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Portraits

Robert Adams

Robert Adams in his studio 26.9.55. Photograph by Adrian Flowers

During the 1950’s and 60’s Adrian Flowers photographed the painter and sculptor Robert Adams on several occasions. One photo, taken around 1955 [AF 1750], shows Adams in his studio in London, sitting casually on a high stool made of welded metal, poring over a sketchbook on a drawing table. The form and construction of the stool suggests it was made by the artist. On a shelf are several of Adams’ sculptures. One, a small bronze work, part of the Growing Form series, dates from around 1953. Another relates to the ‘Penwith Forms’ series, and dates from 1955. Adams has dressed elegantly for the occasion of Flowers’ visit, and is wearing a white shirt and cravat. Behind the artist are rolls of drawings, cleverly suspended in loops of string. The drawing table is a fold-out affair, part of a room divider that also contains bookshelves. A large abstract painting can be glimpsed in the background. Another photograph taken on that same visit shows Adams working on a tall wooden sculpture. The sculpture stands on a workbench in the same studio, with its white-painted brick walls and overhead girders. On the walls are T-squares, a brace, saws and loops of wire. A third photograph shows Adams, his wife Patricia and their dog Tishy, surrounded by sculptures, including a welded metal piece from c. 1950, one of an abstract series inspired by drawings of dancers.

Robert Adams in his studio September 1955. Photograph by Adrian Flowers
Robert Adams in his studio with his wife Patricia and their dog Tishy.
Photograph by Adrian Flowers

Several years later, around 1960 [AF 3376], Flowers photographed Adams in a park, with houses in the background [perhaps Hampstead Heath?], standing beside a large sculpture, made of straight lengths of metal rod welded together. This work is likely Triangulated structure No. 1, its form evoking the facets of a crystalline rock formation. Another set of photographs [AF 4217, 3376] taken around 1961, show Adams standing in his studio, surrounded by tall welded-metal sculptures. By this date, the artist’s work has evolved, and his now making tall free-standing and wall-mounted abstract pieces, in which circular plate-like forms are counterpoised with slender vertical and horizontal rods and bars. Adams also appears more confident in this set of photographs, smiling, relaxed, leaning against the wall. Another set of negatives [AF 2576] are of Adams’ carved wood sculptures set on plinths, and wall-mounted reliefs, displayed within a classical house setting. The sculptures on plinths are paired forms, evoking the streamlined wings and fuselages of aeroplanes.

Robert Adams with his work, Triangulated Structure No. 1, 1961.
Photograph by Adrian Flowers

Adams had a good grounding in the technical aspects of sculpture. Having left school in Northampton aged fourteen, he worked for a local firm that manufactured agricultural machinery. From 1937 to 1946 he attended life drawing and painting classes at Northampton School of Art, and during WWII was a fire warden in Civil Defence. He first showed his work in a series of exhibitions held at the Cooling Gallery in London, along with other artist members of Civil Defence. In the post-war years he turned firstly to abstract painting, then sculpture, working mainly in wood, slate, plaster and stone. Although he remained a resolutely abstract artist, in Adams’ work there is always an underlying regard for the world of nature, and for plant and human forms. In 1949 he began to work in metal and for a decade after, in addition to making his own work, taught at the Central School of Art in London. He was influenced by, and became part of, the London Group of constructionist artists that included Adrian Heath, Anthony Hill, Victor Pasmore and Kenneth and Mary Martin. In 1947 Adams was included in the inaugural exhibition of Living Art, held in Dublin, as well as having the first of a series of exhibitions with Gimpel Fils in London. Shortly afterwards he travelled to Paris where he encountered the work of Brancusi and Julio Gonzalez. In 1949 he showed at Galerie Jeanne Bucher in Paris, the Redfern Gallery in London, and, the following year, at the Passedoit Gallery in New York. In 1951 he was invited to exhibit at the Sao Paulo Biennial and the following year was included with the group of young British sculptors in the British pavilion at the Venice Biennale whose work, using innovative techniques and breaking with traditional approaches to realist sculpture, led Herbert Read to coin the term Geometry of Fear.


In 1955 Adams had an exhibition at the Victor Waddington Gallery in Dublin, and also showed at Rutgers University that same year. Included in the Whitechapel Gallery’s influential 1956 exhibition This is Tomorrow, he was a frequent visitor to St. Ives, where he met Michael Snow, and in 1975 became a member of the Penwith Society. In 1962 a retrospective of his work was held at the Venice Biennale; another retrospective took place at the Campden Academy in Northampton in 1971, followed by one at Liverpool Tate in 1982. Adams was commissioned to make several public sculptures, including, in 1973, a large steel work for Kingswell in Hampstead. Beginning in the 1960’s, he also produced lithographs with abstract geometric designs, such as Screen II. His work has been catalogued by Alistair Grieve, in Robert Adams 1917-1984: A Sculptor’s Record (Tate Gallery 1992) and The Sculpture of Robert Adams (Lund Humphries 1992).

