David Saunders was born in 1936 in Essex. Between leaving school and being conscripted for military service, he worked briefly in the advertising industry. During this time he attended the evening life classes held by Vivian Pitchforth at St. Martin’s School of Art, then situated on Charing Cross Road, London. The area was a hive of avant-garde cultural activity.
Stationed on Salisbury plain, he had the opportunity to pursue his passion for painting while not on active service. The local landscape of chalk downs dotted with isolated clumps of woodland, inspired many of the paintings of Paul Nash. This landscape may also have played a part in the formation of Saunders’s early work.
Released from the army, Saunders studied painting under Frederick Gore at Saint Martin’s School of Art. From 1959 to 1962, his studies continued at the Royal Academy Schools, London, where he took his Master’s.
His first public showing was in the context of the Young Contemporaries, London, 1959. There, he exhibited a painting of imaginary landscape inspired by his first visit to Italy that same year. The following year, he took part in a mixed exhibition entitled “Tomorrow’s Artists” at the Grabowski Gallery, London.
His first solo exhibition was held in 1965 at the Artists’ International Gallery, London.
His work had begun to receive critical attention and, in 1967, he exhibited in ‘A Survey of Abstract Painting’ at the Camden Arts Centre. Among others, this exhibition featured several paintings by Peter Joseph. A close friendship between Joseph and Saunders, an intense and wide-ranging dialogue, conducted in both visual and verbal registers, has endured since that time.
It was from this show that the Arts Council purchased the first of the artist's paintings to be included in a public collection. That same year, his work was included in the Edinburgh Festival exhibition ‘Hundred Best Paintings’, at the Richard Demarco Gallery.
In 1965 Saunders was appointed to a teaching post at Newport College of Art. There he met the painter Jeffrey Steele, six years his senior. At an open exhibition in Cardiff in 1968 the two artists shared the Arts Council Purchase Prize. This key event began a long collaboration between the two, the first manifestion of which, one year later, was the establishment of the Systems Group. The British artists who became members of this group adhered to the principles of international Constructivism, albeit with a non-utopian political edge. Steele, when he became Head of Fine Art at Portsmouth Polytechnic, invited Saunders to take a part-time lecturing position there. It was in this context that Saunders came into contact with members of the English school of experimental composers. Michael Parsons, one such member, has remained a close friend and collaborator.
The relatively short life of the 'Systems' group culminated in 1972 with the ‘Systems’ Exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery, London, in the context of which Saunders exhibited a large installation. Many of the artists identified with the group exhibited at the Lucy Milton Gallery, London.
In 1970 Saunders was artist in residence at The Gardner Centre for the Arts, University of Sussex. By 1972 he was working as a guest artist at the Stedelijk Museum studios in Amsterdam. There, he engaged in a far-reaching study of the work and environment of the painter Piet Mondrian.
Between 1970 and 1980 Saunders was a visiting lecturer at the Slade School of Fine Art, London University, which he combined with teaching painting and photography at Liverpool Polytechnic Art School. In 1988, aged 52, he stepped away from formal teaching.
For Saunders, 1980-1990 was a period of intense research into the function of colour in painting, of which one of the outcomes was the 1986 Arts Council exhibition ‘Colour Presentations’ which Saunders organised jointly with the painter Richard Bell. The introductory text in the catalogue contains an essay by the philosopher Bernard Harrison.
Having quit formal teaching, the artist returned to London, taking a studio in the city’s East End at the Bow Arts Trust. There, his work took an – apparently – radical turn that may not have been unconnected with significant events in his personal life. Whatever occasioned this change in heading, this period is marked by intense and fruitful activity.
In 2006, Saunders moved permanently to the French Pyrenees where the material and spiritual conditions match his manner of working.
History of the Origins of the 'Systems' Group of Artists
For a brief period in the mid 1960s, painters David Saunders and Jeffrey Steele found themselves teaching at Newport College of Art in South Wales. During that time, they identified many areas of common interest and research and became close friends as well as allies against what they saw as the college’s reactionary art environment.
In 1968 the Welsh Arts Council held an open exhibition, which included a purchase prize, as part of the National Eisteddfod at Barry, Glamorgan. Pieces for the exhibition were selected by the critic Guy Brett. He had an interest in work that held some scientific, rational, logical or mathematical grounding and featured aspects that crossed the usual institutional boundaries. Steele and Saunders were producing work that fulfilled this aspect of Brett’s selection criteria, so, unsurprisingly, they were jointly awarded the purchase prize.
