Norman Dilworth died

When Norman Dilworth was awarded the Peter C Ruppert prize for concrete art in Würzburg, Germany in 2019, he recalled the moment 40 years earlier when a gallery owner in Amsterdam saw the first work he planned to exhibit there. “She looked around at the pieces on the walls, and the ones on the floor, and then she burst out laughing,” Dilworth told her audience. “And I thought, ‘How wonderful is this’.”

It was certainly unexpected. Among the works in the show, at the now closed Swart gallery, were pieces such as Horizontal II (1979), a graphic wall-mounted squiggle in stained wood. They didn’t seem like obvious joy. Even less so than the aesthetic philosophy that underpinned them, a tendency in the late 1960s and early 70s known as systemic art.

Dilworth, who died aged 92, happened upon this by chance. Born in Wigan, Lancashire, to Joseph, headmaster of St Cuthbert’s Catholic primary school, and Alice (Tickle’s niece), an infant school teacher, he originally hoped to become a mathematician. Dissuaded from this at his Jesuit boarding school, Mount St Mary’s, Chesterfield, he decided instead on a career as an artist, going first to Wigan School of Art (1948-52) and then to the Slade School in London (1952 -56). ). A stellar student, he won the Slade’s Tonks prize for drawing and then, after graduating, a scholarship from the French government to study in Paris. The judges for the award were Henry Moore, John Piper and Anthony Blunt.

France came in the 1950s as a revelation. Dilworth recalled sitting in Le Bar Monaco in St Germain with other tough young men, discussing “how to put the post-war gloom behind us and think about what we could do”. An introduction from William Coldstream, the principal of the Slade, led him to Alberto Giacometti’s studio. It was another Parisian sculptor, François Morellet, who was to shape his future, however.

Morellet was soon to join the 11-day collective known as GRAV (Groupe de Recherche d’Art Visuel), which eschewed consumerism and individualism and sought public participation. Because of its labyrinths, the group’s work was also unexpectedly fun. As Morellet put it, it was “the kind of art you could go to on a picnic”.

Returning to Britain in 1958, Dilworth set about reincarnating this Parisian spirit back home. It was not easy. The titles of the group shows he participated in – Structure, Constructions, and Experiments in Form (all 1966), Multiples (1969) – indicate the type of art he was making. Morellet hit upon a system by which numbers chosen at random from a painted grid telephone directory could be ordered.

In London, the newly formed Systems Group was following a parallel path, making art based on simple, self-generating geometric forms that established their own visual algebra. Although Dilworth did not formally join the group, he worked with them as a fellow traveler.

Along with six other artists, he produced the portfolio of prints Rational Concepts (1977), one of which is now in the Tate collection. In the artist’s statement accompanying his print – an outline cross with two ghostly arms – Dilworth emphasized the formal basis of his art. “If I say ‘I draw a line’,” he wrote, “I use Subject-Verb-Object”. The intention, he later said, was to “make work that would not be limited to the individual object and sold to the elite. We would do a lot of work at a reasonable price for everyone.” British critics scratched their heads, as did most galleries.

The same was not true on the European continent. In 1973, Dilworth was included in an exhibition at the Swart called 4 English Systematic Artists. In 1975, he bought an apartment in Amsterdam, moving there full-time in 1982. Works such as Half by Half by Half by Half (1988-91) were deliberately self-effacing, darting into corners and up gallery walls. . He would have solo shows at the Swart every other year from 1976 to 1984, and then at another Amsterdam gallery, Art Affairs, from 1991 to 2000.

In between, he exhibited at respected avant-garde galleries in Frankfurt and Hamburg, Groningen and Brussels. Not, however, in London. After co-curating the Hayward Gallery’s ground-breaking Pier + Ocean show in 1980, Dilworth faded from the British scene. It was only in 2010 that it was exhibited again in London, and even then it was at a French-owned gallery, Laurent Delaye.

In 2002, he and his second French wife, photographer Christine Cadin, moved to Lille. Regarded in the Netherlands as a national treasure – after 20 years, Dilworth’s flat vowels contained the interrogative Dutch “hehs” – he was given the singular honor of a permanent exhibition at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam. In Lille, he continued to produce works such as Four by Four (2008), which remained true to his systematic principles while remaining unexplained.

Due to his complete lack of recognition at home, Dilworth continued to see Englishness in his art. In his 2007 catalog essay on the aftermath of his work at the Musée Matisse in Le Cateau-Cambrésis in north-east France, he reflected on the difference between English and French church architecture. “One notices an angularity in English design contrasted with the flow and plasticity of its neighbor,” wrote Dilworth. “The parts are not molded together, they are added part by part and each is allowed to live on its own. This ‘odd squareness’, as Niklaus Pevsner called it, [is] characteristic of English art in general.” The ecclesiastical architects of medieval England were systems artists avant la lettre.

Dilworth and Christine are survived by their sons, Christophe and Matthew, and their children, Rachel, Joe and Jane, from a previous marriage, in 1958, to Mary Webber, which ended in 1976 in divorce.

Norman Joseph Dilworth, artist, born 12 January 1931; he died 25 January 2023

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