Kenneth Martin



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Not on display

Kenneth Martin 1905–1984
Bronze and brass
Object: 216 × 89 × 41 mm
Purchased 1962

Catalogue entry


Phosphor bronze and brass, 216 x 93 x 41 mm (8 1/2 x 3 5/8 x 1 5/8 in)
Purchased from the artist through the Lords Gallery, London (Grant-in-Aid) 1962

Kenneth Martin: A Retrospective Exhibition, Lords Gallery, London, October-November 1962 (42)
Kenneth Martin, Tate Gallery, London, May-June 1975 (58, reproduced p.84)

Tate Gallery Review 1953-63 and Report 1962-3, London 1963, pp.54-5
Mary Chamot, Dennis Farr and Martin Butlin, Tate Gallery: The Modern British Paintings, Drawings and Sculpture, vol.II, London 1965, p.428

Michael Compton, Optical and Kinetic Art, London 1967, pl.17

Like Spiral Construction (Tate T00554), with which it was acquired, Oscillation is a small work made of 3 mm (1/8 inch) square section phosphor bronze bar. In this case it has been cut into regular lengths of 44 mm (1 3/4 inches), which have been fixed with bronze solder in three stacks of sixty-seven bars to form an oscillating column. The two lateral stacks are made up of bars set at right angles on either side of the middle stack of bars; as a result, the sculpture has two broad faces (when all three stacks are seen) and two narrow faces. The surface appears to have been cleaned with a wire brush, polished and lacquered. This achieves a reflective sheen varied by the alteration of the relative position of the bars.

Kenneth Martin called the work a ‘reduction of principle of oscillation to simple tangible steps (events) ... This is the second of a group created from the development of one basic rhythm. In Vertical Screws and Oscillations I have used permutations and jazz rhythms and other rhythmic conventions’.[1] The oscillation is seen in the graduated shifting of the bars in relation to one another vertically. It is also seen in the similarly measured shifting of the point of attachment of the lateral bars which moves from one end of the centrally stacked bars to the other. Martin again referred to jazz rhythms in relation to the Oscillations in his article entitled ‘Chance and Order’, noting that: ‘A programme was invented ... which went up one side of the construction and down the other, fusing them together in a union of complementaries and oppositions. So that the height of the work as well as the width had a natural limitation.’[2]

The physicist David Bohm encountered Martin in 1962 and they discussed his research into the essence of order. The artist later told Bohm that their discussion of order as ‘the similar differences of successive steps’, which could be varied by ‘different similarities’ (for instance, a sequence repeated in another dimension), had ‘served as a point of departure’ for the Oscillations series.[3] In Michael Compton’s exhaustive analysis of the later but similarly sized Oscillation, 1971 (Jan and Tineke Hoekstra), the artist’s extraordinarily complex system for arriving at the rhythm is traced.[4] It was based upon the pendulum permutation, whereby sequences are generated by selecting alternate numbers from a series and then returning to the remaining numbers (1 2 3 4 5 6 gives 2 4 6 5 3 1), the new series being permuted in turn. Like Mary Martin, who used the process on Inversions (Tate T01198), Kenneth Martin worked out the location of elements from such numerical charts and subjected the basic scheme to related alterations in order to generate more varied results. Although within the confines of the initial process, the final accumulation of alterations (as outlined by Compton) make Martin’s permutation almost untraceable. Nevertheless, it is likely that he employed a related system on the Tate’s Oscillation. In common with the artist’s practice, the stack is symmetrical about the centre. The sixty-seven bars may be read from the top as the following sequences with the last unit marking the change of direction (signalled as additional): 6 moving right + 1, 10 moving left + 1, 5 moving right + 1, 1 moving left + 1, 5 moving right + 1. At that point a central run of three moving left + 1 occurs, heralding the reversal of the above sequence.

Martin made a series of Oscillation sculptures. Five were shown at his solo exhibition in 1962, twelve in his 1975 retrospective. The culmination of the series came with the monumental Construction in Aluminium, 1967,[5] selected from a limited competition (which included submissions by fellow Constructionists Anthony Hill and Robert Adams) for the Faculty of Engineering of Cambridge University.

Matthew Gale
October 1997

[1] Kenneth Martin, letter to Tate, 31 January 1963, Tate Gallery cataloguing files.
[2] Martin, ‘Chance and Order’, One, no.1, October 1973, pp.3-6, reprinted in Kenneth Martin, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1975, pp.45-6.

[3] Martin, ‘Description of Order Through a Series of Steps’, in Andrew Forge and others, Kenneth Martin, London 1975, p.23.
[4] Ibid., pp.29-31

[5] Reproduced in Kenneth Martin, exhibition catalogue, 1975, p.119.

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