The prize money was divided equally and each of the works went to national collections. 'Gulf Stream', by Saunders, can be seen in the collection of Bodelwydden Castle, a small museum near Llandudno in Wales, jointly run by the National Portrait Gallery and the V&A. It can also be viewed online at BBC Your Paintings:
Guy Brett knew Malcolm Hughes and shared his enthusiasm for works of visual-plastic art that were informed by logical processes and mathematics. Hughes was also exploring possible connections between visual-plastic art and contemporary experimental music. Saunders had a keen interest in this articulation at the time, one that endures to this day. Malcolm was already aware of Saunders’s work from the exhibition 'Survey '67 Abstract Painting', Camden Arts Centre, London. In 1968 he travelled to South Wales, the better to appraise himself of the research and projects being undertaken by Saunders and Jeffrey Steele. Together they formed the idea of founding a group consisted of artists working in a systematic way. Hughes, Steele and Saunders drew up a provisional list of artists to be invited to take part in a pilot exhibition.
Steele's then wife Arja, who was Finnish, had connections with the art world in Helsinki. She arranged the pilot exhibition of the 'Systems' group, held at the Amos Anderson Museum in 1969. It was accompanied by an illustrated catalogue, the cover of which featured a reproduction of a painting by Saunders. The painting was shown in his 1969 solo exhibition at the Greenwich Theatre Art Gallery, London. The statement that it was a “catalogue cover design”, is erroneous. (See Studio International September 1969 p.87). The erroneous statement appears in the essay by Dr Alan Fowler, in the catalogue to the 2008 exhibition at the Southampton City Art Gallery.
In 1972, Saunders worked with Malcolm Hughes, Jean Spencer, Jeffrey Steele, Peter Lowe and Nicholas Serota in planning the major 'Systems' Group exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery, London.
Later that year, he had a solo exhibition at Lucy Milton Gallery, London. At the time it was the only UK space to specialise in showing constructive and concrete art.
Note: “Exhibiting Space” (1984 – 1989) London, is the only other (non-commercial) UK space to have specialised in showing constructive and concrete work since.
There is clear documentary evidence of Saunders having contributed to the 'Systems' exhibition and that he was a leading figure in the development of the Systems group. Malcolm Hughes certainly considered him to be one of the main thinkers engaged in the 'Systems' project. (Studio International May 1972 pp. 200 – 203).
Saunders's work of this period (1974) culminated in the suite of paintings entitled 'Rhythm from Three Intervals', now in the collection of the Tate Gallery, London. These works push the idea of paintings based on a completely recoverable (transparent) decision-making process, to new limits.
This work exerted a degree of influence on the teaching of mathematics and on music – both experimental and popular. (Saunders had been personal tutor to Brian Eno at Winchester School of Art in 1968. He was a member of the influential Liverpool band Deaf School, as well as a contributor to the Portsmouth Sinfonia and other experimental groups.) It should be understood that this work did not signal a move away from painterly issues towards an alternative form of art practice. Rather, Saunders’s forays into apparently alien terrain in fact constitute an enriching extension of his experiments in and through painting. The (minor) influence exerted on music and mathematics was a by-product of his painterly investigations.
In view of the foregoing, it is something of a mystery that Saunders's work has not featured in any of the exhibitions of constructive and Systems Group work held in the UK in recent years. Its inclusion in 'A Rational Aesthetic – The Systems Group and associated Artists', Southampton City Art Gallery, 2008, begins to looks like the kind of exception that proves the rule.
Repeated omissions could begin to indicate something more than mere oversight. It is possible that writers and artists such as Alan Fowler and Jeffrey Steele take the view that Saunders abandoned constructive work in favour of a return to lyrical abstraction. The implication is that Saunders’s present practice somehow invalidates his work from the period stretching from the 1960s to the 1990s.
In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. Saunders’s move from the Euclidean methods deployed by the ‘Systems’ artists toward fluid systems began around 1997.
Malcolm Hughes recognised and appreciated this development. He included some works by Saunders in an exhibition entitled ‘Testing the System’, organised shortly before his death in 1997. Saunders’s work was not included in the first exhibition to bear the name, staged at Kettle's Yard, Cambridge, as Hughes became only aware of the new departure after the opening. It was, however, included in the second, held at JNJ Gallery, Prague.
Saunders’s later work has had been exhibited regularly in Germany at St. Johann Gallery, Saarbrucken and also Forum Konkrete Kunst, Erfurt, where it was recognised and supported by director Heidi Bierwisch from as early as 1998.