The curatorial and editorial project for systems, non-objective and reductive artists working in the UK

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John Stephens   |   Pure      

21c post-minimalist abstract painting   |   Atelier Melusine, S.W. France

An essay by Sally Annett

The experience of seeing colour is different from the experience of experiencing colour’ (Mark Bickhard, 2005)

John Stephens. Ultra Pink with Blue (detail)

John Stephens is a British painter, academic and essayist. He has worked in a post-minimalist painting style since the 1970s, creating contemplative, colour field, geometric pieces from hand-made oil paint. 

Stephens’ current exhibition of paintings, ‘PURE’, at the ATELIER MELUSINE, explores the relationship between embodied experience, contemplation and colour theory.

His primary focus is on colour, using raw pigment to articulate colour relationships, making surfaces and their light absorbency a material reality.  He is obsessed with the surfaces and interrelationship of formal, rectangular shapes and how they manifest effects through layering pigment, so that they harmonise, balance and absorb the light creating concentrated planes of matt and sheen surfaces. Colour is employed to structure composition and is worked up from repetitive studies, made with self-fabricated aquarelle and gouache paints to ensure a full load of pigment in each hue, impossible to achieve with most commercial watercolours. The aquarelle works are comprised of painted single colour sheets on paper, cut and pasted until the correct architecture is found, and then upscaled in oil paint on larger canvases.

Stephens@the ATELIER MELUSINE 2023

Stephens also works in relief, using separate planes, cut-outs and add-ons in single panels, exploring metallic chroma. He uses no black or white pigments in his palette, focusing on the dialogue between primary colours and their secondary complementaries.

With his focus on colour, particular interest in abstraction and the processes of painting, Stephens’ work draws on an aesthetic derived ultimately from the constructivism of Malevich, also from minimalism and the colour field abstraction of the 1960s and early 1970s.  He is primarily interested in:

exploiting the potential for creating a visual poetry within a ‘pared down’ sensibility, using simple articulations of planes that can articulate subtle orchestrations of colour.” (Stephens, 2022)

Stephens’ exhibition ‘Pure’ is jointly curated by Annett (Directrice ATELIER MELUSINE) and Stephens, with Annett selecting the colour palette for the gallery spaces, alternating white and red in reference to Malevich, which creates hard-edge rectangles of colour with views through doorways and contrasting skirting. Through spatial context and colour structure in the gallery itself, the eye is led through colour on white, to colour on red, emphasising both the formal spaces, the dramatic changes in colour and the retinal after-images created by the contradistinctions. 

John Stephens: 'PURE' @ ATELIER MELUSINE 2023

Stephens uses colour alone to create or suggest the form and space of the painting. Colour painting carries memetic associations but also real physical and emotional impacts; on one level it is a map, on another a deconstructed mandala, either way it is a physical space co-created by light, surface, pigment, eye and brain; a virtual reality.

Stephens is profoundly aware that this is just one of the traditions he works with and which his paintings carry. He works meticulously and in a devotional fashion, both practically and theoretically. The work is achingly contemplative and formally geometric. Stephens works spatially with pigment, structuring the paintings using colour as form, but also with reference to the ideas of the golden ratio (phi) and Fibonacci sequences. Pacioli called phi ‘the divine proportion’ (Divina proportiona, 1509); it is one of the oldest recorded mathematical and artistic devices in history. The German astronomer and mathematician Kepler later wrote:

“Geometry has two great treasures: one is the theorem of Pythagoras, the other the division of a line into extreme and mean ratio. The first we may compare to a mass of gold, the second we may call a precious jewel.”

John Stephens, Blue on Blue (2022)

Much of the critical dialogue about colour and the ideas surrounding colour theory rely on qualitative and reported data; the emotional responses felt and observed by the viewer, overlaid by their personal, collective, religious and psychological constructs. It is evident that there are real physiological events underlying the emotions and the links between the human eye and human consciousness.

How we see colour is not only connected to the genetic evolution of the eye and nervous system, but to the development of human language and symbol. Colour and language co-operation seem intrinsically linked in our species, since ancient evolutionary times, and therefore may create deep bodily responses as well as intellectual reactions.

