Life in Epitome
‘The moment I became a purely abstract artist I began to realise what I’d been missing…that I’d really missed the whole of the modern movement. I was in my forties, the modern movement started in 1908. I’d missed that, and I began to find out everything about it; the reasons for it. And of course, they were clearer. What happened in 1908 was there but the reason for it was not so clear as it was in the forties. So in that way I was in luck, you see … Before I became an abstract painter I went to a lecture by Kenneth Clark. He showed on the screen a work by Mondrian, and he said, “This was one of his more complicated efforts”. The ladies tittered. But it had a profound effect on me then, seeing it.’ 1
1940s Britain: austerity; rationing; a nation still coming to terms emotionally, financially and politically with WWII which, in spite of its global scope and the tides of refugees that had flowed through the country, had had the effect of making Britain more insular, more parochial. Walter Gropius and Moholy-Nagy, leading figures of the Bauhaus who had fled Germany shortly before the war and taken up residence in theIsokon Building in London had left by this stage, as had artists such as Naum Gabo, one of the original group of Constructivist artists, who left for America after seven years in Britain during the war. All the while, the centre of gravity for avant-garde art was undergoing a dramatic shift from Paris to New York, bypassing London altogether.
In 1952 Herbert Read coined the term ‘The Geometry of Fear’, to describe the work of a group of artists, including Lynn Chadwick and Kenneth Armitage, whose angular metal sculptures characterised the climate of anxiety pervading the immediate post-war years. The work of these artists typically abstracted from the human form to give expression to underlying psychological states; Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth meanwhile, part of the ‘second wave’ of British abstract artists, continued to create forms abstracted from the natural world, from rocks and bones as well as the human figure.
When Kenneth Martin and Mary Martin abandoned their earlier figurative work to embrace abstraction however, it was to the much earlier proponents of pure geometric abstraction that they looked for both formal and philosophical foundations. In their earliest abstract work, they rejected traditional artists’ materials as being too closely associated with traditional values and instead turned to readily available prepared materials such as sheet metals, hardboard, Perspex and asbestos. That such materials were more usually associated with building is not insignificant; Mary Martin’s relief for Musgrave Park Hospital in Belfast, completed in 1957, used the same materials as were employed in the rest of that new building: grey brick, stainless steel, cement. Her triumph in the project was to have created work that was intrinsic to the building; it was not a decorative afterthought, but a genuine contribution to the environment. Not only was the relief deemed ‘lyrical’ and ‘playful’, intimately linked to the modular plan of the building it also served to discretely direct the flow of visitors.
‘Is the artist to remain a “chamber architect”, a “backroom boy” or is there a real place for the constructive artist in architecture? By its very nature such an architectonic art can have something to offer to the architect, since it is pure and not utilitarian.’ 2
This was the era which saw the founding of the Welfare State and such idealistic institutions as what later became the Arts Council Collection: there was a belief that art could and should be part of the fabric of life, that it had the power to improve the quality of life. It was undoubtedly a more paternalistic approach than the policy of ‘accessibility’ and ‘inclusiveness’ which is now current, but we are arguably the poorer for want of this, perhaps naïve, idealism.
The pure abstraction of both Mary and Kenneth Martin was based on the use of rigorous scientific thinking, mathematics and a systematic approach, which ensured a moral and intellectual authority in the face of social and political instability. The use of industrial materials distanced this art from the traditional, private and unique work of art, and deliberately undermined the authority of the creator, reflecting some of the anti-establishment mores of the age.
‘Works of art are part of the process of human thought, or world-picture, and, while many people lead blameless lives without ever noticing art, in fact no-one lives without art.’ 3
In the last decade, a new generation of artists have approached the intellectual legacy of the Martins, and of artists such as Victor Pasmore who was closely allied with them, with the same clarity that Kenneth Martin described having in relation to the original Constructivists. Glasgow-based artist Toby Paterson, for example, references the abstract, wall-based works Pasmore made in the 1950s and juxtaposes them with photo-realist paintings of iconic modernist buildings in what is often a poignant reminder of the failure of so much post-war utopian thinking.