Robert Adams’ work featured in the 2022 exhibition at the Barbican Gallery, Postwar Modern: New Art in Britain 1945-1965.

Robert Adams, early 1962. Photograph by Adrian Flowers

Text: Peter Murray

Editor: Francesca Flowers

All images subject to copyright.

Adrian Flowers Archive ©

Categories
Portraits

Order and chance: The Art of Kenneth Martin (1905-1984) 

Kenneth Martin in his studio, c.1957 (JN 2803)
Photograph by Adrian Flowers

Between 1957 and 1975, Adrian Flowers made several visits to the studio of Mary and Kenneth Martin. Mary Martin, who died in 1969, pursued a distinguished career as a sculptor. Photographs of her by Flowers are featured in a previous post This is Tomorrow.

The present text deals mainly with Kenneth’s life and work. Taken with a Rolleiflex, using fine-grain black-and-white film, the early photographs taken by Flowers of Martin show him white-haired, looking more like a scientist than an artist, fabricating the abstract metal sculptures for which he had become well-known. Over the ensuing years, Flowers documented the development of Martin’s art. The last photographs, of a suspended brass spiral mobile, were taken in March 1975 with an 8 x10” Sinar camera, in preparation for a retrospective exhibition at the Tate Gallery, held that same year.

Kenneth Martin in his studio in 1957, photograph by Adrian Flowers

Kenneth Martin was part of a generation of artists whose careers were interrupted—and also partly defined—by WWII. After studying at the Sheffield School of Art, and working for six years as a designer in that city, in 1929 he was awarded a scholarship to the Royal College of Art. There he met Mary Balmford, a fellow student who had moved to the RCA from Goldsmith’s College. They were married the following year. Beginning in 1934, Martin exhibited with the Allied Artists’ Association, and two years later showed with the London Group, becoming a full member of the Group in 1949. He also worked as a designer in his early years in London. His first solo show was held at the Leicester Galleries in 1943. He taught at St. John’s Wood School of Art and was also a visiting lecturer at Goldsmiths. 

Kenneth Martin mobiles. Both images 1960.
Photographs by Adrian Flowers

Initially, Martin painted in the ‘Euston Road School’ style, but as the 1930’s advanced, he became more aware of progressive European and American art. In the late 1940’s, inspired by Victor Pasmore and Anthony Hill, he began to experiment with abstract forms, in a style reminiscent of Russian Constructivists such as Rodchenko, El Lissitzky and Tatlin. However, in post-war Britain the audience for avant-garde art—particularly an art that traced its roots back to revolutionary Russia—was limited. Claims that this art in Britain had sprung fully-formed from an interest in pure composition are unconvincing, although it is true that geometry and mathematics formed the essential language of Martin’s aesthetic. He described his constructions as resembling drawing in space with metal—an upbringing in the engineering town of Sheffield perhaps having a bearing on this conceptual approach. Made from lengths of metal welded together, often arranged around a vertical central spine, Martin’s sculptures were based on the idea of retaining and embodying the memory of a spiralling dynamic movement in space, akin to a propeller in water. The idea of rotation in abstract art, found also in the Synthetic Cubism of Albert Gleizes, was further enhanced in his spiral mobiles, where the sculpture was suspended, and allowed to rotate freely. 

Kenneth Martin working on Screw Mobile 1959 in his studio c.1957
(JN 2803) Photograph by Adrian Flowers
Screw mobiles Kenneth Martin c.1957
(JN 2803) Photograph by Adrian Flowers

