Painting with Four Square Holes 1991 is a very large square grey painting, measuring over two and a half metres in height and width, in which a small square section is cut out in each of the four corners of the canvas. Thin layers of opaque grey acrylic paint cover the whole work, including the sides of the canvas and the inside edges of the cut-out sections, and the paint has been applied in even brushstrokes to produce a uniform surface. The square cut-outs, which are 4.5 cm in dimension, are each positioned at an identical distance from their respective corners, lending a symmetry to the overall composition.
This work was made in London by the British artist Alan Charlton. It is one of fourteen paintings in the Central Group series that he completed in 1991 for an exhibition at the Hallen für neue Kunst gallery in the Swiss city of Schaffhausen. The series also contains single-panel works featuring horizontal sections cut out of the canvas, such as Single Horizontal Slot Painting 1991 (Tate T07439), as well as works involving two, four, five, ten and twenty panels (see, for instance, 2 Part Vertical Painting 1991, Tate T07449, and 20 Part Line Painting 1991, Tate T07450). The series was designed to be a summary of the forms employed in the artist’s career to date with the paintings also offering a response to the architecture of the gallery space.
The Central Group series is characteristic of the way in which Charlton’s practice explores the formal permutations of abstract painting – especially concerning notions of repetition – within the context of two specific restrictions he places on his work. Firstly, the artist uses a measurement of 4.5 cm, which is the depth of his canvases’ standard wooden stretcher bars, as the basis for all the dimensions in his work, including the cut-out sections and the spaces between different canvases. Secondly, he paints only in grey, shades of which can vary from very pale to darker tones and an almost blue colour, applied in different thicknesses and intensities. In a conversation with the curator and art historian Guido de Werd in 2008 – a rare instance of the artist making a public statement on his work – Charlton discussed his decision to focus on grey:
You can say that grey is a neutral colour and it is logical to think that is why I would use it. But for me it is a colour and my reasons for using it grow more and more. From the beginning, its urban industrial qualities, to the silent emotion it evokes.
(Quoted in Museum Kurhaus Kleve 2008, p.49.)
Charlton trained at Sheffield Art School (1965–6), Camberwell School of Arts in London (1966–9) and the Royal Academy of Arts in London (1969–72). Influenced by American minimalist art, he began making large grey paintings in 1969. His first exhibited works in the 1970 series Square Hole Paintings featured similar forms to Painting with Four Square Holes with small cut-out sections in the corners and sides of each canvas, while Charlton initially employed narrow vertical and horizontal apertures in the Slot paintings of 1971–2. Created in 1972–5, the series Channel Paintings, which includes Channel Painting No. 6 1975 (Tate T03894), consists of inner canvases surrounded by outer canvas ‘frames’ in the same shade of grey – the first time the artist’s work had employed more than one physical element. The 1978 series Details features square paintings, measuring 4.5 cm by 4.5 cm, a scale much smaller than Charlton has commonly used, while in later works, such as 10 Part Corner Painting 1986 and Four Walls Four Greys 1991, canvases are positioned across adjoining walls in the gallery.
In cutting out sections and dividing his canvases into multiple parts, Charlton seems to place particular emphasis on his paintings as objects. In 1997 the curator Guy Tosatto claimed that Charlton’s works ‘belong to the domain of painting and yet, like sculptures, they alter the space of the wall’ (Guy Tosatto, ‘The Work of Silence’, in Carré d’Art – Musée d’art contemporain de Nîmes 1997, unpaginated).
Christel Sauer and Urs Raussmüller, Alan Charlton, exhibition catalogue, Hallen für neue Kunst, Schaffhausen 1991, reproduced pp.13, 19.
Alan Charlton, exhibition catalogue, Carré d’Art – Musée d’art contemporain de Nîmes, Nîmes 1997.
Alan Charlton, exhibition catalogue, Museum Kurhaus Kleve, Kleve 2008.
Supported by Christie’s.