Bob Law

Twentieth Century Ikon Series 8.8.67


In Tate Britain

Prints and Drawings Room

View by appointment
Bob Law 1934–2004
9 works on paper, graphite
Support, each: 560 × 768 mm
Purchased 2006


This series of nine drawings on paper was executed over the course of a single day. A penciled inscription in the lower right corner of each drawing reveals the sequence of the series – given as a roman numeral – and the date of completion, as well as providing a means of orientation. Executed as scant, exploratory variations of the same scheme, in the first drawing three rectangles of space approximating a golden ratio of proportions are delineated within a rhomboid graphite line framing almost the entire expanse of the paper. In the second and third drawings in the series the established horizon line gradually sinks along the vertical axis such that the smaller supporting rectangles shrink in size; for the subsequent three drawings the page is portrait-oriented and the horizon climbs, shuttling the smaller rectangular spaces towards the top edge; and for the final three landscape-oriented drawings the horizon sinks again, pressing the largest rectangle of space downwards. Precisely because of these shifts and reorientation of ground, the series together imparts an overall sense of movement – a cycle charting the artist’s changing perspective. For the most part, Law’s lines are of a single, slightly variable thickness and have been drawn without a straightedge, grid or other rigid structuring device; the persistent vertical lean of his outlines has been ascribed to swift right-handed drawing.

Due to the formal relationship of this series to Law’s earliest and best-known Field Drawings, begun in 1959, these works on paper can be understood to convey a physical rather than visual or material sense of space distantly associated with the painters of St Ives, Cornwall and especially Peter Lanyon’s notion of landscape as an experience of the body: ‘I was finding myself, and the map that went with myself. I was transcribing it graphically into charts … I wanted to get closer to the truth instead of the illusions, of just copying, of landscape drawings which had no significance’ (Law quoted in Batchelor, Bond, Lovatt 2009, p.33). The Field Drawings feature a rhomboid field with additional symbolic markings at the margins – a type of codified peripheral vision – indicating trees or houses or the sun. In comparison, the distilled graphic language of the Twentieth Century Ikon Series is even less directly representational and thus bridges his ‘open’ and ‘closed’ drawings of the same decade, for example Drawing 24.4.60 (Tate T01774) and Drawing 25.4.60 (Tate T01775) respectively. Law’s orderly experimental manipulations recall the systematic wall drawings of the American artist Sol LeWitt (1928–2007), if executed with the physiological sensibility of an exacting craftsman rather than driven by pure aesthetic conceptualism. His characteristic ‘wobbly-edged minimalism’ thus performs a subtle subjectivity, and the rotation of the page lends a trace of the temporal rhythm, or choreography, with which the drawings were executed. In his paintings, Law sought to eradicate the visual residue of his brushwork to produce a thick impasto of pure colour (especially for the black monochromes produced in the late 1960s) or trace the frame of the rhomboid field around the edges of his oversized canvases, as in Mr Paranoia VII 20.10.72 (No.106) 1972 (Tate T12145) and Nothing to be Afraid Of IV 15.08.69 1969 (Tate T12144). Scaled to take advantage of the extent of the artist’s reach, and confronting the uneasy status of painting by abstract means of presence and absence, Law ultimately shared far more formal concerns with his American contemporaries Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman and Ad Reinhardt than English painters of the same generation. Still, drawing remained central to the conceptualisation of Law’s artistic practice, as an action as well as a spatial recording of memory: ‘[O]nce you draw a line around your hand and then take your hand away the mark where your hand was exists even though your hand is no longer there. What does exist is an imprint and that is the beginning of art’ (Law quoted in Batchelor, Bond, Lovatt 2009, p.78).

Law also completed a set of Twentieth Century Ikon Paintings in 1967 which share their tripartite composition with the series in Tate’s collection; however these works achieve this entirely without outline, rather through the effect of primary pigments – yellow, crimson-red, ultra-blue and green – bleeding together along borders of demarcated space and to the edges of the painted canvas. The title of the series may allude to the metaphysical spirit of abstraction and the self-reflexive aesthetics of late modernism supplanting man’s need for religion. Exhibited at the Grabowski Gallery in London from 1967–8, Law described the paintings as ‘a continued series … involving the new proposition of western Mandalas through the pure aesthetic dictums of form and colour: subjective and objective reasoning in accordance with all I know and may not know: plastic mysticism’ (Law quoted in Whitechapel Art Gallery 1978, p.14).

Further reading
Bob Law: Paintings and Drawings, exhibition catalogue, Whitechapel Art Gallery, London 1978.
David Batchelor, Anthony Bond, Anna Lovatt and others, Bob Law: A Retrospective, Ridinghouse, London 2009, reproduced pp.92–5.

Kari Rittenbach
February 2012

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