Although each pursued their own career, Kenneth and Mary Martin often worked closely together. In his introduction to the catalogue Mary Martin, Kenneth Martin, published to coincide with an Arts Council touring exhibition in 1970, Paul Overy described their approach: “In 1960 Mary Martin and Kenneth Martin made a Structure in Collaboration for a joint exhibition at the ICA, in Dover Street. It is a large work in four rectangular sections bolted together to form a large square, its scale and proportions directly related to the particular wall it was designed for, using the Fibonacci series in mathematics yet it does not give the impression of being coldly calculated. The whole structure is painted white and it seems perfect to combine the quiet, meditative introspection of Mary Martin’s earlier reliefs and the spiralling controlled energy of Kenneth Martin’s first series of mobiles.” The Martins worked on two such projects, the other being Environment, designed in collaboration with the architect John Weeks, for the ‘This is Tomorrow’ exhibition, held in 1956 at the Whitechapel Gallery. For this seminal show, the Martins made tall free-standing screens, again reminiscent of Russian Constructivist art, that embodied their theories on a modular, mathematically-based art, where accident and order were held in creative tension. Kenneth Martin’s creative method included using a limited range of materials, such as graph paper, square canvases and a restricted range of colours—and then he would, as it were, throw a dice, and introduce random factors into the composition. While he cited artists such as John Cage and Sol le Witt as having been influential in this regard, Martin’s art echoes the world of I Ching and the interaction of order and chance in the everyday world. Writing in 1987, Hilary Lane remarked “Kenneth Martin was interested in the opposition of experience and information and the puzzle of separating the two. He had a great capacity for experiencing the world; others have written of how the shortest journey in his company was made into a voyage of discovery. The physical sensations of moving through, over, under and across, of walking past, up and down were felt anew and tiny signs of nature, particularly as it triumphed in an urban habitat delighted him.” [Hilary Lane, University of Sussex, Introduction, Annely Juda Fine Art catalogue, 1987, p. 5] In a lecture given in 1956, Martin sought to outline the thinking behind his art:

The wise men of Lagado in Gulliver’s Travels carried on their backs objects to take the place of the spoken word. The construction, were it to act as a substitute for oil painting or drawing, would be as cumbersome and unnecessary. But the construction obeys its own laws and the dictates of its own material and expresses in a tangible manner what can only be expressed by that means. It is architectonic but not architecture and, in the case of the mobile, mechanistic, but in an aesthetic machine not a useful one. [‘Invention, a lecture 1956’, first published in Kenneth Martin, Tate Gallery, London 1975]

Working with assistant Susan Tebby, herself a noted Constructivist/Constructionist artist, Martin received several commissions for public sculptures, including, in 1960, a stainless steel kinetic work for a fountain at Lambeth College in Brixton, and Twin Screws for the Union of Architects building in London the following year. His 1967 Construction in Aluminium is sited at the entrance to the University of Cambridge’s Engineering Department, amidst Georgian terraces at Trumpington Street, Cambridge, while his construction for the Nuffield Institute at London Zoo dates from that same year. Four years later Martin was one of the artists shortlisted for a public art initiative sponsored by the Peter Stuyvesant Foundation and the Arts Council. Having been selected, in 1972 his Construction was installed at Arundel Gate in Sheffield, on a site now occupied by Sheffield Hallam University’s Owen Building. Based on the same mathematical system of rotations (“pendulum permutations”) employed by the artist in his smaller works, this six metre tall work consists of alternating plates and boxes, welded together to form a vertical column. The sculpture was fabricated locally, by Thomas Ward Ltd in Sheffield. Although it was hoped Construction would be purchased by the city’s Polytechnic, this did not transpire, and the work was shortly afterwards transferred to London, having been acquired by the Commonwealth Institute for its new building in Holland Park. It was later sited in parkland at Sutton Manor in Hampshire, and then at Millbank Street in Southampton, before being transferred to the New Art Centre in Wiltshire. In 2007 Construction was sold to a collector in California, but more recently it has returned to England. [Dr. Susan Tebby Kenneth Martin: Construction 1972 (New Art Centre 2022)

Construction 1972 by Kenneth Martin, at New Art Centre 2022
photograph: Peter Murray

The removal of Construction meant that there was no public sculpture by Martin in his home city of Sheffield, an omission that has not been rectified over the ensuing half century. Nor is there a sculpture by him in Sheffield Museum—although he is represented by a late abstract, Chance, Order, Change 24 History Painting A. (A portrait of Martin by Jeanne Masoero, a friend of Adrian Flowers, is also in Sheffield Museum). In 1987 a joint exhibition of Kenneth and Mary Martin’s work was held at Annely Juda Fine Art in Tottenham Mews London, followed by exhibitions at Kettle’s Yard, Cambridge and other institutions. Kenneth Martin is represented by several works in the Tate collection, in Bristol Museum and Art Gallery, and in other museums. In 2007-8, an exhibition of work by the Martins was held at Tate St Ives, and in 2022, on the fiftieth anniversary of its first siting, his Construction was sited again at the New Art Centre, at Roche Court in Wiltshire, with Susan Tebby contributing an essay to the catalogue published to mark the sculpture’s return.

