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Light relief

review

Alan Reynolds At Kettle's Yard, Castle Street, Cambridge, until 21 September

Kettle's Yard has a long and distinguished association with constructive art. It has works by Naum Gabo and Ben Nicholson in its permanent collection, and over the years has held important exhibitions: 'Circle: Constructive Art in Britain' (1982), for instance, and last summer's show of Nicholson's drawings and reliefs. It is particularly apt, then, that Kettle's Yard should be the venue of the first one-person exhibition of Alan Reynolds' work in a British public gallery.

The present exhibition culminates in a grand display of Reynolds' reliefs and constructions, produced in the past 30 years or so. But the story it tells begins with The Poet Goes Poaching (1951), a small work in oil, and includes an extensive representation of the landscapes by which he first achieved critical recognition in the 1950s (when Bryan Robertson dubbed him 'the golden boy of post-neo-romanticism in England').

These frequently explore the relationship between place and time, with titles such as Time and Winter's Pattern (1953) and February Landscape (1957). They also address compositional questions in their frequent superimposition of vertical foreground elements upon a horizontally structured space.

In his catalogue essay, Michael Harrison attributes this to Reynolds' encounter with the work of, among others, Klee, Kandinsky and the Brücke and Blaue Reiter groups, while on military service in Hanover at the end of the Second World War. The influence of Klee and of Mondrian, seen 'in the flesh' at the Whitechapel in 1955, is strongly present in a group of abstract works, including Lyric Structure - Red and Green (1959), Structure: Red, Black and Green (1960) and, with particular indebtedness to Mondrian, Structure - Spring Light from 1964. At the same time Reynolds made a series of white relief pieces, under the influence of Arp and Taeuber-Arp, represented here by one surviving example, Relief (1962). These failed to receive critical support in England and much of the work of this period was destroyed.

By the early 1970s Reynolds had discovered the potential of geometrically ordered, white relief constructions. With these he built a reputation in Germany, where he has received his greatest critical response.At first the works often mapped semi-circular elements on orthogonal grounds and defined specific elements with primary colour or solid black. At Kettle's Yard four of these white-and-black pieces, Tr i o and Quartet, both 1974, and Small Structure III and Small Group, both 1975, share a single wall to considerable effect. They also reveal the extreme craftsmanship that goes into the making of these deceptively simple works.

Since the 1980s all applied tone has been eliminated, and the reliefs now adopt light and shadow alone to delineate their complex structures. The white reliefs are complemented by parallel explorations in what Reynolds calls 'Modular Studies'. These are made in pencil on paper, in which blocks of beautifully laid pencil tone delineate orthogonal compositions. These, either singly or in groups, have a presence that belies their apparent simplicity of medium and form.

One should also mention a small group of printed works, a set of black-on-white screenprints from 1978 and four tiny woodcuts from 1998, that convincingly add extreme tonal contrast to Reynolds' repertoire.

The catalogue includes a number of statements from Reynolds' notebooks and comments by the German critic Susanne Pfleger. These offer insights into the artist's intentions and methods, embracing Goethe's colour theory and the significance of white in 20th-century art since Malevich. There are other interesting allusions to the relationship between music and Reynolds' work.

The question of ends and means is concretely represented in the exhibition by the inclusion of four sketchbooks and, in particular, by the constructional drawing for one of the reliefs, Structures - Group III (14), made in 1991. This is a beautifully balanced piece in which elements of a square figure are cut out and recomposed. The sketchbook drawing, which is made with utmost precision, like an illustration from a geometry textbook, suggests extreme calculation.

Reynolds insists, however, that his fascination with numbers is more intuitive than rational: 'So much feeds in - the intellectual, the intuitive and things we're not conscious of. If you achieve a high level of concentration, you achieve a degree of not knowing, of unknowing. How does it happen? We don't really know.'

This is a deeply satisfying exhibition that repays time and attention. The perfect antidote to an overheated summer.

Dean Hawkes is an architect in Cambridge

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