Art and science
Anthony Hill At Austin/Desmond Fine Art, Pied Bull Yard, 68 Great Russell St, London WC1, until 10 October
There is something playful about the work of Anthony Hill, which is actually its source of life. Known by repute as the most intellectual, the most undeviating of the British 'Constructionist' group of artists originating in the 1950s, he has in fact passed through a phase when he assumed an alter ego and produced work in an entirely different vein, under the teasing semi-pseudonym Achill Redo.
While the work of Anthony Hill is of a purely abstract (or 'concrete') geometric character, that of Redo wittily collages the detritus of the late industrial age. In yet another persona, A C Hill has published learned papers in professional mathematical journals on such topics as 'Graphs with homeomorphically irreducible spanning trees' - while the artist Hill has made pronouncements questioning the relevance of mathematics to art.
Hill abandoned painting in 1956, in favour of 'constructed reliefs' - composed of synthetic materials such as plastic laminate and aluminium angle - which filled the pavilion at the 'This is Tomorrow' exhibition, on which he collaborated with John Ernest that same year. His contacts have included the radical Situationists at one extreme, and the mathematicians Brouwer and Frucht at the other, with his selfappointed 'stepfather' in art, the mocking figure of Marcel Duchamp, somewhere inbetween. Albers, Vantongerloo and Pasmore also play a part, and - in the historical perspective of which Hill is very aware - Mondrian and Van Doesburg (with his alter ego IK Bonset).
The notion of an art built on the scientific analysis of visual phenomena and structures is very persuasive, congruent as it is with the culture of our times and with the celebration of rational thought intrinsic to the Modern movement. It takes a rare figure such as Hill to approach it. Le Corbusier wrote that 'Art and Science have this in common - the duty to generalise', but also that 'Art has no business resembling a machine - the error of Constructivism'. For him, art was the subjective antithesis to the objective thesis of the modern world.
Hill's work does make a direct appeal to the senses. The source of its charm is mysterious because at first sight it can seem so slight, with its undemonstrative means and impersonal materials. But the suggestion of deep thought behind it is inescapable and commanding, and the play of pattern always intriguing. Unlike much 'mathematical' art, it is rarely grid-based. More typically his works are developed from the rotation of a single element - often angled at 30infinity, 45infinity or 120infinity - and its grouping in a variety of permutations.
Shadow, texture and reflection play an important part in their effect, but rarely colour - 'Hill associated colour with qualities he was trying to avoid, decorativeness, wilfulness, indecisiveness, ' says the catalogue of his 1983 Hayward retrospective. This makes his work very difficult to photograph effectively, especially in colour, as evidenced by the catalogue of this exhibition: reflections and shadows scarcely show, and such colour as there is - often on the edges of flat laminate elements - is invisible in a frontal view. The spatiality of such works as Relief Construction of 1959-60 is impressive, but again almost illegible on the page.
'An architecture for the eye and mind.
With this phrase I am prepared to sum up the position of the ficonstructivist type artistfl, ' so Hill is quoted from 1959 in the catalogue - and architectural qualities have often been attributed to his work. But the only significant example of his involvement with an architectural project was the immense 48' long, 7' high and 1'6fl deep mural relief constructed for the International Union of Architects conference on London's South Bank in 1961, an integral part of the temporary pavilion designed by Theo Crosby, which is no longer extant.
The only present - and instructive - example of such 'integration of the arts' are the murals in the stair to the Barbican Cinema by Hill's close collaborator over a decade, Gillian Wise, where relief, geometry, mirror reflections and synthetic materials can all be seen - and colour as well.
The works in the current show all date from 1954-1982, but look entirely new. The 'Hill' persona is today apparently again in the ascendant and new work is under construction. It will be well worth seeing - as is the present show.
James Dunnett is an architect in London