Expanding Form is a square wall-mounted relief work that is composed of six wooden cubes mounted in high relief on to a wooden back board. The work is constructed on a grid pattern of twelve units – six reliefs and six recessive spaces. The cubes are combined with smaller interlocking geometric elements and the whole work is monochrome, painted with white emulsion. Tate curator Michael Compton provided a detailed description of the grid-plan for this work and for White Relief with Black 1954 for the catalogue of Martin’s solo exhibition at the Tate Gallery in 1984, in which Expanding Form was shown. He wrote:
this grid is 6 x 6 (units respectively 6 inches and 4 inches) with elements shifted by about 2/10 of a unit. The margins between certain lines of the grids are again interpreted with tilting planes. The sense of ‘Expanding’ in the title is evidently linked to the generally greater prevalence of smaller units near the centre, expanding into the wide lower margin in a generally spiral rhythm.
(Tate Gallery 1984, p.16.)
Martin began making abstract reliefs in 1951. The monochromatic character of Expanding Form was a feature of her works from 1951 to the mid-1950s, when she began to use coloured plastics and metals. During the early 1950s Martin began to experiment with three main themes: spiral movement, climbing forms, and expanding forms. The term ‘expanding form’ appears in the title of a number of the her relief-sculptures of the 1950s and 1960s, some of which additionally incorporate Perspex, metal or colour; however, this work of 1954 was her earliest monochrome relief on this theme. Martin’s use of abstract relief-sculpture coincided with the experiments of a larger group of artists who were making abstract constructions and mobiles during the early 1950s in Britain. Among these were her husband Kenneth Martin, Victor Pasmore, Anthony Hill, Robert Adams and Adrian Heath.
Expanding Form has no external reference point. Martin described her working process as free from ‘artistic interference’ and any ‘foreknowledge’ of the final appearance of the work (quoted in Mary Martin, Kenneth Martin 1970, p.11). Instead, she created an expressive form by following simple mathematical principles. Curator and Tate Gallery director Alan Bowness, writing in 1963, described the aesthetic of ‘construction’ as being more a response to contemporary scientific and mathematical ideas than to art or nature (see Construction England, exhibition catalogue, Arts Council of Great Britain, 1963). The forms in Martin’s works were often determined by following mathematical models such as the Golden Section and Fibonacci sequence.
Both Mary, and her husband Kenneth Martin (1905–84), were clear to differentiate between their own abstract works and abstraction from nature which involved reduction and distortion, but still resulted in a type of pictorial form. Martin often spoke about the importance of the surface of her works, and described the spaces between the relief sections as areas of play, opposition and even conflict. In an unpublished manuscript of 1957 entitled ‘The End is Always to Achieve Simplicity’, she described the ideas behind her early abstract reliefs, such as Expanding Form, stating:
I make reliefs myself because I could not possibly direct another person to make what I do not yet know. This is in spite of the fact that I start with a drawing, often suggested by a mathematical idea, which I carry forward to a precise concept of shape and form. Yet, if I were to hand it over to someone else to make, the result might be decorative, since there may be alterations before it becomes an expressive form. That is the difference between decoration and the work of art. The mechanics of construction are part and parcel of the feeling. Form and construction must be one.
(Quoted in Tate Gallery 1984, p.28.)
In an essay that was published in critic and curator Lawrence Alloway’s book Nine Abstract Artists in 1954 – the year Expanding Form was made – Martin wrote about how she had been influenced by the limited colour palette adopted by cubist artists such as Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque and Fernand Léger, as well as by Piet Mondrian which, she suggested, allowed a ‘pure art’ to be achieved (quoted in Lawrence Alloway, Nine Abstract Artists, London 1954, p.33). Alan Bowness has also noted the influence of the work of the American abstract painter Charles Biederman (1906–2004), who began to make brightly-coloured relief constructions around 1937. Biederman described why he saw relief construction as a natural successor to abstract painting and sculpture in his book Art as the Evolution of Visual Knowledge, which was published in 1948.
Expanding Form marks an innovative phase in Martin’s early career and her espousal of abstraction; as such, it was included in a number of key exhibitions that presented constructed abstract art in Britain, including Construction England, Arts Council of Great Britain, touring exhibition, 1963; Essays in Movement, Reliefs by Mary Martin, Mobiles by Kenneth Martin, Institute of Contemporary Arts, London 1960; and Mary Martin, Kenneth Martin, Arts Council of Great Britain, touring exhibition, 1970–1.
Mary Martin, Kenneth Martin, exhibition catalogue, Arts Council of Great Britain 1970, reproduced p.4.
Mary Martin, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1984, p.16.
Alistair Grieve, Constructed Abstract Art in England; A Neglected Avant-Garde, New Haven and London 2005.