Victor Pasmore

Synthetic Construction (White and Black)


Not on display

Victor Pasmore 1908–1998
Oil paint on plastic laminate, PVC and wood
Object: 1226 × 1226 × 273 mm
Presented by the artist 1966

Catalogue entry

Victor Pasmore 1908-1998

Synthetic Construction (White and Black) 1965-6


Oil on Formica, painted wood and PVC relief 1226 x 1226 x 265 (48 1/4 x 48 1/4 x 10 7/16)

Inscribed on back in white paint ‘VP’, centre

Presented by the artist 1966

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 (68, repr. p.81)

Tate Gallery Report 1965-6, London 1967, p.40
The Tate Gallery, London 1969, p.169
Alan Bowness and Luigi Lambertini, Victor Pasmore, with a Catalogue Raisonée of the Paintings, Constructions and Graphics 1926-1979, London 1980, p.304, no.376, repr. p.263 (as Synthetic Relief Construction)

Simon Wilson, British Art: From Holbein to the Present Day, London 1979, p.164

While continuing to make the more simple reliefs such as Abstract in White, Black, Indian and Lilac and Relief Construction in Black, White and Maroon (Tate Gallery T00609), in the early 1960s Pasmore also produced increasingly complex works. In particular, he made a number which included elements projecting a considerable distance from both sides of a sheet of PVC. Synthetic Construction (White and Black) falls somewhere between these and the earlier, flatter reliefs. Its suspension of a PVC plane between wooden blocks recalls Lawrence Alloway’s description of the genesis of the simpler works.[1]

As in Relief Construction in Black, White and Maroon, the use of the transparent plastic standing clear of the main white support creates an ambiguity between the material of the work and the space in which it hangs. The division between the two is also crossed by the long vertical form which projects down beyond the square of PVC. In an interview with the compiler on 4 June 1996 the artist associated this form with his belief in a ‘modern space’ that exceeded the rectangle of the Renaissance picture. This had been a motivation behind his earlier reliefs and the work of other Constructionists; for instance, the American Charles Biederman’s Art as the Evolution of Visual Knowledge had narrated a history of painting that presented the move into relief as its logical culmination.[2] Indeed, such an elongated vertical was characteristic of the reliefs made by Pasmore between 1951 and 1953, when his work was closest to Biederman’s.

In the same interview Pasmore also associated this work with his involvement in Peterlee, a new town in County Durham. From 1955 he was engaged as a consultant on the design of the south west quadrant of the town, applying the organic principles of his painting practice to the lay-out of roads and houses. He saw town planning as a question of the body’s movement through space and, as such, as an extension of his reliefs and earlier landscape paintings. Both architecture and reliefs were thus seen to embody ‘modern space’, which was defined in terms of four dimensions - the space-time continuum. The elongated vertical element in Synthetic Construction had its parallel in the Pavilion, an amalgamation by Pasmore of architecture and sculpture, that stretched across the lake at the heart of south west Peterlee.[3] Similarly, the conjunction of the orthogonal blocks and painted black lines in reliefs such as this has been compared to the ‘pedestrian routes at Peterlee cutting between blocks of houses’.[4]

Synthetic Construction is made up of a number of pieces of wood - some plywood faced with Formica, others painted blocks - and a poly-vinyl chloride (PVC) sheet in front of a white painted board. On the left hand side a white block and a black one project about 10 inches (250mm) from the main board to which they are attached. A horizontal white block below them and the long vertical are attached to the face of the PVC. The sides of the vertical form are faced with white Formica so that the layering of the plywood is visible. The centrally located white block, the length of which is the same as the projection of the black and white forms on the left, itself projects about 3 inches (76 mm). If seen from above it is clear that its structure is complex. The frontal face is made up of a thin flat section, 2 1/2 inches (64 mm) wide, another at right angles, 3/4 inch (19 mm) deep, and a long block, approximately 1/2 inch square in section. The whole thing is attached to a narrower block, 1 inch (25 mm) deep, underneath. The PVC passes between that block and another, 1 1/2 inches (38 mm) deep, attached to the back board. The PVC is held in only one other place: in a 2 inch (50 mm) cut into the black form on the left hand side of the whole composition. Lines of black paint were applied with the aid of masking tape. To the left, beyond the PVC, three forms were painted onto the white board; a fourth passes from the white on to the upper face of the black projected element. A line above the black form and another to the right of the central white structure were painted on the PVC, while a broader line between the black block and the two blocks attached to the PVC was painted on the board behind it. An aluminium strip around the main board is integral to the work.

The deployment of the elements within Synthetic Construction was based upon a simple geometrical arrangement. The PVC square is centrally located on the main white board, which is also square; the centre point of the complex white form is also the centre of the whole. The horizontal black projection is exactly half way up the composition and the white projection above it is the same distance from the top edge as the horizontal white form below it is from the bottom. The long vertical and the bottom of that horizontal white block define a square with the left hand and bottom edges of the main board. The long vertical and the lower of the painted black forms on the extreme left almost fall on the golden section of the two dimensions; that they do not do so precisely reflects the empirical way in which Pasmore composed his work.

Synthetic Construction was developed from an earlier relief, of which two versions were made: one was included in Pasmore’s 1965 retrospective,[5] the other was shown at the São Paolo biennale that year, toured around South America and was subsequently purchased for the Peter Stuyvesant Collection. Synthetic Construction had the same set of three-dimensional forms as the earlier work, except for the addition of the white projection towards the top left hand corner of the PVC. However, the arrangement of painted lines is considerably more complicated than in the original work, giving the composition a greater sense of dynamism. This also emphasises the compositional imbalance: nearly all the forms are located in the bottom left hand quarter of the work and only the painted line on the right hand side prevents the composition from falling away to the left. This apparent departure from Pasmore’s earlier desire for visual balance and the rejection of geometrical laws may be indicative of his increasingly improvisatory approach. The artist later explained that he chose the word ‘synthetic’ for the title because the work was ‘a rational construction with irrational marks made on it’.[6]

Chris Stephens
Feb. 1998

[1] Lawrence Alloway, ‘Pasmore Constructs a Relief’, Artnews, vol.55, no.4, summer 1954, pp.32-5
[2] Charles Biederman, Art as the Evolution of Visual Knowledge, Red Wing 1948
[3] Repr. Alan Bowness and Luigi Lambertini, Victor Pasmore, with a Catalogue Raisonée of the Paintings, Constructions and Graphics 1926-1979, London 1980, pp.231-7
[4] Alastair Grieve, Victor Pasmore, exh. cat., Arts Council tour 1980, p.32
[5] Repr. Victor Pasmore, exh. cat., Tate Gallery, London 1965, pl.65
[6] Letter to the author, 19 Nov. 1996, Tate Gallery cataloguing files

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