Kenneth Martin



Not on display

Kenneth Martin 1905–1984
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 508 × 410 mm
frame: 935 × 820 × 25
Purchased 1973

Display caption

One of Martin's earliest truly abstract paintings. It was made after he became uneasy about his current processes of abstracting and constructing from nature and decided to move towards 'pure invention'. During this period he was influenced by two books, D'Arcy W Thompson's 'On Growth and Form' and J W Power's 'The Elements of Pictorial Composition'. In this work he aimed to get the painted shapes as flat as possible and to eliminate obvious brush strokes.

Gallery label, August 2004

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Catalogue entry


Oil on canvas, 508 x 410 mm (20 x 16 ¼ in)

Inscribed by the artist in black oil paint ‘Martin’ top right. Inscribed on back by the artist in pencil ‘TOP’, ‘Kenneth Martin | PAINTING [...]REEN’ and on overlaid label ‘KENNETH MARTIN | 9 ETON AVENUE | LONDON N.W. 3. | “PAINTING. ORANGE & GREEN.”’ on top stretcher; ‘KENNETH MARTIN 9 ETON AVENUE | LONDON N.W.3’ on bottom stretcher; ‘WOMAN READING 40gns’ on left stretcher; <...> on right stretcher
Purchased from the artist (Grant-in-Aid) 1973

? London Group, New Burlington Galleries, London, February-March 1951 (176)
Abstract Art, Artists International Association Gallery, London, May-June 1951 (13 or 17, as Abstract)
Artists of Fame and Promise, Leicester Galleries, London, July 1951 (191, as Painting, orange and green)
Abstract, Cubist, Formalist, Surrealist, Redfern Gallery, London, April-May 1954 (464, as Orange and Green)
London Group Jubilee Exhibition 1914-64, Tate Gallery, London, July-August 1964, Arts Council tour to National Museum of Wales, Cardiff, August-September, Museum and Art Gallery, Doncaster, Oct. 1964 (120, reproduced)
The Non-Objective World, 1939-55, Annely Juda Fine Art, London, July-September 1972, Galerie Liatowitsch, Basel, September-October (110)
Decade 40s: Painting, Sculpture and Drawing in Britain 1940-49, Arts Council tour, Whitechapel Art Gallery, London, November 1972, Southampton City Art Gallery, December 1972 - January 1973, Carlisle Public Library, Museum and Art Gallery, January-February, DLI Museum and Arts Centre, Durham, February-March, Manchester City Art Gallery, March-April, Bradford City Art Gallery, April-May, Aberdeen Museum and Art Gallery, May-June 1973 (33, as Abstract Composition)
Kenneth Martin, Tate Gallery, London, May-June 1975 (1, reproduced in colour p.125)

Tate Gallery Acquisitions 1972-4, London 1975, pp.194-5, reproduced
Alastair Grieve, ‘Charles Biederman and the English Constructionists 2: an Exchange of Theories about Abstract Art during the 1950s’, Burlington Magazine, vol.126, no.971, February 1984, p.67 (as Painting: orange and green)
Penny Jones, ‘Aspects of the Relationship between Mathematics and the British Constructionists, c.1948-60’, unpublished MA report, Courtauld Institute of Art, University of London 1988, pp.27-8, pl.14
Margaret Garlake, New Art, New World: British Art in Postwar Society, London and New Haven 1998, pp.36, 108, 116

Broadsheet No.1, May 1951 (as Abstract)
Richard Shone, The Century of Change: British Painting Since 1900, London 1977, pl.145
Kenneth Martin, Chance and Order: The Sixth William Townsend Lecture, London 1979, p.4

Composition is one of the pivotal works in Kenneth Martin’s shift from realism, which he had practised for twenty years, to the constructive art with which he made his reputation in the 1950s. Although customarily dated to 1949, it was first reproduced and exhibited in London in the first half of 1951. On three out of four of these occasions it appeared under a different title: it was first exhibited as Composition,[1] then Abstract (the title under which it was also published),[2] and, coinciding with the inscription on the reverse, Painting, Orange and Green.[3] It should be noted that he could only answer ‘possibly’ when asked if the Tate work was the first of these;[4] this casts doubt on the only early use of Composition as the title for this work, raising the possibility that the alternatives should take precedence.

