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Michael Kidner  |  In Black and White

Flowers Gallery, Cork Street, London, 5 September – 13 October 2018

Review by D. W. Pike

©Copyright Patrick Morrissey and Clive Hancock  All rights reserved.

Michael Kidner In Black and White, Installation View, September 2018, (c) Estate of Michael Kidner, Courtesy of Flowers Gallery

In a 1996 interview, Michael Kidner identifies 1970 as the year he abandoned colour. He had come to recognition as one of the pioneers of the briefly fashionable Op Art movement, and his motifs, having evolved through experiments with stripe and moiré, had latterly settled on arrangements of sine waveforms. These he saw as a means of suggesting “the beginning and the end of a cycle” in a way that straight-line forms could not; they also allowed him to him to move from two to three or more colours. Kidner possessed an understanding of colour that seemed innate, and these 1960s canvases used it to harmonious and lyrical effect; yet he described his colour selections as being the result of strictly rational decision making. His suspicion was that the extemporaneous use of colour risked having “no function other than to express the private taste of the artist”. If the aim was to achieve an “unconscious expression”, the means to that was the empirical and systematic approach to decision-making that characterised his entire career. By the end of the sixties, that process of enquiry had led him to interrogate “the area between the second and third dimension”, which was also “the order that lies between imagination and reality”. The focus of this investigation was the column, and to articulate its complexity he pared down his visual language to a flickering monochrome of black and white.

There are two Column paintings from 1970 in ‘Michael Kidner: In Black and White’ at Flowers Cork Street, each displayed behind a twisting bronze rod that curves in several planes: the column itself. This was Kidner’s means of visualising – and recording in paint – the intersection or rotation of sine waveforms through three-dimensional space. Also presented are multiple photographs of the column at intervals of rotation, helping the viewer understand that there is a relationship between the observed position of the column’s curves and the progressive vertical sections of the canvas behind (although the exact nature of that relationship remains arcane, at least to this observer). The canvases can therefore be read as recordings of time from left to right in tiny black and white rectangles of paint, the resulting binary pixellation building emergent cloudy zigzags across the surfaces. Like light itself, they are simultaneously wave and particle.

Michael Kidner, Multiple, 1965, Silkscreen on Perspex, © The Estate of Michael Kidner, courtesy Flowers Gallery, London & New York

The show brings together monochrome works from various stages in Kidner’s career; in truth, though, colour was never really abolished. Muted reds and blues sometimes help delineate the path of the wave, greys are not entirely neutral, and here and there a glimpse of ground brings a yellowish note. But one of the earlier and most recognisable works, the sculpture Multiple (1965) is crisply black and white; it seems to anticipate the column works with its accommodation of the two- and three-dimensional. The physical undulations of the Perspex surface alternately reinforce and cancel the lateral undulations of the black and white waveforms, so that, moving around the piece, the viewer’s perception seems to jump to and fro between depth and flatness as the curves segue finely between the second and third dimension.

Michael Kidner, Prelude, 1975, Acrylic on cotton duck, © The Estate of Michael Kidner, courtesy Flowers Gallery, London & New York

Michael Kidner, Systematic Breakdown, 1983, Acrylic on paper, © The Estate of Michael Kidner, courtesy Flowers Gallery, London & New York

Kidner’s abiding theme was the processes of the natural world as revealed by mathematics, so it followed that the dynamics of decay and chaos would be reflected as well as those of emergence and order. In Prelude (1975) the crystalline on-offs of black and white build to no obvious gestalt, but their arrangement stops short of randomness; a hint of pattern is enough to imply that a number system is determining their position: perhaps the point is for the observer to intuit the presence of that shadowy underlying system rather than to attempt to parse it. By the time of Systematic Breakdown (1983), Kidner is experimenting with lattices: one row of waveforms orientates at 90 degrees from the other. Slight discrepancies and variations in wavelength push the looping lines gradually out of kilter so that there is a sense of increasing chaos as we read down the painting and the expected symmetries disintegrate. In Floorpiece (1984) the lattice is more stable; the array of non-repeating irregular shapes it produces are held in equilibrium.

Kidner was concerned with the creativity and chaos of the human condition as much as with the abstract processes of the universe, and his work addresses them both – not so much as metaphors for one another as indistinguishable. In this rationalist world view, consciousness is a quantum phenomenon, human experience is constructed of the same stuff as the physical world, and observed reality is inseparable from the cognitive processes that perceive it. But an art in which system replaces subjective gesture is nevertheless capable of expressing the personal. This can be seen most clearly in the quadriptych Requiem (1984) in which each of the four canvases charts a process that has a clear psychological as well as a mathematical progression – an intent suggested by the title. The waveform lattice in the left-most picture forms a regular, grid-like balance of blacks and whites but, as the wavelength and amplitude increase in each successive canvas, the blacks coalesce into an asymmetric mass, crushing out the white in a manner that seems menacing and ominous. Emotion is expressed by a simple mathematical sequence.

Michael Kidner, Requiem, 1984, Oil on canvas © The Estate of Michael Kidner, courtesy Flowers Gallery, London & New York

A perfectly smooth waveform is difficult to draw by hand (although it is a straightforward job for a drawing program) and here and there these lattice works betray the artist’s hand in the slight glitches and inaccuracies of the line. Kidner experimented with, but rejected, the computer as a drawing tool surprisingly early – in the mid-seventies – when faced with the daunting task of drawing out lattices that would create an endless sequence of irregular shapes through gradually decreasing the intervals by a given proportion of the wavelength. “A computer could have done it in ten seconds,” he said, “but a lot happens in this tedious process of working it out... (the computer) would do it quickly and you wouldn’t understand how it was done”. Perfection is an anomaly in nature and, as chaos theory predicts, small discrepancies can drive an entire system. So, in these works, the hand-drawn imperfections contribute to the breakdown in the regularised order – the cognition and endeavour of the artist becomes integrated into the system. Understanding (of the artist as well as the viewer trying to trace his steps) is enhanced by the struggle to draw the undrawable.

Kidner was convinced that “mathematics is the clearest, purest form of language that human beings have evolved”. By the mid-1990s he was investigating Penrose tiling, a geometrical form described by the mathematician and physicist Sir Roger Penrose, whose book lent its name to ‘The Emperor’s New Mind #2’ (1995). The repeating pentagon-based pattern in this work brings to mind Islamic ‘girih’ patterning and naturally occurring quasicrystals – both underpinned by the same mathematics. Kidner recalls grasping the potential for Penrose tiling in his work: “I was enthralled... It got rid of the vertical and the horizontal so evident in the earlier Constructivist work... I saw it as relating to my discomfort with the uncertainty of religion as compared with the uncertainty of science... I could think of no better metaphor for space”. These forms, with their evocation of the infinite, were to form the basis of Kidner’s work for the next decade and soon provided the impetus for colour (which had never really gone away) to come flooding back in his late period works.

Michael Kidner: In Black and White

Flowers, Cork Street until 13 October 2018.

Michael Kidner, Floorpiece, 1984, Mixed media construction in 16 pieces, © The Estate of Michael Kidner, courtesy Flowers Gallery, London & New York

Michael Kidner In Black and White, Installation View, September 2018, (c) Estate of Michael Kidner, Courtesy of Flowers Gallery (4)