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Created by the British artist Rita Donagh, numerical equivalents 1971 is a drawing on white wove paper in a rectangular portrait format that features a series of numbers, letters and diagrammatic symbols. A faint graphite grid covers the entire work, and the numbers one to thirty are painted in white acrylic in sequence – although in an irregular pattern – across the horizontal lines of the grid. The direction in which the numbers count upwards alternates along each successive line, while the number fifteen is covered by a cross in white paint. Also printed along the horizontal lines are a smaller set of numbers, added in a black Letraset typeface, that proceed in multiples of three (with some parts of this number sequence missing). A series of thin horizontal and diagonal pencil lines in a range of colours appear across the grid pattern, and two brown crosses – one upright and the other presented at an angle – are depicted prominently near the centre of the work. In the top right-hand corner, in small capital letters, are written the words ‘KENT STATE’ in white paint across three of the horizontal grid lines. Lower down on the right-hand side, just below the centre line of the work, a square of the paper has been cut out, revealing brown tissue paper underneath.
numerical equivalents was made by Donagh in 1971 while she was teaching at the School of Fine Art at the University of Reading in the UK. It can be considered in close relation to her Reflection on three weeks in May 1970 1971 (Tate T01687) – a work on canvas in oil paint and graphite that also features a grid structure and a series of crosses and intersecting lines, as well as a pink shape suggestive of a pool of blood. Both of these works explore diagrammatic schemes and plotting techniques, and in a 1972 statement on her practice 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 2006 letter to Tate Director Nicholas Serota, Donagh claimed, ‘Numerical Equivalents is one of my favourite drawings … it develops the primary inner structure of Reflection on three weeks in May 1970’ (Rita Donagh, Letter to Nicholas Serota, 6 January 2006, Tate Archive, TG 4/2/1300).
In addition, both numerical equivalents (via the text ‘KENT STATE’) and Reflection on three weeks in May 1970 (via its title and the apparent pool of blood) allude to events at Kent State University, Ohio, in the United States, where four students were shot dead by a national guardsman on 4 May 1970 during protests over US military attacks on Cambodia. Donagh heard about the shootings while she was working with a group of students on a project at the School of Fine Art in Reading. This project involved painting a studio completely white before a grid was sketched onto the walls and floor and crosses marked on squares where movement was not allowed – an approach to the demarcation of space that is reflected in the structural forms seen in numerical equivalents and Reflection on three weeks in May 1970.
In 2005 Donagh recalled how news of the Kent State shootings affected the project with her students: ‘Of course we talked about it and everybody felt acutely that we were in such a privileged position. We were all having really a marvellous time, working away in the studio thinking about art, while students in America were being shot on campus’ (quoted in Watkins 2005, p.12). With this in mind, the title numerical equivalents may be seen as an allusion to the different lives of the respective groups of students in Reading and Ohio, as well as perhaps referring to the casualty figures associated with the shootings and conflicts related to the student protests (such as those concerning the Cambodian and Vietnam wars) taking place at the time.
An interest in diagrammatic schemes, cartographic techniques and political conflict can be seen in Donagh’s work throughout her career. 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. This can be seen in works such as Evening papers (Ulster 1972–4) 1973–4 (British Council, London) and Bystander 1977, and continued to appear in later works such as the map-based shadow of six counties (c) 1980 (Tate T12291) and the large oil painting Counterpane 1987–8 (Tate T05838).
numerical equivalents 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, exhibition catalogue, Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design, London 1989.
Jonathan Watkins (ed.), Rita Donagh, exhibition catalogue, Ikon Gallery, Birmingham 2005, pp.11–12, reproduced p.43.
Supported by Christie’s.