Catalogue entry

T03342 DELTA 1978–9

Inscribed ‘J.M. 78–79’ on reverse
Oil on canvas, 24 × 23 (61 × 58.4)
Purchased from the artist (Grant-in-Aid) 1982
Exh: Desire not Geometry, an Exhibition of Work by John Murphy, Barry Barker Gallery, February–March 1979 (no catalogue); John Murphy, Arts Council Gallery, Belfast, May–June 1981 (no catalogue, repr.in colour on folded card); Through the Summer, Lisson Gallery, July–September 1981 (no catalogue)
Lit: ‘John Murphy, Interview by Jon Thompson’, Aspects, no.9, Winter 1979–80, n.p., repr.

This painting shows five columns of symbols, each headed by a capital letter, which together spell the word DELTA. Beneath the capitals, the first four columns present twenty paleolithic symbols for the female genitalia; in the fifth column are four more general symbols representing the feminine principle. Each symbol was first drawn in charcoal on unprimed canvas and afterwards in cadmium red oil paint-a colour chosen because it is used for the rendering of female symbols in paleolithic art.

The artist has described this as a very simple piece of work (Aspects no. 9, op.cit.); the symbols and the format of the work were all transcribed from a diagram he found in a book and the only addition he made was the word ‘Delta’. The book consulted was Sigfried Giedion's The Eternal Present (vol.I) The Beginnings of Art (no.6 in the series, A.W. Mellon Lectures in Fine Art, New York 1962).

Like a number of Murphy's works, ‘DELTA’ suggests a correspondence between intellectual and sensual pleasure, using the notion of desire (e.g. sexual desire), as a metaphor for the search for knowledge. However, discussing this particular painting, (Aspects, op.cit.) Murphy said that despite the implications of female sexuality, he intended it to look very formalised and impersonal ‘-eroticism by definition needs to be lifted out of the natural sphere of things, and this is most often achieved by a severe act of structuring which takes it beyond the realms of the passionate encounter, tying sensuality to thought in a very special way. The process of transforming the natural into the erotic is a paradigm of the way we turn nature into art. Eroticism, like art, is a product of culture’.

Murphy first made what are described as ‘works of art as hieroglyphs to be deciphered’ (in an unpublished article on his work by Jon Thompson, ‘On Contemplating the Night Sky...’, 1983) in 1976, when he made a small postcard work based on the Rosetta stone, with, above and below the image, the words, ‘picture word, notion/figure, device, sign’ - taken from a dictionary definition of hieroglyph. The next in what Murphy now refers to as the ‘Egyptian Series’ was a painting of Egyptian hieroglyphs arranged in four columns of six on unprimed linen canvas, titled ‘hieroglyphs do not only represent material objects’ (1977–8). This painting, which Murphy sees as a companion piece to ‘DELTA’, was first exhibited beside the Tate's painting at the Barry Barker Gallery in 1979. It is illustrated in Kunstforum International, (no.36, 6/79, p.113) and is now in a private collection in Stuttgart. The final work in the ‘Egyptian’ trilogy, which is based on a postcard of the Egyptian Obelisk in the Place de la Concorde in Paris, is titled ‘O Egypt’ (1979–81). Murphy's interest in what signs represent but also what they conceal and in the actual process of attempting to decipher works of art, (‘I think that we relate to things... via a process of deciphering, that's how we make sense of what's in front of us’ (Aspects interview) lead him to use ‘DELTA’ as the key for a series of five drawings, completed in 1982.

The five drawings executed in red conté crayon each reproduce one of the 5 columns in the original painting and the capital letter heading that particular column is bracketed in each title; thus the first in the series is titled ‘(D) ELTA’, the second ‘D(E)LTA’ and so on. The (D) (E) (L) (T) (A) drawings were first exhibited at the Orchard Gallery, Londonderry, in 1982 and the fourth in the set, ‘DEL(T)A’ is in the Arts Council's Collection.

Published in:
The Tate Gallery 1980-82: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions, London 1984