Kenneth Martin

Rotary Rings (Fourth Version)


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Not on display
Kenneth Martin 1905–1984
Object: 933 x 584 x 584 mm
Purchased 1971

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This work belongs to a group of four sculptures that explore movement through a sequence of discrete elements. By using the primary forms of lines and curves Martin establishes a sequence of what he calls 'fundamental movements': twists and rotations. 'Rotary Rings' is made up of five sequences of rings set horizontally to a threaded vertical rod. Each of the bronze elements comprises four rings attached to a bush, or hub. A hyperbolic curve is attached to the outer ring, whose length and depth is proportional to the rings. Each curve is identical, but is attached to the rings at different points. The sculpture's verticality is attained by balancing and counterbalancing the five sequences of rings and curves.

Gallery label, August 2004

Catalogue entry


Brass mobile, 933 x 584 x 584 mm (36 3/4 x 23 x 23 in)
Purchased from the artist through the Waddington Galleries, London (Grant-in-Aid) 1971

Kenneth Martin: Recent Work, Waddington Galleries II, London, October 1970 (no number, reproduced on front cover)
Henry Moore to Gilbert and George: Modern British Art from the Tate Gallery, Palais des Beaux Arts, Brussels, September-November 1973, as part of Europalia 73 Great Britain (69, reproduced p.82)
Kenneth Martin, Tate Gallery, London, May-June 1975 (88, reproduced in colour p.135)
Arte inglese oggi 1960-76, Palazzo Reale, Milan, Feb.-May 1976 (152, reproduced p.154)

Tate Gallery Report, 1970-2, London 1972, pp.141-3
Keith Roberts, ‘Current and Forthcoming Exhibitions’, Burlington Magazine, vol.117, no.868, July 1975, p.496, reproduced opposite p.499
Jonathan Benthall, ‘London’, Coloquio Artes, 2nd series, vol.17, no.24, October 1975, pp.19-20, reproduced p.20
Penelope Curtis, Modern British Sculpture from the Collection, Tate Gallery Liverpool, 1988, p.96, reproduced p.95 (mistakenly identified as Small Screw Mobile)

Jasia Reichardt, ‘Order and Chance’, Architectural Design, vol.45, July 1975, p.450

Rotary Rings (Fourth Version) was the last in a sequence of works which extended the scheme of rotating elements around a central rod, established in the Screw Mobiles. In this group and in the preceding Variable Screws, the rod was threaded to allow for the adjustment of the elements. Kenneth Martin confirmed that ‘each of the rows can be removed and placed in a different order on the threaded rod. They can be placed either way up ... close together or far apart and orientated in any horizontal direction’.[1] Above all, what he called ‘the participator’ had to establish the overall balance. In relation to the earlier Variable Screw, 1967 (University of East Anglia),[2] Martin had written of this balance being established by the spectator.[3] Although variations to Rotary Rings (Fourth Version) remain possible, the disposition favoured by the Gallery follows photographs of that established by the artist at his 1975 retrospective.

The processes and principles enacted in Rotary Rings (Fourth Version) were discussed in
Martin’s technical notes quoted at length in Tate Gallery Report, 1970-2;[4] these elaborated upon his essay in the periodical Leonardo about the three earlier Rotary Rings written in late 1967.[5] Rotary Rings (Fourth Version) is made of five accumulations or ‘rows’, each of four brass rings cut from standard grades; these are brazed together (stacked or joined laterally) and joined to a curved bar and to a threaded ring (a ‘bush’) by which they are held to the rod. Apart from the identical curves, each row employs elements in a different grade, disposition and order. Martin confirmed this in his technical notes:

There are five diameters and four depths of ring, determined by the proportional system 4.7.11 ..., the unit being the thickness of the metal. One ring of each depth appears in each sequence and four of the five diameters. ... Each of the four rings of the same diameter appears in a different order and with a different depth in each of the five sequence, so that each ring had its own individual character. The last ring of each sequence is attached to a bar whose hyperbolic curve has the same focus as the circle of the bush, and whose length and depth is proportional to the rings. The five bars are identical but the point of contact between each hyperbolic bar and the last ring of a sequence is varied.[6]

