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Blazing a Trail / Mary Martin (British, 1907-1969) Opposition 61 x 122.1 cm. (24 x 48 in.) (unframed)

Lot 21
Mary Martin
(British, 1907-1969)
Opposition 61 x 122.1 cm. (24 x 48 in.) (unframed)
28 September 2022, 15:00 BST
London, New Bond Street

Sold for £38,100 inc. premium

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Mary Martin (British, 1907-1969)

signed, titled and dated 'Mary Martin '56/"Opposition"' (verso)
oil with plaster relief and gouache on panel
61 x 122.1 cm. (24 x 48 in.)


The Artist, from whom acquired by
John Weeks, 1962, thence by descent to the present owner
Private Collection, U.K.

Mary Martin was an innovative Constructivist artist, part of an avant-garde group which included Victor Pasmore, Robert Adams, Adrian Heath, Anthony Hill and her husband Kenneth Martin, who she had met while studying at the Royal College of Art. Martin explored the possibilities of making constructed abstract art, often using the medium of the relief and three-dimensional shapes to do this, starting from the late 1940s and early 1950s. She is best known for her complex reliefs which used square and rectangular shapes organised in different permutations and often to dazzling effect, exploring the many combinations she could create from the repetition of one simple element, which later centred around the cube. As she herself wrote in 1957, 'the end is always to achieve simplicity'.

Mary and Kenneth had two children, John and Paul, born in 1944 and 1946 respectively, and caring for their sons limited the output of Mary's work at this time. In the late 1940s her work was still quite representational and richly coloured, including Still Life with Fruit from 1948 (Private Collection), which glows with orange and yellow tones. Her first abstract work was made shortly after, and she moved quickly to a palette of mostly grey, white and black, using almost no colour at all between 1949 and 1956. Opposition, painted in 1956, is an extremely rare work by Martin. Not only is the medium very experimental – oil with plaster relief and gouache – but it shows an unexpected foray into colour too. In 1957 she commented: 'At first, in an abstract work, colour is eliminated or severely restricted in order to free it from association. Once that has been achieved and colour becomes free, one can again use as wide a range as the form demands.' (M. Martin, 'The End is Always to Achieve Simplicity', 1957, quoted in A. Grieve, Constructed Abstract Art in England After the Second World War: A Neglected Avant-Garde, Yale University Press, New Haven, 2005, p.92). In 1956 she began to experiment with colour more fully, which we can see in the present work. This makes Opposition all the more refreshing and shows an increasing confidence in this new mode of working. White still forms the basis for the work, but is joined by black, pink, red, green, brown, turquoise and pale blue.

Not only does Martin's use of colour mark this work as very significant, but the medium is a departure from many of the materials she was using at that time too. Previously her constructed reliefs used mostly plywood, Perspex and stainless steel cut into square or rectangular shapes, so the shift to painting as well as soft, modelled plaster and curving lines shows a facet of her working practice that is very little-known. Opposition is therefore an unusual but important work, perhaps even unique in its medium and use of colour for this date, using a complex palette, painting and curved forms when most of her work of this time was characterised by hard-edged geometry, a slim range of colours and materials which could be cut or cast.

The present lot was acquired directly from the artist by the architect John Weeks in 1962, whom Martin collaborated with on a number of occasions, including on a pavilion at the seminal This is Tomorrow exhibition in 1956 at the Whitechapel Gallery in London. The exhibition evolved from an initial idea from architect and writer Theo Crosby for an exhibition involving architects, artists, designers and theorists and was a collaboration with members of the Independent Group. The thirty-eight participants formed twelve groups, which worked towards producing one artwork, and the result was a series of interactive installations, with Mary Martin, Kenneth Martin and John Weeks forming group 9. Mary Martin also collaborated with Weeks in 1957 for a relief for Musgrave Park Hospital, Belfast. She used similar proportions for the work, titled The Waterfall, as Weeks and his partner Richard Llewelyn Davies used in the design of the hospital, also incorporating materials used in the construction of the building – including warm grey brick, white painted cement and satin-finished stainless steel. In thanks for this commission, the artist gave Weeks a relief from 1954, White Relief with Black. Weeks and Martin shared many things, not just a common aesthetic, but also a concern for art and architecture that had a social relevance, with Weeks devoting much of his architectural practice to hospitals.

With unique provenance and extremely rare in its use of materials and colour, Opposition presents a fascinating insight into Martin's working practice in the mid-1950s, when she was an active member of the nearly all-male Constructivist movement. An avant-garde artist but also a working mother, not only are pieces from this period scarce but it is even more unusual to find one in this experimental style. It is an honour to present this very special work to the market.

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