Catalogue entry

Mark Lancaster b. 1938

T01238 James Gibbs 1970

Inscribed on top stretcher bar: ‘James Gibbs 1970’ with dimensions and media, and ‘Mark Lancaster’.
Aquatec on cotton duck, 68 x 68 (173 x 173).
Purchased from the artist through the Rowan Gallery (Grant-in-Aid) 1970.
Exh: Rowan Gallery, October 1970 (no catalogue numbers).

Lancaster was Artist-in-Residence at King’s College, Cambridge, from late summer 1968 to late summer 1970. During this period he executed (among other works) a series of twenty-two paintings of identical size (68x68 in.), in each of which the surface area was so painted that the square canvas was divided into eight equal rectangles arranged in two vertical ‘stacks’.

The second of these works, T01109, ‘Cambridge Green’, 1968, was purchased by the Tate Gallery in 1969. It demonstrates the sharp articulation of the 8-part surface- division by slender, even-width channels of raw canvas, which is characteristic of earlier works in the series. By the time ‘James Gibbs’ was painted this regular compartmentation, though instrumental in determining the position of the marks made, was much less clearly visible. However, in ‘James Gibbs’ (as in some works contemporary with it), it is made explicit by small rectilinear crosses which mark the points of intersection of the notional lines of division, and small notches marking these lines’ junction with the canvas edge. Both the crosses and the notches are formed by an absence of paint in the relevant place and shape.

Already in T01109, Lancaster stated a second principle of formal division of the surface which has grown steadily more pronounced in his subsequent work. This involved the bisection diagonally of the basic eight rectangles. In ‘James Gibbs’ this occurs in every rectangle in such a way that the picture surface is compartmented on a zig-zag design by a giant ‘Z’ with a ‘V’ set into (and echoing) each of the acute angles of that figure. The location of any of the four apexes of the zig-zag design is marked by additional small crosses or ‘notches’, which recall or imply the subdivision of the original eight-rectangle scheme into sixteen squares (this subdivision is sharply articulated in some of Lancaster’s work of recent years).

‘James Gibbs’ was painted in April 1970. For many years, Lancaster’s work has shown growing emphasis on the verifiable, exposed sequence of actions by which the marks in a painting are made. In earlier works of the ‘Cambridge’ series, Lancaster had sharpened this emphasis by painting marks dependent on a given design, then turning the canvas through 180° and repeating the process. ‘James Gibbs’ was the first painting of the ‘Cambridge’ series (excluding small studies on canvas) in which this process was followed using all four sides of the canvas (in the sequence 1, 3, 2, 4) as its notional bottom edge.

The exact sequence of actions performed in ‘James Gibbs’ is documented in an analysis drawing by the artist in the Tate Gallery’s files. Although the painting’s linear ‘zig-zag’ division comprises only three figures, a ‘Z’ and two ‘V’s’, it is made up of eight lines, each of which divides a rectangle. Having decided on a given sequence in which they would be used, Lancaster treated each of these as the base line (temporarily represented by masking tape during each painting sequence) from which paint was pulled across roughly a half-rectangle, in a direction at 90° to the base line. The colours used, which constituted a regular progression, were white, six values of grey, and black. Each painting-progression of eight pulls resulted in eight half- rectangles being roughly painted, while the other half of any of these rectangles remained blank. In painting-progressions 1 and 3, exactly the same half-rectangles were painted in exactly the same sequence with exactly the same colours, the only and crucial change being that the orientation of the canvas was different by 90°. Painting-progressions 2 and 4 were identical to one another in the same sense; they occupied the eight half-rectangles left blank in progressions 1 and 3, but were themselves executed, like 1 and 3, with the canvas differently orientated by 90°.

When these four painting-progressions were complete, Lancaster repeated them once again, but this time using a contrasting image which was superimposed on what had gone before. This image, of hundreds of minute parallel white lines, was silkscreened from each of the thirty-two positions used as base-lines in the previous four eight-part progressions.

‘James Gibbs’ was the first painting in a sub-group of six paintings that concluded the ‘Cambridge’ series. All six of these paintings referred to the architecture of King’s College, and each was named after the architect of a particular building. The last five were ‘Henry VI’ (coll. the artist) ‘George Frederick Bodley’ (coll. Leeds City Art Gallery), ‘William Wilkins’ (coll. Huddersficld Art Gallery), ‘Aston Webb’ (private collection, London), and ‘John Wastell’ (private collection, London). James Gibbs (1682 1754) designed buildings for the Founder’s Court at King’s College, of which the only one to be built (between 1724 and 1749) occupies the west side. T01238 was painted in the rooms Lancaster occupied at King’s College from 1968–70, which were in the exact lateral centre of the Gibbs building, facing the Founder’s Court. The artist wrote (letter of 17 February 1972) ‘The Gibbs building is blacker and whiter than the other buildings and has a gritty quality the others don’t have, to do with the kind of stone used and the weathering. Part of the function of the silk- screen overprinting [in T01238] can be said to reflect this process in the building as well as that of the painting. The image of the silkscreen relates to the representation of water in chemistry textbooks... The Gibbs building is or looks symmetrical.

The painting isn’t, but is closest to symmetry of the building series (and the original division of the canvas into 8 equal rectangles, on which the diagonal positions depend, is)’.

The silkscreen image used in T01238 relates to the broken grid of Lancaster’s print ‘Fourths’, 1969, to sketchpad notes of about 1967, and to the cover he designed for the magazine of the Friends of Covent Garden, About the House, Vol. 3, No. 4, Christmas 1969. This last design consisted of blue, green and yellow lines of irregular length and interval, continuing over both front and back covers of the magazine.

The artist owns one small canvas study (approx. 20 x 20 in.), of one sequence of black-white, and two or three small drawings and silkscreen trials.

Published in The Tate Gallery Report 1970–1972, London 1972.