Catalogue entry

T03812 Written Activity No.7 1969

Oil on canvas 60 × 60 (1530 × 1530)
Inscribed on reverse ‘Written Activity No:7’ and ‘JACK SMITH 1969’
Purchased from Ken Powell (Knapping Fund) 1983
Prov: Monika Kinley (until 1978); Ken Powell
Exh: Jack Smith, University of Hull Gallery, April–May 1969 (39); Jack Smith. Paintings and Drawings 1949–1975, Sunderland Arts Centre, January–February 1977 (35, repr. back cover); Jack Smith. The Written and the Diagrammatic, Paintings and Drawings 1965–1977, Serpentine Gallery, January–February 1978 (14, repr. p.9)
Lit: Alan Bowness, Helder Macedo, Jack Smith, ‘Jack Smith, Paintings and Drawings 1949–1976’, p.14 (repr. front cover and pl.39)

This painting forms part of a series of eight works, each entitled ‘Written Activity’, which was completed in 1969. It has previously been dated 1967 and 1968, but the artist has confirmed that he painted it in 1969. He states in a letter (22 February 1986) that the ideas behind this series do not move towards a conclusion, but instead represent the desire ‘to perfect an image’ which he finally achieved in ‘Written Activity: No.8’ 1969 (collection National Museum Wales, Cardiff; repr. Bowness et al., op.cit., p.36)

This series of paintings was begun in 1963, the date which Smith has stated marked his dramatic break away from the traditional style of his earlier work towards paintings that were like a list or an inventory. Initially this change necessitated finding equivalent ‘forms’ for objects in his studio (ibid., p.10). In the earlier works of the series the marks bear a closer resemblance to handwriting, with letters that appear to be decipherable, although the paintings can in no sense be interpreted (as in ‘Written Activity No.2’ 1966 and ‘Written Activity No.3’ 1967, repr. Jack Smith, Marlborough Fine Art, January 1968 (11 and 17). However in ‘Written Activity No.7’ the notations have become more ordered and are arranged in neat rows across the canvas. The marks resemble hieroglyphs or ancient manuscripts, with spaces that imply pauses in sentence making, although the vocabulary cannot be deciphered. Using a sentence from a book or newspaper as his starting point he would break the sentence down into its different sounds ‘and invent a form for each sound’ (Bowness et al., op.cit., p.14). Having interpreted one sentence with forms, he would then invent the next sentence of forms in relation to the previous ones. ‘When my sense of invention ran out, I would return to the written word again, and take the next sequence of sounds, and so that painting developed. Each line took me one day to make’ (Bowness et al., op.cit., p.14). This ‘language’ is therefore personal; as it describes his own experiences its message remains detached from the viewer, who cannot translate any precise meaning. On completion of this series the artist wrote ‘I seem now to be able to build up a visual written language that can deal with any experience or sensation. A written page can be remade in the same way that an artist remakes an object. WORDS BECOME OBJECTS, (Journal of Typographical Research, III, no.3, July 1969, reprinted Bowness et al.,

The artist stresses that these works cannot be read, but are to be looked at solely from a visual point of view. ‘There are no preparatory studies, only small individual visual notes and the paintings are allowed to evolve in their own way’ (letter of 22 February 1986). As there is no paraphrasable sound and no meaning, the marks have more to do with the sensations and sounds which words make. In this sense the marks are phonetic and inform the viewer about sound. ‘I wanted to use a script and make people read each form.’

This entry has been approved by the artist.

Published in:
The Tate Gallery 1982-84: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions, London 1986