Completed on a roughly sawn rectangular piece of plywood, Chromatic spiral 1950 is a portrait-oriented abstract oil painting featuring groups of intersecting lines in a range of colours. The work’s background is composed of unevenly applied layers of paint that produce a streaky, off-white colouring with blue tinges covered in washes of translucent brown paint. The abstract composition moves outwards in the spiral formation referred to in the title, beginning with a single dot in black paint just below the centre of the work. Moving upwards and clockwise from this starting position, each of the subsequent nine groupings adds one thin line to the previous formation, with these lines crisscrossing in multiple directions as the groupings become progressively more complex. The lines are painted in the seven colours of the visible spectrum – red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet – plus black, which begins the sequence, and white, which ends it. The painting has areas of slight impasto and is not varnished.
This work was made in 1950 by the British artist Richard Hamilton when he was a student at the Slade School of Fine Art in London, where he studied between 1948 and 1951. In an interview with the curator Hans Ulrich Obrist in 2006, Hamilton explained that Chromatic spiral was completed ‘entirely’ on the following basis:
I was making paintings and trying to be minimalist about it. I said to myself, ‘If you take a rectangle and put a mark on it, that point is related to the edges or to the corners and that first mark will affect everything subsequent to it’. The first choice is the rectangle, the boundaries, then a single mark, and then the next mark has to relate to that initial statement and its position in the rectangle.
(Quoted in Hans Ulrich Obrist, Lives of the Artists, Lives of the Architects, London 2015, p.441.)
In exploring a systematic approach to abstraction, Chromatic spiral can be related to two particular sources: the abstract paintings of the Swiss-German artist Paul Klee (1879–1940), which are characterised by their mathematical qualities, and the study On Growth and Form (1917) by Scottish biologist and mathematician D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson, in which he argued that organic physical structures develop according to coherent, mathematical principles (see Tate Gallery 1992, p.144). Hamilton was introduced to Thompson’s work by the artist Nigel Henderson, a fellow student at the Slade (see Godfrey, Schimmel and Todoli 2014, pp.64–5). The book also inspired the exhibition Growth and Form, organised and designed by Hamilton and opened by the architect Le Corbusier, which was staged in 1951 at the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA) in London as part of the Festival of Britain (reproduced in Godfrey, Schimmel and Todoli 2014, pp.24–31).
Chromatic spiral can also be seen in the context of Hamilton’s broader interest in notions of perception. In 1992 the curator Richard Morphet claimed that Chromatic spiral is among ‘those of Hamilton’s works in which one has explicitly the sense of watching an action unfolding’ (Richard Morphet, ‘Richard Hamilton: The Longer View’, in Tate Gallery 1992, p.21), while in 2015 the art historian Giovanni Casini suggested that Chromatic spiral is concerned with ‘what makes a surface really flat and what devices an artist should use to preserve its “integrity”’ (Casini 2015, p.627).
With its focus on consumerism and mass production, Hamilton’s later work was closely associated with the development of pop art. His collage Just what is it that makes today’s homes so different, so appealing? 1956 (Kunsthalle Tübingen, Tübingen), which incorporates adverts and magazine images, was created for the catalogue of the seminal exhibition This is Tomorrow held at the Whitechapel Gallery in London in 1956. Hamilton’s work also demonstrated a particular concern for social and political questions, such as the three diptych paintings created in response to conflicts surrounding the geopolitical status of Northern Ireland: The citizen 1981–3 (Tate T03980), The subject 1988–90 (Tate T06774) and The state 1993 (Tate T06775).
Chromatic spiral was first displayed in June 1951 in the foyer of the Warner Theatre in Leicester Square in London, as part of a group exhibition, organised by the ICA, featuring the work of young artists such as Hamilton, Eduardo Paolozzi and William Turnbull.
Richard Hamilton, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1992, pp.21, 144, reproduced p.65.
Mark Godfrey, Paul Schimmel and Vicente Todoli (eds.), Richard Hamilton, exhibition catalogue, Tate Modern, London 2014, reproduced p.33.
Giovanni Casini, ‘Richard Hamilton at the Slade School of Fine Art (1948–51) and his “Abstract” Paintings of the Early 1950s’, Burlington Magazine, vol.157, no.1350, September 2015, pp.623–30, reproduced p.625.
Supported by Christie’s.