This elegant retrospective of work by Kenneth and Mary Martin (which travels from Camden to Tate St Ives) drew out the differences and distinctions between the couple, who were among the foremost proponents of abstraction in London in the 1950s and ’60s. Their work (included in the seminal ‘This Is Tomorrow’ exhibition at the Whitechapel Art Gallery in 1956) was inspired by the mathematical rigour and search for a purity of rational thought that motivated early Modernist abstraction, and particularly Constructivism.
Their concern with the history of abstraction meant they differed from their contemporaries who were also working in geometric idioms, as Caroline Douglas notes in her introduction to the exhibition. The work of the Martins should be viewed separately from the sensuous, body-evoking forms of Barbara Hepworth and Henry Moore, and from the anxious, psychological sculptures of other contemporary British artists such as Kenneth Armitage or Lynn Chadwick, working in the style that critic Herbert Read dubbed ‘The Geometry of Fear’ (a term that seems better suited to Hollywood marketing than to sculptural abstraction). The Martins’ work harked back to the Utopian aspirations of the 1930s, and their late turn to abstraction reflected that era’s call for a universally available language and democratic accessibility. Their use of building materials echoed the reconstruction that was then occurring in postwar Britain – of sites such as the Southbank Centre in London, where art would be exhibited for all the populace. The two contributed directly to this movement with public commissions: Mary Martin’s wall screen for the Musgrave Park Hospital in Belfast (1957), for example, and Kenneth Martin’s iconic stabile for London Zoo (Construction for the Nuffield Foundation, 1967–8).
Both worked with the idea of the Golden Section, the ‘perfect’ proportion between geometrical lengths developed by Pythagoras and used in the construction of the Pyramids, the Parthenon and, more recently, in the canvases of Piet Mondrian. Often developing each piece outwards from one single line or form, the Martins’ work shows how mathematical rules, even applied in the same way, can yield insistently different and individual results: displaying the two artists’ work side by side leaves no confusion as to whose is whose. Kenneth Martin produced dynamic stabiles and canvases while Mary created claustrophobic, nugget-like wall reliefs that seem to compact space as much as Kenneth’s work allows it to soar outwards. ‘Airlessness’ is a word that can be applied to both, with a switch of meaning between the density of Mary Martin’s wall reliefs and sculptures (some were exhibited encased in glass) and the anti-gravity freedom of Kenneth Martin’s stabiles and canvases, where lines float in an infinite abstraction.
Though Kenneth was arguably the more talented of the two, it is Mary’s work that came across as more affecting, perhaps because it is not as flawless. Her wall reliefs and small sculptures have a self-abnegating quality, a will towards muteness, that is found in later artists such as Bruce Nauman: the joke that turns in on itself, the angles that reflect inward. In a series of ten wall reliefs of steel-covered geometric forms (‘Expanding Permutation’, 1969) the reflective surfaces of the geometric landscape consume light, sending it inwards and creating pockets of darkness. Earlier works such as the plaster relief Columbarium (1951) or the larger wood Black Relief (1957) show the indentations of forms and fit these recessed shapes together with the economical neatness of someone building an airtight wall. If Mary Martin cultivates claustrophobic puzzles, Kenneth’s work delights in the moment where mathematical precision results in the irregular: in the painting Order + Change (No Chance). Generated by One Straight Line/Destruction of the Square (1984) the squares and crosses of the left half of the canvas reappear in similar but altered form on the right: a tight green square expands in size, and criss-crossing pink lines on the periphery of the left side move towards the centre of the canvas’ right.
Kenneth Martin’s manipulation and holding in tension both stasis and disorder are most keenly felt in his stabiles, whose elements seem lopsided but which hang in perfect balance, their central axes at right angles to the ceiling and floor. Spiralling bars, gold wings clustering along a metal rod, a silver conglomeration of upward-facing angles (almost a stylized bottle rack) demonstrate his tough and continual inventiveness. Camden Arts Centre is in the vicinity of the late Martins’ former home, creating a lucky and wonderful continuity between the optimism of their era and the outward manifestations that remain elsewhere in the public eye today.