Kenneth Martin

Seventeen Lines


Not on display

Kenneth Martin 1905–1984
Oil paint on hardboard
Support: 1524 × 914 mm
Purchased 1965

Display caption

Kenneth Martin made his first abstract paintings in the late 1940s and his first constructions in the early 1950s. The lines, painted in several different colours, do not overlap. While painting Martin gave the colours added attributes, with blues pushing one way and yellows the opposite, while black and green (a combination of blue and yellow) remained relatively still. The identity of each line is determined by the number of times it moves forwards or backwards across the canvas. Martin wrote that his interest in kinetics led to the changes in direction in the line. He suggested that a basis for this and all related constructions was his interest in change in movement.

Gallery label, September 2004

Does this text contain inaccurate information or language that you feel we should improve or change? We would like to hear from you.

Catalogue entry


Oil on hardboard, 1524 x 914 mm (60 x 36 in)
Inscribed by the artist on back in black ball point pen ‘<KEN>’ overlaid in black oil paint below arrow (indicating top) ‘KENNETH MARTIN | SEVENTEEN LINES | 1959-63’ top centre
Purchased from the artist (Knapping Fund) 1965

4th John Moores Liverpool Exhibition, Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool, November 1963 - January 1964 (48)
Kenneth Martin, Tate Gallery, London, May-June 1975 (48, reproduced p.133 in colour)

Andrew Forge, ‘Memento Moores’, New Statesman, 22 Nov. 1963, p.753
Andrew Forge, ‘Some Recent Works by Kenneth Martin’, Studio International, vol.172, no.884, Dec. 1966, p.303, reproduced p.301
Tate Gallery Report 1965-6, London 1966, pp.36-7
Kenneth Martin, Chance and Order: The Sixth William Townsend Lecture, London 1979, p.11, reproduced p.10
Penelope Curtis, Modern British Sculpture from the Collection, Tate Gallery Liverpool, 1988, p.95, reproduced
Jeffrey Steele, ‘Chance, Change, Choice and Order: A Structural Analysis of a Work by Kenneth Martin’, Leonardo, vol.24, no.4, 1991, p.415, reproduced p.416

James Burr, ‘Round the Galleries: All Done by Numbers’, Apollo, vol.101, no.159, May 1975, p.398

With his assumption of construction in 1951, Kenneth Martin made very few paintings over the next two decades. Those that he did make, such as Abstract Orange and Red, 1956 (Arts Council collection, London),[1] lacked the exploratory techniques of the contemporary Screw Mobiles. Nevertheless, he continued to visualise all his works two-dimensionally - as such preparatory works as Drawing for Screw Mobile (Tate T01700) confirm - so the production of linear paintings in the later 1950s continued his working processes.

When asked about the place of Seventeen Lines among related paintings, the artist wrote a text which formed the basis for the entry in Tate Gallery Report 1965-6.[2] There he explained that he had previously made two paintings which were ‘based on an earlier motif whose clearer shapes became lines which pushed against one another, changing and breaking each other. This was a more malleable method than that of the preceding works. In Seventeen Lines my interest in kinetics etc. led me to consider more the direction of the line and this has become greater in the later works’.[3] The reliance upon shifts in linear elements became the key, which he related to his work on mobiles: ‘I make forms out of repetition with very simple rhythms. Each line has a tangible reality whether in painting or construction and its identity becomes part of the larger structure’

In an earlier response, Martin had provided notes which summarised the basis of the composition: ‘Number of lines with their points of departure from and arrival at edge of painting fixed arbitrarily at the beginning. Colour sequence based on a number rhythm. Character of lines then began to act on one another and continued to do so until the last time I worked on the painting’.[4] He enlarged upon this in the following year:

This painting began from a drawing (something of a doodle). Colour identity was given to each line by a number rhythm moving forwards and backwards across the canvas. To the coloured lines was then given an added attribute, yellows tended to push across in one direction, blues in the opposite, black remained relatively still as did green (composite of blue and yellow). All directions were governed by the edges and area of the defined field of the canvas - this goes for all paintings.[5]

The work was - as the earlier account suggests - distilled over a long period, but, following its submission to the John Moores exhibition in Liverpool at the end of 1963, he produced a number of other paintings, including Endless Configuration, 1964 (Arts Council collection, London)[6] and Blue Tangle, 1964 (formerly Peter Stuyvesant Foundation).[7] These were based upon similar systematised doodles, but concentrated in a single form instead of continuing to the edge of the canvas. Martin noted that ‘a basis of all these works is my pleasure in drawing and constructing and my interest in monotony and change - in movement.’ More generally, and recalling his earlier investigation of scientific theories, he added ‘In my abstract paintings each part takes on a character through its relationships with the other parts and with the whole. All is governed by a discipline or disciplines which are corollaries in art to the laws of life and nature’.[8]

The acceptance of the arbitrary and the imposition of a system in such works may have been encouraged by Martin’s reading of such texts as d’Arcy Thompson’s On Growth and Form.[9] The artist remarked that his works were ‘governed by laws such as the one that if one thing changes so must something else, either in conformity or in opposition’;[10] Thompson’s analysis of shells and plants showed how laws determined structures in nature based on geometric forms. The modification of such systems on each individual work was an important factor. Remarking on Seventeen Lines in a discussion of his Chance and Order paintings of the 1970s, the artist asserted that ‘each line acted on others, and was changed by others. I was the Almighty pushing them around, creating an interaction’.[11] Martin shared with his contemporaries this interest in organic - in addition to geometric - developments, and this was epitomised by The Developing Process, the 1959 exhibition devised by Victor Pasmore, Richard Hamilton and others from their course at Durham University.[12] Deriving from Bauhaus teaching methods, they proposed an integration of scientific, constructive and organic approaches, and thus implanted Constructionist theories into art education. It may be significant that Seventeen Lines was begun in the same year as the exhibition.

