Marc Vaux



Not on display

Marc Vaux born 1932
Acrylic paint on canvas
Support: 2591 × 2134 mm
Presented by E.J. Power through the Friends of the Tate Gallery 1973

Display caption

Between 1968 and 1975, Marc Vaux made a number of paintings known as the Item series. These are large canvases that contrast a large expanse of a single hue with an ‘item’, which is a tiny rectangle of three or more bands of distinctive colour.

The contrast between the two was essential to the visual phenomena that Vaux wanted to create. The ‘item’ draws viewers close to the canvas, where their peripheral vision is drenched in colour. Our sense of space is stimulated by the expanse of colour that fills our visual field.

Gallery label, September 2004

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Catalogue entry

Marc Vaux b.1932

T01761 B/3L/73 1973

Inscribed ‘B/3L/73 Vaux 1973 TOP’ on reverse.
Acrylic on cotton duck, 102 x 84 (259 x 213·5).
Presented by E. J. Power through the Friends of the Tate Gallery 1973.
Exh: Tess Jaray, Marc Vaux: Recent Paintings, Whitechapel Art Gallery, May–June 1973 (26, not in catalogue).
Lit: ‘From a discussion between John Plumb and Marc Vaux’ in Studio International, CLXXXV, June 1973, pp.274–6.

The following is an excerpt from a letter to the compiler from the artist of 3 March 1974·

‘“B/3L/73” was painted in the artist’s studio, 45 Tabernacle Street, London EC1. It was completed early in 1973 and was one of a pair, the last to be finished before the Whitechapel Exhibition of May–June 1973 where they were both exhibited. “B/3L/73” is painted with acrylic paint on raw cotton-duck. It is unvarnished. The canvas was primed white, which up till then I seldom did, and the brown field colour applied thickly which also was a new departure. Previously the field colour was achieved by many thin coats of paint, moderating the colour with every coat. The simplicity in the paint structure of “B/3L/73” was an attempt to emphasise the surface in a manner natural to painting. The brush marks also extend the possibilities of scale in such a painting which of course is taken further in the size of the three colour element. The physical quality of the surface of paintings done at this time was beginning to influence the nature of the element, particularly in terms of its pristine regularity. Subsequent work has taken this into account.’

The remainder of the entry is based on a conversation with the artist on 14May 1974.

During the three years or so preceding T01761 the artist frequently worked on two paintings simultaneously. The canvases were often the same size and one of the paintings made in complete reaction to the other. The artist first used a ‘formula-like’ title for a painting in 1969. Since then he has chosen to use this type of title for identification since it is adequately descriptive of the painting’s constituents: B=brown field; 3L=three colours in the element which is positioned on the left hand side of the painting; 73=the year of completion.

Despite the superficial similarities between T01761 and paintings which directly preceded it, it was the most spontaneous painting of its kind. ‘“B/3L/73” was painted after a very intense period of working; I took it in my stride and it seemed to work.’ In the paintings leading up to it, the artist had discovered that changes in surface structure encouraged an experience of saturation rather than of hue. At the time of painting ‘B/3L/73’ and its pair ‘WG/3R/73’ he had the clear intention of exploring a thicker and more varied kind of surface, without undermining his general aim of ‘the means being as unlike the message as possible.’

This required a primed surface to allow an ‘alia prima’ technique of surface painting to benefit from being of varied thickness, with subsequent changes in luminosity due to the white ground. After one thin coat the paint was applied thickly ‘to gain a heavy surface quality like the colour of brown itself… the colour of the brown paint-mixture was arrived at intuitively, but thinking more in terms of density than hue’. The result was a ‘relatively uneven surface but naturally acquired’. The search for ‘anonymity’ and more particularly ‘banality’ in his paintings has been an objective since around1965 and has led him to make paintings which are very nearly just plainly painted surfaces, the banality of which intentionally contrasts with other concerns.

