Mary Martin



Sorry, no image available

Mary Martin 1907–1969
Plastic laminate and stainless steel on wood
Object: 533 × 533 × 102 mm
Purchased 1964

Display caption

Mary Martin showed a number of related relief constructions in an exhibition in early 1964. The common unit to all of them was a right-angled wedge. Made from a cube of wood cut diagonally in half, the wood surfaces were covered in a thin sheet of stainless steel. They are grouped together against a background of black formica. The wedges are juxtaposed in all possible ways so as to reflect the light from different angles. The complexity of the reflections and light patterns becomes clear only as the spectator moves his or her position, or the angle of light changes.

Gallery label, August 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


Stainless steel and painted wood on Formica covered block-board, 533 x 533 x 102 mm (21 x 21 x 4 in); weight: 5.3 kg.
Inscribed by the artist on back in black felt-tipped pen ‘Mary Martin ‘63’ bottom right, in pencil ‘SPIRAL á’ centre
Artist’s typed label: ‘Cleaning | Brush relief area with soft brush | Formica has been polished with silicone furniture polish | Polish with soft cloth, or repolish with furniture polish.’ removed from centre
Purchased from the Molton and Lords Gallery, London (Grant-in Aid) 1964

Mary Martin, Molton and Lords Gallery, London, February 1964 (16)
British Sculpture in the Sixties, Tate Gallery, London, February-April 1965 (64)
Mary Martin, Tate Gallery, London, October-November 1984 (27, reproduced p.55)
Forty Years of Modern Art, Tate Gallery, London, February-April 1986 (no number)

James Burr, ‘Round the London Galleries’, Apollo, vol.79, no.24, February 1964, p.146, repr. p.147
Tate Gallery Report 1963-4, London 1964, p.34

Denis Farr, British Sculpture Since 1945, London 1965, pl.19
Michael Compton, Optical and Kinetic Art, London 1967, pl.18
Alan Bowness, ‘The Constructive Art of Mary Martin, Studio International, vol.175, no.898, March 1968, p.121 (colour)

Mary Martin is perhaps best known for the group of reliefs to which Spiral belongs. In them she adopted the characteristic unit of a half cube, divided on a diagonal on which a reflective stainless steel plate was fixed. This regulated the tilts used in earlier works - such as Spiral Movement 1951 (Tate T00586) - to a standard 45° plane, but allowed illusionistic spaces to be opened up in the reflections caught in the juxtaposed mirrored faces. The artist explained that: ‘The reflected structures, or hidden structures, are made within the same system as the real structure. Illusion and reality are added to shadow and substance’.[1] She attributed the change to a letter from Charles Biederman in 1955, where

he urged the use of open planes, I began to do this in 1961-2. As works I felt they were even more minimal in character, but I was using permutations of number. From then on the permutations took over and, by using a half-cube with a reflecting hypotenuse, I found I could build up a structure of “superpatterns”[2]

In order to achieve these effects, Martin built Spiral in several layers. The stainless steel plates are glued to forty-nine blocks, arranged in seven rows of seven and set in four different orientations. They measure 1 1/2 x 1 1/2 x 1 1/2 inches (38 mm) and together occupy the square relief area, which has sides of 10 1/2 inches (267 mm). The steel is 1.5 mm gauge; the filed edges depart from the otherwise strictly rectilinear arrangement. The sides of the blocks are painted matt black, which contrasts with the slick black Formica base board; minor repairs have been made to both areas. The delicacy of all the surfaces was acknowledged by the artist, who attached a note on cleaning instructions. Although the base board (which is 4/5 inch or 20 mm thick) provides the visual ground of the work, it hides a smaller square structure of batten on the reverse. This holds it 1 3/4 inches (45 mm) off the wall and has the visual effect of allowing the relief to float free.

Spiral was purchased from Martin’s solo exhibition at Molton and Lords Gallery, London in February 1964; shortly afterwards the artist confirmed that it had been made in the previous autumn. She drew attention to David Sylvester’s catalogue introduction and added: ‘I do not feel I can make any better comment’.[3] The introduction referred directly to the work bought by the Tate and a companion piece:

The wedges are juxtaposed with the reflecting surface facing in all the various possible directions, so creating jagged contrasts of light and shadow which change as the spectator’s position or the direction of the light changes. The mood naturally changes correspondingly, but at the same time there’s a prevailing mood. In Spirals [sic], where a preponderance of reflecting surfaces jut out towards us, the feeling is aggressive, menacing. In Diagonal on Black, where more of the planes which face us are the black ones, the feeling is hermetic; we are drawn towards shadowed entrances.[4]

The artist’s acceptance of this interpretative text, shows her openness to alternative views of her work. The reflective steel extended her interest in its impact on the observer and within its environment. However, Sylvester’s apprehension of menace is unexpected, and may be seen as an incidental function of the basic unit and its system of arrangement.

