Ken Cox

Three Graces (Amor-Voluptas-Pulchritudo)

1966–8

Not on display

Artist
Ken Cox 1927–1968
Medium
Brass, steel, copper, electric motors and oil paint on plywood
Dimensions
Displayed: 2000 × 3000 mm
Collection
Tate
Acquisition
Purchased 2016
Reference
T14385

Summary

Three Graces (Amor-Voluptas-Pulchritudo) 1966−8, by the British artist Ken Cox, comprises three two-metre-high towers consisting of painted metal capital letters attached horizontally to a revolving spindle. Each tower and its letters is painted a different colour, from left to right: red, orange and plum. The letters on each tower make up a Latin word, again from left to right: ‘Voluptas’ (passion), ‘Amor’ (love) and ‘Pulchritudo’ (beauty), as reflected in the subtitle of the work. The right hand tower stands a little taller than the other two and is the same height as the painted backboards installed against the wall behind the towers. The backboards also bear painted graphic representations of the same words. The composition of these overlapping yet static letters provides a counterpoint to the moving letters and words they form in the towers. Each tower also rotates at different speeds and in varying helical movements. This serves to enact an exchange between each of the three graces: passion, beauty and love.

The work occupied Cox for almost two years between 1966 and 1968. It treated a theme that he also addressed in a related work, The Three Graces (Love, Beauty, Passion), which was commissioned for the presentation of concrete poetry as part of the Brighton Arts Festival in 1967. For this piece he constructed three word towers mounted onto a triangular structure moored to a buoy in the sea off Brighton Beach. The towers were triangular and spelled out, in English, ‘Love’, ‘Beauty’ and ‘Passion’, and from a distance the words appeared to be unsupported and to dance in the waves. After ten days the work was destroyed in a storm. Cox was developing the Three Graces mechanical sculpture while he worked on this commission, and he later started to make a smaller mobile version of Three Graces, consisting of suspended three-sided columns of letters. The week before his solo exhibition opened at the Lisson Gallery in London in 1968, Cox explained to the critic Elizabeth Glazebrook that:

One of my recurrent themes for the last 18 months or so, is that of the Three Graces – Beauty, Love and Passion. I’ve been interested in the associated symbolism. Voluptas, Pulchritudo, Amor – classically these words are felt to move in a relationship to each other, in a set pattern, and the movement – which is Botticelli’s Prima Vera, is implied between the figures, symbolism important – love being passion inspired by beauty – implied in movement of Botticelli. I don’t know whether [art historian Bernard] Berenson actually twigged this but people since him have felt the pagan symbolism there – Passion or Voluptas turns into towards Amor and Amor transfers Passion to Beauty and Beauty transfers, or reinforces with this kind of fire by gesturing back to Amor again.
(Transcript from a recorded interview between Elizabeth Glazebrook and Ken Cox, 1 June 1968, held by the artist’s estate.)

Cox’s use of movement in this and similar smaller works suggests that meaning is not only in flux but is also enacted as an exchange between different states or words. In this case, the static two-dimensional and dynamic three-dimensional change in visibility and legibility as the three words fold into each other. This shifting construction of meaning exemplified for Cox the figure of Venus:

The embodiment of the interaction between three parts, passion, love and beauty – all constantly changing yet remaining fundamentally the same. AMOR the unifying influence, that which unites the changing, unpredictable elements in VOLUPTAS and PULCHRITUDO – the graces are dancing figures, turning and interweaving, exchanging symbolic gestures – love as passion fired by beauty. Voluptas swings towards Amor, Amor transfers the gesture to Pulchritudo, Pulchritudo returns the gesture to Amor and thus returns to Amor the fire which originally came from Voluptas. Amor reinforced by Pulchritudo becomes the only possible link between the other two elements.
(Artist’s statement in Jasia Reichardt (ed.), Cybernetic Serendipity, exhibition catalogue, Institute of Contemporary Arts, London 1968, p.51.)

In Three Graces the tower that reads Amor is positioned between the other two and rotates at a constant speed as a double helix, the effect being a unification of the three towers into a single tableau. Voluptas, to its left, has the letters attached to the spindle on eight spatial free-running rotors controlled by an electronic program that repeats every two hours. Pulchritudo, to the right of Amor, is the tallest tower, and each of its eleven spindles of letters is controlled by a separate motor so that the whole moves slowly and intermittently. The programming required by the work led to its inclusion in the exhibition Cybernetic Serendipity at the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA), London, in 1968 (mounted at the same time as Cox’s solo exhibition at the Lisson Gallery). In response to the ICA exhibition the Brazilian poet E.M. de Melo e Castro described Cox as a ‘cyberneticist’, which he defined as an artist who works ‘with the materials that the world has always offered them but who today transform them into signs of a rediscovered and independent language. For that they take advantage of a demystified technology’ (E.M. de Melo e Castro, ‘Ken Cox – A Cyberneticist’, Diário de Lisboa: Suplemento Literário, Lisbon, 6 February 1969, pp.1, 6).

When Three Graces was exhibited in Cybernetic Serendipity in 1968, the triangular stands for each tower were encased in a single plinth; however, Cox preferred the work to be completely freestanding within the viewer’s space, with the bases completely visible.

Further reading
Dom Sylvester Houédard, Ken Cox: Kinetic Poems, exhibition catalogue, Lisson Gallery, London 1968.
Ken Cox: Memorial Exhibition, exhibition catalogue, George Room and College of Art, Stroud 1969.
Ken Cox: Celebrating a Life’s Work 1927–1968, exhibition catalogue, Under the Edge Arts, Wotton-under-Edge 2007, unpaginated, reproduced.

Andrew Wilson
April 2015

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