If you feel strong enough to postpone for a while the pleasures of the bookshop and the restaurant (without which it seems no self-respecting art gallery can exist these days), proceed upstairs at Camden Arts Centre into the light and welcoming hall, where the visitor is offered an introduction to the work of Kenneth and Mary Martin, husband and wife team of abstract artists, once deemed radical and avant-garde, but now somewhat out of fashion. Both came to abstraction relatively late, in the third wave, so to speak, after the Vorticists under Wyndham Lewis had initially ploughed the abstract furrow in England in 1914–18. The second wave was in the 1930s, when the sculptors had a go: Hepworth and Moore and the irrepressible Ben Nicholson making his beautiful white abstract reliefs. The Martins embraced abstraction in the 1940s, rediscovering it in a postwar context as an art of the environment, and bringing to it a shared, innovative vision that continues to have relevance today.
Abstraction was not popular in an England recovering from war, when the arts had become determinedly retrogressive and insular out of self-protection, and so-called ‘neo-romanticism’ flourished like a weed (which is, after all, really a wild flower) on the bombsites of the capital. The Martins were undeterred by the changing weather of fashion, and pursued their own researches into abstract form with all the enthusiasm and rigour of the newly converted. Both had grown dissatisfied with realism in painting, and began to experiment with geometry, an interest which soon led them to constructivism. Victor Pasmore had already shocked the art world by announcing in 1947 his conversion from beautiful Whistlerian landscapes to total abstraction, and he initiated the British Constructivist movement to which the Martins were swiftly allied. Kenneth Martin (1905–84) developed an interest in kinetic constructions, and became famous for his mobiles, while Mary Martin (1907–69) pursued an involvement with reliefs which primarily employed cube and wedge forms.
In the hallway at Camden are various display cases containing catalogues and archive material and a small mirrored multiple by Mary Martin from 1968. There are also a couple of maquettes by Mary for a public commission — a wall screen at Musgrave Park Hospital in Belfast. On one wall is a late Kenneth Martin painting from his famed ‘Order + Change’ series. Composed of angled stripes of colour (pink, blue, yellow, green) interspersed with black lines, it is precise but hauntingly beautiful. (As the artist James Hugonin has commented, ‘These are tactile, physically wrought paintings, they do not illustrate mathematical ideas or theories.’) On the opposite wall is Mary’s long stainless-steel maquette for another public construction, this time at Stirling University. At once the relationship of art to architecture and the public aspect of their work is raised. The Martins attempted to make art that was simultaneously personal and universal, and what is evident from this show is the remarkable extent to which they achieved just that.
Using industrial materials, such as plaster, brass, hardboard, aluminium, Perspex and Formica, the Martins pursued a goal of formal and intellectual purity which retained essential ties with human values and the natural world. Although they made art for a machine culture, the severity of their abstraction was tempered by harmonic forms, the ordered logic by optimism. It was indeed a time of cautious optimism, with the restructuring of society through the Welfare State, and there is something laudably utopian about the Martins’ endeavours. Kenneth Martin’s mobiles owe something to the metal craftsmanship of the Sheffield cutlers in the city where he grew up, and something more to the intricate arrangement of wheels and balances in a clock. Mary Martin’s grids of repeated units with their implied movement of positive and negative shapes, their tilt and shadow, and the reflection from the mirrored panels she often used, seem to throw back a glittering marine light, perhaps recalling her upbringing on the south coast.
Camden’s elegant spaces are well suited to this stimulating show. The line of mobiles down the centre of Gallery 1 is simply stunning, as they move lazily in the air, inclining their geometries to the eye, closing and disclosing their forms in slow revolutions. Around the walls are paintings and reliefs by both artists. Let the rationality wash over your mind like tranquillity. These are the reverse of arid works. Contemplative and inspiring, the themes are progression, permutation, interpenetration: brass parabolas in intricate arrangement, stepped plaster or wood reliefs suggesting climbing forms. In the much smaller Gallery 2, Mary Martin comes to the fore with her ten-panel development in stainless steel and painted wood, and the sombre architectural ‘Three Groups’ of 1969, the year of her early death. Here she also experiments with strong colour — orange, pink and red — which I find less successful and much more dated than her black-and-white variations. In a corner is Kenneth Martin’s magisterial ‘Screw Mobile’ from 1967, all structured dynamism and contained vitality.
This show travels to Tate St Ives (6 October 2007 to 13 January 2008) and thence to the De La Warr Pavilion, Bexhill-on-Sea (26 January to 20 April 2008). I recommend it not just as an excellent art-historical study, but as a lesson in the continued importance of idealism as well. The art of Kenneth and Mary Martin is all about pure form, but also pure feeling. As Mary Martin wrote: ‘Precision is essential to expressiveness. I mean precision of choice, not dry academic precision.’ We could do with a bit more of that informed passionate precision today.
In Gallery 3 is an installation of carved stone heads on plinths by Daniel Silver (born 1972). This densely populated room is not a happy place: features are crazed with fury or despair, mouths look like holes gouged in the earth. Inspired by mugshots of prisoners on Death Row in Texas (taken off the internet), these distorted heads are in the grip of extreme and dangerous emotions.They were made during a month’s intensive work in Zimbabwe, with the collaboration of artisans who work for the Harare-based sculptor Dominic Benhura. Silver drew on the pieces of stone and the local craftsmen carved it for him, interpreting his ideas and adapting their own traditions of tourist mementoes to Western high art.
Here are wedgy or lumpy faces, some narrow as a blade, others broad and flattened. Here also is a kind of repertoire of styles, different approaches to the problem of figuration, recapitulated and once more attempted after a century of acute artistic self-awareness. The range of expression is wide, from the near-geometric to the naturalistic, the expressiveness almost unbearable as features suffer meltdown. In this forest of forms, the plinths painted to act as punctuation (and a couple of them marked with flags), the humanity of the heads is visibly under threat, in some cases almost completely expunged. The poignancy of the exhibits is heightened by the inherent
beauty of the materials used: highly polished Zimbabwean black springstone and bottle-green soapstone. Daniel Silver says he wanted to call the installation ‘raped by a dog’, and he observes that the heads ‘are all witnesses to something that is happening’. The decline of the West, perhaps?