Perspex Group 1963 is made up of three rectangular pieces of Perspex. The thickest piece is white and functions as a base, while the longest piece is transparent and is affixed to one edge of the base at a perpendicular angle so that it stands tall. The shortest piece is made of black Perspex and is positioned on top of the white base to the side so that it reaches to almost half the height of the taller transparent piece. Although the work has on occasion been displayed on an additional thin black Perspex base, this was not part of the original sculpture, which is intended to be shown on a plain surface.
British painter and sculptor Mary Martin abandoned her early figurative work in 1950 and made her first abstract relief, Columbarium 1951 (reproduced in Tate Gallery 1984, p.11), by cutting directly into cast plaster. She first began to use plastics in 1954, and Perspex Group appears to have been the first work she made using Perspex exclusively.
In 1957 Martin explained her approach to making relief works:
I make my 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.
(Mary Martin, ‘The End is Always to Achieve Simplicity’, in Tate Gallery 1984, p.28.)
The ‘mathematical idea[s]’ to which Martin referred became a more prevalent feature of her reliefs in the 1960s. She frequently worked in series, organising grids of variously projecting and recessed cubes according to different permutations of the same basic elements (see, for example, White Diamond 1963, reproduced in Tate Gallery 1984, p.19). Perspex Group, however, does not appear to belong to any particular series and may be further differentiated from Martin’s other work at this time by its status as a freestanding construction. Between 1967 and her death in 1969 Martin made a series of larger wall-mounted works involving Perspex, including Perspex Group on Orange (B) 1969 (Tate T12028), in which mathematical principles underpinned the arrangement of the elements.
Martin was a key member of the post-war British constructionist movement, comprised of British painters and sculptors (including her husband Kenneth Martin and Victor Pasmore) who utilised geometric forms and mathematical patterns in their work. In 1961 Mary Martin wrote: ‘The constructionist concerns himself with the real, forward-looking employment of mass-produced materials in his work, but only in so far as they can be used expressively’ (Mary Martin, ‘Art, Architecture and Technology’, in Tate Gallery 1984, p.27). Constructionism extended many of the ideas of the interwar constructivism movement, and Perspex was a material employed by constructivist artists like Naum Gabo in works such as Torsion 1928–36 (Tate T02146) and Spiral Theme 1941 (Tate T00190). Curator Michael Compton has also suggested that, in addition to Pasmore’s early reliefs, British artist Ben Nicholson’s reliefs and sculptures from the 1930s (see, for example, 1936 (white relief sculpture – version 1) 1936, Tate T07274), may have been a formative influence on Martin’s work (Michael Compton, ‘Introduction’, in Tate Gallery 1984, p.10).
Mary Martin, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1984.
Mary Martin 1907–1969: The End is Always to Achieve Simplicity, exhibition catalogue, Huddersfield Art Gallery, Huddersfield 2004, reproduced p.33.
Kenneth Martin and Mary Martin: Constructed Works, exhibition catalogue, Camden Arts Centre, London 2007.
Supported by Christie’s.