Mary Martin

Black Relief


Not on display

Mary Martin 1907–1969
Wood, hardboard and plastic
Object: 764 × 1140 × 148 mm
Presented by the Friends of the Tate Gallery 1987

Display caption

'Black Relief' is constructed from squares and rectangles arranged in two rows on the upper and lower halves of a backing board. The uppermost surface of each block is finished in black perspex. The layers of the relief are painted in different colours, beginning with matt black, furthest from the spectator, followed by grey, ochre and red. The depth of the blocks varies, allowing some colours to remain visible as either surfaces or as the thickness of the relief. Apart from perspex Martin has used both the smooth and textured faces of hardboard to give variety to the surfaces. Both the colour and the layers, or folds, of the construction serve to emphasise movement within the spatial patterning of the work.

Gallery label, September 2004

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Catalogue entry


Perspex and painted wood and hardboard, 764 x 1140 x 148 mm (30 x 44 7/8 x 5 7/8 in)
Inscribed by the artist on back in black paint ‘Mary Martin ‘57’ top centre, and in pencil ‘437/8’ centre
Presented by the Friends of the Tate Gallery 1987

Inherited by the artist’s husband, Kenneth Martin, 1969
Estate of Kenneth and Mary Martin, 1984
From which acquired by Friends of the Tate Gallery, 1987

Dimensions: British Abstract Art 1948-57, O’Hana Gallery, London, December 1957 (46)
Essays in Movement: Reliefs by Mary Martin, Mobiles by Kenneth Martin, Institute of Contemporary Art, London, June 1960 (3)
Experiment in Constructie, Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, May-June 1962 (42, reproduced front cover, third from top)
Experiment in Fläche und Raum, Kunstgewerbemuseum, Zürich, August-September 1962 (42)
Mary Martin Kenneth Martin, Arts Council tour, Museum of Modern Art, Oxford, May 1970, Towner Art Gallery, Eastbourne, June-July, Royal Albert Museum, Exeter, July-August, Leeds City Art Gallery, August-September, Wolverhampton Municipal Art Gallery and Museum, September-October, Faculty of Art & Design, Manchester Polytechnic, October, Mappin Art Gallery, Sheffield, November, Ferens Art Gallery, Kingston-upon-Hull, December 1970 - January 1971, Norwich Castle Museum, January, Scottish Arts Council Gallery, Edinburgh, February, Welsh Arts Council Gallery, March, Bristol City Art Gallery, April 1971 (7)
Aspects of Abstract Painting in Britain 1910-1960, Talbot Rice Centre, Edinburgh, August-September 1974, Galerie Hervé Alexandre, Brussels, November-December 1974, Galerie Bargera, Cologne, March-April 1975 (45)
Mary Martin, Tate Gallery, London, October-November 1984 (13, reproduced p.53)
Kenneth and Mary Martin, Annely Juda Fine Art, London, September-October 1987 (10, reproduced in colour p.18)
New Realities: Art from Western Europe 1945-1968, Tate Gallery Liverpool, April 1992-July 1995 (only shown April 1992-February 1994; pamphlet 2, Pursuing Abstraction, reproduced unpaginated)

Mary Martin, ‘Statement’, December 1967, in Alan Bowness, ‘The Constructive Art of Mary Martin, Studio International, vol.175, no.898, March 1968, p.121
Michael Compton, ‘Introduction’ in Mary Martin, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1984, pp.16-17, reproduced p.53
Friends of the Tate Gallery Report 1987-8, London, 1988, p.13, reproduced
Susan Tebby, ‘Black Relief, 1957: Mary Martin’, unpublished manuscript, 1994
Tate Gallery Acquisitions 1986-88, London 1996, pp.428-32, reproduced p.428

Harriet Janis and Rudi Blesh, Collage: Personalities, Concepts, Techniques, London 1962, p.239, pl.352 (in original state)

