John Piper

Construction, Intersection


Not on display

John Piper 1903–1992
Oil paint and wooden dowels on canvas
Support: 533 × 635 × 52 mm
frame: 820 × 920 × 95 mm
Accepted by HM Government in lieu of inheritance tax and allocated to Tate 2002


During the period 1934–6, John Piper focused exclusively on abstract art. Construction, Intersection is a relief that is based on an abstract painting in a box-like frame. The painting juxtaposes planes of white, tan, brown and black with straight and curving, solid and dotted lines. Overlaying the geometric arrangement of planes and lines are three painted dowelling rods – two white and one black – that are set at an angle into the frame. A solid line coloured yellow, the only primary colour in the range, partially overlays the planes in the painting’s lower zone.

Piper studied at Richmond School of Art (1926–7) and the Royal College of Art (1927–9) having abandoned a career in the legal profession. His early works were experimental and the source of his imagery derived principally from contact with coastal landscapes and the sea (Jenkins and Spalding, p.9). Construction, Intersection is one of a series of about ten abstract relief constructions begun in the summer of 1934. Other works in this group include the unfinished Abstract Construction 1934, Whitworth Art Gallery, University of Manchester (reproduced in Jenkins and Spalding, p.99) and Construction (T01026), also from 1934 but reconstructed by the artist in 1967. T01026 is structurally more complex than Construction, Intersection and approximately twice its size. However, in each, and in Abstract Construction, the same principle of geometry determines the ratio of width to height. These dimensions are based on the Golden Section (the ratio 1:1.618), a harmonious proportion that is ‘intuitively beautiful’ so might have been accidental, but is more likely to have been planned (Jenkins and Spalding, p.96).

Asked in 1978 about the abstract construction series, Piper explained:

They were the nearest I ever got to sculpture ... I was interested in the relationship of the planes, some of the discoveries one had made in paint, the greys and blacks amongst other things. I was always interested in the interplay of whites, greys, blacks and colours: finding the ways in which they recessed and came forward and trying to bring those rods forward in a rather complicated manner by casting shadows ... I didn’t really want to be involved in the sculptural aspects, I was interested in the painterly aspects of depth and its associations with colour.

(Quoted in Power, Swift and Cunningham, [p.35–6].)

This group of works provided Piper with opportunities to explore relationships between different colours in terms of their illusionistic effects. In 1935, he abandoned the relief constructions of 1934 for abstract paintings, including Abstract I 1935 (N06212), but would give up abstraction entirely before the end of the decade. From 1940–5 he was commissioned by the War Artists’ Advisory Committee to paint bombed buildings; for example, St Mary le Port, Bristol 1940 (N05718). After the war he focused on paintings of topographical and architectural subjects. Piper has commented:

I always felt that painting abstractly was a way of learning how to paint, not learning how to be abstract if you see what I mean. I thought it was very important, I was quite rational even intellectual about it. If you put down areas of colour within a certain discipline ... if you set yourself limitations in your work and simplify the whole scheme, you can learn a lot about colour and form ... That’s the only reason I painted abstractly.

(Quoted in Power, Swift and Cunningham, [p.33].)

Further reading:
Gary Power, Richard Swift and Emma Cunningham, ‘John Piper,’ Composition, No.2, Spring 1979, [pp.31–46].
David Fraser Jenkins, John Piper, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1983.
David Fraser Jenkins and Frances Spalding, John Piper in the 1930s: Abstraction on the Beach, exhibition catalogue, Dulwich Picture Gallery, London 2003.

Alice Sanger
June 2009

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Display caption

Piper made this construction after seeing an exhibition of reliefs in Paris by Cesar Domela, an associate of De Stijl, the Dutch modernist group.

Piper first exhibited his constructions in London in 1935. One critic said they were made ‘from hunks of cable, rods, drums, ribbed lavatory panes, strips of perforated bluebottle-metal, etc.’ To him they suggested ‘underground wiring diagrams, or nightmare relief maps such as a neat and gifted electrician might improvise in sleep’. Rational diagrams appealed strongly to Modernist artists but these shapes probably recall nautical objects such as masts, buoys and floats.

Gallery label, February 2010

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