Avis Newman

Sensible Ellipse of Lost Origin


Avis Newman born 1946
Acrylic paint, cotton gauze and polyvinyl acetate resin on canvas
Support: 2780 x 4010 mm
Presented by Janet Wolfson de Botton 1996

Not on display


Sensible Ellipse of Lost Origin is a large abstract painting on an unstretched canvas that is pinned directly to the gallery wall when displayed. It features an extremely loose composition comprising a range of gestural marks. These include black and grey lines of varying thickness, scattered spots of paint and what look like small, simple pictograms. The support remains clearly visible between the painted areas and in many larger parts it is almost entirely bare. Much of the work’s background is filled with a thin, stain-like wash of grey and brown, interspersed with lines and patches of bare canvas. Although they could be seen as abstract shapes, some of the small pictograms might be interpreted as symbolic representations of animal footprints or elements of plants. There also appear to be some larger images of animals, with what resembles a vertically oriented fish at the bottom of the canvas and a partial depiction of a lizard on the upper part of the left side. Due to its dynamic and gestural style, the work appears as if it may have been executed quite spontaneously.

This work was created by the British artist Avis Newman during 1985 and 1986, when she was living and working in London. It is one of a group that she began making in 1981 and continued to work on throughout the 1980s, which consists of large, unstretched and unframed canvases that are attached directly to the wall (see also Scenes 1982). All of these paintings are largely abstract, with some hints of figuration included, and all involve gestural strokes and a muted palette of browns and greys. Whereas earlier works in this group were primarily structured using lines and marks, this work is characteristic of later paintings in which thin washes of colour take up large portions of the canvas (see also Lassitude Before Words 1987).

The title of this work has a poetic, evocative quality, but offers no clear meaning. One possible reference point for the phrase ‘lost origin’ might be the prehistoric origins of humanity. In 2003 Newman stated that she has ‘long been fascinated by the abstract images found in Paleolithic cave drawings’ and this might explain the fragmented images, simplified forms and earthy tones in this work. (Newman in Avis Newman and Catherine de Zegher, ‘Conversation: Avis Newman / Catherine de Zegher’, in Drawing Centre 2003, p.73.)

The art historian Jean Fisher has argued that despite their hints at representation, Newman’s works of this period primarily emphasise ‘the process by which marks and stains accumulate’ on the surface of her canvases, rather than any figurative reference points (Jean Fisher, ‘On the Margins of Forgetfulness’, in Lisson Gallery 1987, p.8). In this particular work, the gestural nature of Newman’s marks and the chaotic dynamism of the composition could be seen to draw attention to the activity of making. Newman discussed the significance of process to her work in 2003: after stating that she has primarily sees her practice as drawing rather than painting, she explained that

I have always understood drawing to be, in essence, the materialization of a continually mutable process, the movements, rhythms, and partially comprehended ruminations of its mind: the operations of thought. Drawing by its nature suggests an intimacy of engagement where the eye of the beholder, tracing and following the hand of the drawer, is forever caught in the spaces of action and event.
(Newman in Newman and de Zegher 2003, p.67.)

Fisher has argued that Newman’s works on unstretched canvases acknowledge ‘the reality’ and ‘material presence’ of the support (Fisher 1987, p.23). Whereas canvases are generally made tense by being stretched over wooden frames, here the material is pinned up as a flat sheet, and its texture is left fully visible in many areas between the patches and strokes of paint. Discussing framing in 2003, Newman stated that ‘The unframed interferes with any anticipation we might have of ordered limits or completion, and suggests the possibility that something is missing and will always elude our attention’ (Newman in Newman and de Zegher 2003, p.167). This suggests that her use of unframed canvases may also have been designed to heighten the work’s evocation of an open-ended creative process. Furthermore, noting the increasing use of ‘liquid’-like washes in Newman’s paintings of the later 1980s, Fisher has argued that these works largely eschew linear composition, offering instead a ‘space … of fluidity, of swells and eddies, in which contours and volumes – now transparent, now opaque, gently turn and undulate in a movement that is both sinuous and sensuous’ (Fisher 1987, p.29).

Further reading
Avis Newman, exhibition catalogue, Lisson Gallery, London 1987, p.24, reproduced p.4.
Avis Newman, exhibition catalogue, Ikon Gallery, Birmingham 1996.
The Stage of Drawing: Gesture and Act, exhibition catalogue, Drawing Centre, New York 2003.

David Hodge
September 2015

Supported by Christie’s.

Display caption

From the early 1980s Avis Newman has been associated with large mixed-media drawings on unstretched canvas, which have generally been pinned directly to the gallery walls for display. The images combine traces of recognisable elements, including human body parts, bird shapes and paleolithic symbols. The artist has described the title of this work as 'a thought concerning origination, the fundamentals of image making and the origins of memory. It was ironic in that origin is illusory, not actual or substantial. Retrieving it is an impossible desire'.

Gallery label, September 2004