John Piper

Abstract I


Oil paint on canvas on plywood
Support: 917 x 1065 x 50 mm
Purchased 1954

Display caption

This work was reproduced in black and white in Circle. Its stage-like interleaving of coloured planes reflects Piper’s engagement with abstract aesthetics. Though Piper is more commonly thought of as a painter of historical architecture and the landscape, for a short period he was intimately involved in the avant-garde. This was evident in his association with Axis, a groundbreaking journal of abstract art, which was edited by his wife Myfanwy Evans. Piper had strong links with artists abroad and his own collection included works by painters Piet Mondrian and Jean Helion, as well as the American sculptor Alexander Calder.

Gallery label, May 2007

Catalogue entry

Abstract I 1935


Oil and commercial paint on canvas laid down on plywood
917 x 1065 (36 1/8 x 41 15/16)

Inscribed on back in black oil 'John Piper | Painting, 1935'; in pencil '7A' t.l.; in white chalk '['(225)' deleted] Henley' t.l.; also inscribed on label in ink '3984' left.

Purchased from the artist through the Redfern Gallery, London (Cleve Fund) 1954

Abstract & Concrete: An Exhibition of Abstract Painting and Sculpture, 1934 & 1935, 41, St Giles, Oxford, Feb. 1936 (?36)
Abstract, Cubist, Formalist, Sur-Realist, Redfern Gallery, London, April-May 1954 (376, as 'Abstract 1935')
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 (5)
Circle: Constructive Art in Britain 1934-40, Kettle's Yard, Cambridge, Feb.-March 1982 (32, repr. p.30)
John Piper, Tate Gallery, London, Nov. 1983-Jan. 1984 (21, repr.)

Tate Gallery Report 1954-55, London 1955, p.20
Mary Chamot, Dennis Farr and Martin Butlin, Tate Gallery: The Modern British Paintings, Drawings and Sculpture, II, London 1965, pp.523-4

Also reproduced:
J.L. Martin, Ben Nicholson and Naum Gabo, Circle: International Survey of Constructive Art, London 1937, pl.25 (as untitled)
S. John Woods, John Piper: Paintings, Drawings and Theatre Designs, 1932-1954, London 1955, pl.21 (as Abstract Painting)
John Piper: Retrospective Exhibition, exh. cat., The Arts Centre, New Metropole, Folkestone, 1970
Anthony West, John Piper, London 1979, p.239, col. pl.3
Charles Harrison, English Art and Modernism 1900-1939, London and Bloomington, Indiana 1981, rev. ed. London and New Haven 1994, p.272, pl.142
Burlington Magazine, vol.124, no.951, June 1982, p.378
'Ausstellungs-Rückschau: London', Kunstwerk, vol.37, pt.1, Feb. 1984, p.29
Malcolm Yorke, The Spirit of Place: Nine Neo-Romantic Artists and their Times, London 1988, p.76
Simon Wilson, Tate Gallery: An Illustrated Companion, 2nd ed., London 1991, p.173 (col.)
Piper abandoned the constructions of 1934 for abstract paintings. These were the first works made on moving to Fawley Bottom in February 1935 and after seeing the exhibition of Picasso's papiers-collés in Paris (Galerie Pierre) in March. The abstract paintings may be divided roughly into two groups: those of 1935, which include Abstract I, have vertical planes with curved protrusions, while the compositions of 1936-8 include more linear elements. David Fraser Jenkins (John Piper, exh. cat., Tate Gallery, London 1983, p.79) has estimated a production of over thirty-five abstract paintings of which at least twelve from the first series are known. Four paintings reproduced in Axis, no.4 (Nov.1935, pp.14,17) and Axis, no.5 (Spring 1936, p.19) were called Painting, 1935, a deliberately neutral title also inscribed by the artist on the reverse of Abstract I. The present title may originate from the picture's appearance at the Redfern Gallery (1954) as Abstract 1935; the numbering distinguished it from Abstract II, 1935 also shown there (Arts Council, repr. Arts Council Collection, London 1979, p.202).

