Michael Kenny began working on large, polychrome, wooden reliefs in the autumn of 1983, the year that his work was selected for The Sculpture Show, a major exhibition organized by the Arts Council at the Hayward and Serpentine Galleries in London. Having focused on science in his youth, he studied painting at Liverpool College of Art from 1959 to 1961 and then spent a further three years in London at the Slade (1961–4) where he began to make sculpture. As a sculptor he continued to incorporate painting and graphic elements into his complex constructions, and once described drawing as ‘the cornerstone of the visual arts ... the basic structure through which expression becomes possible’ (quoted in Davies, p.20). At the time he made The Astronomer he had just become Head of the Fine Art Department at Goldsmith’s College of Art in London, where he remained until 1988.
Kenny’s sculpture rarely invites the viewer to walk all the way round it, but instead has the quality of a stage, which can be seen from the front from any angle within a radius of 180 degrees. This theatrical effect is compounded by the artist’s fondness for siting upright structures on floorboard bases as he does in The Astronomer, whose sculptural elements are arranged against a vertical plane rather than on the floor. Two battens forming the sides of a large triangle, like an A-frame or giant pair of dividers, are fixed to the front of a circular structure suspended slightly above the ground in front of a square which contains in the bottom right-hand corner a miniature echo of these geometrical shapes drawn and painted on the pine boards from which the whole work is constructed. Attached to the base of the triangle is a selection of found objects: an extended telescope, a ball, a plumb-line weight, a broken tripod top and the plaster cast of a cointreau bottle. This fictional astronomer could see and measure, and test gravity, but not all his accoutrements were effective. The Astronomer may be read as an abstract self-portrait in the guise of the great scientist Sir Isaac Newton (1642–1727) whose portrayal by William Blake (1757–1827) shows him measuring the earth with giant dividers. It was Newton who formulated the law of gravitation and was instrumental in the construction of the reflecting telescope, but he was also a student of alchemy and wrote a history of the Creation.
Kenny too was known to be interested in metaphysics and religion. He had recently completed a sculpture with the biblical title of Lot’s Wife (Petra Genetrix) 1983/4 (reproduced in Michael Kenny: Sculpture, Reliefs and Drawings [p.4]), the first of his works to give such prominence to geometrical elements, and to include the Egyptian-style triangular motif on the capital of the drawn column which is a distinctive, centrally-placed feature of The Astronomer. The sculptor, like the astronomer, is concerned with spaces and solids, position and balance, structure and measure, the laws of gravity and even motion, but must express these ideas through an art of solid matter. In this work the astronomer himself is not visible: in his stead are the devices by which he is known and the elements of his craft. In 1984 Kenny stated: ‘I no longer have an interest in the human form ... I want to find the images which are secret, primeval, pagan.’ (Quoted in Davies, p.26.) His sculpture does not depict, describe or narrate: it presents the tools and elements of creation, suggesting perhaps that the artist is the sum of his activities. Coloured in the browns, rusty-pinks and blue of old maps of the earth, the chalk marks and thin, unevenly-applied washes of acrylic paint give The Astronomer an ethereal quality at odds with its solidity and the deliberately visible evidence of how it was made. The artist has signed and dated the work in pencil at the front on the proper right hand side.
Peter Davies, Michael Kenny, Aldershot 1997.
Michael Kenny: Sculpture, Reliefs and Drawings, exhibition catalogue, Juda Rowan Gallery, London 1984.