Stephen Willats

Organic Exercise No. 3, Series 1


Not on display

Stephen Willats born 1943
Graphite on paper
Image: 545 × 740 mm
support: 545 × 740 mm
support, secondary: 615 × 805 mm
frame: 765 × 955 × 47 mm
Presented by Tate Members 2017


Organic Exercise No. 3, Series 1 1962 is a landscape-format pencil drawing made up of a field of freely-drawn circles, two large circles being surrounded by a random arrangement of smaller circles. None of the circles overlap; instead the circumference of each circle almost or just touches others nearby. Some of the smaller circles contain a single circle within them; others contain an arrow pointing vertically, horizontally or diagonally; the rest are empty. The two larger circles contain a number of these smaller circles – the upper circle also contains a range of vertically oriented arrows, while the lower large circle also has arrows pointing in many directions, and to the right of these circles is a smaller circle with a group of diagonally pointing arrows.

Drawings such as this, and Organic Exercise No. 3, Series No. 2 (Tower Block Drawing) 1962 (Tate T04106), were included in Willats’s first solo exhibition in 1964 at the Chester Beatty Research Institute in London. He held that these drawings were not intended to be contemplated aesthetically, but instead as active ‘data’. For him these were images that were ‘a result of looking at and thinking about the environment’. In this respect they also reflected his concern ‘with the problem of society and the personality of the individual, particularly with the subject’s awareness of himself in relation to the society within which he must assert himself’. The drawings aimed to encourage the viewer to look at ‘a single part, relate part to part, view the area as a whole, or wander at random over it’. (All quotations from Stephen Willats, exhibition catalogue, Chester Beatty Research Institute, London 1964, unpaginated). By stating that the drawings were ‘connected with a way of looking at objects and relating oneself to an object’ (ibid.), Willats approached them as diagrams whose aim was social as much as aesthetic. They also characterise his criticism of modernism. Diagrams such as this indicate active flows of information that are multi-textural, existing at different registers or resolutions; for Willats the essentialist linear narrative of modernism was redundant in the face of such a reality. These were views that Willats started to articulate at this time, between 1961 and 1964, when he was associated with the artist Roy Ascott (born 1934), both as a student on the pioneering Ealing ‘Groundcourse’ and later as a tutor on Ascott’s Ipswich ‘Groundcourse’ – teaching programmes grounded in part on cybernetic principles.

What Willats had in mind with works such as Organic Exercise No. 3, Series 1 was the model of homeostasis as developed by the cybernetician William Ross Ashby (1903–1972), a model for being able to adapt to a changing environment. Williats developed this further in works such as Homeostat Drawing No.1 1969 (Tate T14919), a more developed expression of a homeostatic model whereby different sub-systems interact through behavioural equations, designated by arrows.

Organic Exercise No.3, Series 1, Organic Exercise No. 3, Series No. 2 (Tower Block Drawing) and Homeostat Drawing No 1 1969 can all be read within the context of a social organism with the potential for change. Organic Exercise No.3, Series 1 indicates flows of information and flows of energy, but also how one might look at objects or an environment and be part of social networks. It is an expression of a critically-inflected exchange between observer and object that was built on Willats’s belief that art revolved primarily around communication – flows of information and networks of data. From such a position, perceptual response becomes an active process, not just transforming ways in which the object might be perceived but also, crucially, encouraging a change in the viewers’ awareness of their own social contexts.

Further reading
Stephen Willats: Concerning Our Present Way of Living, exhibition catalogue, Whitechapel Art Gallery, London 1979, p.16.
Stephen Willats, Between Objects and People, Perspectives on Contemporary Living, exhibition catalogue, Leeds City Art Gallery 1987.
Stephen Willats, Secret Language, The Code Breakers, exhibition catalogue, Galerie Thomas Schulte, Berlin 2012, p.20.

Andrew Wilson
August 2017

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