Obituary: Jean Spencer


Jean Mary Spencer, artist and educator: born Frimley, Surrey 22 April 1942; married Malcolm Hughes 1997 (died 1997); died London 4 January 1998.

For many artists in the more liberal Sixties and Seventies teaching was the lifeline which financed studio practice but for Jean Spencer a commitment to both was there from the outset.

At Bath Academy of Art (1960-63), then in Corsham, she took a teacher training course in art instead of straight fine art. She then went on to teach at Bulmershe College of Higher Education in Reading (1968-88), before a 10-year stint at the Slade School of Fine Art as Tutor to Students and Secretary to the School, and, from 1995, also as Reader in Fine Art.

In the sixth form she had decided that art was for her, and her other A level subjects, maths and literature, remained of almost equal importance throughout her life. Her artistic path was decided in her second year at Bath when Malcolm Hughes and John Ernest, as tutors, introduced her to the world of systematic constructivism, with which she engaged immediately. The labels of that kind of art would change, as would her work, over the next 35 years, but for the rest of her life hers was to be an abstract constructive art, founded in rationality and in strong egalitarian conviction.

The early works were white reliefs, often articulated by numerical sequences, but in the mid-Seventies she became interested in colour because, as she said, "there comes a point when the sorts of things that you want to say about how something relates to something else . . . become extremely complex". Painting was a matter of dealing with a question or a problem whose answer would be found in pictorial resolution.

In a recent interview she talked about a four-part set of paintings made in 1992: "I wanted to deal with deep violet as a problem and make a painting which starts with that deep violet." Those paintings were of equal, "egalitarian" bands, but more recently she played, against all constructivist orthodoxy, with our tendency to seek an object and a ground and with the interchange between the two:

I wanted certain boundaries to be seen as though under dispute; I wanted colour alignments to countervail geometric divisions; I wanted an asymmetry of composition to offer, perhaps, some resolution to the asymmetries inherent in the colour array; and all this "legally", that is within a system against which individual judgements can be made.

The cerebral and the emotional were as important as each other and she was acutely aware that, while her paintings involved the detachment of rules or systems, they drew life from the contingencies of fleeting light and the active collaboration of the people looking at them. "You only get interest out if you invest!" she remarked.

Collaboration and exchange were always important. Spencer was the youngest member of the Systems group whose activities reached their climax in an Arts Council touring exhibition, first shown at the Whitechapel in 1972.

What she saw as "an ideal kind of collaboration" came about from 1983 when Ray Thomson's Whitechapel studio would be converted each month into Exhibiting Space where artists, architects, theoreticians, historians, linguists, musicians et al would gather in an attempt to break down the barriers between art practice and art theory and to explore connections with other disciplines.

Spencer's egalitarian commitment led naturally to feminism and to ardent support for other women artists. It was she who came up with the title Countervail, adopted from Julia Kristeva's 1972 essay "Giotto's Joy", for a grouping of women artists which had sprung out of interviews with the sociologist Elizabeth Chaplin. They took issue with the mainstream feminist position that all forms of rationality were antipathetic to women. As Spencer confessed, "I don't think at any point we came to a comfortable solution to that", but discussions led on to her initiating a "Postal Academy", and to a successful series of exhibitions and seminars in Sheffield, and at Warwick and York Universities.

Spencer was the epitome of the artist-researcher, always curious and enquiring, and invariably bubbling with the excitement of some new connection found. In 1978-79 she took time out to do an MA in the History and Theory of Art at Sussex University and is remembered as a student of daunting intelligence and depth. She read and re-read Proust, loved Bach, and found interest in early narrative opera, particularly Handel. That engagement with narrative and with time in its apprehension formed a major part of a study of Giotto's Arena chapel which was far advanced but incomplete when she died. All this fed into her painting.

It is some achievement to have got this far having mentioned Malcolm Hughes only once. The tutor became partner and eventually husband, and theirs was one of those remarkable artistic partnerships which allowed each their independence, and whose kitchen in Putney, south-west London, was second home for many an artist and musician. They shared a passion for bicycles and for his 70th birthday Jean offered Malcolm a trip to a place of his choice to see the Tour de France. A few years later they cycled the breadth of England, admittedly at its narrowest, but probably its hilliest point, ending up at Durham Cathedral.

Jean's death was a tragic sequel to that of Malcolm, also from cancer, in September 1997. Over the previous five years and more they had been the driving force and vision behind a project which led to the exhibition "Testing the System" at Kettle's Yard in Cambridge, followed by a symposium, "Patterns of Connection", and an exhibition of the paintings of Richard Paul Lohse. Their last summer was spent with Jean, for once free of educational duties, as Kettle's Yard Artist Fellow at Churchill College, and Malcolm in attendance.

The last blue of the six paintings which Jean Spencer made in Cambridge was applied to her instruction by Trevor Clark in the week before she died.

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