Unfortunately Martin’s description of the process used on Seventeen Lines was only partial. The ‘number rhythm’ governing the colour and the movement of the lines was not identified and it is difficult to trace from the evidence of the work alone. Certain observations can be made, however. Seventeen is a prime number. Although it may not be divided, its constituents appear to be grouped: thus, six lines move from the top edge to the left side, six begin and end on the right side, the remaining five all end at the base in between (four starting at the top and one at the right). There are also eight black and nine coloured lines. It seems significant that the (numerically central) ninth is the ochre line which crosses the centre of the base (from five-sixths along the top). It acts as a pivot, dividing five black and three coloured lines (to the left) from five coloured and three black (to the right).

Martin attributed specific characteristics to the choice of colour in Seventeen Lines, suggesting that black tended to run straight, while the colours deviated. Neither this, nor the suggested relation of the directions to the area seem to be supported by detailed analysis. It is clear, for instance, that the thirteenth line was green before being overpainted in yellow, an adjustment which - in these terms - would demand an alteration in course. Instead, the key determinant was that no lines should cross, so that (whatever their colour) they moved in channels between the open areas to left and right, which constrict and release them. Associated with this is a visible progression of length and complexity, from the short, less deflecting, left-hand lines to an apogee with the ninth ochre line - both the longest and the most twisting - before subsiding less rapidly to the right. There is a cluster of lines around the ninth which are closely paired in length and complexity (7 and 13, 8 and 12, 10 and 11), and certain sequences of deviations recur as they are subject to neighbouring lines.

The exactitude of the location of the ninth line was aided by Martin’s mapping of the hardboard with a twenty by twelve grid of 3 inch (76 mm) squares. This grid - which is visible along the bottom edge - was probably instrumental in the planning of the lines and in enlarging the original doodle. In contrast to this precision, the artist - like Mary Martin in the contemporary Black Relief (Tate T05026) - used the rough reverse side of a hardboard sheet. He also applied the paint quite loosely and densely, which has had a consequence on the width and steadiness of the lines. Although such painterly qualities appeared to be at odds with Martin’s constructive methods, Seventeen Lines was generously praised by Andrew Forge, in a review of the John Moores exhibition. Although not awarded a prize, Forge asserted that it had ‘more hard thought and life packed into it than any five other pictures here by painters of his generation’,[13] and his description drew attention to the movement (suggestive of ‘body sensations’) of the lines ‘adding up to a single form’ in a way found in the mobiles. In a subsequent article, the same critic suggested that the painting ‘has a lean muscular quality that evokes analogies with the figure and yet is plainly nothing but the spontaneous product of the seventeen springing lines’.[14] Such enthusiasm may have encouraged Martin’s production of related paintings. However his isolation by the critic from his generation was perhaps overstated. The artist himself acknowledged the importance of the ‘non-linear mechanics’ of Georges Vantongerloo’s free-form mobiles,[15] which he must have seen in the important London retrospective of the previous year.[16] These were related to Martin’s own Lines in Space mobiles and the concentric paintings which followed Seventeen Lines. More generally, both the application of paint - what Forge called ‘the dense furrowed whiteness’[17] - and the choice of colours were very much of the moment, bringing Martin’s constructivism close to the more earthy abstraction of former associates such as Roger Hilton and William Scott.

Matthew Gale

August 1996

[1] Reproduced in Arts Council Collection, London 1979, p.173.

[2] Tate Gallery Report 1965-6, London 1966, pp.36-7.
[3] Kenneth Martin, letter, 28 April 1966, Tate Gallery cataloguing files.

[4] Martin, letter, 30 August 1965, Tate Gallery cataloguing files.

[5] Letter, 28 April 1966.

[6] Reproduced in Arts Council Collection, London 1979, p.173.
[7] Reproduced in Kenneth Martin, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery 1975, p.80, no.49.
[8] Letter, 28 April 1966.

[9] d’Arcy Thompson, On Growth and Form, Cambridge 1917, 2nd ed. 1942.
[10] Letter, 28 April 1966.
[11] Chance and Order: The Sixth William Townsend Lecture, London 1979, p.11.
[12] The Developing Process, Institute of Contemporary Art, London, April-May 1959.

[13] Andrew Forge, ‘Memento Moores’, New Statesman, 22 November 1963, p.753.
[14] Andrew Forge, ‘Some Recent Works by Kenneth Martin’, Studio International, vol.172, no.884, December 1966, p.303.
[15] Martin, ‘Unpublished Notes’ 1967, typescript Tate Gallery Archive 7040.2, extracted in exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1975, p.27
[16] Kenneth Martin, Marlborough Fine Art, November 1962.
[17] Forge 1963, p.753.

You might like