Theosophical, Arithmetic, Systematic, Rhythmic, Optical, Playful…

The history of Concrete Art is firstly a history of false hope. It is a history of modernist faith that was championed by the intellectual and artistic avant-gardes that dreamt of a socially just world – one where obscurantism would disappear and be replaced by the triumph of balance and reason. Modernism was born simultaneously in several European countries at the beginning of the 20th century, not to mention elsewhere, in an artistic context of painting still understood to be the medium of effecting change. The major disruption for this history of art centred on the advent of ‘abstraction’ and happened: in Holland with the De Stijl journal and involving Piet Mondrian and Theo van Doesburg, in Russia with Suprematism and the futuro-Cubists, in Poland with the Unism of Katarzyna Kobro and Władysław Strzemiński and in Germany with the Bauhaus, to name a few. Despite two apocalyptic wars, the certainty of belief in social progress, led by art, nonetheless continued well into the middle of 20th century.

Daniel Göttin, Project 8, 2004–2008,
Pakenham St Fremantle

To address the historic content of Concrete Art, without re-writing the history of art since 1909, we should first note what was then understood by the term “abstraction”. The etymology suggests that abstraction is a mode of representation that infers reality in a more oblique way than mimetic representation. From Paul Cézanne to the advent of Cubism, Futuro-Cubism and Suprematism, we see abstraction gradually outweigh representation that attempts to portray the visible world by mimetic illusion; leaving behind the famous talisman of Paul Sérusier (1888), translating as: a plain reading of external reality passed through the prism of a subjective vision. Painting took ever more liberties with the representation of the real, and became ever more radical in its self-definition. It gradually came to have all manner of ties with a more internal reality.

If the term ‘Concrete Art’ first appears in the writings of Theo van Doesburg in 1930, it’s because abstract painting has remained unclear and plural. In the early 1950s, Léon Degand put forward a redefinition: True abstract painting is one that is either in its purpose or in its reference pertaining to the visible appearances of the outside world. However stylized, scrubbed up, or reduced to primary colors and straight lines – not only as Bart van der Leck demonstrates but also, even in the monochrome of Ellworth Kelly – we find that painting continues to draw on forms of external reality. The painting, says van Doesburg, in his manifesto of Concrete Art, must be built entirely with purely plastic elements, that is, planes and colors. A pictorial element, he stresses, has no other meaning than ITSELF. Therefore, the image has no meaning other than ITSELF. Comments from members of the collective in the journal, Revue Art Concret, which seem shocking today in their formulation that combine women and cows, pretty much summed up the antagonism of abstraction that Concrete Art sought:

Concrete and not abstract painting, because nothing is more concrete, more real than a line, a color, a surface .... A woman, a tree, a cow, are concrete in nature, but to the state of painting they are abstract, illusory, vague, speculative, while a plane is a plane, a line is a line; nothing less, nothing more

Piet Mondrian, Victory Boogie Woogie, 1943-44
Photo: Hubert Besacier

The work of Piet Mondrian follows this evolution from abstraction to concrete. After his late discovery of Paul Cézanne and Cubism, his painting evolves into an increasingly refined style. From Still Life with Gingerpot II (1912) to Composition in Line, (1917) his painting liberates itself from the mental and visual barrier of mimesis. Finally, and connected with the investigation of van Doesburg, he makes the decisive leap, in the first compositions with colored planes of 1917. Consider for a moment two of the most significant paintings that are in the collection of the Gemeentemuseum in The Hague; two diamond-shaped paintings: Composition with Grid 1 (lozenge) (1918) and the final and unfinished Victory Boogie Woogie (1943-1944). The first shows the most radical early research of the artist, the second comes at the end of the race; when death interupts the work, at the time of an ultimate new beginning.

