Catalogue entry

T03070 JAVA 1980

Inscribed on reverse of topmost canvas ‘↑/FIX <?>/Stephen Buckley 1980’ and on reverse of top right canvas ‘THIS EDGE SHOULD BE HORIZONTAL/↑/FIX <?>/↑/JAVA
Oil on construction of wood, canvas and hardboard, 79 × 78 × 5 (201.6 × 198.1 × 12.7)
Purchased from the Knoedler Gallery (Grant-in-Aid) 1980
Exh: Stephen Buckley, Knoedler Gallery, March–April 1980 (no catalogue, but colour on announcement card, in photograph of studio interior)

This entry, which has been approved by the artist, is based on his spoken replies to questions in 1982 and 1983. The concern evident in ‘Java’ with referring to earlier artists' work has been continuous in Buckley's work since he was a student. The theme of the superimposition of apparently complete paintings goes back at least to the early 1970s. An important precursor of ‘Java’ is Buckley's ‘Proun’ 1974, 80 × 64in. (private collection, France). In this work a horizontal stretcher is superimposed over two diagonal stretchers. The plane surface limited by each of the two lower stretchers is entirely covered by small individual but overlapping fragments of canvas. Most of that limited by the horizontal stretcher is occupied by an image of gestural skeins of black paint on a white ground; these were actually painted by Buckley with minute brushes and meticulous care over a printed reproduction of Jackson Pollock's enamel drawing on two sheets of paper, ‘Untitled’ 1950 (Graphische Sammlung, Staatsgalerie, Stuttgart). In ‘Proun’, this ‘Pollock’ passage is ‘framed’ by a border of the same kind of canvas fragments as cover the other two sections of the work. ‘Proun’ foreshadows ‘Java’ in the use of such a canvas border around a non-canvas centre (a structure adopted in the spotted units of ‘Java’), in the superimposition on other canvases of a painting supported by a stretcher, and in the general consciousness of advanced Russian art c.1913–20 which is reflected in both works.

'Java’ is also foreshadowed strongly though eccentrically by ‘Three Figures Dancing’ 1976, wax encaustic on cotton duck with scenic gauze, 88 3/4 × 75 3/8 × 7 7/8in. (Arts Council Collection), a work painted at R.B. Kitaj's request for the group exhibition The Human Clay at the Hayward Gallery, August 1976 (19 repr.), in which every one of the six component canvases is both superimposed on and overlaid by others. ‘Java’ carries a sense of the human figure which was explicit in ‘Three Figures Dancing’. Buckley did not wish particularly to emphasise this in ‘Java’ but saw its yellow canvases as being in a degree like limbs extending from the spotted units. The detailed theme of ‘Java’ began explicitly with ‘Sarawak’ 1979, 80 × 48in., which comprises six stretchered units and was painted in Montauk, New York. Up to this point a large number of Buckley's works in recent years had involved the interweaving of separate stretchers either actually or by means of the canvas (strips) they supported, or both (cf. T02024 ‘Triptych’ 1975). In ‘Sarawak’, three of the stretcher units are interwoven by canvas but the other three are joined simply by attachment over or under others, the method used throughout ‘Java’. Also in ‘Sarawak’, the sides of each unit are emphasised (as in eleven of those in ‘Java’) by being painted a different colour.

The title ‘Java’ was chosen as a natural follow on from ‘Sarawak’ but has no other significance. Although Buckley rejected interweaving for this work, he wanted nevertheless to achieve a complex effect. ‘Java’ comprises sixteen units all virtually the same size, of which five are painted in innumerable spots in a shared range of several colours and eleven are painted a single shade of rich yellow on their front face and Venetian red around all four sides. The basic support of each of the sixteen units is a piece of hardboard attached to a stretcher. Before painting the five spotted units, Buckley laid numerous small pieces of canvas around the sides and the outer edge of the front face of each piece of hardboard to form a ‘frame’. Each of these five perimeters of canvas was then painted with a uniform blue ground. Buckley then painted the coloured spots over the whole of the front surface of each of these units, including the canvas parts. In each of the other eleven units Buckley laid numerous small squares of canvas on the hardboard, overlaying them in ‘random’ arrangements, before painting began.

The overall configuration of ‘Java’ was produced by screwing the units in an arrangement which was improvised but which had certain elements of control. One of these was the necessity to have a certain minimum number of points at which units were fixed together, in order to make the structure sound as a totality. Another was the feeling that the spotted units comprised the work's nucleus, of which the yellow units were a development. ‘The dots are the theme and the rest of the work the orchestration.’ Buckley believes that the decision as to how many units there should be of each type was connected in some way to the number of colours employed in the whole picture, but he cannot recollect the details of this. The decision to employ units painted and constructed in more than one kind of way was important as a means of preventing the work assuming the character of a sculptural relief or something from a minimalist aesthetic. It also generated a certain ambiguity as between paint surface and painting support.

Buckley aimed at a very light, bright colour effect with an appetising feel. The yellow canvases were given deep red surrounds to aid vibrancy. The optimum context for the work is maximum natural light, the shifting quality of which augments the intended effect of animation. A sense of movement is central to ‘Java’ which reflects an admiration for Matisse's ‘The Dance’ as well as Buckley's interest in the importance of the motif of the spiral in twentieth century art. Also in his mind was the ‘clickety clack’ movement of Duchamp's ‘Nude Descending a Staircase’ and (in the spotted units) the pointillist paint textures applied by Picasso to four of the six versions of his sculpture ‘The Glass of Absinthe’ of 1914.

Shortly after the Tate Gallery purchased ‘Java’, Buckley made a version, ‘Java (Souvenir)’ 1980, oil on etched steel, 40 × 29in. (private collection, New York). Like ‘Java’, this comprises sixteen same-sized rectangular units of which five are multicoloured and covered with spots and eleven are monochromatic. The units are also arranged in roughly the same relative positions laterally, ‘Java (Souvenir)’ being somewhat more compressed. However, the particular sequence of under-and over-laying of units in ‘Java’ is here altered in places, and the five spotted units hang at the bottom instead of down the right side. Before making this work, Buckley had been making etchings. ‘Java (Souvenir)’ is constructed from what had remained unused of the steel from which his etching plates had been cut. The dimensions of the new work were determined by cutting its sixteen equal units from the largest possible surface area of steel available. Having cut the units, Buckley dipped the eleven monochromatic ones in acid before incorporating them into the work unpainted. On each of the other five units, he applied numerous small drops of etching stop-out across the surface with the end of a brush, before etching these plates very deeply so that they were covered with innumerable small knobs. Each of these plates was then painted all over in colours, after which it was sanded so that the knobs stand out as dots shining in relief amid the coloured ground. Finally the sixteen units were riveted together, the rivets being particularly noticeable on the monochromatic units. At the same time as making ‘Java (Souvenir)’ Buckley made ‘Moving On’, 1980, oil on six canvases, 69 × 37in. (American Can Corp., Greenwich, Connecticut) which also used over- and under-laying of canvases (five painted in one richly decorative scheme and one monochromatic) and trompe l'oeil. Buckley has made a number of small works which relate to ‘Java’, but ‘Java (Souvenir)’ and ‘Moving On’ are his last substantial works to date on its theme.

Published in:
The Tate Gallery 1980-82: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions, London 1984