Critics’ Picks

View of “Control. Stephen Willats.,” 2014.

View of “Control. Stephen Willats.,” 2014.


Stephen Willats

Raven Row
56 Artillery Lane
January 23–March 30, 2014

Stephen Willats produced the work in his latest exhibition over just seven years, between 1962 (when he was nineteen) and 1969. During this time, Willats wanted to rediscover art’s social role and mistrusted modernism’s self-referentiality, but these forty-five works on paper—pencil armatures flooded with bright gouache and oils—have a striking visual language unusual for an artist primarily known as a Conceptualist. Most, like the two gum-pink conjoined polygons that encase the irregularly spaced, multicolored rectangles in Architectural Exercise in Color and Form No. 3, 1962, seem like exuberant blueprints for some real-world place or some intended action. The titles of the three drawings series (e.g., “Organic Exercise,” “Drawing for a Project,” “Area Development”) and their recurring socket, grid, and circuit-board shapes reinforce the sense of these abstract geometric forms as descriptions of potential relations.

There is nothing staged nor nostalgic about revisiting this tightly bracketed time span in the 1960s: Willats’s absorption in cybernetics and media theory centered on fundamental concepts of human communication, such as feedback and agreement, and almost miraculously avoided hokey futurism. An exhibition within the exhibition reconstructs for the first time Willats’s 1968 solo show at the Modern Art Oxford: A darkened, black-walled maze leads viewers through a sequence of encounters with kinetic machine works, three-dimensional wall-mounted constructions with lights that blink at random and blocks whose rotation is cued to the speed of brain waves. Intended to stimulate viewers’ awareness of their states of consciousness, the machines blink like wordless ads or deprogrammed traffic lights, familiar semaphores isolated and abstracted just as in Willats’s drawings.

The exhibition closes with the artist’s 1963 Environmental Box, a wooden console with compartments full of different textured substances (pebbles, velvet) that viewers open and touch. Signaling Willats’s increasing investment in sociological methods, a stack of questionnaires beside the box offers viewers a chance to draw a response to the tactile stimulus.