The painting was polemically entitled Abstract in Broadsheet No.1 (May 1951) where Martin - who was co-editor with Victor Pasmore - explored the need for a viable terminology in the accompanying text ‘Abstract Art’. There he wrote:

What is generally termed ‘abstract’ is not to be confused with the abstraction from nature which is concerned with the visual aspect of nature and its reduction and distortion to a pictorial form; for, although abstract art has developed through this, it has become a construction or concretion coming from within. The abstract painting is the result of a creative process exactly the opposite to abstraction.

He added:

Abstract art is truly objective not ‘non-objective’. The object which is created is real and not illusional in that it sets out to represent no object outside the canvas, but to contain within itself the form of its own nature.[5]

These definitions drew upon the experience of the flattening abstraction of Martin’s immediately preceding works, such as Chalk Farm (2), 1948 (Estate of the artist).[6] The small photograph of Barbara Hepworth’s white marble Two Forms, 1937 (private collection on loan to Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts, University of East Anglia)[7] which also accompanied the text served as an acknowledgement that such debates had exercised an earlier generation. Martin told the Tate that his painting was published there because ‘it was the purest expression of abstract art I had arrived at’.[8]

Work on Composition was protracted. Inscriptions on the stretcher show that it had been reused at least once, the legible inscription being identifiable with Woman Reading exhibited in 1945.[9] The artist appears to have used new canvas on the stretcher, as only a single, thin, cream ground-layer was applied on which the forms were laid out in pencil. In a conversation following the painting’s acquisition by the Gallery, Martin recalled that he had not made preparatory drawings but had organised the forms on the canvas, ‘altering them afterwards very slightly so that the area and proportions were related’.[10] During 1950 he worked in parallel on a smaller lithograph, Abstract which was based on the same scheme as the painting but resulted in compositional and colour alterations.[11] Although Composition was already signed in the Broadsheet reproduction, it was subsequently altered in a number of areas. Martin worked in flat planes, but Pasmore had encouraged him to keep the brushwork to ‘get away from the natural depth of the painting’.[12] That he followed this advice is evident in the noticeable texture (probably applied with a knife) at the borders of some areas, and is found in other works close to Pasmore’s, such as Abstract Green and Brown (3), circa 1948 (Estate of the artist).[13] However, he recalled that he had glazed parts of Composition in order to achieve further flatness. Conservation inspection suggests that ‘each element has two layers, some with colour changes’;[14] this is particularly visible in the green area at the top right, while cleavage at the lower left necessitated retouching by the artist himself.

The emphasis that Martin laid on proportion was related to his interest in D’Arcy Thompson’s On Growth and Form (Cambridge 1917 and 1942) and J.W. Power’s The Elements of Pictorial Composition (Paris 1933). In common with other Constructionists, Martin found in these analyses of relationships in nature and of geometrical progressions means by which his work could maintain a link to nature without being mimetic. He drew attention to the off-set junctions in the venation of dragonfly wings discussed by Thompson, and suggested that the slight discontinuities in Composition were associated with this strengthening device.[15] Penny Jones has seen associated ideas in the ‘sense of flux’ of the lowest line of rectangles.[16] Power’s identification in Cubist paintings of the ‘moving format’ (a means for moving a proportional element across a composition) interested the Constructionists; Mary Martin used it in her relief Spiral Movement (Tate T00586) as did Pasmore for his Abstract White, Grey and Ochre (Tate T00094). Although Martin did not use it in this case, he had used it on Abstract Green and Brown (3).

Analysis of the formal relationships in Composition indicates that the border between the mid blue area below and the green at the top left lies close to the Golden Section, as does the vertical junction between the same blue and the forms in the centre. Dividing the canvas in half and by the Golden Section in each direction results in a core of four rectangles, each 2 1/2 x 2 inches (52 x 64 mm). This appears to have been the generative unit, equating approximately to an eighth of the overall measurement in each direction, so that the composition could be divided into sixty-four rectangles. The use of this unit is demonstrable in the rectangles towards the bottom which are located approximately one unit from the base and constitute five units (one light blue, a double dark blue, two reds). In the column rising from the double dark blue rectangle, the orange parallelogram, green rectangle and orange square constitute four, two and four units respectively; the sequence is centred upon the Golden Section of the width. The slight adjustments which the artist acknowledged, show the intervention of his judgement over the rule of geometry - an approach shared with his wife.

