An interview with Peter Lowe – British constructivist

Peter Lowe interviewed by Alan Fowler, PhD research student, Southampton University

AF What were the origins of your first interest in constructive art?

PL In the summer of 1955, I hitchhiked from London to Paris, slept rough and got into the Rodin Museum for free. In the gardens was an astonishing open-air sculpture exhibition where I saw constructions by Naum Gabo, a wind up clockwork machine by Jean Tinguely and many abstract and semi figurative works by the European avant-garde.

AF You have written recently about the teaching of Kenneth and Mary Martin during your studies at Goldsmiths’ College. Which aspects of their teaching made the greatest impact on your own development?

PL The Martins’ interpretation of Cubism had the greatest impact. For example, Juan Gris’ use of geometry to organise a canvas and how that led to collage and moving formats in non-figurative work. In 1964 Kenneth Martin appointed me as his teaching assistant at Barry Summer School in South Wales. This marked an intense period of experimentation for me.

AF In 1969 you joined what became known as the Systems Group. What were the particular interests in becoming involved in this group activity, and what did the group see as its aims?

PL My participation in Systems group came about through a chance meeting with the painter Jeffrey Steele at Barry. With his wife, Arja Nenonen, he organised the first Systems exhibition at the Amos Andersonnin Museum, Helsinki. Although Jeffrey Steele remained a key participant, Malcolm Hughes subsequently took over the running of the group and it met regularly at his Putney studio.

As artists outside the contemporary mainstream we needed to promote our work. We also aimed to provide ourselves with a forum for ideas. We ran our own summer courses and organised seminars and exhibitions. Lucy Milton opened in Notting Hill and her gallery became a showcase for international constructed art. Both as a group and as individuals,we benefited from her help and encouragement.

AF The systems group has been described as being involved in the promotion or practice of “syntactic art” How would you describe the concept of artistic syntax?

PL Jeffrey Steele proposed the word ‘syntactic’ as an alternative or subtext to ‘systems’. I argued that the word ‘systems‘ was preferable to ‘syntactic’ since it was the more common usage. We could have translated the term ‘art concret’ but decided not to because, although ‘concrete’ is the antonym to ‘abstract’, it also has the misleading connotation in English of a mix of stones, sand and cement. Syntactic tendencies are found in most cultures whereas Western European art is preoccupied with mimesis and symbolism. I directed my work towards system and syntax because of my dissatisfaction with abstraction, mimesis and symbolism. Artists invent systems for their own use but Jay Hambidge, Le Corbusier, Theodore Cook, Arthur Schlillinger, Wilhelm Ostwald and others devised systems intended for common use. Hambidge, Le Corbusier, and Cook, were concerned with proportion. Schillinger proposed the systematic integration of all forms of expression based on mathematics. Ostwald published a taxonomy for describing and organising colour. I regarded it part of my artistic education to work through these and similar ideas without necessarily subscribing to them. William Blake advocated creating a personal system “I must create a system or be a slave to another man’s” said Blake. By working with the fundamentals of system and visual syntax, I hoped to avoid dependency.

AF Is it important for the viewer to be able to deduce the underlying geometrical or mathematical system or structure?

PL How viewers choose to see things is a matter for them. Making a work and interpreting it are two different acts. Anyone can present something they have found or made but not everyone can make sense of it. Information in syntactic work can be retrieved and presented in other ways, as a notation for example. Notations can be orchestrated in different ways; as drawings, with colour, with solids etc. It is seldom easy to fit the concept to the means and vice versa. There is solace in looking, though perhaps not always. Most things are interesting to look at and so much can be looked at to satisfy the most compulsive voyeur. To go out of one’s way to find special objects to look at, or to have the temerity to add to this super-abundance, one must presumably have a reason. Curiosity to see what something imagined will look like is one motive. There is more than one way of seeing syntactic works and this ambiguity adds to their richness. Some people complain that to understand something ruins their enjoyment. Sometimes ignorance is bliss but understanding heightens perception. Viewers are encouraged to look at syntactic art without interpreting it in literary or figurative terms. It is not always appropriate to look at things as metaphor. We never see the raw visual fact of anything if we insist on looking at everything in terms of something else.

AF Your work seems to place importance on systems which have a logical or rational conclusion as well as a starting point. Could you expand on this?
PL When or where to start and stop ordinarily besets creative enterprise. The Martins’ used permutations which contain a beginning and an end. I invented an alternative conclusive method using identical units. Four units combined, layer upon layer, form a cube. This also allows me to convey direction, growth and scale.
AF To what extent is the production of one of your works a process of experimentation or discovery as distinct from having a pre-conceived outcome?

PL My works derive from preconceived rules but although I know what the rules are, systems have the potential to generate configurations that I might never discover if I relied entirely on taste and ad hoc methods. I invent but also discover rules intrinsic to the number of elements, the material or the scale for example. My working methods allow me to modify a system without compromising its logical integrity. I can arrive at an entirely unforseen outcome.

AF And could you also comment on the interaction between rationality and intuition or instinct in the construction of a systems based art object?

PL It has been said that intuition is that unfailing instinct that tells us we are right whether we are or not. In applying a system, first decisions are invariably arbitrary. From then on it’s a dialogue between chaos and order. Although we all have feelings about ideas and ideas about feelings, it has become mandatory to separate and value emotion above reason. An art that refuses to separate feeling from intellect goes against expressionist art theories which have tended to monopolise the debate.

AF Is one aim of syntactic art to eliminate evidence of personality of the artist, as was envisaged in Russian Constructivism, or is an individual identity of a body of work by any one artist inevitable?

PL Not only the Constructivists but also some of the Dadaists and Surrealists shared this aim when they experimented with chance. Syntactic art does not glorify idiosyncrasies of craftsmanship like the brush mark etc. Bravura performances of technical skill or lack of it are not an essential. But, for better or worse, the personality of the artist will emerge whatever systems or structures are in place.

AF How important is it for syntactic artists to produce written explanations of their work – as distinct from the view that art objects should speak for themselves through their visual appearance and impact?

PL I believe it is important.On the other hand, it is a measure of a failure to communicate visually if elaborate explanations are required.

May 2005

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About Phil Lambert

Visual artist based in Cardiff
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