Reflecting on concerns common to his mobiles, the artist wrote that their movement was ‘regarded as a sequence of discrete events.’ He also described them as ‘primitive in character’ - meaning reliant upon fundamental characteristics - in their articulation of movements, ‘translations, rotations, twists’, and forms, ‘the line, the circle etc.’ The mass-produced materials served ‘as the bases for rhythms’ used, in this case, in grades associated by multiples related to the Fibonacci series. The artist revealed: ‘One tries to see how varied and how expressive the events constructed with these materials can become’.[7] This could be varied by the choice of the units. The earliest Rotary Rings (First Version), 1967 (private collection),[8] had been limited to the rings of the title, and the hyperbolic form of the bars on Rotary Rings (Fourth Version) was introduced for Rotary Rings (Second Version), 1967 (collection McCrory Corporation, New York).[9] Although the intervening third version (collection Paul Martin)[10] had used straight bars, the arrangement had already been anticipated in the parabolic bars found on Variable Screw, 1967 and on the earlier parabolic series of Screw Mobiles (e.g. Screw Mobile (First Version), 1964, Bristol City Art Gallery).[11]

For the third and fourth versions of Rotary Rings the assembly of the parts was established by a system of permutations developed by the artist with the aid of a chequerboard. Changes were determined through the application of letters (designating the width of the rings) and of numbers (designating their diameter) to the five by five grid. Martin’s article in Leonardo first alluded to the system, and, in 1975, it was explained in relation to Rotary Rings (Third Version) by Michael Compton.[12] In his technical notes, the artist explained that the elements themselves were laid out on the chequerboard: ‘The second piece was joined to the first according to their characters, the one could be joined to the other, inside or outside. With the third piece a relationship could be established by such disciplines as could arise from the use of diameters or tangents, thickness and depth’.[13] While this system established the sequence, he stressed that the relationship of the joining ‘necessitated decisions’ so that ‘each sequence developed its own particular character.’

Writing more generally of the consequences of this process, Martin declared:

One is not working with a system towards inventing a finished work, one is inventing the process. Rhythm is a constructing force. To begin with there is only an event, fundamental and practical. Each such event has a limited number of possibilities. The particular character ... will be felt to be universal if the event is sufficiently fundamental. A series of the same family of events, organised as a rhythmic sequence will define the character of the whole work. It is essential therefore that the nature of the event and of the rhythm should be understood in their relationship. Limitations and conditions must be found to bring out to the maximum the expressive character of the rhythmic events.[14]

Although Rotary Rings (Fourth Version) related primarily to Martin’s own sequential development of themes, it also has links to the work of others. The title echoes the Rotary Glass Plates (a machine provoking an illusion of concentric circles) by Marcel Duchamp, whose work was often cited as an alternative precursor to Constructivism. More immediately, Martin’s systematised variation of standard units reflected contemporary practices. Both Mary Martin - in works such as Inversions, 1967 (Tate T01198) - and Anthony Hill had applied permutations to a single unit, as had Constructivists working abroad, such as François Morellet, Eli Bornstein and Luis Tomasello. All contributed to Hill’s 1968 anthology DATA: Directions in Art, Theory and Aesthetics which signalled a highpoint in post-war international Constructivism.[15] From a different perspective, Martin’s use of mass-produced brass rings may be contrasted with the welding of steel components with which Anthony Caro established his eminence in the 1960s.

Matthew Gale
October 1997

[1] Kenneth Martin, letter to Tate, 16 June 1971 quoted in Tate Gallery Report, 1970-2, London 1972, pp.141-3.
[2] Reproduced in Kenneth Martin, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1975, p.89, no.79.
[3] Kenneth Martin, ‘Construction and Change: Notes on Group of Works made between 1965 and 1967’, Leonardo, vol.1, no.4, October 1968, p.368.

[4] Tate Gallery Report, pp.141-3.
[5] Martin 1968, pp.363-372, edited and republished in exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery 1975, pp.30-39.

[6] Tate Gallery Report, pp.141-3.

[7] Ibid.
[8] Reproduced in exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery 1975, p.37, no.85.
[9] Reproduced ibid., p.38, no.86.
[10] Reproduced ibid., p.38, no.87
[11] Reproduced ibid., p.88, no.70

[12] Michael Compton, ‘Analysis of Selected Works’, in Andrew Forge and others, Kenneth Martin, London 1975, pp.32-3.
[13] Tate Gallery Report, pp.141-3.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Anthony Hill ed., DATA: Directions in Art, Theory and Aesthetics, London 1968.

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