Kenneth Martin: The Chance and Order Series, Screw Mobiles and Related Works 1953-1984
Chance was a buzz-word in the arts of the 1950s and 60s - the music of John Cage, for instance, and the 'cut-up' novels of William Burroughs - but seldom brought the aesthetic rewards of the 'Chance and Order' works which Kenneth Martin embarked on in 1969. Then in his mid-sixtiess, Martin had begun as a landscape painter but made his reputation as a sculptor after the Second World War. Mobiles were his speciality: several of them, gleaming and precise in polished brass, revolve slowly in this Annely Juda show, accompanied by their softer-focus shadows on the wall. They are elegant, logical, geometrical; some Calders could seem frivolous by contrast.
Martin said that it was the Minimalist artist Sol Le Witt who prompted his adoption of chance procedures - more accurately, chance allied to certain self-imposed disciplines (consistent size of canvas; colour restricted to primaries, secondaries and white on a black ground; etc). His preliminary graph-paper drawings make both 'chance' and 'order' explicit. Typically, Martin begins with a square-shaped grid which is numbered all around at regular intervals. Two points on opposite sides of this grid - say, point 12 and point 27 - are then determined at random and connected by a straight line, the completed work consisting of many such lines criss-crossing and interweaving at various angles.
While in some drawings (and the paintings that were made from them) these lines reach their targets as swiftly as a serve by Pete Sampras, elsewhere - when Martin modifies his system - they stop short or are deflected, abruptly heading off in another direction. The thickness or thinness of a line, whether or not it reaches the canvas edge, whether it passes over or beneath the other lines that it meets: such questions clearly mattered to Martin as much as to Mondrian.
In the completed works there is the illusion of a highly compressed 3d space, charged with energy. Some have the look of warped skeletal cages, more complex than anything Frank Gehry has designed. While in reproduction the paintings in particular may seem dry or mechanical, in reality there is a strong sense of Martin's personal touch: the fluctuating intensity of a blue line, a flicker of yellow underpainting, the physicality of the white ground with its scribbled, tactile brushstrokes.
Ultimately, for Martin, chance was in the service of order; methodical procedures took precedence. This deftly installed exhibition, sampling 30 years of his output, proves what a spur to creativity strict parameters can be.