Black Relief is made of six stratified layers of painted board, cut in such a way as to leave built-up forms isolated by spaces. Both the planes exposed in these spaces - which Mary Martin called ‘folds’ - and their edges are painted in strong colours (black, white, grey, red or ochre). These are enhanced by their contrast with the matt black of the base board and the glossy black Perspex of the facing of the eleven elements. The relief area measures 15 x 30 inches (380 x 762 mm) and is 2 7/8 inches deep (74 mm); the rhythmic interplay between the elements is anchored by equal sized square corner elements. The effect is of movement in depth (emphasised by colour changes) and in plan (based upon the inter-relations of the elements). Both qualities were characteristic of Martin’s work, as acknowledged in her use of the terms ‘tilt’ and ‘fold’ for some relief elements. Indeed, most of her reliefs were based upon proportional or mathematical progressions in which movement was inherent in repetition and growth. Black Relief was made in a period of transition in the late 1950s between the works, such as Climbing Form, 1957 (Drs J.M. and M. Morris),[1] which were reliant upon proportional systems and employed rectangles linked by tilts, and those, such as Spiral, 1963 (Tate T00645) in which standardised wedge units played out mathematical permutations. This transitional aspect may account for the unusual complexity and opacity of its generative scheme, which contrasts with the openness of evidently proportional works such as the minimal White Relief, 1959 (Waddington Galleries).[2] In particular, it is notable that Martin’s characteristic angled planes are absent from Black Relief, leaving the dynamics of the composition to layers and colour.

The reintroduction of colour was a significant departure. In early reliefs, such as Spiral Movement (Tate T00586) colour had been transmuted into formal depth: voids for black, volumes for white, tilts for transitional colours. In December 1967, Martin wrote of the ensuing development: ‘The positive-negative line of Paul Klee helped me to break out of this ... by use of a colour logic, basing the relief on an idea of folded coloured strata (Black Relief 1957, White Relief 1959)’.[3] She referred to these works as ‘crowded’ reliefs.

In Black Relief, colour signalled the layering between black and white; the passage is from the black of the first layer (seen as the ground for the rectangle in the lower left) to that of the facing, via the intermediary colours. Grey was the obvious mid-point, but Martin also used red in this capacity, as she had done in the past because it ‘lived up to the black and white’.[4] The light yellow ochre seems to have been considered an equivalent to red here, as the two colours share the third layer. In this selection, Martin displayed her admiration for inter-war Constructivism and specifically for Mondrian, who restricted his paintings to the primaries with black white and grey. Her application of colour may also be compared to that in Victor Pasmore’s contemporary reliefs (such as Abstract in White, Black, Indian and Lilac, 1957, Tate T00166); both restricted its use to internal areas and sides, so that it served less of a pictorial purpose than signalling the concealed depth (comparative illustration of alternative view). It drew attention to the changing view of the relief as the viewer passed around it, and in this capacity shares this awareness with the contemporary ‘Transformable Art’ of Yaacov Agam.

Black Relief is one of four works - two black and two white - based upon the same format, although of different dimensions. It is the second and the largest of the group, the first being Black Relief (Small Version), 1957 (collection John Weeks);[5] the ensuing pair were White-Faced Relief (Small Version), 1957 or 1958 (Estate of Kenneth Martin),[6] and White-Faced Relief, 1959 (University of East Anglia).[7] In this group there is both the suggestion of pairs of studies and final works, and of positive and negative versions of a common compositional scheme.

An exhaustive study of Black Relief was published in Tate Acquisitions 1986-88.[8] Written by curator Virginia Button, this was informed by the unpublished investigations undertaken by Prof. Susan Tebby of De Monfort University, an artist and former assistant of Kenneth Martin and sometime assistant of Mary Martin. Tebby’s analysis of the proportional systems underlying the work may be precised here.

Noting that the format of the relief area is a double square, Tebby remarked of the scheme common to all four works:

One can see that the relief area in each case is set within a grid of 8 square units, 4 above and 4 below the horizontal, central line. In the two small versions this central construction is fixed to a base board, 8 square units x 4 square units ... the main disposition of the square and rectangular elements is similar in all four reliefs and the proportional stacked height of each element formed by layers of material thickness is the same within each relief.[9]

Although containing some confusions, Tebby’s detailed description of the layers of the relief helps to clarify its structure:

