because the coating barely covered the surface. You could see it
was wood, but later if I needed to change a colour, the wood began to disappear under
each additional layer. In the end it was impossible to know what the support was.
Sometimes people imagine my works are solid when in fact they are hollow, box-
Untitled Theme, Diagonal Slice 1995. Acrylic with marble powder on plywood. Two parts, each 226 x 66 x 12 cm. Courtesy John Riddy
To conclude, would you say that your journey to date has been about continuing the constructive /concrete tradition?
I certainly would wish to connect myself to the constructive/concrete tradition in spite of the fact that I found my way there by a route that was wayward but related to the main thrust of its objectives.
Thank you, John.
The exhibition 'Sight Lines' at the Jerwood Gallery is on until 9 June 2019
The Redfern Gallery exhibition 'John Carter: On Paper' opens on 4 June 2019
Pierced Red Shape (From the Maquette of 1985), 2015. Acrylic with marble powder on plywood. 145 x 119 x 9 cm. Courtesy Pete Jones
Installation shot, Sight Lines, Jerwood Gallery, 2019. Courtesy the artist and Jerwood Gallery
Installation shot, Sight Lines, Jerwood Gallery, 2019. Courtesy the artist and Jerwood Gallery