Composition with Grid I, reflects Mondrian’s attempt to reduce the design of his compositions to a regular, modular system. He excluded color and emphasised the need to stick to vertical and horizontal composition. In a letter to van Doesburg he spoke of his aversion to the diagonal. The tilting of the painting is partially an attempt to resolve this issue. However, for a while, the orthogonal grid remains in the tipped-over diagonal. However, it soon disappears, for example in Grid 5 and Grid 7 (1919). His famous aversion to the oblique may seem to us today, to be anecdotal. Yet it is essential to understanding his work. It was the cause of the estrangement between Mondrian and van Doesburg, but also, and at about the same time, it parallels the divergence between Malevich and Strzemiński. Yet we must admit that if the oblique is banished from Mondrian’s painting, it nonetheless remains de facto in the form of tilted frame, that is to say in the object, notably present at the very end of his opus.

Van Doesburg questioned the mathematical measure that Mondrian attempts to apply (in his first diamond painting) from the beginning. According to van Doesburg, this arithmetic leads to a too rigid grid. Indeed, Mondrian agreed, and at the end of 1919 he abandoned the modular grid. He advocated a spiritual and not materialistic division of the pictorial surface. In his exchange with van Doesburg, he evokes the subjective role of rhythm as going beyond the regularity of pure mathematical proportions.

The act of applying a rotation of one eighth, in order to change the square format to a diamond, however raises an important question. Indeed, it is tempting to see this as Mondrian approaching a concrete conception of the object/painting. (And bear in mind, the English language does not take into account the French expression – tableau in terms of its fullest ramifications for ‘painting’). An old word for a homogeneous medium, tableau describes a wooden board (from the Latin: tabula), and is very useful to consider as name for a designed material form that refuses distinction between the support, and its shape or color. With it, we can consider the material existence of the support not only as a substrate but as an object in-itself. This principle had tremendous impact on artists throughout the second half of the twentieth century. As such, the most obvious elements of the viewing experience in this conception, that artists have expanded on, include the shape of the canvas and the research of supports/surfaces.

Mondrian however, was not there yet. On one hand, defending the role of the painter and the painting over a solely architectural vision, he urged van Doesburg: “We must look primarily at the painting and not the physical form”. However, this shift in the square may also have another origin, in representation. During a conversation in Haarlem, Dutch artist Kees Visser pointed out to me that the format of the diamond in fact has a long history in the tradition of Dutch paintings from the seventeenth century. Indeed, in many churches, and the interiors of Pieter Jansz Saenredam in particular, one can see many examples of diamond-shaped paintings adorning internal pillars. So, when he takes a decisive step towards modernity, Piet Mondrian remains committed to a tradition of Dutch churches, and a spiritual conception of painting.

In his text, New Plastic (NEOPLASTIK, De Stijl 1917-1918), Mondrian said that the painter should work for unity: “The balanced ratio is, in fact, the purest representation of the universality of harmony and unity which are characteristic of the spirit”. This concept of balance covers both form and color. To achieve universal artistic expression, we must stick to the plane (a flat plane in the paint, in his own words) and purified colors. Soon after, he spurned the primary colors, including bright yellow which had been seen to crystallize the movement toward making light a characterisation of modernity. The last diamond, Victory Boogie Woogie (1943-44) appears when it became certain that the darkness of World War II would pass, refocusing all that fertile development of concrete paint, from which a future art would spring forth.

Piet Mondrian, Victory Boogie Woogie (details), 1943-44
Photo: Hubert Besacier

This deeper thought on the tableau provides a great avenue for the freeing of rhythm. Victory Boogie Woogie is more than a work in progress. It is a work that confronts us with creative thinking in action. Mondrian spent his last year working on it, ceaselessly combining painting and collage, using small strips of colored paper, as though playing a game of matching colours. The result is amazing. It conveys the excitement of returning to the modernist faith; it manifests the syncopated rhythm of victory over the forces of evil, but pictorially speaking, it is a living work that throbs. Nowhere is paint more related to music, as here the word ‘composition’ takes on its full meaning.

