Jean Spencer

White Relief


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Jean Spencer 1942–1998
PVA paint on hardboard and wood
Object: 910 × 910 × 44 mm
Purchased 2015


White Relief 1969 is a square white monochrome relief measuring thirty-six by thirty-six inches built up from a wood and hardboard base. The basic framework for the relief is based on a square projecting from its surface as a cube to realise a progressive permutation of positive and negative space. One centrally positioned vertical band is bisected by two horizontal bands, one of which mirrors as a rotation the positive spaces of the other, cutting across the vertical band as negative spaces. The structure can then be mapped as sequences of squares that chart a string of rotations and reflections. The relief thus depicts a systematic movement and progression within its composition, but also suggests that this may be part of a permutation within a larger series or set. Spencer approached her reliefs in series as she described in the catalogue essay to her second solo exhibition in 1969, the year this work was made: ‘Within each series of reliefs the first are concerned with a direct use of the units; subsequently the rigid framework of the units is broken down.’ (Untitled artist’s statement in Jean Spencer, exhibition catalogue, Arts Centre, University of Sussex, Brighton 1969, unpaginated.)

Spencer’s approach to making work in series based on mathematical permutations was common to many artists who worked to extend a constructivist or constructionist tradition, and formed one of the principles with which the artists Jeffrey Steele (born 1931) and Malcolm Hughes (1920–1997) formed the exhibiting group ‘Systems’ in 1969. (Spencer had been a student of Hughes’s at Bath Academy of Art from 1960–3 and was the group’s youngest member.) In the catalogue introduction to the group’s first exhibition, in Helsinki in 1969, Jeffrey Steele stated that although the nine artists in the exhibition ‘encompass a wide range of propositions about scale, proportion, surface, space and colour there is a common factor. This is that these propositions are all obtained by means of the articulation of a two-dimensional surface, by some system of measurement’. Steele then went on to explain the ideology behind the artists’ work, that ‘it may have some basis in a perfect existential reality before it is discovered by the artist rather as a mathematical theorem is true regardless of whether or not it is recognised, understood or applied’. Further, he stated that the concept or initial framework for the work might be understood as ‘a negotiable form’ that can be processed to create a serial approach to work understood as a ‘system’ (Jeffrey Steele, ‘Systeemi Syntactic Art –1969’, in Amos Anderson Art Museum 1969, unpaginated). His use of the word ‘syntactic’ to describe the work made by the artists gathered together for the exhibition suggested that their approach, which acknowledged the workings of a system or series, was analogous to the formation of meaning through grammatical syntax.

The Systems group broke up by the end of the 1970s, by which time Spencer had moved away from the monochrome relief to an investigation of colour relations in paintings that were nevertheless still founded on many of the same principles as her constructed reliefs of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Even so, despite her use of mathematical and geometrical procedures in her reliefs, she stressed that ‘the regulating structure of the relief is in no way dictated by mathematical concepts, rather evolved through a series of discussions which involve mathematical disciplines, but remain fundamentally intuitive’ (untitled artist’s statement in Jean Spencer, exhibition catalogue, Arts Centre, University of Sussex, Brighton 1969).

It is currently not certain whether this relief is the same one that was exhibited in 1969 in System. Systeemi (as White Relief No.3) at the Amos Anderson Art Museum in Helsinki, or (as White Relief) in Spencer’s second solo exhibition held the same year at the University of Sussex Arts Centre, Brighton.

Further reading
Systeemi. System, An Exhibition of Syntactic Art from Britain, exhibition catalogue, Amos Anderson Art Museum, Helsinki 1969.
Jean Spencer, A Retrospective Exhibition, exhibition catalogue, Yarrow Gallery, Oundle School, Oundle 2006.
Jean Spencer 1942–1998, exhibition catalogue, Redfern Gallery, London 2014, reproduced p.7.

Andrew Wilson
December 2014

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