Letter from LONDON
Kenneth Martin and Mary Martin Constructed Works
Camden Arts Centre July 13 –September 16, 2007
Travels to Tate St.Ives, St. Ives (www.tate.org.uk) October 6, 2007–January 13, 2008 and the De La Warr Pavilion, Bexhill-on-Sea (www.dlwp.com) January 26–April 20, 2008
Kenneth Martin (1905-84) and his wife Mary Martin (1907-69) were English Constructivist artists of the Fifties, but to restrict the scope and influence of their work to this period would be a mistake. Modernism was a truly revolutionary movement; look around today and the effects of that international revolution is everywhere to be seen. From housing to everyday design, we live in a world permeated by the ideas of those early Modern pioneers. However, the result of such ubiquity has had the opposite effect on some of the movement’s artists. That is, in the case of the Martins, the radicalism of their visual arguments has been so disseminated into our general culture that today their work could be perceived as “boring,” “safe,” or even “decorative.” There is no doubt then that the curators from Camden and the De La Warr (the exhibition’s joint organizers) would seek to argue the opposite with this traveling show.
In post-war Britain, the general modernization of the country, which included the creation of the welfare state, was also reflected in the artists who came to the fore. The Martins’ abstraction could be viewed as a statement against the angsty figuration of artists like Henry Moore and Lynn Chadwick – of whose work Herbert Read coined the phrase “Geometry of Fear” in their 1952 representation of Britain at the Venice Biennale. The Martins’ work could be viewed as embodying the utopian drive borne from that period of reconstruction: elegant simplicity, using store-bought and mass-produced materials, and a basis in rational science (i.e. mathematics). None express these notions better than the row of Kenneth’s Screw Mobiles that span the length of the ceiling in the central gallery. These small mobiles, simply constructed from brass rods, suggest energy spiraling out from a core; some built with spirals within spirals, but most create shapes with just blocks of straight rods.
The show is divided into the two galleries, covering a 20-year period, without separating the artists. Instead the pieces are grouped more formally and somewhat chronologically with ideas in mind. If earlier artists like Moore and Chadwick were concerned with an internalized human condition, then the Martins’ attitude was turned outwards to the world, albeit in a rational sense. For instance the Fibonacci series provided a structure for Mary to organize the cubes that function as the building blocks of her reliefs, while Kenneth used simple mathematical sequences to determine the order of his paintings from the Sixties. However, the key point, which is quite easy to miss today, is that both artists intended that the intersection between their “purer” geometric language and the world was to be found in architecture, where Mary created reliefs – models of which are to be found in this show – and Kenneth, his mobiles. Mary, in particular, found architecture to be her métier; in fact, she frequently pointed out that “display” or gallery spaces were only “makeshift realities”. One of Kenneth’s larger mobiles in this show, Mobile Reflector (1953) was created specifically for a hospital, with the idea of being viewed from the bottom. Although newly restored, this aspect of the exhibition is less successful, as we find, particularly with Mary, that the works suffer when separated from their original environments. I believe the artists were much more concerned with integrating their work into everyday social spaces than creating museum installations, yet its natural elegance holds up quite well in this very contemporary venue. This idea of integration is something our current thinking seems very much against. Art today stands out in a more jarring fashion than I think the Martin’s would have liked. I have no doubt that the modernist building of the De La Warr, where it travels next year, will provide an even more sympathetic backdrop for the show.
Despite the seemingly cold nature of their approach and abstract language, the Martins deliberately kept their work on a human scale and maintained a handmade quality with all their objects. There is an anecdote that Kenneth turned away from figuration to abstraction in his forties after listening to the art historian Kenneth Clark give a lecture in which he showed a Mondrian. It was the most compelling piece in the lecture. There is a correspondence between the sense of touch and human scale of a Mondrian to that of the artists’ endeavors. Another quality common to all three artists is a sense of drawing, rhythm, light and movement. Where movement is implicit in Mondrian, the Martins’ sculpture uses actually shifting elements that move light to great effect. This is not just a mini-retrospective of two important if slightly forgotten artists, it is also about the intellectual relationship and co-influence between a husband and wife. They have properly shown together only a handful of times, and one of the implicit arguments of the show is about the dialogue between their works, hence the rhythmic method of display.
When considering the idea of Constructivism most think of Tatlin and Rodchenko; however, during that time in England, its influence was spread by the work of Antoine Pevsner and Naum Gabo. For Kenneth Martin, “Construction” was “method and end. Construction is primitive material built with primitive law. Primitive law is natural forming law.” Today, he should be considered one of English Constructivism’s leading lights. But some forty years later, instead of a loud, avant-garde roar, what we find is a quiet elegance and a radicality offered from the perspective of drawing and rhythm. There is a precise rigour not found in much of the art being created today, which makes the task of explaining how this work is crucial to our times much more difficult. But the legacy of this language can be found today in artists as diverse as Andrew Bick, Tomma Abbts, Peter Peri, Paul Peden, James Huggonin and Toby Patterson—the last two even contributing short essays to the catalogue.
Sherman Sam is a writer and artist based in London and Singapore.