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

Website: Chestnuts Design

Interview with John Carter by Patrick Morrissey


May 2019


©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

PM

John, what were your early artistic influences? Did the Constructivist movement have any significant role to play in your early career?

JC

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-lifes, nudes and landscapes of familiar convention. The textures used by Piper were truly fascinating to me, as were his abstract works from the 1930s which were the first I had ever seen. The darkness and drama of these wartime works was very exciting but there was something else too. It was the way that these works were made with wax crayons, wash, ink and gouache on paper. One felt that it was something one could do oneself, in contrast to the unknowable oil painting techniques of the Old Masters. These materials were also close at hand, which made me want to have a go at using them myself, which I did, of course, with great enthusiasm. These were my artistic beginnings and that’s how I started.

Later on, my art master at school, who was interested in the Neo-Romantic artists, did much to encourage me and he introduced me to the work of Vaughan, Minton and Craxton. When at art school, I came into contact with many other ideas about art and was subjected to many influences. I ended my time there in some confusion. I should add that my art school course was a strictly traditional one and was linked to the examination system of the Ministry of Education. Life drawing, painting and figure composition were the main subjects of study. An interest in Modernism was actively discouraged, if not actually forbidden. The standard, ideal artist in all the UK art schools at that time was Walter Richard Sickert. We were aware of other kinds of art going on in the world but we seemed to know little about it. One winter holiday, a fellow student and I attended a short course run by Harry Thubron which provided a breath of fresh air. Terry Frost was also teaching on the course. Again, however, it was the books that I found that had the most influence on me and are relevant to your question. One was “Nine Abstract Artists” (1954) where I was deeply impressed by the works of Mary Martin and Anthony Hill. Another was Ghika’s book on the geometry underlying Old Master paintings, which I now find not entirely convincing, but it did introduce me to the concept of pictorial structure, which was very important. I also studied Le Corbusier’s book on the “Modulor” which introduced me to proportioning systems. Another book that had an impact on me was Jasia Reichardt’s little Methuen book on Victor Pasmore, where a poor-quality reproduction of a large painted construction fascinated me. It seemed to be more of an installation than either a painting or a sculpture, and intriguingly, seemed to exist between genres. In describing these interests I am aware that it’s hardly an adequate background for my subsequent developments. I was not taught by the Martins, and I only met Anthony Hill and John Ernest when I started teaching at Chelsea Art School, as it was then called, in the early 80s. Therefore I came with no pedigree to the field!

PM

What is your opinion of older, international artists such as Ellsworth Kelly and Sol LeWitt?

JC

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

PM

In regard to the British post-war period, Kenneth Martin and Mary Martin, Victor Pasmore, Anthony Hill and the Systems Group, how much did you identify with the work of these artists?

JC

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 post-war generation, but there is a great need for another book to explore the work of the later artists, continuing the story if you like. It would need to include Michael Kidner and Jeffrey Steele, for example, artists who emerged from a very different artistic background closer to Op Art in spirit. There are also the other later artists associated with the Systems Group, and other groups besides. There is some sort of continuity and there is a need for it to be explored and documented. For myself, it was not until 1986 when I took part in an international group exhibition at Galerie Hoffmann in Germany that I realised how much my own work was akin to the European Concrete/Constructive artists in spirit. It seemed to be a more open and fluid situation in character than the groupings in the UK. Also, it was one which was much more recognised by the European public as a known art form. These artists only exhibited in galleries and museums which were especially dedicated to this art, of which there were quite a number. I came to see the English scene as an offshoot of the continental one but one which was not really thriving. It was therefore a great pleasure to find that there is some new energy coming from you with your ‘Saturation Point’ project and that it has not entirely passed away!

Painted Structure Squares 1983. Oil on plywood, 21.5 x 34 x 21 cm. Courtesy George Meyrick

PM

What is your opinion on the work of the American-born constructivist artist John Ernest, who eventually established a career here in the UK?

JC

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-emerged there in a display of “Systems” artists work in 2016(?).


Black Ring 1973-74. Oil on plywood with metal and plastic, diameter 89.5 cm; projection 25.5 cm. Courtesy Pete Jones

PM

What was your reaction to Op (and Pop) Art?

JC

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.

PM

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?

JC

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-support method of construction which I inherited from making panels as a student painter. Now I seem to have slowly progressed to a position where most of the work is pre-planned from drawings, although I do sometimes draw directly onto the plywood itself before cutting it to shape. Without noticing, I gradually seem to have completely abandoned the improvisational approach. It was a principle of Anthony Caro’s that a sculptor must work in real scale with the real materials and without drawings or maquettes. This was an aspect of the inheritance of American Abstract Expressionism. I can see the logic of it but I could not work in that way myself. To me, the process of research and working in series is as important as the unique artwork itself. My approach has become more like that of an architect where much has been resolved before construction starts, or in my case, before I commit myself to actually cutting the plywood. However, sometimes things do not work out as expected, and it is necessary to make changes to clarify an idea or to change an emphasis. Unlike the wooden structure of the work, the coloured surfaces are easily adaptable, in the same way as a painting, and one can make adjustments as one goes along. With ideas-based work like mine, the physical reality of the art-object as it emerges is often a surprise. Its character is the result of the systematic processes or geometric concepts which have generated it. Only on the completion of these can the fully realised object be seen.


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

PM

Works on paper, drawings, collage, prints - are these a discourse independent of the three-dimensional works?

JC

Yes, they have become so to a certain extent. The works on paper were mainly made as studies for my “wall-objects” and sculptures, but now seem to have become a more independent aspect of my work, especially the prints. I have always enjoyed the different media that can be used on paper. I have made collages, pencil drawings, Conté drawings, oil pastels, watercolours and even used oil paint on paper. For the most part in recent years, acrylic gouache has been my main medium.

PM

Is there any form of two-way relationship between painting, drawing and sculpture?

JC

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

PM

Perhaps you could comment on the use of colour in both your sculptural and two-dimensional work?

JC

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-family. I tend not to use the great trio of red, yellow and blue together in my work. Too much contrast and an over-obvious reference to de Stijl are my complaints. There is also the question of what colour does to a surface and the way we perceive it, but this is too complex to explain. Painters’ issues with colour are entirely different from those of sculptors. A simple example is that if a sculpture is painted in black, it looks heavier than if painted in white or a pale colour. It is to do with physical weight and this is not a pictorial issue.

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-tone ground into which the artist will work darker or lighter colours. The lightest point must always be the reflection on a glass or in an eye, and this must be pure white. Every other tone must be darker. In my work, though, the white doesn’t seem to come forward as I often want it to, and it tends to operate as the ground, the background so to speak. All this is a very untidy area with many unresolved problems and contradictions. I tried to explain it all to a woman at a lunch party once, she was a psychologist. She said: “John, I think, you are completely confused about colour!” Well, I am and I’m not! Sometimes there aren’t answers. The dynamic of the problem is a much more interesting one than the solution. This is a part of the give and take of artistic practice.

Darmstadt Double Arch (second version),1993-95. Blue reinforced concrete, 366 x 786 x 106 cm. Courtesy Christine Wurm

PM

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?

JC

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-like objects. It’s not my intention to deceive but it seems unavoidable with this technique. However, my fully three-dimensional works in metal, stone or concrete do follow the ‘truth to materials’ principle, where the material is clear for all to see.

Untitled Theme, Diagonal Slice 1995. Acrylic with marble powder on plywood. Two parts, each 226 x 66 x 12 cm. Courtesy John Riddy

PM

To conclude, would you say that your journey to date has been about continuing the constructive /concrete tradition?

JC

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.

PM

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