In colouring, Martin recalled having used the colour circle to select ‘close complementaries’,[17] although the results were close to his earlier landscapes. The composition is dominated by hues of green and blue, against which red and orange (their respective complementaries) are balanced. A division of the canvas into sixty-four units results in ratios of thirty green units to two red (15:1), and twenty-four blue units to eight orange (3:1). Colouristically, this seems to reflect the organisation by which Martin adjusted the composition ‘so that the area and proportions were related’.[18]

The reconciliation of colour intensity with area was a key element in Paul Klee’s On Modern Art, first translated into English in 1948. Klee was not the only inter-war artist who proved influential on Martin in his urgent investigation of modernism around 1948-50. He told Andrew Forge of attending a lecture by Kenneth Clark, who remarked of a work by Mondrian: ‘“This was one of his more complicated efforts”. The ladies tittered. But it had a profound effect on me’.[19] The important discovery of the severe purity of Mondrian’s work was shared with Mary Martin, and was augmented by the crucial position allotted to the Dutch artist by European followers - such as Max Bill and Jean Gorin - and in Charles Biederman’s Art as Evolution of Visual Knowledge which was widely read in Martin’s circle.[20] On a more personal level, Martin’s artistic transformation coincided with his close contact with Pasmore, whose very public move to abstraction emboldened Martin to make a similar break; between December 1949 and January 1950, Pasmore exhibited Abstract: Square Motif at the London Group (no.30) where Martin showed Chalk Farm (2), 1948 (no.36).[21] By 1951, when Composition first appeared, this move had been reinforced by the contribution of senior artists, such as Ben Nicholson and Barbara Hepworth to the Abstract Art exhibition at the Artists International Association. This served to give the Constructionists the sense of a sustainable avant-garde position.

Matthew Gale
October 1997

[1] London Group, New Burlington Galleries, London, February-March 1951
[2] Abstract Art, Artists International Association Gallery, London, May-June 1951; reproduced in Broadsheet No.1, May 1951.
[3] Artists of Fame and Promise, Leicester Galleries, London, July 1951
[4] Kenneth Martin, letter, 14 May 1974, Tate catalogue files.

[5] Kenneth Martin, Broadsheet No.1, May 1951.

[6] Reproduced in colour in Kenneth and Mary Martin, exhibition catalogue, Annely Juda Fine Art, London 1987, p.67, no.47.
[7] Reproduced in J.P. Hodin, Barbara Hepworth, Neuchâtel and London 1961, pl.96.
[8] Letter, 14 May 1974.

[9] Artists of Fame and Promise, Leicester Galleries, London, Summer 1945, part 2, no.157.
[10] Conversation, 2 September 1974, notes, Tate catalogue files
[11] Exhibited São Paulo Bienal 1951, no.63.
[12] Conversation, 2 September 1974.
[13] Reproduced in colour in exhibition catalogue, Annely Juda Fine Art 1987, p.70, no.48.
[14] Tate Conservation Files.

[15] Tate Gallery Acquisitions 1972-4, London 1975, pp.194-5.
[16] Penny Jones, ‘Aspects of the Relationship between Mathematics and the British Constructionists, c.1948-60’, unpublished MA report, Courtauld Institute of Art, University of London 1988, p.27.

[17] Tate Gallery Acquisitions, pp.194-5.
[18] Conversation, 2 September 1974.

[19] Kenneth Martin interviewed by Andrew Forge, BBC Third Programme, 24 October 1962, quoted by Paul Overy in Mary Martin Kenneth Martin, exhibition catalogue, Arts Council tour 1970, pp.3-4.
[20] Charles Biederman, Art as Evolution of Visual Knowledge, Red Wing, Minnesota, 1947.
[21] London Group, New Burlington Galleries, London, December 1949 - January 1950; Pasmore, Abstract: Square Motif, no.30, Martin, Chalk Farm (2), 1948 no.36.


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