Sometime in the 1950s a friend gave Bryan Wynter (1915–1975) a parabolic reflector salvaged from a military searchlight. The artist was always experimenting with this sort of junk. Enthralled by Jacques Cousteau and Louis Malle’s underwater filmThe Silent World, he’d recently constructed an aqualung from raf surplus oxygen cylinders. This was also the year – 1956 – in which the American abstract expressionists showing at Tate led Wynter (who had made his reputation as a neo-romantic watercolourist) on his new path as a non-objective painter. Closer in spirit to the gnomic calligraphies of Mark Tobey or Bradley Walker Tomlin than to the full-arm gesturalism of Pollock or Kline, he described himself as ‘trying to create a kind of visual flux’. He wanted to achieve ‘a surface on which the eye found it difficult to rest so that… it would be compelled to push deeper and come to terms with the forces underlying the painting’ – a choice of metaphors in which his interests in scuba diving and Jungian psychology can both be felt.
Propped in his studio in Cornwall, the parabolic reflector stirred up similar ideas. Wynter had played around with the effect of Calder-style mobiles suspended in front of a flat mirror. The scooped semicircular glass, however, worked differently. Instead of being distanced by the mirror’s surface, reflections of moving objects appeared simultaneously to recede and to approach the viewer, ‘zooming and de-zooming’ in what felt like real space, echoing the ‘feeling of suspension, of “floatingness”, of everything about to move on’ that he sought in his painting. Echoing, too, the visual hallucinations induced by mescaline: Wynter, who considered himself an experimental rather than recreational user, took regular though apparently infrequent day trips throughout the 1950s.
After ‘many damp squibs’, he arrived at a model of construction in which a reflector was housed in a wooden box, facing a circular aperture. Painted cards, cut out in glyph-like geometrical shapes, hung on wires that moved in response to motorised magnets in the roof of the box, in which Wynter also installed an electric light. By 1965 he had produced enough of these kinetic works for an exhibition in London, where his dealers, Waddington Galleries, were finding action paintings of the static variety hard to shift in the Pop Goes the Easel era. The acronym IMOOS, for ‘images moving out onto space’, was chosen, said Wynter, ‘at the last minute in default of any other more ordinary satisfactory names’. Every piece sold.
Despite this success, and the subsequent wave of popular interest in kinetics, with Jasia Reichardt’s Cybernetic Serendipity show at the ICA in 1968 and Kinetics at the Hayward Gallery in 1970, he did not reinvent himself as a kinetic artist. The opportunity was there: at the Hayward exhibition, which drew 120,000 visitors, he shared the stage with Jean Tinguely, Nam June Paik and Liliane Lijn. Barbara Hepworth persuaded him to show an IMOOS in St Ives; bought by an American architect, it led to a commission for a plus-size version by the Bloom advertising agency in Dallas. Waddington Galleries, meanwhile, commissioned a series of IMOOS, for which Wynter received a monthly stipend. His studio became a production line, in which he methodically fabricated and assembled hundreds of individual parts. But by now the focus of his experimental and experiential passions had moved on – from kinetics to kayaking, from optics to hydrology and an obsession with the meander motif that informed his large new paintings.
For a moment, imagine Wynter’s career starting rather than ending in the 1970s. Exhibitions consisting of maps and documentation of kayaking expeditions, of his strikingly observed Kodachrome slides of flow patterns in land and water, of statements reflecting the most consistent single strand in his practice, his long meditation on the interface between unconscious mind and experienced world – and perhaps a walk-in IMOOS. The process of image formation, which for artists of his generation remained latent within the painting on the wall, would become an explicit, enacted part of the work.
In Wynter’s case, more than with other painters with whom he is usually grouped (Patrick Heron, Roger Hilton, Peter Lanyon), it’s not difficult to visualise such a scenario. Time then, in his centenary year, for some art-historical zooming and de-zooming. No description, no photo, no video even, can convey the quick-slow, colour-saturated, spaced-out wonder of Wynter’s hallucinogenic machines, which their diy construction and hitherto marginal footprint in the history of modern British art do nothing to dispel.
A room of Bryan Wynter’s IMOOS features in Tate St Ives’s summer season Images Moving Out Onto Space, which also includes Rivane Neuenschwander, Bridget Riley, Liliane Lijn, Dan Flavin and John Divola, plus new work by recent St Ives artist in residence Nicolas Deshayes, 23 May – 27 September 2015.
Michael Bird is a writer and broadcaster. His books include Bryan Wynter and The St Ives Artists: A Biography of Place and Time. His Children’s History of Art is due from Laurence King Publishing next year.