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Mary Martin: The End is Always to Achieve Simplicity

review

At Kettle's Yard, Castle Street, Cambridge, until 27 February (and afterwards at Eastbourne and Bournemouth)

Mary Martin was a Constructivist artist - allied in the 1950s to others such as Victor Pasmore and Anthony Hill - who until her death in 1969 was much engaged with architecture, writes Andrew Mead. She collaborated with John Weeks on an 'environment' for the Whitechapel's 'This is Tomorrow' exhibition in 1956, and made reliefs/constructions for Musgrave Park Hospital, Belfast, for Stirling University and for the SS Oriana (among others).

Gillian Wise, a contributor to the catalogue for this excellent show at Kettle's Yard, says: 'Passing from painting to architecture would have seemed relatively easy for her.' An explanation for this would be Martin's insistence on the 'internal logic' of a work. Systems took precedence over personal expression; proportional geometry - the golden section, the Fibonacci sequence - was integral. That was one reason why Martin admired Le Corbusier, writing: 'Use of a knowledge of proportion is one of the contributions which the artist can make to social well-being, as anyone who has directly experienced a building by Le Corbusier will know.' The show gives a succinct overview of Martin's whole career. There are the early-'50s reliefs in plaster and painted wood (one like a model of a monopitch development around a central courtyard). There are the crystalline groups of half-cubes and quarter-cubes faced in stainless steel, mercurially sensitive to light, their appearance changing the moment you move. And there are drawings and maquettes for the architectural commissions.

Above all, there are 10 or more late reliefs in Perspex, each a variant on the same format. At the centre of a large square panel of Perspex, whose bright synthetic blue, red or orange gives each piece an immediate impact, an assembly of small square and oblong planes - both parallel and at right angles to each other - hovers 'weightlessly'. None of these arrangements would translate directly into architecture, but, in their layering, junctions, proportional relationships and shifts of level, not to mention their 'weightlessness', they are deeply architectural.

As the title of this exhibition states, Martin sought 'simplicity' in her work, but it's worth remembering Donald Judd's remark that, just because something is simple, doesn't mean it can't be complex too - the terms aren't opposites. These Perspex reliefs prove the point.

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