The first layer, the double square measuring 15 x 30 inches is black. The second layer is grey surfaced, black thickness, with a cut-out rectangle in the lower left hand register, revealing the black surface of the first layer. The third layer has white thickness, is red surfaced in the top right [sic: left] square, and yellow ochre surfaced over the remaining surface. The fourth layer consists of one small white square in the lower left [sic: right] register, while the fifth layer consists of the entirely black squares and rectangles closest to the viewer. Where the stacked elements consist of two layers, their thickness is coloured grey ... Three stacked layers are coloured red when in the bottom left [sic: top right] corner and yellow ochre in the top right [sic: bottom left] corner. The four stacked layers rising off the black surface at the back to the black surface at the front are painted white.[10]

In this analysis the fifth layer and the surfacing of Perspex are considered one, although the thicknesses of the board are multiples of 1/8 inch hardboard, and the plastic is 1/16 inch thick. Tebby remarked upon the different qualities of surface available from the paint on the hardboard and Perspex faces. She also commented that the grey thicknesses ‘may be thought of as one layer (black) plus one layer (white) equals two layers (grey) by mixing’.[11] This highlights the role of red and ochre as alternatives to grey (as found in Martin’s earlier works) for the three stacks. That four layers should be painted white, suggests Martin’s habitual introduction of the arbitrary within the scheme.

Tebby’s investigation was rewarded by the discovery of four sketches on graph paper which relate to the scheme of Black Relief.[12] Although each sketch is only two inches across, potential variations - such as the number and relationship of the elements - were explored in some detail. The use of the Golden Section - or ‘Golden Mean’ - is confirmed by the presence of ‘GM’ and ‘GM 1/2’ as the only measurements. On the reverse of the paper are noted three pairs of figures: 3 3/4 x 7 1/2, 7 1/2 x 11 1/4, and 11 1/4 x 18 3/4. These correspond to the grid in Black Relief of eight squares, each having 7 1/2 inch sides, and, as Tebby noted, they also fit with Martin’s general ordering both by additive and doubling series. This series, together with the sketches, gives an indication of the geometrical basis of the work. Tebby wrote that ‘the four corner squares appear to be derived from 1/4 the length of the diagonal of the constructed relief area’.[13] By this she appears to have meant underlying squares which include the square corner element and the area of the ‘fold’ up to the next element; this length is 1/4 of the overall diagonal. In diagrams using the actual measurements Tebby showed that the sides of the square elements themselves (6 5/8 inches) were derived from the first line of construction for the Golden Section as applied to two grid squares. Thus, the length of the square element is dictated by the point at which the diagonal of two 7 1/2 inch squares is cut by a radius of one 7 1/2 inch side. Using Martin’s additive sequence, Tebby also recognised that the large rectangle in the upper centre was determined by its diagonal being the equivalent of ‘three square unit lengths, or 11 1/4 inches’.[14] She added:

The smallest black square has sides equal to the diagonal of the square on the shorter length of the narrowest rectangle, while the white square beneath and the vertically adjacent black rectangle are constructed from arcs cutting the hypotenuse/diagonal of their enclosing double square, sides 3 3/4 and 7 1/2 inches. It can also be seen that the narrowest rectangular element is half the width of the next larger size rectangle.[15]

This valuable analysis indicates the geometric location of the elements. However, it can only provide a suggestion - in the additive sequence - of how the original process may be unravelled rather than explaining with any certainty how Martin arrived at the arrangement of the eleven elements. It may be noted, for instance, that the grid used on Black Relief goes to make up a double square, and that the dynamics of this area were discussed under the guise of a root-four rectangle by Jay Hambidge in The Elements of Dynamic Symmetry, a book well-known in Constructionist circles.[16] If Hambidge’s discussion of the root-four rectangle is applied to Black Relief, the vertical edges of the corner squares may be located by the imposition of a root-five reciprocal rectangles at either end.[17] The division of the central area into two squares below and four Golden Section rectangles above serves to locate - approximately - the horizontal lines of the folds and the position of the white square. Like the imposition of the Golden Section as a proportional scheme, the use of a root-four rectangle does not fit Black Relief exactly, but suggests other options for the process by which Martin arrived at her solution.

