Stephen Willats

Organic Exercise No. 3, Series No. 2 (Tower Block Drawing)


Not on display

Stephen Willats born 1943
Ink on paper
Unconfirmed: 554 × 764 mm
Purchased 1985

Catalogue entry

Stephen Willats born 1943

T04106 Organic Exercise No.3, Series No.2 (Tower Block Drawing) 1962

Indian ink on paper 554 x 764 (21 3/4 x 30 1/8)
Inscribed ‘SW62' b.r. and ‘Tower Block Drawing | organic exercise No.3 (series 2) | July 1962' on back
Purchased from Lisson Gallery (Grant-in-Aid) 1985
Prov: Purchased from the artist by Lisson Gallery 1985
Exh: Stephen Willats, Models and Concepts since 1959, ICA, Jan.-March 1986, Mappin Art Gallery, Sheffield, March-April 1986, Städtische Galerie, Regensburg, June-July 1986, Hedendaagse Kunst, Utrecht, Nov. 1986-Jan. 1987 (no cat. but accompanying publication, see Lit.)
Lit: Stephen Willats, exh. cat., Chester Beatty Research Centre, 1964 (no number); ‘Catalogue' Stephen Willats: Concerning Our Present Way of Living, exh. cat., Whitechapel Art Gallery, 1979, p.13; Richard Francis, ‘Stephen Willats: Rites de Marge', The British Show, exh. cat. Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney 1985, pp.121-3; Richard Francis, ‘Stephen Willats', Michael Archer, ‘Recent Project Works' in Stephen Willats, Three Essays, London and Sheffield 1986, pp.7-8, pp. 29-33; Stephen Willats, City of Concrete, Birmingham 1986 pp. 5-9

Unless otherwise indicated, this entry, and those for T04107 and T04108 are based on an interview with Stephen Willats (29th March 1988) and notes supplied by him (15 April 1988). The entries have been approved by the artist.

T04106, one of Willats's earliest mature drawings, was made in July 1962. He describes it as:

One of a Series of four drawings (the ‘Organic Exercises, Series No.2') concerned with Tower Blocks, which formed part of a bigger series of fifteen drawings, all centered on concepts to do with sculptures and buildings.

These drawings, (‘Organic Exercise Series Two') were made as studies for a group of participation sculptures that I made in the early sixties, which expressed my concept of the ‘democratic structure'.

The idea being that as the structure was made from repetitive elements it could arrive at any particular form, which would be simply the point at which a person stopped adding fresh elements. As all elements were considered to have the same possibilities within the structure, any configuration that they ended up in was to be considered valid. A variety of sculptures came from this drawing series, some of which had hinged planes that could be moved about to create different variations on a basic structure, and others which were to be built up bit by bit from basic variables, the next participant starting from the form left by the previous participant. Some variables were made of painted wood, others from building bricks, cast cement and broken stone blocks.

Most of these sculptures have not survived but Willats has photographs of them; an example is reproduced in the 1979 Whitechapel exhibition catalogue, (‘Colour Variable No.3,' p.14) and, in another configuration, in Stephen Willats, Three Essays (p.8).

T04106 was made while Willats was a student at Ealing School of Art (1961-63) although it was not made at the school, which was closed for the summer in July 1962. The artist has pointed out that other related works were made at weekends or during the evenings and that a number of such drawings were carried out quite independently from the course work, which he still has and which is quite different. An unpublished note he has supplied, made in 1960, anticipates the drawings of 1962 and shows that architecture was already important to him:

The idea of a structure being composed of structural series of elements which determine the overall shape and function, also creating an internal environment, is the construction [found] in all natural phenomena, an ideal example being the cell. In the cell, one has a number of elements which are working towards a function and the whole. Similarly, the architectural designer has a set of elements which limit the design possibility. He uses a set of elements, the room, corridor, hall, etc., each element having a function and also limiting the visual structure of the whole.

In 1964, Willats contributed the following statement describing the ‘Organic Exercise' series of drawings to the catalogue for his exhibition at the Chester Beatty Research Centre:

These drawings are the result of a way of looking at and thinking about the environment. They are a form of data upon which I lay foundations for working towards other directions and dimensions. They are, therefore, a selected part of a mass of information which I have collected or produced from sources by which I have been stimulated.

I have been concerned 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.

In these drawings, the observer may view a single part, relate part to part, view the work as a whole, or wander at random over it. The drawings are connected with a way of looking at objects and relating oneself to an object ...

While at Ealing School of Art, Willats came into contact with a number of artists who were teaching there at the time, including Bernard Cohen and Harold Cohen, Adrian Berg, Roy Ascott, Bill Green and Anthony Benjamin. Particularly influential were Bill Green and Roy Ascott, whose ‘Ground Course' Willats attended. This emphasised the importance of establishing a strong conceptual base in advance of practical work. Willats became particularly involved in the creation of models for future practice. ‘Ascott taught that practice should be bonded to a strong theoretical base. Willats's first drawings are therefore more diagramatic than expressive; they represent conceptual models of systems involving changes of state within those systems' (Richard Francis, ‘Rites de Marge', p.121, edited version reprinted in Stephen Willats Three Essays). Willats had earlier also met a number of leading constructivist artists when working as a gallery assistant (at the Drian Gallery and at the New Vision Centre) and these contacts were particularly influential.

Willats admits that the series of four ‘Tower Block' drawings were made as a celebration of modern architecture (they were, he remembers, influenced by a block of high rise flats then being built by the underground station at Notting Hill Gate, near where he worked). As conceptual or theoretical models and the antecedents of his later works demonstrating the operation of social systems in actual Tower blocks and other urban environments (see, for example ‘Living with Practical Realities', T03296, repr. Tate Gallery Acquisitions 1980-82, 1984, p.220), the ‘Tower Block' drawings celebrated an idea about modernism and communal living and democratic structures.

Two of Willats's Tower Block drawings (from ‘Organic Exercise, Series No.2') are reproduced in City of Concrete which surveys Willats's work based on Tower Blocks up to 1986, (See ‘Organic Exercise No.1 Series 2', 1962, repr. p.22 and ‘Organic Exercise No.6 Series No.2 (Tower Block drawing)', 1962, repr. p.14). ‘Organic Exercise No.4, Series 2, August 1962' is reproduced in Stephen Willats, Three Essays, p.35.

The first series of Organic Exercise drawings, (see repr. in Stephen Willats, Three Essays, p.34) are more formal and diagrammatic and appear to relate more directly than T04106 to Willats's later series of ‘Homeostat' drawings of c.1969 (Whitechapel Gallery exh. cat. 1979, pp.16-17) which describe ‘self regulating, self organizing systems'.

More recently, Willats has reviewed the period when T04106 was made and has written about the ‘fundamental separation' between the ideals of planners and architects of the new housing of the 1960s and ‘the actual lives of the people who had to live there': ‘Despite the liberal notions of the 60s that inspired the professionals, what they demanded from residents was acquiescing self-responsibility, where object-like they would accede to the social attitudes enshrined in the language of their building' (Stephen Willats, City of Concrete, p.7).

The ‘Organic Exercise' drawings were only one series among a number of similar exercises Willats was engaged on at around the same time.

Published in:
The Tate Gallery 1984-86: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions Including Supplement to Catalogue of Acquisitions 1982-84, Tate Gallery, London 1988, pp.297-8

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