Abstract I is the largest of the horizontal compositions for which sizes are recorded. It is possible that the smaller works served as studies, but they appear resolved in themselves and a sequence is difficult to determine. Even the relationship to Abstract II (295 x 397 mm) is uncertain, as there is no general concordance of forms. However, they are alone in sharing shallow curved protrusions in the place of the semi-circles found in other works of the series. The shallow curves derive from earlier linear versions which, when laid over planes, achieved the same reduced effect: a semi-circle cut across its outer edge. This solution suggests that Abstract I and Abstract II followed the works with semi-circles; all the examples in Axis have semi-circles and appeared before or at the same time as the submission of both paintings to the Abstract and Concrete exhibition (Oxford, Feb. 1936). Photographs of the installation taken by the artist Arthur Jackson (Tate Gallery Archive) confirm the inclusion of Abstract I which, because of its size, may be the most expensive of the artist's three listed works entitled Painting. When the exhibition travelled to the Alex Reid and Lefevre in London, Piper was amongst several artists who exchanged works for more recent ones; Abstract I was superceded by Forms on Dark Blue (artist's estate). An unidentified Painting 1935 was shown at the London Group (Nov. 1936). Abstract I was first reproduced in Circle (1937, edited by Leslie Martin, Gabo and Nicholson).

Evidence of the production of the series is found in a photograph of Piper's studio c.1936 (repr. David Fraser Jenkins, John Piper, A Painter's Camera: Buildings and Landscapes in Britain 1935-1985, London 1987, p.13). This shows six of the paintings alongside four of Piper's watercolours from stained-glass windows, a juxtaposition which hints at the common organisation of flat primary colours on which Jenkins has commented (exh. cat. Tate Gallery 1983, p.80). Two of the three framed abstract paintings are recognisable as Painting, 1935 (660 x 768 mm, collection of the artist's widow; repr. John Piper: 50 Years of Work, exh. cat., Museum of Modern Art, Oxford 1979, p.16, no.9) and Drawing for Painting, 1935 (repr. Axis, no.4, Nov.1935, between pp.12 and 13). The former - shown in an early state with dotted lines on its central panel - is of especial interest as, using semi-circles instead of curves, its focal area is extremely close to the Tate composition. Moving across Abstract I from the left, the white open frame (set in sand and ochre) and its bright red echo, the central white and yellow-white panels and the striped inverted L-shape (white on maroon, to white on black) above a curve are all found in Painting, 1935. The fact that they are also present in another substantial canvas Abstract Painting, sometimes known as Forms on Blue, 1935 (508 x 610 mm, private collection, repr. S. John Woods, John Piper: Paintings, Drawings and Theatre Designs, 1932-1954, London 1955, p.22) and another substantial canvas, confirms a serial development.

A plywood board tacked to a stretcher provided a solid support to which the unprimed canvas of Abstract I was glued. Piper achieved an extremely shallow relief by peeling away areas of canvas resulting in a contrast between its heavy weave and the smooth exposed board; patches of canvas were added in the upper centre (lead grey and red on black) and the lower right (black-brown). The cutting technique had similarities with Piper's cutting of stencils for the printing of the colour illustrations in Axis. On Abstract I the process left scoring in the surface, and the edges of the painted planes do not always coincide with those of the canvas, indicating that the cutting occurred early on. It is noticeable that the triple curved edge of the tan plane was cut - leaving a score - even though the canvas was eventually removed from both sides. Cutting and peeling were also used for the small vertical Painting, 1935 (National Museum of Wales, repr. Axis, no.5, ibid.). Piper used artists' oil and household gloss paints which have sunk into the unprimed canvas, while drying crackle has resulted from overpainting. The horizontal splitting in the board has also caused linear crackles. With the exposure of the tack heads (visible along the pale grey at the top), the result is rough and belies the precision of the composition.

The effect of the process was to suggest movement and spatial ambiguity. Both originate in the transitional work A Few Forms Moving: Two Canvases in Relation (artist's estate; repr. exh. cat., Tate 1983, p.84, no.15). As the title made plain, the paired canvases implied movement by having the same forms in different configurations. The idea of movement continued concerns explored in Construction, 1934/1967 (Tate Gallery T01026) and related to Piper's knowledge of the reliefs of Domela and the mobiles of Calder. Both this flexibility and the contrasting crisp and rough forms suggest that the composition may have initially been worked out in paper, as Jenkins has suggested (exh. cat. Tate 1983, p.79). The artist made landscape collages in 1934 and 1936, and adapted the technique for preparatory works. No collage study survives for Abstract I, but the shallow curves appear in the collage Abstract Composition, 1936 (V&A; repr. in col., ibid., p.52, no.22), the date of which confirms that these forms belong at the end of the series. Alongside ruled edges, the deckle-edge of paper is mimicked in Abstract I (in the grey against Prussian blue plane at the left side - a canvas edge - and the sand-coloured plane against black towards the centre), enacting a subtle play between abstraction and illusion. Other parts of the composition are determined by the geometry used more strictly on Construction, 1934/1967; the lower edge of the right-hand white plane and the right edge of the full-height black plane (top left) both fall on the Golden Section point, and the planes in the centre of the composition (especially the right side of the maroon striped plane) are concentrated within the confines of the Golden Section of the width. The preliminary process of cutting was, therefore, linked to the geometry but allowed an increasingly organic approach.

