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British Constructivism

Pallant House Gallery, Chichester

11 March – 11 June 2017

Review by Alan Fowler

This small exhibition of works from the Catherine Petitgas collection might more accurately have been entitled Nine British Constructivists, as it is not intended as a comprehensive survey of British constructive abstraction. Not that this detracts from the show, which well rewards a visit to this excellent gallery in Chichester.  Petitgas is best known for her extensive collection of modern and contemporary art from Latin America, including many works by the Brazilian concrete and neo-concrete painters and sculptors. These artists were influenced by European constructivism, and particularly the Swiss painter and sculptor Max Bill, who also had contact with, and was much admired by, the British systems artists in this exhibition.

Petitgas explains in the exhibition catalogue that she first became aware of British constructivism when she saw the Tate display, Constructing Britain, in 2010, where she was struck by the similarity of the British works with those of Brazilians. Later, in 2012, the major exhibition Concrete Parallels in Sao Paulo (in which she was involved) showed the Brazilian and British artists together, and contributed to her decision to add British constructive works to her collection – as now exhibited in Pallant House.

The nine artists in this exhibition are all significant figures in the context of British constructivism. Six were involved in the Constructionist Group, formed around Victor Pasmore in the 1950s – Pasmore himself, Kenneth Martin. Mary Martin, Anthony Hill, Gillian Wise and John Ernest. Four were active in the 1970s Systems Group – Jeffrey Steele (the group’s co-founder) and Peter Lowe, together with Ernest, and Wise who had moved on from the Constructionists. The remaining artist in the exhibition, Norman Dilworth, was in neither group but exhibited in group shows with his Systems colleagues and also co-curated the controversial modernist exhibition, Pier and Ocean, at the Hayward Gallery in 1980. Steele, Lowe and Dilworth remain active today, while the works in the show range in date from 1959 to 2000, providing evidence of the longevity of the constructive approach to abstraction. The only criticism which might be made about Petitgas’ selection is an imbalance resulting from ten of the 25 works being by Dilworth, although for Pasmore this is offset by Pallant House having an interesting and much larger parallel exhibition – Victor Pasmore: Towards a New Reality” – spanning his transition from representation to abstraction.

Jeffrey Steele, Third Syntagmatic Structure (ÔÇØTsunamiÔÇØ) (Sg VIII 1), 1965. © the estate of the artist

The Brazilian reference might raise questions as to whether ‘Constructivism’ (with a capital C) is a satisfactory label to apply to the works in this exhibition, and whether ‘concrete art’ might not be more appropriate. While Constructivism is a useful way of categorising an approach to art which largely originated in revolutionary Russia, the concepts and focus of the art of artists like Hill and Lowe differ considerably from those of the Russian Constructivists. These saw themselves as producing a new art for a new revolutionary society, and one which would achieve a synthesis of painting, sculpture, architecture, and graphic, product and theatre design. After the Second World War, however, these Utopian ideas largely evaporated, and the focus of most of the art in the current exhibition became the internal and structural logic of the individual artwork. Max Bill and the Brazilians described this as ‘concrete’ or ‘neo-concrete’ art, which Bill explained thus: “We use the term concrete to refer to those works that have developed through their own intrinsic means and laws – in other words, works that bear no relation to external phenomena”. (1)  And Kenneth Martin wrote of the work being built by simple elements to form a single ‘whole’, explaining that “the square, the circle, the triangle etc. are the primary elements in the vocabulary of form”.(2)  The self-sufficiency of the resultant constructed artwork – that is, the absence of any external visual reference, and the artwork being its own object – was encapsulated by the term ‘concrete’. The Pasmore group became known as the Constructionists (not constructivists), echoing the emphasis placed on structure by Charles Biederman, the maverick American abstract artist with whom they corresponded: the 1970s group adopted the term ‘systems’, to highlight the process of manipulating the elements in a work in accordance with pre-determined and generally geometric or mathematical ‘rules’. Anthony Hill had actually argued for the use of the term ‘concrete’ as early as 1952 (3), but as the Systems Group later decided, the word was probably too related in the mind of the British public to sand and cement.

John Ernest, Tower (Vertical Construction), 1955. © estate of John Ernest

Be that as it may, it is interesting to note one characteristic in the works in this exhibition which does relate back to a feature of original Constructivism – the use of non-traditional materials. Two of Dilworth’s small sculptures are made of welded steel and three of his other works are constructed of metal wire. John Ernest’s impressive tower uses metal rods to connect planes of Perspex. Lowe also makes extensive use of black and white Perspex, while Hill’s somewhat austere shallow reliefs incorporate orthogonal planes of aluminium, copper, brass and plastic laminate. Works by Gillian Wise and Mary Martin include elements of mirrored glass. The most obvious exception to this, in its use of precisely painted oil on canvas, is a Chance and Order painting by Kenneth Martin. Further, the ‘chance’ aspect of this work might also be considered contrary to the emphasis on strictly controlled rationality which is a central feature of concrete and systems-based art. And yet the chance element of this work (and of the many other paintings in this series) is determined by a detailed set of rules which prescribe the orientation, duplication and colour of the network of lines which make up the finished work. This is systematised chance.

Kenneth Martin, Chance, Order, Change 13 (Milton Park A), 1980. © The Estate of Kenneth & Mary Martin/DACS

Martin’s painting is one of only three which make full use of colour, the others being John Ernest’s study for a large mosaic and Gillian Wise’s small relief. The limitation to black and white in works by Lowe and Steele helps to emphasise their structure –both these artists use colour in many works, although not in this particular exhibition.

One other feature common to all the works in the show lies in the meticulous craftsmanship of their construction, which contributes to a significant aspect of concrete art – the exclusion of anything which might be seen as an indication of the personality of the artist. There is a machine-made quality to much of the work, as well of an absence of any sign of the artists’ hands – a feature which helps the viewer to focus on the concrete qualities of the work itself, rather than on its constructor. For the viewer, the essential, and visually rewarding characteristics of concrete art lie in the precision and clarity of the two- or three-dimensional image and the resulting qualities of balance, visual rhythm, proportion and rationality.

Peter Lowe, Permutation 4 groups of 3, 1967. © the artist

The catalogue essay by Laurent Delaye is right to comment that historically, art of this kind has been more widely appreciated in continental Europe (and to some extent in Brazil) than in the UK, but perhaps this underplays an apparent (if slow) growth of interest here. Following the large 2008 exhibition at Southampton City Art Gallery, A Rational Aesthetic (which showed 60 works by 20 systems-based UK artists) there have been exhibitions in London of works by a number of such artists, including at the Osborne Samuel, Offer Waterman, Redfern, Waterhouse & Dodd and Eagle galleries. Currently, too, Tate Britain has a display, Systems, of works which were shown in the 1972 Systems Group exhibition at the Whitechapel gallery. Hopefully, the Pallant House exhibition will contribute to an increasing interest in UK constructivist or concrete art, and eventually lead to a major and comprehensive exhibition, including its European components, which this long-living aspect of British art deserves.

1. Max Bill, Form, Function, Beauty = Gestalt, English edition, Architectural Association, 2010

2. Kenneth Martin, article in Broadsheet  no. 1, 1951

3. Anthony Hill, article in Broadsheet no. 2, 1952

Publication accompanying the exhibition available to purchase here