Indeed, Spiral shares with all of Martin’s reliefs an underlying mathematical logic. The arrangement of wedges is determined by a simple sequence of the four possibilities of sloping to the left, to the right, upwards or downwards. If these are numbered 1, 2, 3 and 4, it is possible to discern the sequence more clearly and to describe the top row thus: 1 2 3 4 3 2 1. This shows that the sequence is reflected around the central unit to make a symmetrical pattern, and inspection reveals that this pattern is found on each of the sides. The effect is of an outer ring to the square, with 1 (slope to the left) at each corner and 4 (slope down) in the middle of each side. The continuation of the pattern in the core of the relief appears more complex. It is at this point that the title provides the clue, as the sequence spirals in to the second row and thence to the centre. Thus the final 1 of the fourth sequence running up the left side turns in to become the second unit in the second row, and to institute the spiral. The sequence 1 2 3 4 3 in the second row continues by turning down the sixth column (2 1 2 3), turning across the sixth row (4 3 2 1), up the second column (2 3 4), into the third row (3 2 1), down the fifth column (2 3), across the fifth row (4 3) up the third column (2) and ending in the central square (1).

The application of this mathematical sequence established an inherent logic. Eight runs of six variants were accommodated within the spiral beginning and ending on 1. The scheme also had apparent aesthetic results: the most obvious is that, despite the limitation to four variants, no unit is adjacent to another of its own type. However, it is in the nature of Martin’s works based upon mathematical progressions that once the choice of elements and system had been set in motion, the effect was determined but unforeseen. The alteration of just one or two component could completely alter the visual appearance of the relief. This is seen in Diagonal on Black (collection Leonie Cohn),[5] in which the side of the blocks are introduced as variants and the pattern is determined by the mathematical scheme known as the ‘pendulum permutation’.

It may have been because of the flexibility within the system - especially as resulting from the reflections discussed later in her essay ‘Character of the Oblique’[6] - that Martin accepted Sylvester’s emotive response to these reliefs. At the time, the critic was more commonly associated with the existential isolation found in the work of such artists as Alberto Giacometti, whose British exhibitions he organised,[7] and Francis Bacon. In recognising in Martin’s reflective surfaces the fragmentation of the observer’s space and image, Sylvester identified a charged environmental quality. The sequential path through a relief had parallels with physical movement through space - a concern that Martin shared with Victor Pasmore - and the coming together of these ideas had already been recognised by Lawrence Alloway in his 1954 book Nine Abstract Artists. He had discerned a link between Martin’s reliefs and ‘Le Corbusier’s extensible square spiral museum’.[8] Martin herself referred to the effect of the buildings of Le Corbusier, then widely regarded by contemporaries (such as Peter and Alison Smithson) as the most important modern architect of the century. As Penny Jones has noted, Martin was also interested in his book on his system of proportion, Le Modulor, which had been translated into English in 1954.[9] Alloway’s architectural analogy was, therefore, apposite, although it may be coincidental that he should highlight the ‘square spiral’ format which was exactly that used for Spiral nearly a decade later.

Matthew Gale
July 1996

[1] Mary Martin, ‘Character of the Oblique’, The Structurist, no.9, 1969, republished in Mary Martin, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1984, p.29.

[2] 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.

[3] Martin, letter to Tate, 31 March 1964, Tate catalogue files.

[4] David Sylvester, ‘Introduction’, Mary Martin, exhibition catalogue, Molton and Lords Gallery, London 1964.

[5] Reproduced in Tate Gallery exhibition catalogue 1984, p.55, no.25.

[6] ‘Character of the Oblique’ 1969, republished ibid., p.29.
[7] Giacometti: Sculpture, Paintings, Drawings, Arts Council, London, June-July 1955 and Alberto Giacometti: Sculpture, Paintings, Drawings, Tate Gallery, London , July-August 1965
[8] Lawrence Alloway, Nine Abstract Artists, London 1954, p.14.
[9] 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.22.

You might like