Tess Jaray Fifteen 1969

Artwork details

Artist
Tess Jaray born 1937
Title
Fifteen
Date 1969
Medium Oil paint on canvas
Dimensions Support: 2235 x 4318 mm
Collection
Tate
Acquisition Presented by E.J. Power through the Friends of the Tate Gallery 1973
Reference
T01760
Not on display

Catalogue entry

Tess Jaray b.1937

T01760 Fifteen 1969

Not inscribed.
Oil on sized cotton duck, 88 x 170 (220 x 425).
Presented by E. J. Power through the Friends of the Tate Gallery 1973.
Exh: Graves Art Gallery, Sheffield, April–May 1972 and City Art Gallery, Bristol, July 1972 (10); Tess Jaray, Marc Vaux: Recent Paintings, Whitechapel Art Gallery, May–June 1973 (7).
Lit: Alan Bowness, ‘Tess Jaray’s new work’ in Studio International, clxxvii, June 1969, pp.274–5; Robert Kudielka, ‘Tess Jaray’, introduction to Sheffield/Bristol and Whitechapel exhibition catalogues.

The following entry is based on a letter from the artist to the compiler of 4 March 1974, notes taken during a conversation with her on 7 May 1974, together with notes which she herself compiled some months before the painting was made and directly related to it.

T01760 was painted in the artist’s studio at 29 Camden Square, London, in September and October 1969.‘It is in some ways a ‘link’ painting, being the last of a series of very highly structured paintings, and the extreme point to which the works of ‘67–69 could be brought’. It is a ‘link between complexity and radical simplification and directly responsible for later works, for example the 1973 paintings.’

The title refers to the fifteen paired elements; T01760 and the previous painting, ‘Sixteen’ (1969) are the only paintings to have non-associative titles referring directly to their compositions.

The procedure for painting T01760 did not differ from that of previous paintings. The artist worked towards the painting by means of many drawings on both graph and lay-out paper. The drawings are divided into roughly two groups: those that relate to the shape of the element, and in T01760, the pairs of elements, and those that work out the final distribution of those elements over the canvas. A third group of drawings or sketches precedes the final choice of colours for the painting.

The monochrome field is first painted and then the composition is transferred very accurately on to the canvas from the final drawing. In the case of T01760 this was very complicated and necessitated many measurements. The elements are taped out to reveal the areas of one of the two colours, which is then painted; the process is then repeated for the second colour. The degree of the painting’s ‘success’ is therefore not known until the painting is completed.

The paintings leading up to T01760 are characterised by being restricted to paired elements: Each part of the pair is complete in itself, but more complete with its mate. Is this perhaps a continuation of ying and yang, a male-female completeness, duality of night and day—all the elements of life which are unique in themselves yet absolute as a pair.

However, in T01760 these elements are for the first and only time split directionally into two colours of identical tone, whereas previous elements were divided concentrically: splitting the shapes directionally creates a greater potential for several simultaneous dynamics to occur.’

The only possible composition is arrived at entirely by empirical means through sketches. Had ‘the concept (of T01760) been extended the stress would have been too great and broken… or elsewhere: ‘the composition was stretched to an extreme and any further change in dynamic would have made the whole structure collapse. I try to push an idea to its extreme pictorially, grasp its essence, so that there would be no point in ever doing the same idea again, as it could never reach a further degree of development in that particular way.’ The spaces between the elements determine the size of the painting; size and scale must be perfect for each. For this reason T01760 had to be extremely large, and the largest painting by the artist to date, which meant that a wall of her studio had to be removed to accommodate it.

The series of paintings of which T01760 is the last, reflects the artist’s persistence in attempting to answer the question: ‘Just how far can one take colour towards neutral and still retain chromatic activity?’

Colour and composition are intimately related: ‘structure suggests colour… interaction of colour in the units—colours to be perceived separately at a certain distance and to fuse together to create a third colour from further viewing… the fusion also to take place on the periphery of vision when attention is focused on one area of the painting in particular. This creates another activity within the units without either changing their colour or shape.’ In this way optical movement and compositional movement are also allied.

