There was a time when you needed a degree in mathematics to understand trends in experimental music and art. The serialists of the 1930s, for example, composed according to mathematical principals. British painter David Saunders did something similar in the 1960s and ’70s as part of the Systems Group, a collective who used maths to create their paintings. Was this to break away from the cubists and their pointy ladies? A two-finger salute to the American expressionists and their overblown, drippy canvases? I don’t know, and I don’t really care. What matters is that under the guise of creating system-based art, David Saunders painted some vital, challenging and really quite pretty work.
The overlapping monochrome grids of the three ‘Black Transformation’ (1973) works are stark, difficult and confrontational – the work of someone literally painting by numbers to create simple geometric fields that have no meaning and no real purpose. Their only reason for existing is an aesthetic one.
The same goes for the ‘601-3’ (1979-’80) paintings. Three near identical canvases made up of triangular shapes, varying only in colour. They’re rigid and repetitive, tripping across your field of vision, like watching landscapes rushing past from a train window. They’re just paintings, and that’s all they need to be. No conceptual bumpf, no big ideas, just geometric abstraction on a canvas.
There are nods to the Bauhaus here, like in ‘901-2’ (1985), but Saunders is somehow more rigid, driven and aggressive than those German modernists.
In more recent works, Saunders has gone all expressionistic, with blobs of colour everywhere and big brush strokes sweeping across the canvases. It’s hard to make this kind of abstract art these days because it’s the kind of thing you find in Ikea. Yes, they’re quite pretty, they just don’t have the power, elegance or relevance of the earlier pieces. Saunders is an overlooked part of British art history, but the early works here show that we’d be stupid to forget him.