Anthony Hill | London | England | 1930-1920
Anthony Hill was a singular, but not solitary, figure in the art world. An artist under two names, and a mathematician and writer under more than one alias, he was a member of the constructionist group of geometrical abstract artists that emerged in Britain in the mid-1950s, and was its leading theoretician.
Founded by Victor Pasmore, the group was inspired by modernist movements in prewar Europe, seeking to offer a rational, geometrically based aesthetic in opposition to the widely promoted American abstraction. Hill’s attitudes and practice, however, were far from limited to those of a single artistic tendency.
The influential anthology he edited, DATA: Directions in Art, Theory and Aesthetics (1968), consisted of contributions not only from fellow artists, but from a physicist, a mathematician, a theorist of urban planning, a sociologist, the situationist Constant Nieuwenhuys, and a structural engineer, centred on three themes: “the future of plastic art, the relations of art and science, and the ideal of synthesis”.
Relief Construction by Anthony Hill, 1960-62. The use of industrial materials for small-scale works became Hill’s normal practice after abandoning painting in 1956.
By synthesis, Hill meant the integration of art and architecture, explored a few years earlier by himself and other constructionist artists contributing to a large pavilion on the South Bank in London for the International Union of Architects conference. This 1961 demonstration is considered to be one of the last group manifestations of the London constructionists.
For this “visual opera”, Hill produced a 48ft-long relief mural made of glass and polished and matt aluminium against a background of white panels. Since these materials were the same as those used for the pavilion itself, it was unclear what was the art and what was the architecture. But the use of industrial materials for independent small-scale works had become Hill’s normal practice since he abandoned painting for the constructed relief in 1956. In line with his 1957 proposal of a “scientific and technological art”, these relief constructions appear factory-made, consisting of angled aluminium extrusions, acrylic and vinyl plastic sheeting and – in a few cases – the white enamel backplate of a gas cooker.
During the 1960s, Hill’s partner was the artist Gillian Wise, a fellow constructionist who also participated in the 1961 exhibit and contributed a text to DATA. They collaborated on at least one construction; in 1963 they exhibited together in Reliefs/Structures at the ICA and in the mid-70s founded the short-lived ARS (Arts Research Syndicate) think tank.
In 1964 Hill visited the US for the first time, speaking at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and meeting Ad Reinhardt, with whom he had a continuing discussion on Mondrian and symmetry. In his essay in DATA, stressing that there was no mathematical basis to Mondrian’s paintings, Hill applies graph theory to the structure of a Mondrian work. Graph theory was the subject on which, from the early 60s, Hill contributed papers to mathematical journals and at international conferences. Hill’s Conjecture, stated in a 1963 paper co-authored with the mathematician Frank Harary, concerned the number of crossings in a complete graph; it is still not fully solved.
In 1979, he was elected a member of the London Mathematical Society and given a research fellowship in the mathematics department at UCL. At the same time, he was a part-time teacher at Chelsea School of Art.
Born in Hampstead, London, Anthony was the son of Adrian Hill, an official first world war artist and pioneer of art therapy. Adrian later became famous in the 50s and early 60s for his television series Sketch Club, but Anthony’s grandfather, Graham, may have exerted a more powerful influence. An eccentric figure, Graham was encouraged as a poet by Oscar Wilde and became one of the many lovers, among them Edward VII, of Lillie Langtry, writing plays with prominent roles for her.
From an early age, Hill had an unabashed inclination to be in touch with people whose work took his attention. At the age of eight he wrote to Gertrude Stein, who replied. In 1958, then on the editorial board of the science-art journal Leonardo, Hill called on the philosopher Theodor Adorno in Frankfurt, to solicit an article. Adorno was out, but the afternoon was spent talking to his wife. Adorno himself responded the next day with a flattering letter.
Such natural curiosity provided the background to Hill’s detailed understanding of 20th-century art history. When visited in the 50s by Alfred Barr, the first director of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, Hill asked why the museum displayed a Rodchenko painting upside down. Barr was taken aback when Hill showed him photographs of the exhibition in Moscow, where the painting was first hung.
After Bryanston school in Dorset, Hill began art studies at St Martin’s School of Art, London, in 1947, then continued at the Central School of Arts and Crafts (later combined with St Martin’s as Central Saint Martins, part of the University of the Arts London). The Central was at that time the only institution in England where modernism had taken root. There, artists such as Pasmore and the sculptor Robert Adams taught designers. A link with the prewar generations was provided by Naum Slutzky, a designer who was trained at the Wiener Werkstätte (Vienna workshop) and had taught at the Bauhaus.
These seniors formed a link to the modernist tradition and, already committed to abstract art, Hill was quick to follow their lead. He helped Pasmore with a ceramic mural at the 1951 Festival of Britain before call-up for national service. As a conscientious objector, he was directed to give art classes in a TB ward and in a psychiatric hospital. This occupied only three days of the week and he was able to take part in an exhibition at the Artists International Association and to organise the show British Abstract Art at Gimpel Fils gallery.
A series of group exhibitions followed in 1952 and 1953. These took place in the painter Adrian Heath’s studio at 22 Fitzroy Street. Heath’s proposal to produce a guide to abstract art led to Hill writing to Marcel Duchamp for permission to reproduce a work. He received polite agreement, and when Duchamp came to London in 1959, Hill interviewed him at the ICA, then in Dover Street, where Hill had had his first one-man show the year before. During the interview Hill did not reveal that he was an artist, nor did he say that some years earlier he had bought an example of the Green Box – the facsimile collection of Duchamp’s notes for his The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even, made in 1934. Not wanting this Green Box to enter the art market, Hill persuaded the V&A to buy it a year later, and it became the first Duchamp work to enter a British public collection.
By 2020, the Tate had 14 works by Hill. It also had three by Achill Redo – Hill’s artistic alter ego. In the mid-70s, his production of relief constructions diminished, and, as Redo, he began making collages and assemblages of found material, some erotic, many funny, some surprising in their juxtaposition of odd ingredients. Redo’s first exhibition was a joint showing with Hill at the Knoedler gallery in 1980. This was followed by solo shows at Angela Flowers gallery in 1983 (Redographs and Rough ’n’ Redomades) and 1989, this time under the title Botch the Wordie; The Redo Sho.
A fourth Redo exhibition was held at the Mayor gallery in 1994, the year in which he published Duchamp: Passim, an anthology. He recognised Duchamp as having put “mind” back into art. The irrational, the play of dadaism and chance, evident in his earliest work, appeared in his flat in Charlotte Street, central London, with posters and pieces of discarded, re-ordered office signage; a framed jigsaw of a Mondrian. His correspondence was equally eccentric. Letters were always headed by drawings of a man with a bow tie (a Hill trope representing self-satisfied authority) and identified in wild aliases, such as “L’Abbé Bé Bé de Dos Dos, Inventor of Gregorian Rap”.
Hill’s life was intermittently dogged by depressive illness. After a serious street accident in 2006, his mobility in later years was limited, but he continued to make work. A second anthology, with the working title Man–Art–Math, remains unpublished.
His wife, the ceramicist Yuriko Hill (nee Kaetsu), whom he married in 1978, died in 2013.