However, the problem is not the choice of ‘intangible’ colour alone, but entails also a close analysis of tone: ‘The tonality is not a graphic one—the lightness is to avoid too great and hard a contrast of unit to ground, which would make for the definite or absolute relationship which I try to avoid. It is to aid the ephemerality and immateriality that the choice of tone is arrived at.’

T01760 is further outstanding as a ‘link’ painting of its kind, since it is the last painting to display actual symmetry as opposed to the ‘inferred symmetry’ of the paintings that followed it. The symmetry in T01760 is not ‘blatant’, but is nevertheless one of the key principles governing its composition, together with the importance given to the diagonal in the artist’s work as a whole. Furthermore, it is a contributing factor to the expression of movement in the paintings around 1967 to 1969.‘The eye cannot rest on any area of the painting without being drawn, magnetically as it were, to another part, and yet another part, and eventually to the original area, to move on once again. This way there is no final resolution, and the painting remains constantly active.’

The emphasis during this period has been on a basically diagonal construction, or compositional bias, in which is evoked or implied a curved ‘S’-shape across the surface, as opposed to movement back and forth, into the picture plane, to be observed in the artist’s work before 1967:‘using no verticals or horizontals but only diagonals, the range of possible placement is very limited, as too acute diagonals create too great a dynamic which would work against the feeling of suspended structure that I am working for. The cooler the dynamic, the greater the feeling of equilibrium—the look of being “caught momentarily in space” the problem is to evoke a curve on the canvas plane without using curved lines. By achieving this with straight lines the canvas plane is more totally activated, as the straight or parallel lines relate more directly to the rectangular format and the flatness of the surface... At the same time to indicate a vertical axis so the total feeling is similar to that of a spiral staircase—a series of straight lines in a curved movement twisting back on itself… the minute the shapes touch the edge of the picture plane they are anchored; this hinders their freedom. I want instability, not stability.’ The instability, paradoxically, is based in the first place on the paired shapes: ‘I want the shapes to be held together as if by mutual agreement—by a magnetism that equally attracts and rejects.’

Though there are no direct references in T01760 to the objective world, in her writings the artist makes analogies between her work and the life processes both of humanity and the natural world: she sees her work ‘as a ‘life-event’, the continuous development, process and unravelling of an invisible structure. Each painting holding implicit in it the history of all the previous ones, just as one holds in oneself at any point all that has gone before.’

It is above all movement which intrigues the artist and her relationship to movement is what she reflects in her paintings: ‘I want a pulse to beat through my paintings—not a loud, buzzing, eye-shattering pulse, but one that seems to lie almost dormant, like the latent growth in a plant or the breathing of a hibernating animal. So that the spectator feels that there is more there than he can at present see, somehow inherent (buried) in the shapes.’ In relation to T01760 especially, the artist wrote: ‘One’s sense of the universe surely consists of myriad structures and rhythms, of which one is only able to grasp at any time a minute fraction. We gain a sense of such structures when we look at the seasons, at the tides, at the growth of a plant, at a life-span, and at all the man-made manifestations of such movements. Such as cities, or flight, or wars, or love or music or mathematics. Sometimes we feel it could all be ours to understand if only we could just reach out and grasp it— after all it is here, there, everywhere. So in painting, we extend our antennae, and try to catch hold of what seems to be an order for the taking, to manifest in our own terms, our own vision. So a painting is a microcosm, and one is trying to hold on to a tiny part of that order—to reveal it, and perhaps greedily, to have it. In its turn, this gives us a sense of belonging, of being part of that order, which is mostly seen or felt simply as incomprehensible chaos.’

T01760 was the last painting in which colour was put down in the way described above. ‘Constellation 1’ (1970) which followed it, introduced a more painterly procedure, where the elements were ‘worked on individually and more empirically.’ Though this approach has been developed, and the appearance of the artist’s work has changed, her intentions have continued ‘and the content of the paintings remain the same.’

Published in The Tate Gallery Report 1972–1974, London 1975.

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