In this respect the preparatory sketches, though part of the process, do not bring elucidation. None used squares - the basis of the relief - nor do they comply closely in their arrangement of elements. In addition, it may be said that in a number of details on Black Relief the artist overrode her own geometric systems: thus, the widths of the margins around the elements fluctuate and two important elements have been allowed to rise from the lower register to the central horizontal. These constitute what Martin called the ‘alterations’ which allow the relief to become ‘an expressive form’.[18] To this flexibility she linked her need to make the reliefs herself. In this connection, Tebby has remarked of the manifestly uneven cutting of Black Relief: ‘One may say that surfaces are flat enough not to appear to deviate from their general direction; square enough not to be seen as not square; smooth enough, by comparison, not to be misread as rough’.[19]

Although signed and dated 1957, Black Relief underwent considerable alteration after completion. This sets it apart from Martin’s other works, as she was in the habit of developing alternatives in a series of reliefs. Again this discovery is due to Tebby’s investigation, where it is laid out in detail. A black and white press photograph related to the first showing of the work, in 1957,[20] indicates that the original base board was 60 inches wide, ‘15 inches wider than it is now, and was lighter coloured - probably a burnt sienna colour, like the small version (a mixture of the three positive colours: red-orange, yellow ochre and black’.[21] In addition the facing of black Perspex had not yet been applied. ‘On the contrary’, Tebby continued:

the surfaces were covered with either a thick, brushed paint which fills the texture of the reversed hardboard surface, or with a thinner paint which is absorbed by the hardboard ... the result is that the smoother surface has a ‘sheen’, whereas the textured surface ‘glistens’ thus also differentiating itself from the matt surface of the same textured material of the base board.[22]

A similar black and white photograph was published in 1962.[23] This shows that five of the elements were faced with the reversed (textured) side of the hardboard, these were: the left corner square and large rectangle in the top register, and - in the lower register - the tallest rectangle, the right corner square and the small rectangle between. It was on these that the ‘glistening’ surface was achieved by a thick application of paint into the pitting. The base board also had this face exposed. The remaining six elements (two above and four below) were painted on the smooth side of the hardboard, producing the ‘sheen’. Slight inaccuracies in the cutting of the Perspex make it possible to confirm these positions for the alternative hardboard faces (especially the right hand squares). That this scheme corresponded to other aspects of the relief is confirmed by the relationship of the different textures to the colours of the adjacent folds: all the smooth elements are set on the black or grey first and second layers, while the rough faced elements rise from the third layer (coloured red and ochre). The exception is the smallest square which is smooth and which is set on the small rectangle of the white fourth layer.

On this evidence, the appearance of Black Relief was fundamentally different when first seen. If Tebby’s conjecture is correct about the change in the colour of the base board, the ‘black’ of the title would have referred only to the relief area where a variety of paint effects were explored. This also had the effect of isolating the relief area as the ‘work’ mounted on a coloured board. With the addition of the Perspex the surface texture was lost and the unitary layers were compromised by the addition of a 1/16 inch layer. In noting that Black Relief (Small Version), 1957 was covered in Perspex by the time it entered the collection of the architect John Weeks in 1958, Tebby convincingly places this alteration of the Tate’s work in that year.

The addition of the Perspex had the effect of covering some clues to the generative process of the work. The relief must originally have had a more pictorial character, both because the surfaces of the elements were painted and because they were differentiated between smooth and rough faces. Such a quality shows Martin sharing concerns with contemporaries such as Pasmore, who rejected the passage of relief into sculptural depth in preference to its pictorial integrity. Martin’s use of contrasting textures also signalled a link to the geometrical basis of Black Relief, as the selection of five textured and six smooth elements had not been arbitrary. The four square corner elements alternated between rough (top left, bottom right) and smooth (bottom left, top right), and the textured large rectangle (top centre) seems to have been balanced by the sequence of smooth elements. Within the slightly flexible measurements of the relief, a relationship may be discerned between the two groups of elements, as the sum of the diagonal measurements of the textured elements is equivalent to the sum of the diagonal measurements of the smooth elements: 42 1/2 inches. Such a convergence is not coincidental, as this sum is related by root-two geometry to the 30 inch width of the relief area (30 x √2 = 42.42). Thus the sum of the diagonals of each group of elements is equal to the sum of the diagonals of the two squares constituting the double square of the relief area. These measurements may be related - though only approximately - to the additive sequence listed on the reverse of the artist’s sketch, as they equal 41.25 (3 3/4 + 7 1/2 + 11 1/4 + 18 3/4 = 41 1/4), although this seems likely to be coincidental. It is again impossible to say simply from the measurement of the relief that the relation of diagonals was the way in which Martin devised her scheme, but it is a reading of the work as it was first shown which fits with her geometrical working methods. That she soon affixed the Perspex to Black Relief shows an adjustment in her approach to materials and to the integration of reflection, but it also had the effect of disguising these geometrical relationships.

