Victor Pasmore

Black Abstract


Not on display

Victor Pasmore 1908–1998
Oil paint on board
Object: 1221 × 1158 × 13 mm
frame: 1540 × 1536 × 68 mm
Purchased 1963

Display caption

Pasmore originally called this relief Black Abstract – Growing Form, reflecting how its composition, like much of Pasmore’s work, was based on ideas of organic development. The dominant motif is the progressive build-up of black blotches painted directly onto untreated chipboard – the blotches expanding as they extend down from the top edge of the board. Although the idea of progressive
development from a single motif can be traced to the influence of Paul Klee (1879–1940), Pasmore had also been engaged by D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson’s On Growth and Form - when republished in 1942, it influenced Pasmore and many of his contemporaries.

Gallery label, September 2016

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Catalogue entry

Victor Pasmore 1908-1998

Black Abstract 1963


Oil on chipboard relief on painted Formica 1524 x 1524 x 13

Inscribed in pencil ‘VP’ b.r. of chipboard and on back in black paint ‘TOP’, top centre and ‘VP’, centre

Purchased from the artist through the Marlborough New London Gallery (Grant-in-Aid) 1963

British Painting in the Sixties, CAS at Tate Gallery and Whitechapel Art Gallery, London, June 1963 (88, repr., as ‘Black Abstract - Growing Form, 1962-3’)
Arte d’oggi nei musei, 32nd Venice Biennale, May-Oct. 1964 (London, Tate Gallery 9, repr.XLIV, as ‘Black Abstract - Growing Form’)
Victor Pasmore: Retrospective Exhibition 1925-65, Tate Gallery, London, May-June 1965 (180, pl.69)
Europalia, Brussels, 197= Henry Moore to Gilbert and George: Modern British Art from the Tate Gallery, Palais des Beaux Arts, Brussels, Sept.-Nov. 1973, as part of Europalia 73 Great Britain (67, repr. p.81)
Victor Pasmore, Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, Conn., Nov. 1988-Jan. 1989, The Phillips Collection, Washington D.C., Feb.-April 1989 (36)

Robert Melville, ‘Exhibitions’, Architectural Review, vol.134, no.798, Aug. 1963, p.132, repr. p.38 (as Black Abstract - Growing Form; Tate Gallery Report 1963-4)
Mary Chamot, Dennis Farr and Martin Butlin, Tate Gallery: The Modern British Paintings, Drawings and Sculpture, II, London 1965, p.513
Alan Bowness and Luigi Lambertini, Victor Pasmore, with a Catalogue Raisonée of the Paintings, Constructions and Graphics 1926-1979, London 1980, p.302, no.300, repr. p.131

G.S. Whittet, ‘British Painting in the Sixties’, Studio, vol. 166, no.844, Aug. 1963, p.62 (as Black Abstract - Growing Form)
Charles Spencer, ‘An Introduction to Abstract Art, 1: Pure Abstraction’, Artist, vol.66, no.4, Dec. 1963, p.95
Hugh Adams, Modern Painting, 1979, p.73 (col.)

As its original title, Black Abstract - Growing Form, suggests, this work is based upon ideas of organic development. The artist told the Tate Gallery:

the point of this painting ... lies in the fact that its principal mass is built up systematically and organically from a predetermined unit, used like a brick. These units, starting along the top edge of a square, expand as they extend downwards and, in the process of expansion, change in shape, tone and size. The final form is determined by a personal interpretation of a kind of topological metamorphosis of the square.[1]

The arrangement of the forms around a suggested horizontal element, on the left hand side, emphasises the growth-like quality of the composition. The concept of making a painting or relief by the progressive development of a single motif, such as a square, had first entered Pasmore’s work, under the influence of Paul Klee, in the late 1940s. In particular, it was the dominating feature of works like Square Motif, Blue and Gold: The Eclipse, 1950 (Tate Gallery N05974). Klee’s influence had been enhanced with the publication in 1953 of his Pedagogical Sketchbook, in which the productive growth of a work of art ‘stone upon stone’ was reiterated.[2] Through the ‘Developing Process’ teaching programme, formulated by Harry Thubron at Leeds School of Art and Pasmore at Durham University’s Fine Art department in Newcastle, such an approach became widely practiced during the 1950s and 1960s. The appearance and underlying idea of Black Abstract bear similarities to the theory and images of cellular structures in d’Arcy Thompson’s On Growth and Form,[3] one of the original sources for this organic theory. Pasmore made this aspect of the work less explicit by his correction of its title to the simpler Black Abstract in a note to the Tate Gallery dated 15 July 1963. Black Abstract was one of a number of works made up of brushmarks arranged in an apparently organic pattern. These may be seen as originating from Pasmore’s pointillist paintings of the late 1940s and were later developed into the biomorphic paintings of the late 1960s and after, like The Green Earth (Tate Gallery T03086).

The picture is typical of many works by Pasmore and the other British Constructionists, such as Anthony Hill or Kenneth and Mary Martin, in its use of new building materials. This was a development of the Constructivist belief in the use of industrial materials. Formica, a hard-wearing melamine-based composite particularly associated with modern kitchen furniture, was also used in Linear Motif in Black and White (Tate Gallery T00410) and had been a recurrent feature of Pasmore’s work since the late 1950s. In Black Abstract its hard, glossy surface and the soft, fibrous texture of chipboard gave very different finishes to the black paint applied to each. The thin, matt finish on the absorbent board was exaggerated in the lower area by the rubbing of the paint; the glossy black lines on the Formica were painted exactingly with the aid of masking tape. The conjunction of the irregular upper edge of the chipboard with the neat top row of paint marks suggests that the board was cut after the paint was applied. The irregular shaped relief set within a square box-frame associates Black Abstract with work such as Linear Motif in Black and White. The contrasting shapes and textures of the different surfaces invests the chipboard form with a natural quality in comparison with the flat, linearity of the black lines on the Formica.

The chipboard, which measures 48 x 45 1/2 inches (122 x 115.5 mm) and is 1/2 inch (1.25 mm) thick, is attached to the Formica-faced plywood support by screws from the back. Two cracks in the Formica have developed above and below the right hand side of the chipboard where the screws pass through. The Formica facing was attached in two sections; the join between them, about 8 5/8 inches from the left hand side, has opened up slightly. The mahogany box-frame, which is integral to the work, is lined with white Formica. The back of the work is strengthened with four crossed battens.

Chris Stephens
Feb. 1998

[1] Letter, 27 July 1963, Tate Gallery cataloguing files
[2] Paul Klee, Pedagogical Sketchbook, 1953, 2nd ed., London 1968, p.33
[3] d’Arcy Wentworth Thompson, On Growth and Form, 1917, 2nd ed. Cambridge 1942



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