Stephen Willats

Visual Field Automatic No.1


Not on display

Stephen Willats born 1943
Plywood, wood, plastic, metal, light bulbs and circuit board
Object: 1910 × 1220 × 220 mm
Purchased from funds provided by the Knapping Fund 2004


Visual Field Automatic No.1 1964 is a large rectangular wall-based construction made from wood and plywood that is painted black and on which five lights are mounted. Four of the lights are individually housed within square frames and are placed at each of the four corners of the black rectangular structure, and each of these lights is set behind a piece of plastic of a different colour (blue, red, green and yellow). A single, circular white light is positioned at the centre of the structure. All of the lights are linked to a circuit board that is hidden from view, and they flash one at a time in a series of random computer-generated sequences.

Visual Field Automatic No.1 was produced by the British conceptual artist and sculptor Stephen Willats in London in 1964. Little is known about how he constructed this work, which is one of a series of six sculptures that he created in the mid-1960s, each of which have the title Visual Automatic or Visual Field Automatic followed by a number.

The sculpture is an example of Willats’s early object-based work that explores the intersection between art and social behaviour. Willats had become interested in phenomenological and behavioural theories while a student on the experimental Groundcourse at the Ealing School of Art in London from 1962 to 1963. This course encouraged a multidisciplinary approach to art practice through the understanding of semiotics, learning theory, systems analysis, the behavioural sciences and cybernetics (the study of mechanical, physical, biological, cognitive and social systems). A 1963 lecture given at Ealing by the cybernetician Gordon Pask had a profound effect on Willats and his tutors, and according to the computer artist George Mallen ‘they began to try to use the ideas from cybernetics as a base from which to create a new approach to art and art education’ (Mallen 2005, p.1).

As is seen in much of his subsequent work, Willats conceived Visual Field Automatic No.1 as a behavioural artwork that invites a response from the spectator. In this sculpture and others in the series, such as Visual Automatic No.5 1965 (Tate T11784), the random sequences of flashing lights may provoke the viewer to impose some order on the flashes, yet the desire to systemise is left unfulfilled by the lights’ unpredictable pattern. In 1968 Willats described the possible effect of this for the spectator:

The earlier works of the series of Visual Automatics and Shift boxes of 1963–65 took the form of limited sets of automatic variables operating at a set frequency, but with infinite random subsets and combinations, the observer being forced to discriminate between various random sets and build his own order. A game of prediction is set up where the observer tries to impose an order, and work out the probability of an occurrence of events.
(Quoted in Stephen Willats: Visual Automatics and Visual Transmitters, exhibition catalogue, Museum of Modern Art, Oxford 1968, p.3.)

Visual Field Automatic No.1 was first displayed in 1966 in the exhibition Kunst-Licht-Kunst at the Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven, alongside the work of other artists who have made works featuring light, such as Dan Flavin and László Moholy-Nagy. It was also exhibited with nine more of Willats’s mechanical sculptures in a solo exhibition entitled Visual Automatics and Visual Transmitters at the Museum of Modern Art, Oxford, in 1968.

The broader Visual Automatic series to which this work belongs has been described by the curators Chris Stephens and Katharine Stout as being part of ‘a wider phenomenon of kinetic art, and like much of that work, related to the illusory movement and phenomenological effect of Op Art’ (Stephens and Stout 2004, p.40). Furthermore, Willats’s early work has also been linked to Russian constructivism and to the mechanical, object-based artworks produced by the twentieth-century French sculptor Marcel Duchamp (1887–1968) (see Stephens and Stout 2004, p.40).

Further reading
Chris Stephens and Katharine Stout (eds.), Art in the 60s: This Was Tomorrow, exhibition catalogue, Tate Britain, London 2004, pp.40, 111, reproduced p.109.
George Mallen, ‘Stephen Willats: An Interview on Art, Cybernetics and Social Intervention’, Page Sixty: Bulletin of the Computer Arts Society, Spring 2005, pp.1–7.
Andrew Wilson, ‘Stephen Willats, Work 1962–69, Raven Row, London 2014,, accessed 5 December 2014.

Jo Kear
December 2014

Supported by Christie’s.

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