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Anna Lovatt on Bob Law, minimalism and drawing degree zero
e-interview Rupert White
Accounts of Bob Law's career tend to begin with his Field drawings, which started in 1958. At the time he had recently moved to Cornwall to live in a cottage a few miles from St Ives. What can you say about his relationship to the other art and artists of St Ives?
I know that Law met Ben Nicholson and Peter
Lanyon when he moved to Nancledra in 1957 and like those artists, his
work responded to the Cornish landscape. We can see the influence of
Nicholson in a drawing like River Avon Gorge, 1966, in the current
exhibition (image below).
What were Law's other inspirations, and what was he trying to do in these early works?
Law was interested in the writings of
nineteenth century nature mystic Richard Jeffries, such as his book The
Story of My Heart, 1883. Jeffries describes an ecstatic communion with
the English landscape, lying down in the meadows and looking up at the
grass, trees and sun above. In Jeffries’ book, the sun becomes a symbol
of the soul, drawing his thoughts outwards and upwards in a rush of
Law had already begun the Field drawings when
he saw “New American Painting” at Tate and the similarities with his own
work were revelatory for him. Although he had seen paintings by Newman
and Rothko in reproduction, he was “knocked… out by their sheer size”
when he encountered them in person.
Drawing is a continuous thread throughout Law’s work, as demonstrated in the current exhibition at Richard Saltoun.
We could think of linear sculptures like Reclining Obelisk, 1984, (image below) in terms of drawing, or the skewed black frames of his large Mister Paranoia paintings. Law often made drawings in series, noting their dates in the lower right-hand corner so that each set records the passage of time. Drawing was a daily practice for Law, which extended from the late 1950s into the early 2000s.
The exhibition includes a set of eight drawings
produced in July and August 1995, which show his interest in seriality
and the many possible permutations of a relatively simple structure.
Law is sometimes described as an “English Minimalist” and his interest in abstraction, the monochrome, series, and systems could be linked to the work of Donald Judd or Sol LeWitt. Yet the term “Minimalist” is problematic, because it was used by critics and rejected by all of the artists to whom it was applied.
More than fifty years on, I can see connections
between Law’s work and that of younger artists like Roni Horn, who have
invested Minimal forms with affective and esoteric meaning. The term
Minimal only makes sense in relation to Law if we apply it in this more
This is a question I address at length in my
book Drawing Degree Zero: The Line from Minimal to Conceptual Art.
Drawing’s preparatory and subsidiary
connotations had seen it marginalized by collectors and museums in favor
of painting and sculpture, but these provisional qualities were
precisely what made it so attractive to artists in the 1960s and 70s.
During this period drawing became less
concerned with representation and more concerned with notation—recording
ideas, impulses and processes as they were unfolding.
Dr Anna Lovatt is Assistant Professor of Art History and Director of Graduate Studies at Meadows School of the Arts, Southern Methodist University, Dallas. Her book 'Drawing Degree Zero: The Line from Minimal to Conceptual Art' was published by Penn State University Press in 2019.
Bob Law: Ideas energies, transmutations is at Richard Saltoun Gallery 3.9.20 - 31.10.20