Catalogue entry

Victor Pasmore 1908-1998

Linear Motif in Black and White 1960-1


Oil and incised line on Formica and plywood relief in an integral wood frame
1236 x 1236 x 73 (48 5/8 x 48 5/8 x 2 7/8)

Inscribed on back in black oil paint ‘TOP’ centre top and ‘VP.’ centre

Purchased from the artist through the New London Gallery (Grant-in-Aid) 1961

Recent Paintings and Constructions by Victor Pasmore, New London Gallery, London, March 1961 (7)
Victor Pasmore: Retrospective Exhibition 1925-65, Tate Gallery, London, May-June 1965 (161, pl.61)
Henry Moore to Gilbert and George: Modern British Art from the Tate Gallery, Palais des Beaux Arts, Brussels, Sept.-Nov. 1973, as part of Europalia 73 Great Britain (66, repr. p.76)

John Rothenstein, The Tate Gallery, London 1958, 2nd ed. 1962, p.137, repr. (col.)
Tate Gallery Report 1960-1, London 1961, p.29
‘Newly on View at the Tate Gallery’, Studio, vol.162, no.820, Aug. 1961, p.70
Mary Chamot, Dennis Farr and Martin Butlin, Tate Gallery: The Modern British Paintings, Drawings and Sculpture, II, London 1965
Alan Bowness and Luigi Lambertini, Victor Pasmore, with a Catalogue Raisonée of the Paintings, Constructions and Graphics 1926-1979, London 1980, p.300, no.243, repr.

John Rothenstein, British Art Since 1900, London 1962, pl.139
John Rothenstein, The Tate Gallery, London 1962, p.262

Linear Motif in Black and White is made up of an irregularly shaped plywood panel set against a secondary square panel within a hardwood frame, integral to the work. The inside face of the frame and both panels are faced with white Formica. The sides of the inner panel, which is approximately half an inch thick, are painted white. The finer lines were cut into the Formica layer using a sharp knife, and pen was possibly used to darken the incisions. Two broader linear forms were drawn in pencil and filled in with glossy black paint, apparently with the aid of masking tape.

The establishment of Pasmore’s career, with the award of the CBE in 1959 and his showing at the Venice Biennale in the following year, coincided with a broadening of his work into a heterogeneous range of different styles and motifs, though still concentrating on a few familiar themes. Linear Motif in Black and White is one of a group of works, begun in 1959 and continuing for many years, which combine incised lines and broader bands of colour on an irregularly shaped and raised ground set within a shallow box-frame. Unlike with much of his previous work, Pasmore does not seem to have employed geometrical or proportional systems in its composition. However, the close similarity between the work and others, most especially Linear Composition, 1960-1 (private collection),[1] suggest some sort of formal intention.

The conjunction of the black forms and more sinuous lines relates Linear Motif in Black and White to Pasmore’s slightly earlier Line and Space paintings, such as Line and Space: Linear Motif in White, Black, Blue and Ochre, 1958-9 (private collection).[2] These works combine short dark lines with finer curves in a pattern that, in their similarity to Mondrian’s Pier and Ocean pictures, exemplifies his persistently pivotal role as a source of inspiration for the British Constructionists. In an interview on 4 June 1996, Pasmore told the compiler that the Line and Space works reflected his interest in movement through three-dimensional space: the heavier lines suggesting solid objects and the thinner ones movement around and between them. In this way, they related to his collaboration with Richard Hamilton on An Exhibit (Hatton Gallery, Newcastle upon Tyne, June 1957), in which a room was broken up by coloured panels suspended from the ceiling. The paintings could be seen as plans of the flow of people through such a punctuated space.

Linear Motif in Black and White would appear to develop the idea of movement, with the projected relief adding an extra spatial ambiguity. The use of line to create a sense of organic flow recurred a little later in Pasmore’s Linear Development pictures.[3] Clearly derived from his earlier spirals, these works are composed of patterns apparently based upon the movement of water. As in the Line and Space works, which resemble microscopic images of cellular structures, the sense of organic development in all of these paintings also relates to Pasmore’s pioneering Developing Process teaching programme at Durham University. Across a range of works of the period - the Line and Space and Linear Development pictures as well as the reliefs like Linear Motif in Black and White and paintings such as Yellow Abstract (Tate Gallery T00411) - Pasmore explored the theme of movement and growth which had first appeared in his work in the 1940s.

The motif of the strong black line appearing to enter from the right, which became characteristic of Pasmore’s work during the 1960s and after, had been first used in the relief Abstract in White, Black, Maroon and Ochre, 1956-8 (artist’s collection),[4] one of the series that included Abstract in White, Black, Indian and Lilac (Tate Gallery T00166). A similar black line was used in the later biomorphic paintings, often passing over from the main image on to the secondary support. The form would thus appear to relate to those reliefs in which elements cross the edges of the work to enter real space as in Synthetic Construction (White and Black), 1965-6 (Tate Gallery T00784). Pasmore also used heavy black lines to introduce tension into a composition, their slight curvature suggesting their response to the other forms in the painting. In this way they might be seen as ad hoc formal adjustments, the result of his improvisatory working methods. As Norbert Lynton has said: ‘The line that wanders off to the right ... points to many important things in Pasmore’s artistic personality ...It is a sport. It is the Mozartian “wrong note” that yet surprises. It is humor, cheek, a little quirk that turns out to be the trump card’.[5]

The irregular shape of the relief element of Linear Motif in Black and White is similar to others seen in Pasmore’s contemporary paintings, for example Red Abstract, 1959-60 (artist’s collection),[6] which have parallels in the forms, derived from still life and the human body, in the work of William Scott and Roger Hilton. However, Pasmore’s use of Formica, since the late 1950s, is in marked contrast to their painterly work. His adoption of the hard-wearing, melamine-based composite particularly associated with modern kitchen furniture may be seen as a development of the Constructivist belief in the use of industrial materials. In 1952 Kenneth Martin had written of the radical intention behind their use: ‘New concepts and new forms demand new techniques. The bits of wood and metal, the plastics, the kitchen material, the moves towards machine art, already separate the new art from the museums, to the dismay of a public, who are not accustomed to an art of environment’.[7]

Chris Stephens
Feb. 1998

[1] Repr. Alan Bowness and Luigi Lambertini, Victor Pasmore, with a Catalogue Raisonée of the Paintings, Constructions and Graphics 1926-1979, London 1980, p.299, no.246
[2] Repr. ibid., p.128
[3] Repr. ibid., pp.302 and 305, nos.305, 332-3
[4] Repr. ibid., p.297 no.207
[5] Norbert Lynton, Victor Pasmore: Nature into Art, exh. cat., Centre for International Contemporary Arts, New York 1991, p.31
[6] Repr. Bowness and Lambertini 1980 p.298
[7] Kenneth Martin, ‘An Art of Environment’, Broadsheet, no.2, 1952, [p.4]