Created by the British artist Rita Donagh, 21.9.1971 consists of two large square pieces of wove paper that are fixed together and feature diagrammatic markings and symbols alongside other collage elements. The work is unframed and hung on a wall with pins that are positioned along the upper edge of the main piece of paper, which is covered in a faint grid (with additional geometric lines) drawn in pencil in various colours, with an emphasis on blue, red and green. Glued behind the first piece of paper is a second, slightly smaller square of paper that is turned at a forty-five degree angle so that it is only visible where it protrudes at the bottom and slightly to the sides of the first piece. Hanging vertically down the right side of the composition is a long, thin, roughly cut strip of paper that is covered in graphite shadings and is affixed at its top with a linen thread and screw-ring. Just above and to the right of the centre of the composition is a cross sign made from brown tape and over-scored in red pencil, while glued onto the bottom left of the work is a plus sign made from strips of graph paper and over-scored in blue pencil. To the left of the centre is a black and white postcard of a street scene featuring additional markings in pen. There are large areas of graphite shading across the work, with especially prominent markings in the bottom left and top left, and two thinly applied sections of white acrylic paint appear in the upper part of the composition. The title of the work is written faintly in pencil along a diagonal line in the upper right corner. Further markings, including numbers, dimensions, a question mark and the outline of a shoe, are located throughout the work, some written in pencil and others created with a stencil and white paint.
21.9.1971 was made while Donagh was teaching at the School of Fine Art at the University of Reading in the UK, where she worked from 1964 to 1972. The symbols and markings that feature in this work can also be seen in other works Donagh completed in the early 1970s, such as the drawings and paintings Reflection on three weeks in May 1970 1971 (Tate T01687), numerical equivalents 1971 (Tate T12288) and White Studio 1971, that make use of crosses and intersecting lines as a means of marking and mapping space. In a 1972 statement on her practice, and the creation of Reflection on three weeks in May 1970 in particular, Donagh wrote: ‘I hoped by using abstract signs and conventions of perspective, to find equivalents for experience and feeling, while at the same time conveying precise information about a particular time and place’ (quoted in Tate Gallery 1975, p.128). In a letter to Tate Director Nicholas Serota in 2006, Donagh suggested that 21.9.1971 should be displayed alongside the contemporaneous neon sculpture affirm/deny 1972 (Tate T12289) that consists of an orange cross and a blue plus sign (Rita Donagh, Letter to Nicholas Serota, 6 January 2006, Tate Archive, TG 4/2/1300).
The incorporation in 21.9.1971 of various geometric markings and symbols alongside more figurative elements, such as the postcard and the outline of a shoe, can be assessed in the context of the observation made in 2011 by the critic Michael Bracewell that a founding interest in Donagh’s work was ‘the complex relationships between abstraction and figurative or representational art, and the place of those relationships within the art making process’ (Michael Bracewell, ‘Joint Declaration’, in Rita Donagh and Richard Hamilton: Civil Rights etc., exhibition catalogue, Dublin City Gallery The Hugh Lane, Dublin 2011, p.7).
After studying Fine Art at the University of Durham between 1956 and 1962, where she trained under the artists Victor Pasmore and Richard Hamilton (the latter of whom she married in 1991), in her early work Donagh combined a fascination with the American pop artist Andy Warhol with a focus on framing devices and perspectival contours (see, for instance, The studio 1967). In the early 1970s she began to explore the violent struggles over the geopolitical status of Northern Ireland, and especially media representations of that conflict, in works such as Evening papers (Ulster 1972–4) 1973–4 (British Council, London) and Bystander 1977, a subject that continued to appear in later works such as the map-based shadow of six counties (c) 1980 (Tate T12291), the Cell block series that she completed between 1980 and 1985 (see, for example, Long Meadow 1982, Tate T05837) and the large oil painting Counterpane 1987–8 (Tate T05838).
21.9.1971 was first shown as part of a solo exhibition of Donagh’s work at the Nigel Greenwood Gallery, London, in November 1972.
The Tate Gallery 1972–1974: Biennial Report and Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions, Tate Gallery, London 1975, pp.126–9.
Rita Donagh: Paintings and Drawings, exhibition catalogue, Whitworth Art Gallery, Manchester 1977.
Jonathan Watkins (ed.), Rita Donagh, exhibition catalogue, Ikon Gallery, Birmingham 2005.
Supported by Christie’s.