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affirm/deny 1972 consists of two neon and argon tube sculptures – one in blue and one in orange – that are mounted on rectangular stainless steel supports and positioned adjacent to each other, but without touching, on the gallery floor. Each sculpture consists of two thin neon and argon tubes of equal length that intersect at its centre. While the intersecting tubes of the blue sculpture sit perpendicular to their rectangular support, producing a plus sign suggestive of the ‘affirm’ aspect of the title, the orange tubes sit at a forty-five degree angle to their base, producing a cross shape that may reflect the ‘deny’ part of the title. The supporting apparatus also houses electronic transformers to which the tubes are attached by wires, allowing for their illumination.
affirm/deny was made by the British artist Rita Donagh in 1972 while she was teaching at the School of Fine Art at the University of Reading in the UK. It is a rare sculptural work by this artist, whose practice has mainly consisted of drawings, paintings and prints. However, a few years before this work was made, Donagh created Contour 1967–8, which features fluorescent argon tubing bent into a curving shape that is based on the outline of the figures of gay men in New York as they were depicted in a magazine photograph.
The symbols featured in affirm/deny 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 affirm/deny should be displayed alongside the contemporaneous drawing and collage work 21.9.1971 1972 (Tate T12290), in which a cross and a plus sign are depicted prominently (Rita Donagh, Letter to Nicholas Serota, 6 January 2006, Tate Archive, TG 4/2/1300).
The sculptural forms Donagh utilised in affirm/deny can also be viewed in light of the claim made in 2005 by the curator Jonathan Watkins that her practice ‘aspires to formal economy as much as it is rooted in reality’ (Watkins 2005, p.8). In addition, the way in which the neon abstract signs resist concrete meanings may also be assessed alongside 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), Donagh’s early work 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).
affirm/deny 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, reproduced, unpaginated.
Jonathan Watkins (ed.), Rita Donagh, exhibition catalogue, Ikon Gallery, Birmingham 2005, pp.9–10, reproduced p.44.
Supported by Christie’s.