Screw Mobile c.1960
Photograph taken by Adrian Flowers in 1975 for Tate Gallery exhibition in the same year

Text: Peter Murray

Editor: Francesca Flowers

All images subject to copyright

Adrian Flowers Archive ©

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Anthony Hill (Achill Redo)

Constructionist artist
April 1930 – October 2020

Anthony Hill, 1956.
Photograph: Adrian Flowers

Adrian Flowers: job no. 2025  June 1956  Anthony Hill (1930-2020), artist 

Famed for its spielers, houses of ill-repute and establishments such as the Coach and Horses and l’Escargot, Greek Street is still today the centre of London’s bohemian quarter. Extending from Soho Square to Shaftesbury Avenue, over the centuries the street had been home to many artists, including Canaletto, Peter Turnerelli, Thomas Lawrence, Richard Westall and William Etty. In 1956, the artist Anthony Hill had a studio on Greek Street, where he was completing a series of abstract ‘concrete’ paintings and wall-mounted reliefs, in preparation for the forthcoming This is Tomorrow exhibition at the Whitechapel Art Gallery. (The term ‘concrete’ describing abstract works that refer to themselves rather than to external reality). In June of that year Adrian Flowers visited Hill’s studio, to photograph the artist and his work. The shots taken that day show that Hill was moving away from conventional oil paintings, preferring instead to make three-dimensional relief paintings/sculptures, using modern materials such as Perspex and aluminium. One of the works that appears in a Flowers’ photograph, Painting 55-56 (Tate collection) was among the last oil paintings made by the artist. Hill described this work as a study in texture and reductionism, with horizontal lines suggesting the canvas was bound by bands. However the photographs taken in 1956 by Flowers inadvertently—or perhaps deliberately—provide a gentle critique of the concept of ‘concrete’ paintings, in that one shot on the contact sheet shows two square windows of the Greek Street studio, with simple astragals, while the next is of Hill’s geometric abstract paintings with their slender cross-bars motifs. Not only did Flowers photograph the paintings, he also took a series of shots of Hill and his collaborator, sculptor John Ernest, standing over a set of free-standing modular cube-like structures. Hill and Ernest were both keen mathematicians, and worked together on ‘crossing number’ in graph theory, an area of research that directly informed Hill’s art.

Anthony Hill’s studio, photograph by Adrian Flowers
From contact sheet:
Concrete paintings by Anthony Hill in his studio, 1956.
Photograph: Adrian Flowers

Born in 1930 in London, from an early age Hill was fascinated, and indeed obsessed, by mathematics. At the age of seventeen he enrolled as a student at St. Martin’s School of Art, moving on two years later to the Central School. Initially working in a Dada and Surrealist style, his interest in mathematics led him to become interested in geometric abstraction, which he felt represented a more rational aesthetic. Visiting Paris in early 1950, he met Sonia Delaunay, George Vantongerloo (a founder member of De Stijl) and Francis Picabia. Another artist who influenced him was Frantisek Kupka, of the Orphic Cubism movement. Hill was particularly inspired by Piet Mondrian’s work and the following year joined the “Constructionist Group”, a late offshoot of the Constructivist movement associated with revolutionary Russia. Other members included Kenneth and Mary Martin, Adrian Heath, Roger Hilton, William Scott, Victor Pasmore and Robert Adams—the latter two were at the Central School at the same time as Hill.  Publishing a manifesto-like Broadsheet that same year, the group showed their work both at Gimpel Fils and the AIA Gallery, in exhibitions entitled British Abstract Arts and Abstract Paintings Sculptures Mobiles respectively. The Constructionists were not working in a vacuum, but were in touch with artists on the Continent, including Marcel Duchamp, the Swiss abstractionist Max Bill, and the American abstract painter Charles Biederman. They avidly read Biederman’s 1948 treatise, Art as the Evolution of Visual Knowledge.

From contact sheet: John Ernest and Anthony Hill, 1956.
Photograph: Adrian Flowers

The Constructionists epitomised the search for a Modernism that would be viable within the complex aesthetics of post-war Britain. Although he had been making geometrically-based collages for some time, in 1952 Hill made his first abstract relief. By 1953, he had abandoned colour, and was making stark black and white paintings, in which geometry and free-form drawing were held in tension. A large painting (now lost) Catenary Rhythms was included in the exhibition Artist versus Machine held at the Building Centre, London, in 1954. That same year, along with Stephen Gilbert and others, Hill featured in Lawrence Alloway’s Nine Abstract Artists, a book which sought to distinguish between ‘genuine’ abstract art, and the more or less random styles adopted by those who had rejected figurative art, but who Alloway felt followed no coherent aesthetic. Alloway’s preference for ‘structural’ artists such as Hill, William Scott, Terry Frost and Kenneth and Mary Martin, was based on a conscious opposition to the expressive abstraction epitomised by Peter Lanyon and other St. Ives artists. The group showed at the Redfern Gallery in 1955, with a catalogue written by Hill and the following year were given prominence in the Whitechapel exhibition This is Tomorrow. Adrian Flowers was a steady presence at the centre of this ferment of creativity, photographing the artists in their studios as they prepared their work for exhibition.

