Obituary: John Ernest
Thursday 28 July 1994
JOHN ERNEST was a distinguished maker of abstract constructed reliefs. In London in the 1950s, he was one of the group of artists gathered around Victor Pasmore who produced, in the face of considerable antagonism, a rigorous, abstract art.
Though he was an American, Ernest settled in Europe with his Swedish wife Elna in 1946. His paintings made in France between 1949 and 1951 developed, under the influence of Klee and Picasso, into abstract compositions of positive and negative triangles, a form he was later to take up in his reliefs. He came to London in 1951, almost gave up art to study mathematics or science, but instead enrolled at St Martin's School of Art. He met Pasmore in 1952-53 and produced his first constructed relief, based on the golden section, in 1955.
At that time, the constructed relief, not carved, nor modelled but assembled from machine-made materials, was the art form chosen by several members of the group, including Pasmore himself, Mary Martin and Anthony Hill, to whom Ernest was closest. All were influenced, though to what extent is open to debate, by the theories of the American relief-maker Charles Biederman, with whom Ernest corresponded. Biederman saw the constructed relief as the logical development from Mondrian's paintings. The relief is a real object, with none of the spatial illusionism inherent in painting. In the constructed relief, space and the viewing arc of the spectator can be controlled more subtly than in free-standing sculpture. The use of modern materials connects it with the latest developments in architecture and the sciences. For the group of artists in London, the emotional vagaries of colour, too, were eschewed in favour of black and white and the colours inherent in the new materials, though here Ernest was a maverick, introducing yellow or a rich red into some of his reliefs.
In 1956, Ernest showed, with Hill, his early constructed work, a relief and a tower, at the important environment exhibition 'This is Tomorrow'. Characteristic forms in Ernest's reliefs are rectangular planes, ranged in rhythmic formation in vertical groups, L-shaped planes, permuted asymmetrically, and a combination of squares and right-angle isosceles triangles, locked together in lozenge-shaped super-patterns, which he called 'Mosaics'.
His other main art form, the constructed tower, was built of the same, immaculate sheet materials as the reliefs. Ernest admired them as they could be used to create volumes with minimal means and he fully exploited their varying light- reflecting surfaces. He was a master craftsman. He used machine- driven tools to cut, drill and polish so that his works have an unrivalled precision which set a standard for his colleagues and the younger constructivists he influenced such as Gillian Wise and Terry Pope. Ernest himself wrote, in one of several statements he made about constructed art: 'I want each element I use to be distinct, and each decision I make to be sure and unambiguous. But of course, in the end I want to make a thing that is whole and unified - a single thing.'
Ernest's search for perfection meant that he produced works slowly. There are probably only some 25 reliefs by him in existence. Almost all his constructed towers have been destroyed. The largest was made as a temporary structure for the International Union of Architects Congress on the South Bank in 1961. Here he also displayed his largest relief, a mural-size 'Mosaic Relief'. The decade 1954-64 was the most fruitful for his constructions and in 1964 he showed 17 of them at the Institute of Contemporary Arts.
There are other reasons besides his technique for his lack of productivity. Much of his time was spent in teaching, at the Regent Street Polytechnic, at Corsham, and at Chelsea School of Art where he taught from 1964 to 1987. He was a profound and winning teacher. He was also a voracious autodidact, investigating scientific discoveries, aesthetics, and mathematical problems in graphs and group theory. Sometimes his interests fused. He used his skills to build large models of viruses in 1956-59 and at the 1972 Arts Council Systems exhibition he showed a model of a negative Moebius Strip. One of the last works he exhibited, in 1978, was an 'Iconic Group Table' which developed from his research into group theory. He was also a dedicated chess-player.
Ernest enjoyed all these things, but he did not leave himself enough time for his art and we are the poorer for it. Most of his rare works are in private collections. There are however examples in the collections of the Arts Council, the British Council and the Tate Gallery. By good fortune, one of Ernest's finest 'Mosaic Reliefs' is now on show at the Tate in a gallery devoted to their holdings of constructed abstract art. The relief is placed beside one by his friend Anthony Hill and with other works by Pasmore, Kenneth and Mary Martin, Biederman and the founders of the long-lived, revolutionary movement, Gabo, Mondrian and Malevich.
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