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Keith Richardson-Jones

Self-effacing constructive artist

Monday 25 April 2005 00:00 BST

For Keith Richardson-Jones art was not a matter of self-expression but a fertile dialogue between the artist and the work: "There's this coming together of what it wants to do and what I want to do and you have to respect the outcome of the system . . . It has to be what comes out."

Geoffrey Keith Henry Richardson-Jones, artist: born Northampton 27 June 1925; married 1952 Jean Dunlop (one son, one daughter, and one son deceased; marriage dissolved 1969); died Abergavenny 5 March 2005.

For Keith Richardson-Jones art was not a matter of self-expression but a fertile dialogue between the artist and the work: "There's this coming together of what it wants to do and what I want to do and you have to respect the outcome of the system . . . It has to be what comes out."

In a conversation with his former teacher and fellow constructive artist Malcolm Hughes, for an exhibition catalogue in 1996, he summed up his career:

a trajectory of liberation from mimetic representation, abstraction devoid of deep conviction, adoption of geometric form, a passing involvement with "op" colour interaction and an ultimate settling for space/form relations, theoretically determined then systematically (rigorously) implemented.

Characteristically concise and self-effacing but, vitally, he went on to point out the place of intuition in binding the visual, theoretical and material elements together into an aesthetic, cohesive whole.

The son of a musician, with Bach a part of daily life, he was born in 1925; his leaning towards art was encouraged by Walter Hussey, later Dean of Chichester, but then Canon at St Matthew's Church, Northampton, where he commissioned the Henry Moore Madonna and Child and Graham Sutherland's Christ on the Cross.

As a student at the Royal Academy Schools, Richardson-Jones balked at life drawing but the exercise of copying Trajan Roman letter-forms and their spacing laid foundations for later developing a visual vocabulary of spatially related, "concrete", geometric forms. Progressively he set aside imitation and abstraction in favour of invention, and in 1964 began to construct monochrome, geometric reliefs. His work moved between relief and painting and, from 1969 into the 1970s, he experimented with the additional dimensions of colour with the same objective rigour, positioning each colour on a notional three-dimensional map according to its hue, its lightness or darkness, and its density or saturation.

The evolution of Mondrian's work, van Doesburg's "vocabulary of geometric form" and Richard Paul Lohse's construction with colour sequences were valuable precursors, but so was much earlier painting, Giotto especially; and architecture and music would be equally influential. He visited Florence as much for Brunelleschi as for Piero della Francesca, and Prague, armed with a list of buildings which needed to be seen and photographed. His own work he thought of as architectonic and felt in tune with the phrase "chamber architecture", coined by that other maker of geometric reliefs Mary Martin.

The structures of music, from Bach to Schoenberg's atonal procedures, with their inversions and reflections, provided further confirmation of the path he was taking, jazz also played its part, and hearing Steve Reich's Drumming at the Hayward Gallery in 1972 coincided with his own move towards seriality. At first he used linear progressions based on numerical sequences, then expanded them into planar relationships, and finally set about exploring the points at which dissimilar sequences coincide.

By this stage he was back to working predominantly on white reliefs, using light and shadow to divide a given format, perhaps by an arithmetical progression of additions, and then dividing its pair by fractions. Each divide might be signalled simply by a groove and the coincidence of divisions in the two panels by the darker shadow of a groove of double depth.

A piece made in 1988, Imperial/Metric: 50/127, comprises two conjoined panels, one marked off in centimetres, the other in inches. (Aptly it is owned by Lohse's daughter.) Its length is determined by the two scales finally coinciding at 50in and 127cm. There is satisfaction and amusement in its eventual, Anglo-European resolution, and wit in its likeness to an all-white piano keyboard whose keys don't quite meet until the very end. And wit there was, constantly belying the apparent intellectual austerity of constructive art. David Saunders, who taught with him at Derby and Newport Colleges of Art in the Sixties, recalled in his funeral address an artist with strong Dadaist tendencies, who for months, on boards of various sizes, fiddled with the positioning of a filthy, tattered gym-shoe until he achieved a proportion and configuration that satisfied him.

During the early Sixties Richardson-Jones involved himself closely with the activities of the Signals Gallery, a pioneer in the field of kinetic art with links to Europe and South America, and exhibited there in 1966 in Soundings Three. He was given one-person exhibitions at the Lisson Gallery in 1970, at Oriel, Cardiff in 1977, and a 25-year retrospective at three galleries in Wales in 1996. But beyond these he valued the creative and critical companionship he found in exhibiting and conversing with older and younger constructive artists, both in Britain and in Europe, and through teaching.

In 1965 Richardson-Jones and David Saunders, in the wake of the Coldstream Report, moved to Newport College of Art, where they joined up with another constructive artist, Jeffrey Steele, in developing innovative techniques and methods, not least in exploring the interaction between art and music.

Teaching and living in Derbyshire and South Wales, as he chose to do, could have been isolating, and it was only with the 1978 Arts Council exhibition Constructive Context, where he showed with 14 other artists that he felt finally accepted as a contributor to British constructive art. He participated in Répères in Paris and Forum Konkrete Kunst in Erfurt, and from 1984 to 1989 he was an active participant in Exhibiting Space, London, a forum for exhibition, collaboration and debate which also opened up association with musicians such as Michael Parsons, Howard Skempton and John White.

The culmination of that project was the exhibition "Testing the System" in 1996 and the subsequent colloquium "Patterns of Connection" the following year, both at Kettle's Yard. The deaths of his co-exhibitors and London hosts, Malcolm Hughes and Jean Spencer, within months of those events, were shattering blows and were followed by serious illness which abruptly ended his career.

Dialogue, discretion, and an unwillingness to impose were at the heart of the work and the man. He leaves a distinguished body of work whose keynote, in its maturity, is one of reconciliation:

that's what an artist's craft is: reconciling those two elements, the cerebral and the felt, in a single work. It was the same for Bach, it would even be the same for an abstract expressionist.

Michael Harrison

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