contact sheet image of relief construction by Anthony Hill.
Photograph: Adrian Flowers

After the Whitechapel exhibition, Hill gave up painting entirely, concentrating instead on three-dimensional work. In 1958 his reliefs were shown at the ICA, by which time he was incorporating sheet copper, brass, zinc and stainless steel in these wall-mounted works. The following year Hill and Gillian Wise, another graduate of the Central School of Art, became partners, and in 1962, Hill organised the exhibition Construction: England: 1950-60 at the Drian Gallery, a space founded by the Lithuanian Halima Nalecz, to represent artists excluded from West End Galleries. This was to be the last group exhibition of the Constructionists, and apart from the support of a small band of loyal curators and collectors, they faded from view. Hill and Wise went on to collaborate on works, including Metal Relief with Horizontal Elements (1962) now in the National Galleries of Scotland. In 1963 the couple showed in the exhibition Reliefs/Structures at the ICA.

Based on a high-minded aspiration towards an art that was self-referential and bore no relationship to the world of visible reality, Hill’s aesthetic was intellectual and personal. His often dogmatic assertion of the primacy of this approach led him to write theoretical essays, to explain his approach to making art. However, even within the rarefied world of mathematics, assertions of neutrality were not possible, and Hill’s art and writings can be read today as polemical, personal and even combative assertions regarding society, aesthetics, and the politics of his time. In 1968 Faber and Faber published Data: Directions in Art, Theory, and Aesthetics, a compilation of essays edited by Hill that consciously echoed the 1938 publication Circle, which had featured Naum Gabo, Ben Nicholson and others. Hill’s introductory essay, reflecting his own rigorous approach to making art, was entitled “Programme, Paradigm and Structure”. The following year, led by Jeffrey Steele, a number of UK artists working in this mode formed the “Systems Group”. Less committed to Marxist ideologies, Kenneth and Mary Martin, along with Hill, preferred not to become involved. However Wise, who had been researching Russian Constructivism in the Soviet Union, did join, and eventually this led to her breaking with Hill, who went on to pursue his own career. He subsequently married the Japanese ceramic artist Yuriko Kaetsu (1953-2013). In 1983 he had a retrospective exhibition at the Hayward Gallery and by the early 1970’s was making free-standing geometric constructions. In 1973-4 he adopted the name Achill Redo, under which moniker he exhibited at the Mayor Gallery and Angela Flowers Gallery, and wrote texts that pay homage to the Dadaists and Surrealists. In 1994 his Duchamp anthology Duchamp: Passim was published by Gordon and Breach. In 2012, he was included in the exhibition Concrete Parallels in Sao Paulo, Brazil. By this time, Hill was suffering from bouts of depression that sometimes made it impossible for him to welcome visitors to his studio, and was retreating into an intellectual and personal universe not unlike that of Humphrey Earwicker in James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake.

“I asked LSC for a kick-start idea for do it. He gave me his take, but insisted I don’t credit him or refer to him by name. But I have done it. Lafcadio Svensen Carner, he said the short auteur’s cut was not to do it, to do nothing, i.e., it is not a thing you can overtly do. (How do they do it, these megamind pscientists?) They will never finally, really succeed in doing it when it = the grand theory about every it/thing. Best to switch to art, especially abstract art or pure absolutart—that’s where to aim (or aim to miss, as several stratagists convey). Re: doing it right, LSC said, “I could only come up with, you can either do it right or wrong, there is no tertium whatshit. (i.e. excluturd middleterm), there is the theologic of it. That and O’Kamm’s shaver, to the restcu.” (Achill Redo 2012)

Although characterised as an artist who championed rational intellect over emotional feeling, and methodical planning over spontaneous expression,  Anthony Hill’s work reveals not only a love of mathematics, but also an appreciation of the intuitive nature of art making. His work was informed by the development of computer language, with its emphasis on logic and patterns of connectivity, and he was equally immersed in the ebb and flow of 20th century art movements, such as De Stijl and the Russian Constructivists, but ultimately there is a personal introspective quality in his art that reveals the extent to which he was on an increasingly solitary quest, exploring philosophical questions on the nature of human consciousness and apprehension of the world.

Anthony Hill died in October 2020

Text by Peter Murray

Editor: Francesca Flowers

All images subject to copyright

Adrian Flowers Archive ©