Malcolm Hughes

Four Unit White Relief


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Not on display

Malcolm Hughes 1920–1997
Household paint on wood
Object: 1035 × 1040 × 55 mm
Presented 2016


Four Unit White Relief 1972 consists of four square wooden reliefs mounted together to form a square. Each panel, painted white, is made up of intersecting and articulated thin strips of varying depth, which creates a perceptual movement over the surface and a dynamic relationship between the four panels. Hughes followed a pre-determined system, using number sequences to plot out the basic composition of the relief that was then subjected to permutations across the four units, such as rotation, reflection and shifts in depth of the individual strips. Hughes’s method originated in operations on series of numbers, which then informed tonal drawings using graphite pencil that could be realised as a relief structure – a sequence of processes that moved from the conceptual to the perceptual realms. He described how his work:

has its origins in the ordering of elements that are derived from simple operations on number series. These operations – mainly concerned with ‘shredding’ and extraction – provide the basic number structure upon which other operations (permutations, etc.) can be carried out. At this stage certain specific characteristics such as periodicity, rhythm and sequence emerge and provide thematic material that can be further examined by means of drawing. These … take part of the total information contained in the number structures and open up potentialities and create insistencies that ultimately press for investigation at the physical level. Numbers in sequence can imply movement – not of a physical kinetic type, but of a conceptual kind – x precedes y and z follows y. In the relief this dichotomy of the elements being seen simultaneously, and yet being known to have a particular order and rhythm is further developed by the interplay of diagonal and vertical (the perceptual cues for the dynamic and the static – for extension and containment).
(Malcolm Hughes, untitled artist’s statement, in Whitechapel Art Gallery, 1972–3, p.25.)

Such a use of a rational system to create art as Hughes described lay at the heart of the Systems group that he co-founded in 1969 with Jeffrey Steele (born 1931) and David Saunders (born 1936), following the exhibition Systeemi. System: An Eexhibition of Syntactic Art from Britain organised in 1969 for the Amos Anderson Museum in Helsinki by Steele and his wife, the artist Arja Nenonen (1936–2011). The work of the Systems group was diverse and encompassed painting, sculpture and installation as well as the constructed relief. Ideas such as order, sequence, rhythm, interval, progression, depth, topology, dimensionality – and the structural relationships that investigate, inform, control and communicate these concerns – were articulated by its members in individual ways. As the name of the group suggests, Systems artists followed a strict procedure where the process of investigation and theorisation was as important as the ‘finished’ artwork. Systems art was concerned with what could be communicated by the language of art – just as a sentence is made up of words, these artists used geometric forms that were structured according to mathematical principles to make a ‘syntax’ or language that could be ‘read’ by the viewer.

The highpoint for the group was the touring exhibition Systems, organised by the Arts Council and planned by Hughes, Lowe, Saunders, Spencer and Steele, together with Nicholas Serota for the Arts Council and the historian and critic Stephen Bann, and first shown at the Whitechapel Art Gallery, London in 1972. For Systems Hughes exhibited an environment made up of four large horizontal white reliefs that hung together in a separately lit, ten-foot cubic enclosure. Within this setting, the sequence of reliefs communicated ‘specific characteristics such as periodicity, rhythm and sequence. These reliefs together with their environment, present the spectator with paradoxes brought about by the continual shifting of his position within the cube.’ (Malcolm Hughes, untitled artist’s statement, in exhibition leaflet for Systems, Whitechapel Art Gallery, London 1972, unpaginated.) Four Unit White Relief conveys a similar relationship of change between the different ‘units’ that make up the work, whereby the structural process underpinning it is extended by the use of properties such as symmetry, juxtaposition and rotation; investing the work with a generative quality.

Four Unit White Relief 1972 was included in the large survey exhibition Arte Inglese Oggi 196076, organised by the British Council for the Palazzo Reale in Milan in 1976.

Further reading
Systems, exhibition catalogue, Whitechapel Art Gallery, London and subsequent tour, Arts Council of Great Britain 1972–3.
Working Information: 6 Artists: Hughes, Kidner, Lowe, Saunders, Spencer, Steele, London 1976.
A Rational Aesthetic: The Systems Group and Associated Artists, exhibition catalogue, Southampton City Art Gallery 2008.

Andrew Wilson
June 2016

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