Made a decade after what Herbert Read hailed as a ‘revolutionary’ departure from representational painting, Abstract in White, Black, Brown and Lilac presents a cross section of Victor Pasmore’s core concerns. It epitomises his ‘notion of constructing a picture like a carpenter constructs a box with wood, saw, hammer and nails’.  The rectangular support is divided by a central spine from which painted wooden strips reach out on either side and forward into the viewer’s space. Shifting back and forth in three dimensions, it seems it could almost melt through the wall. This kind of carpentry invokes the mysterious as much as the workmanlike.
The dominant terminology around Pasmore’s ‘conversion’ to abstraction implies that this was a decision of bewildering, spiritual magnitude.  Yet this relief shows abstraction to be – far from a split – a logical step from his figurative period, as founding member of the Euston Road School. ‘Most remarkable of all’, Norbert Lynton maintains, ‘he was not afraid to risk the comment that he had not gone abstract after all but merely shifted the balance of observation.’  Its deceptively unobtrusive palette (the coloured forms do protrude) can be traced back to scenes of the Thames, such as Quiet River (1943–44)  or Hanging Gardens of Hammersmith No. 2 (1949) , where branches and posts hover or recede in indeterminately anaemic water, air, mist; Pasmore, a conscientious objector, caught the chill in the air as Britain awaited reconstruction.
Looking back, he regarded it as an inevitability that ‘the implications of modern scientific development would affect the imagery of naturalist art as drastically as they altered the concepts of natural philosophy’ . D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson’s classic biology text, On Growth and Form (2nd ed., 1942), presents a mathematical analysis of natural forms determined by their growth patterns, and it is a reference point for the post-war Constructivist revival, with Pasmore at the helm. Yet if his underlying concepts were scientific in inspiration, his work was instinctive in practice, allowing for what Lawrence Alloway called ‘delicate, hunchy’ decision-making. In 1956, Alloway observed Pasmore at work in his Blackheath studio and described the systematic process that went into a similar relief.  Investigation of a rectangle was initiated by sketches of horizontal and vertical lines, which were adapted to a specific rectangle taken from a textbook. Plastic and plywood strips were arranged on a sheet of glass above a large white baseboard on the floor, culminating in a spec. for production (often in batches) in a London factory.
The inquiry into the formal boundaries between painting, sculpture and architecture underpinned Pasmore’s teaching as Head of Painting at King’s College, Newcastle, where his and Richard Hamilton’s ‘Basic Form’ course (‘each category should be presented as part of a developing process’) was set to become a national model.  At the same time, as design consultant for Peterlee New Town in County Durham he could expand his methods on an environmental scale. His Apollo Pavilion, a network of concrete slabs intersecting over a lake (completed 1970), was to prove a magnet for graffiti, which he deemed a humanising addition. Likewise, despite the regularity of machine-made right angles, flush intersections and even surfaces in Abstract in White, Black, Brown and Lilac, there is a resistance to its being overly ‘finished’. Playing with optical assumptions, it bulges with a sense of ‘almost’: the rectangular mount is almost square, the linear forms flanking the spine are almost inversely symmetrical. And as the white mount bleeds into the larger plane of the surrounding wall, so too the painted forms gesture towards the expanse off-limits, like lines of text inviting a page to be turned.
© Dorothy Feaver 2009
Victor Pasmore, ‘The Transformation of Naturalist Art and the Independence of Painting’, in Alan Bowness and Luigi Lambertini, Victor Pasmore: with a Catalogue Raisonne of the Paintings, Constructions and Graphics, 1926–1979 (London: Thames & Hudson, 1980), 100.
2 See for example Jasia Reichardt, Victor Pasmore (London: Methuen, 1962), unpaginated.
3 Norbert Lynton, Victor Pasmore: Nature into Art, exh. cat. (New York: Center for International Contemporary Arts, 1990), 26.
4 Tate Collection, London.
5 Tate Collection, London.
6 Victor Pasmore, Victor Pasmore: Recent Works 1974–77, exh. cat. (London: Marlborough Fine Art, 1977), 3.
7 Lawrence Alloway, ‘Pasmore Constructs a Relief’, Art News, 55/4 (Summer 1956).
8 Victor Pasmore, ‘A Developing Process in Art Teaching’, in The Developing Process (Durham: University of Durham, 1959), 3.