De Stijl, and in general all the modernist movements, established close relationships between architecture and painting.2 While the protagonists of De Stijl designed colourful environments for public buildings, such as the University of Amsterdam (1921-23), and Café Aubette in Strasbourg (1926-28) – attempting to apply theories and solve the issues of Neoplasticism in painting at the scale of the city – it should also however be noted that such painting was still an easel-based practice. For example, we are always surprised when confronted by the original works of those artists, who are now the models of modernism, to see that what we took for solid colours – the famous flat colorés/plans – are in fact assemblages of small meticulous strokes made with a small brush – bordering on a kind of pointillism. This is of course because we tend to interpret the works of the past through their images, projecting ways of thinking, but also techniques of producing that are available to us now.

Even before Mondrian moved to New York, the reputation of his work inspired an approach to art making by American artists who, admired his achievements in practical and theoretical terms. In the years from 1936 to 1937, a tender was placed by the New York FAP division for murals for a public housing development in Brooklyn; seeking a group of artists to create avant-garde abstract murals. The Williamsburg Group included Paul Kelpe (1902-1985), Ilya Bolotowsky (1907-81), Balcomb Greene (1904-1990) and Albert Swinden (1901-1961). Between 1936 and 1937 these artists made, for the first time, large murals that are more like epic non-figurative paintings. Since 1990, the Brooklyn Museum has held these restored oil paintings on canvas of enormous formats (2159 x 5359mm for Bolotowsky, 2324 x 3283 mm for Balcomb Greene, 2832 x 4267 mm for Albert Swinden). Curiously, in the years from 1944 to 1946, Stuart Davis also drew directly from Mondrian, but incorporated in the grid signs that flirt with figuration, as in G & W (1944) and For Internal Use Only (1944-45). In turn, a few years later, he produced a monumental geometric abstract painting for Drake University in Des Moines, Alley (1955), again oil on canvas, and this time 2438 mm x 10058 mm).

Incidentally, Mondrian’s years in New York are also relevant for concrete painting via another historical intermediary. The expatriate Swiss artist Fritz Glarner, who became friends with Mondrian and accompanied him until his death, establishes a link with the Zurich artists who took up the concept of ‘actual painting’ in Zurich Concrete.

The New York/Zurich connection occurs during the apocalyptic years of 1939-45, when Europe and the world imploded, when Zurich reprised its role as a city for those seeking safety (as had been the case in 1914 with the Dada movement. Indeed, it was also the city where James Joyce died in 1941 after finding refuge there in both 1915 and 1939). German artists, who were persecuted as ‘degenerate’ by the Nazis, flocked there. For example, Camille Graeser left his country in 1933 for Zurich. The mix of artists included Allianz, a group of Swiss artists formed in 1937 who advocated the Concrete Art theories of Max Bill, involving Richard Paul Lohse. The Galerie des Eaux Vives in Zurich was instrumental and the review Abstrakt + Konkret (1944-1945) also united this group. As for Glarner, his faithful pursuit of Mondrianist thought is evidenced in his large mural for the Time & Life Building in New York: Relational Painting (1959-60) and the great wall of Albany, New York (1968). Max Bill was educated at the Bauhaus in Dessau, after which he met Mondrian and joined the movement Abstraction-Création (this was a loose association of artists formed in Paris in 1931 to counteract the influence of the Surrealist group led by André Breton). In 1944 he organized the Konkrete Kunst exhibition in Basel where he presented fifty artists aware of Concrete Art and in 1949 published a text entitled ‘Significant mathematical thinking in the art of our time’. It contains elements of the manifesto of 1930: Concrete is the abstract opposite: figurative art is abstract from reality, while the non-figurative art, which is a pure creation of the mind, becomes concrete its materialization as a thing existing in reality.

But one to go yet further in the radicalisation of the history of painting as concrete, is the Zurich artist Richard Paul Lohse. Strongly influenced by Mondrian’s Composition in the Checkerboard (1919), he worked to develop a system of compositions based on rigorous mathematical laws from the 1940s. He worked with smooth solids, sticking to the horizontal and vertical and abolishing distinctions between support, shape and color. His neutral forms – particularly the square – occupies the entire picture plane. This frees the strict use of primary colors to construct a series of tones in which yellow and purple occupy boundary positions. The work proceeds serially and modularly, by permutation, rotating and translating color fields. The composition is thus completely programmed. The manifesto for concrete painting had already been prescribed in the 30s: “The artwork must be fully designed and formed by the mind before its execution”.3 This opens the door to the projection of seriality and a beginning of conceptual painting. A priori, the design governs the series, positing the existence of an independent pictorial set for the painting’s completion. The work of some of today’s artists is based on this concept. Kees Visser for example, exhausts a field of occurrences among which he is free to perform a particular painting, in his designs for his ‘biased’ monochrome paintings.