John Stephens Ultra Red with Indigo (2021)

Through colour we have come to understand and co-create our world from the simple proteins and pigments that are the building blocks of brain and eye. We have an instinctive and a learned experience of colour, at once collective and individual, which is directly linked to our conscious understanding of our environment, and arguably to consciousness itself. In some ways this is the root of abstract and minimalist colour painting. It taps into fundamentals somatically, and allows internal reflection, in a purist way, of the present as it exists around us. 

Where do we search for the meaning of colour and sight without relying on overtly psycho-spiritual or religious ideas, inseparable from human evolution? Perhaps within the genome and the neurological processes involving pigments, which regulate the absorption of and sensitivity to colour, and thereby the sensory and cellular signalling pathways of the light that humans seePigment is fundamental to the process of sight at an internal, physical level. To greatly over-simplify we  see colour only because of pigments, opsins, in our eyes and brains, and we have such advanced brains only because of sight and light, the two critical elements of encountering paintings.  

John Stephens, Yellow Centre (2022)

Sitting with Stephens’ paintings creates a deeply contemplative state, highly personal to each viewer; there is an expectation that one will take time with these works, often in silence, in the space. They signal deep internal reflection. Like a Rothko or a Hoyland, there is more than one colour, one tone for the eye to scan. Each panel of primary or secondary colour is clearly delineated against the next, but in dialogue with the viewer, stimulating ancient if not primordial responses to pigment, sensed by pigments within the body and asking what that might mean to an organism whose consciousness has evolved with its vision.


Stephens’ carefully felt-out positioning of geometric colour panels which align primary, secondary and tertiary colours absorb us on as many levels as they absorb light. There are no faces or imagery to narrow down or focus our broad gaze into a line of sight. 

Works that have more complex patterns can draw in the viewer, but the  intricacy of their patterns keeps the brain and eye network travelling, scanning and searching for narrative or meaning. The onlooker is drawn into the painting.  With Stephens’ work, the viewer is drawn into themselves, in a more spacious way.  

John Stephens, Detail, oil on canvas

Single colour panels, like Malevich’s, may represent an essential or universal force, but the multi-coloured panels by Stephens suggest a multiplicity of forces, paradoxically provoking deeply self-reflective states, moving the onlooker from a state of potentiality to a state of dynamism.


Being with Stephens’ beautiful pieces, which reflect in their form and concept the paintings of Albers, Joseph, Truit, Malevich, Obering and Herrera, allows the viewer to think and feel their way a little further into these profound states of being: expanded space, simplification, contemplation and pleasure in PURE colour.

John Stephens, The First Time, balsa wood and oil

Extended writing: PURE

The text above is from Sally Annett’s extended essay, which draws on an interview recorded with John Stephens,  (see YouTube video here) and on Mark Bickhard’s work, ‘Colour and Consciousness’, which explores the physical processes of seeing colour, its relationship to the parasympathetic homeostatic processes and the evolution of consciousness. The extended essay will  be published later this year on the Atelier de Museline website.

Sally Annett, January 2023

©Copyright Patrick Morrissey and Clive Hancock  All rights reserved.

John Stephens @ the ATELIER MELUSINE. 2023. Image Annett.


1. Fink, K. (1903). A Brief History of Mathematics. Translated by Beman, Wooster Woodruff; Smith, David Eugene (2nd ed.). Chicago: Open Court. p. 223. (Originally published as Geschichte der Elementar-Mathematik.)

2. Bickhard, M. (2005) ‘Consciousness and reflective consciousness’. Philosophical Psychology Vol.18. No.2, April 2005, pp. 205-218. Routledge. Available at\

3.  Francis-Dias, S. (2014). Significance and creation: Emotion and the primacy of colour in art (Architecture and painting). Available at art_architecture_and_painting


John Stephens studied fine art at the Hochschule fur Bildende Künste in Berlin, (now Die Universität der Künste) Germany and was there during the politically significant years of the late 1960s. His professional life has been in art education with his final post before retirement being the Head of Art and Design at the University of Bedfordshire. During the 1980s and 1990s he was involved in the Castlefield Gallery, Manchester, one of the first artist-run galleries in Britain outside London. He has shown his work in London, Manchester, Israel, Belgrade in Serbia, Venice, France and Germany.