The vertical format of T01761 is unusual for this period in the artist’s work, and was attempted as ‘a change from the more usual long horizontal format which more closely relates to the shape of the visual field’. The artist knew that he would be placing a coloured element on either the right or left hand side of the painting and while painting the field endeavoured to keep the paint simpler in these areas. (He did look at the field horizontally after it had been painted but preferred the original orientation as painted.)

The colours selected for the element were based on his experience of the field after it was painted. (In the previous paintings the colours were worked on simultaneously and gradually arrived at for both field and element in a gradual process of modulation.) The artist found that it was unnecessary to use more than four colours in the element, and mentioned in this context that ‘Albers never used more than five colours in his mature works’.

The height of the element is at normal eye level when the bottom of the painting is hung one foot from the floor. The position of the element in relation to the edge of the canvas is that point at which it ‘appears most stationary, where it neither floats nor recedes’. A position too close to the edge also gives it the appearance of moving off the canvas, while a central position ‘creates a potential for movement and hence space’.

Elsewhere the artist has said: ‘putting [the element] on one side does to some extent draw attention to the edge of the painting, but what I gain here seems to be worth it. That is, a large empty field, empty apart from its colour. Something else which follows from such a placing is that I decrease the conspicuousness of the element. It’s vitally necessary, but I want to minimize any compositional dynamic which may result from its presence’ (op. cit. p.275).

Though the genesis of paintings of the type of T01761 may be traced back to the work of 1959, the most natural beginnings may be thought to be the paintings of circa 1965. Work anterior to this period was mainly ‘tonal’ and (calli-)‘graphic’, but with such paintings as ‘Spanner’ (1965)the artist began to concern himself with chromatic problems.

The unified, single colour field appeared in ‘Neapolitan’ (1967) at which point may be found the seed of the element as in T01761, though the artist used the term ‘unit’ for this feature at the time. In the paintings of 1967–69 the striped unit was dependent upon the geometrical proportions of the canvas, but gradually became smaller for reasons unknown to the artist.

However in 1969 the artist discovered the importance of scale (while using hitherto untried chance procedures) enabling him to relate objectively the size of the element to the field. ‘All Square’ (1969) was the first painting to follow this experience and he progressively made the element smaller, trying it in different positions, and attempting to find the optimum size while continuing with empirical colouristic experiments simultaneously.

The size of the canvas had been chosen because of its ‘wall-sized format’ (simply on its side in T01761), and according to the artist ‘the most anonymous shape or size along with that of the door’. It had occurred to him, therefore, that the size of the element should be equally anonymous. At this time, 1969, he became interested in painters’ colour charts of the kind that are on display when one is selecting house paints in a shop. The size of the individual colour samples intrigued him and he wondered how it had been chosen, especially since the difference in sizes among the various manufacturers seemed negligible. Accordingly, the samples took on for the artist the same ‘universal’ anonymous dimensions which he felt his canvas to have, and the painted elements are approximately the same size, although he never actually measured them. ‘One is always looking for ways of justifying decisions which are arrived at intuitively, and the question of the hand-sized element is a case in point. Having arrived at the small scaled element which was quite likely influenced by my interest in builders’ colour charts, the question of precise size for such an optically important unit seemed related to tangibility... a kind of tactile gratification to augment the essentially visual nature of the expression.’

Since the artist’s main objective was to manifest in the spectator an awareness of colour, he found the compositional ‘formula’ as in T01761 suitable for the purpose at the time. The element itself encourages close inspection of the painting due to its small size, which in turn allows the spectator to experience ‘the painting in the way it is made—i.e. its field effect’.

This is emphasised in paintings subsequent to and deriving from his experiences of T01761, where the artist has greatly loosened his handling of the painted element, which frankly reflects the empirical procedure used to obtain it and manifests the fact that T0I761 ‘opened [his] eyes to further possibilities of the banality of paint’.

(The above text incorporates revisions made by the artist on 1 June 1974.)

Published in The Tate Gallery Report 1972–1974, London 1975.

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