So much of the commonly derided post-war architecture, decaying drably while demonstrating the failure of its cheap materials, is criticised for its failure to pay heed to the human, the social and time-tested modes of living. The Brutalist concrete and piss-stained tower blocks represent the triumph of rationalism over emotion; but for all its formal and intellectual purity, the art of the Martins could not be said to succumb to the same faults. Within their rigorous formal systems is the acknowledgement that human beings live a pattern of constantly repeating sequences. Mary Martin wrote about the monotony of the basket or tapestry weaver’s work, and the incursion of random or chance elements which alter and modulate her rhythmic pattern-making.
‘We are always the same person’ she wrote, ‘but the situations in which we are placed are never identical, though they may be similar. […] We say “Good morning” every morning but it is never the same morning, we are all a day older and our feelings vary. The artist, a part of nature, seeks to discover and use forming principles in order that he may in his turn manifest nature. It is as a forming principle that I see the idea of polarity, constancy and change.’ 4
1 Kenneth Martin talking to Andrew Forge, BBC Third Programme, 24 October 1962, in Paul Overy, ‘Introduction’, Mary Martin –Kenneth Martin, Arts Council, London, 1970, p.3.
2 Mary Martin, quoted in Lawrence Alloway, ‘Real Places’, Architectural Design, June 1958, p.249.
3 Mary Martin, ‘Reflections’, in Data: Directions in Art, Theory and Aesthetics, ed. by Anthony Hill, London, Faber, 1968.
Kenneth Martin & Mary Martin: Constructed Works Camden Arts Centre (2007) ISBN 9781900470674
Alastair Grieve Constructed Abstract Art in England Yale University Press (2005) ISBN 030010703X
The end is always to achieve simplicity: Mary Martin 1907–1969 Huddersfield Art Gallery (2004) ISBN 0900746882
Mary Martin, Kenneth Martin Arts Council touring exhibition (1970)
Kenneth Martin Tate Gallery (1975) ISBN 900874910
Concrete Thoughts The Whitworth Art Gallery (2006) ISBN 0903261596
D’Arcy Wentworth On Growth and Form Dover Publications (1992) ISBN 0486671356
‘ The end is always to achieve simplicity but the means and processes are often complex because one is not repeating a performance of something that has gone before.’ Mary Martin
Kenneth Martin (born 1905, Sheffield) studied painting at Sheffield College of Art (1921–23) and worked as a graphic artist before continuing his fine art studies at the Royal College of Art, where he met Mary in 1929. He made his first abstract paintings in the late 1940s and, like Mary, his first three-dimensional abstract work in 1951. He continued to work predominately in three-dimensions, on his kinetic mobiles, constructions and public commissions, as well as teaching at Camberwell School of Art and Goldsmiths College, until the late 1960s. Shortly before Mary’s death in 1969 he returned to painting, concentrating on the ‘Chance and Order’ series until his own death in 1984. In 1975, the Tate Gallery organised a major retrospective of his work.
Mary Martin (born 1907, Folkestone) embraced both hand-crafted techniques and industrial mass production in her work, from her early sculptures carved in plaster to her metal and Perspex reliefs of the 1960s. She studied at Goldsmiths’ College (1925–29) and the Royal College of Art (1929–32) and worked as a textile designer during the 1930s. Her figurative paintings made the following decade gave way in 1951 to her first abstract reliefs. Her numerous public commissions and collaborations with architects included Wall Screen for Musgrave Park Hospital, Belfast (1957) and Wall Construction for University of Stirling, inaugurated shortly after her death in 1969. The Tate Gallery organised a major retrospective of her work in 1984.
Despite the close creative affinities between their working practices, Kenneth and Mary collaborated only twice in their careers: on their Environment, produced with the architect John Weeks, for the exhibition ‘This is Tomorrow’ (Whitechapel Art Gallery, 1956) and on the joint exhibition ‘Essays in Movement’ at the ICA in 1960. ‘Kenneth Martin & Mary Martin: Constructed Works’ is the first joint public exhibition of their work in Britain since 1971.
The Estates of Kenneth and Mary Martin are represented by Annely Juda Fine Art.
Caroline Douglas is Head of the Arts Council Collection, London.