Further alterations to Black Relief followed. By the time that it was exhibited in Experimentie in Constructie in Amsterdam in 1962, the base board had been reduced to its present width of 45 inches. Tebby has remarked:

The effect of this was to make the unoccupied area of the base board equal in area to the occupied, central relief area. This also means that the whole area is exactly double the central area. Perhaps more importantly, the grid-square scheme within which the central area is composed is now apparent in the extended space of the base board beyond[24]

Tebby dated this change to 1959 by comparison to the final work in the group, White Relief, 1959, which had a ‘comparatively sized base’.[25] She added that as the back board of the smaller black version had already been removed by 1958 ‘logic says Black Relief was also cut at this time and framing added to pair with White Relief.’

Although cut down, the back board remained in its original lighter colour. It is uncertain when this was altered, but it appears in this condition in the photograph (evidently made from an old negative) used in Martin’s 1984 Tate retrospective catalogue. Tebby indicated that the board was black by the time that she first saw the work in 1966. The same photograph also shows the relief with a wooden frame. This was soon removed, probably - as Tebby notes - because it restricted the breadth of the work and three-dimensional investigation by the viewer. A Perspex box cover eventually replaced the frame, probably to provide protection when it was exhibited in the artist’s posthumous Arts Council retrospective in 1970-1.

The nature of the changes to Black Relief, because undertaken over an unusually extended period for Martin, indicate some of the developments in her work. The use of bold colour - both within the relief area and probably for the base board - was a deliberate departure in 1957 from the restrained reliefs of the earlier 1950s. This is a development replicated in all four works of the group. The reduction of the back board was a proportional concern in which the relationship between the relief area and the surrounding board was more finely tuned. By painting it black, the artist secured its integration as part of the relief of the title. The use of Perspex facing exemplifies Martin’s wide interest in a variety of materials - usually used in combination - in the late 1950s. However, its addition on Black Relief provides a fundamental revision of the effect of the work: from the multiple textures of the earlier painted relief to the cleaner lines - and reflections - of machined materials. While this tied in with Martin’s interest in extending her work in an architectural context and scale, it also paralleled the use of plastics by her fellow Constructionists, Pasmore and Anthony Hill.

Matthew Gale
October 1997

[1] Reproduced in Mary Martin, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1984, p.53, no.12.
[2] Reproduced ibid., p.53, no.16.
[3] Mary Martin, ‘Statement’, December 1967, in Alan Bowness, ‘The Constructive Art of Mary Martin, Studio International, vol.175, no.898, March 1968, p.121, also quoted in Mary Martin, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1984, p.14.

[4] Ibid.

[5] No reproduction known.
[6] Reproduced in colour in Tate Gallery exhibition catalogue, 1984, p.17, no.14 as White-Faced Relief, 1957.
[7] Formerly collection Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, reproduced ibid., p.53, no.15.

[8] Tate Acquisitions 1986-88, London 1996, pp.428-32.

[9] Susan Tebby, ‘Black Relief, 1957: Mary Martin’, unpublished manuscript, 1994, p.1, Tate Catalogue files, quoted in Tate Acquisitions 1996, p.430.

[10] Tebby 1994, pp.2-3.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Martin Archive, no reproduction known.
[13] Tebby 1994, p.2.
[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Jay Hambidge, The Elements of Dynamic Symmetry, New York 1926 and 1953.
[17] Ibid. p.52.

[18] Mary Martin, ‘The End is Always to Achieve Simplicity’, 1957, in Tate Gallery exhibition catalogue, 1984, p.28.
[19] Tebby 1994, p.6.

[20] Dimensions: British Abstract Art 1948-57, O’Hana Gallery, London, December 1957.
[21] Tebby 1994, p.2.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Harriet Janis and Rudi Blesh, Collage: Personalities, Concepts, Techniques, London 1962, p.239, pl.352.

[24] Tebby 1994, p.5.

[25] Tebby, letter to Virginia Button, Tate, 20 January 1995, quoted in Tate Acquisitions, 1996, p.432.

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