Constructed Abstract Art in England: A Neglected Avant-Garde By Alistair Grieve.Yale University Press, 2005. £40
In a letter in The Listener in 1951, Victor Pasmore declared: 'In painting and sculpture, as also in architecture, an entirely new language has been formed bearing no resemblance at all to traditional forms.' In this book, Alastair Grieve explores the nature, origins and development of this new language from 1949 to 1969.
The emphasis is on the painting and sculpture of Pasmore and his contemporaries, Kenneth and Mary Martin, Robert Adams, Adrian Heath and Anthony Hill, as they all pursued their quest for an art in which, as Kenneth Martin wrote in 1951, 'the object created is real and not illusional, in that it sets out to represent no object outside the canvas, but to contain within itself the force of its own nature.'
The book is the product of fastidious research over many years. Grieve has interviewed artists, collectors and critics and made careful analytical assessments of the works themselves. A particular strength is the book's many illustrations, with archive images depicting long-lost exhibitions, and first-class colour photographs of the most significant works.
A chapter on 'theory' reveals the relevance to these artists of Le Corbusier's Le Modulor and of D'Arcy Wentworth Thompson's On Growth and Form, that at the time was an important reference for many architects.
That interaction with architects and architecture is strongly represented. From the beginning, architects collaborated in the design of exhibitions of constructed art. Trevor Dannatt designed a show in 1952 that included works by Adams, Heath, Hill, Kenneth Martin, Eduardo Paolozzi and Pasmore, and in 1956 the core members of the group all contributed to 'This is Tomorrow' at the Whitechapel, in which Theo Crosby, the Smithsons, John Voelcker, Sandy Wilson, Peter Carter, and John Weeks featured. Grieve's chapter on this is fi rst rate.
Pasmore's work at Peterlee is well known, but is effectively revisited here, and it is good to see images of the works by the Martins, Hill and John Ernest and Gillian Wise that were commissioned by Theo Crosby for the 6th UIA Congress on the South Bank in 1961. Ernest and Wise, along with Stephen Gilbert, represent a slightly younger group of artists, who are discussed later in the book. It is good to find such a detailed account of Gilbert's bold architectural projects undertaken with Peter Stead, a Huddersfield builder and patron of contemporary art.
Grieve acknowledges that 'constructed abstract art' has never been popular and suffered much critical hostility. His calm and systematic study now provides an opportunity for a review of the work created by these serious artists. This will be a pleasure for those who have long known and enjoyed these pieces, but I strongly recommend younger readers to seek out this book, to learn about interesting aspects of English art and architecture, but most of all to discover some wonderful work.
Dean Hawkes is an architect based in Cambridge