The layering in Abstract I encourages the illusion of controlled depth, as the use of L-shaped planes echoes the superimpositions of collage. This is enhanced by the clustered detail (thinner, more carefully delineated planes) and colour (lighter and brighter primaries) at the centre, and it is complicated by the recession implied by the angled tops and bases of many of the planes. The problem of the composition 'falling' to the right with these angles is prevented by the anchoring brown/black planes on either side. The lessons of collage and of the relief constructions are demonstrated in the control of these spatial complexities.

In November 1935 the series was the subject of two articles in Axis no.4 which occasioned the reproductions already mentioned. Hugh Gordon Porteus explained the lyrical aspect to Piper's 'wall-machines': 'a tension is produced between these colour-units which has to be resolved by the introduction of an arbitrary, non-geometrical, element, a "crazy" line. This is where the art comes in, transfiguring a flat decorative pattern into, ideally, a piece of personal magic.' ('Piper and Abstract Possibilities', Axis, no.4, Nov.1935, p.15.) He recognised their Cubist origins and debt to Nicholson and Hélion, to which Herta Wescher added the example of Piper's own collages. 'Little is wanting', she claimed of the rhythm of the abstract paintings, 'between this and the classical composition, in which the finally victorious chief accent asserts itself in the midst of impacts, coming from both sides, and the interplay between buoyancy and gravity, and half-way we have an almost lyrical interlude: small shapes forget what is to the left and to the right and halt timidly on the broad road.' ('John Piper', ibid., p.12.) These articles exemplify the promotion of abstract art in Britain, of which Axis was a major proponent, by the evocation of quasi-scientific logic combined with artistry to suggest classical art.

Both critics acknowledged the paintings' spatial qualities. Porteus wrote of the movement of 'invisible forms through intangible doors' and Wescher that 'segments become ... the wings which an impassioned stage-manager manipulates'. Piper's own discussion of his withdrawal from abstract painting, written a year after Abstract I, echoed this. He described the Cubists' 'destruction of the object' but recognised its reappearance in his own work as 'a collection of shapes ... more or less geometrical, and something like a crystal; but it also has decided amorphous qualities'. Envisaging a structure on a beach, he specified that 'it might be described as personal scenery for a play or a ballet in which the sea is the only actor or dancer' ('Lost, A Valuable Object', The Painter's Object, 1937, p.72). This description relates to the accompanying reproduction of his abstract construction Beach Object, 1937 (destroyed, repr. Jenkins 1987, pl.3). The artist's recognition of such references is interesting as Jenkins (conversation with the author, April 1996) has drawn attention to the coincidence of colour and form with earlier faux-naïve nudes. The abbreviation of the face, breast and belly to a single rhythmic line on a figure in Dungeness, 1933 (repr. Woods 1955, pl.4) is a particularly compelling anticipation of the characteristic planes of the 1935 series.

However, the painter's acknowledgement of the 'object' was also a sign of a common anxiety about the function of abstract art at the time. Although Abstract I was reproduced in Circle in 1937, Piper differed from Nicholson over the importance of the work rather than the approach (exh. cat., Tate 1983, p.80). In this Piper was closer to Jean Hélion, who had influenced the direction of Axis. Hélion's abstract paintings also addressed the ambiguity between autonomy and pictorial space, butting together planes behind a small number of illusionistically curved forms. Of Ile de France (Tate Gallery T00766) Hélion wrote on 28 April 1935: 'The colours are becoming refined, the space supple, but the more I advance the more the appeal of nature becomes evident.' (Jean Hélion, Journal d'un peintre: Carnets 1929-1962, I, Paris 1992, p.56.) To this extent Hélion's course was parallel to Piper's; after Ile de France was hung opposite Piper's Forms on Dark Blue in the London version of the Abstract and Concrete exhibition (1936) both returned to nature. In retrospect, Piper would generally see his abstract work of 1934-8 as a necessary exercise. 'By 1938,' he told Ingrams (Richard Ingrams and John Piper, Piper's Places: John Piper in England and Wales, London 1983, p.22), 'the looming war made the clear but closed world of abstract art untenable for me. ... The abstract practice taught me a lot that I would not have learned without it, and all the time I had hold, through the collages, of a lifeline to natural appearances...'

Matthew Gale
August 1996