Not on display
Pyramid is a large charcoal drawing on canvas by the British artist David Nash featuring a dense black form that represents a pyramid. Although the work’s title refers to this shape, its vertical sides are not straight like those of a conventional pyramid, but take on organic lines in which irregularities are visible. Surrounding the pyramid is a border of smudged charcoal that emanates from the shape’s otherwise clearly defined edges. Pyramid is one of six elements that make up Nash’s installation Pyramid, Sphere, Cube 1997–8, which consists of two further charcoal drawings – Sphere (Tate T07543) and Cube (Tate T07544) – along with three wooden sculptures with charred black surfaces that take the form of a pyramid, a sphere and a cube and are the same scale as the shapes depicted in the drawings (see Pyramid, Tate T07539, Sphere, Tate T07540, and Cube, Tate T07541). The three drawings are displayed in a row on the gallery wall, with each appearing alongside its corresponding three-dimensional shape, which rests on the gallery floor in front of it. Although the spacing between the six elements of the installation depends on the dimensions of the room in which they are displayed, the drawings are usually positioned so that their lower edges are approximately 35 cm from the floor, and the spaces between the drawings can range between 5 cm and 30 cm, with the sculptures being centred on their corresponding drawing.
Pyramid was created in Nash’s studio in Blaenau Ffestiniog in North Wales, UK, in 1997 and 1998. The drawing was made on unprimed, unstretched cotton duck canvas. Although it has been fixed several times, the charcoal has bled into the surrounding canvas, resulting in the smudged border. It is displayed unglazed so as to retain a direct physical relationship with the viewer and with the other parts of the work. The sculptures that accompany this and the other two drawings are made from English oak that has been charred with a propane torch to a depth of approximately 1 cm.
The use of both sculpture and drawing in Pyramid, Sphere, Cube encourages the viewer to experience a continuing optical shift between two dimensions and three dimensions. As the art historian Julian Andrews has observed: ‘by putting a physical shape onto the floor contiguous to its own image on the wall, Nash induces two different kinds of comprehension in the viewer, enhancing both the solid object and its separate image’ (Andrews 1999, p.137). There is also a close relationship between the carbon surfaces of the drawings and sculptures. Andrews has explained the effect of the charring process on the artist’s interaction with the shapes and outlines of his sculptures:
[Nash] had always found that whenever he looked at a wood sculpture he would be conscious, first, of the presence of wood, the material, before he saw the form. But in transforming the surface of the piece into a black, carbonised finish he found a change took place: the intense black had the effect of distancing him from the piece so that he now saw the form before experiencing the material.
(Andrews 1999, pp.114–17.)
In the case of the drawings in Pyramid, Sphere, Cube, their outlines are emphasised by the dense black carbon and they appear as the shadows or silhouettes of the wooden sculptures in front of them.
The combination of pyramid, sphere and cube forms has recurred frequently throughout Nash’s practice. He began using these shapes in the early 1980s and started charring them in the mid-1980s. In 2004 Nash stated that the three forms have different effects: ‘I find the cube is static, fixed, compared to the potential movement rolling, orbiting the sphere. The pyramid has a rising gesture, it’s awake, dynamic’ (quoted in Cork 2004, p.50). Pyramid, Sphere, Cube was the fourth work by Nash to combine these forms in their charred state alongside drawings of the same shapes, with another, later example being Nature to Nature 4 1990 (Collection Capel Rhiw, Blaenau Ffestiniog).
Graham W.J. Beal, David Nash: Voyages and Vessels, exhibition catalogue, Joslyn Art Museum, Omaha 1994.
Julian Andrews, The Sculpture of David Nash, London 1999.
Richard Cork, David Nash: Making and Placing, Abstract Sculpture 1978–2004, exhibition catalogue, Tate St Ives, St Ives 2004.
Supported by Christie’s.
Technique and condition
The work is made from a single trunk of oak about 400 years old, which was brought to the artist’s attention by the gardener at a girls’ private school at Ascot. Nash roughed out the pieces in Ascot then transported them to his studio in Blaenau Ffestiniog, North Wales where he charred them with a propane torch to the depth of about 1cm. He treats them with linseed oil, chars them again and linseeds them a second time.
Rachel Barker and Annette King