Serial principle and swapping of modules brings to mind a double satisfaction: Besides the color-game and its vertiginous desire of completeness, the pleasure of trying to exhaust the multiplicity of possibility. In the aesthetic experience comes to the pleasure of the game. Finally, the modular work leads to a mode of creation based on the implementation of a protocol, which eliminates any impression of subjectivity. But it is rhythm and the dynamics of colour; chromatic vibrations that drive Lohse’s paintings and installations. His early (1942- 1946) vertical rhythms are reminiscent of Victory Boogie-woogie, the great shifter.4

This modular extension of the colour, seen in painting such as that of Lohse, explains an apparent paradox: that the most drastic theories of restriction or reduction can also produce effects of release. If we stick too closely the rigorous historical orthodoxy of Concrete Art all is said and done and nothing new is allowed. While several institutions in Europe have chosen to work with Concrete Art they have an expanded view. Fondation pour l’art constructif et concret in Zurich, Fondation pour l’art concret in Reutlingen, near Stuttgart or Espace de l’art concret in Mouans-Sartoux, near Grasse have Concrete Art as their inspiration and focus, and they nonetheless continue to welcome new forms of art into this movement. Of course, there will always be followers who are too scrupulous, second and third generations perpetuating a genre that has long been frozen, and backward-looking setting themselves up as gatekeepers – but the merit of a draconian system is its subversion.

Reflection on the object/painting led to modes of painting in which the canvas is worked as a material. Simon Hantaï folds the fabric/canvas and douses it with color to reveal a pattern, Jean Degottex proceeds by folding and unfolding, scarring his canvas for his Reports (1977-1981). This also leads to the destructuring of ‘the painting’. Thus, the protagonists of the Surfaces/Support group worked on isolated elements: the cradle (stretcher) alone, or a free canvas. Steven Parrino brutally attacked the integrity of the painting, tearing the canvas to present a crumpled object. Imi Knoebel built work from frame segments that carry color Sweet Baby Jane (1991) instead of the canvas, and his pigment paintings places the colour sandwiched between two wooden plates as in Purpur Nachtleuchtfarbe (1992) and Elfenbeinschwarz (1993). Olivier Mosset pushed the shaped canvas into a corner ending up with a completely cylindrical canvas as in Muba (1990). And as for the legacy of earlier colour field innovations, it has lead to various developments of the monochrome such as that of Blinky Palermo, or the works of the trans-Atlantic group Radical Painting.5

Long before a famous erotic drama takes the title of Fifty Shades of Grey, Marcia Hafif, taking her painting back to point zero (beginning again), started her work on the monochrome and seriality with a series of 108 paintings that delineate declining shades of gray (An extended gray Scale, 1972-1973). The wealth of experience and creations from these historical foundations of abstract painting is inexhaustible.

Olivier Mosset, Muba, 1990 Photo: Hubert Besacier

Olivier Mosset, Muba,
Photo: Hubert Besacier

In the Base de la peinture concrète manifesto, one also reads that: “‘Concrete Art takes shape with the help of colour, space, light, movement”’. Thus it happens. And it is in this sense that the movement is further developed, leading on from the basis of rhythm, vibration colours, fun experiments such as the Research Group Visual Art GRAV, kinetic art or optical art. The recent monumental exhibition of Serge Lemoine at the Grand Palais in Paris, entitled Dynamo remarkably synthesised this merging.

François Morellet, who was a member of G.R.A.V (Groupe de recherche d’art visuel), using the resources of humour, reintroduced into the system, the protocol establishing parameters that use randomness for works that, once the process begins, go way beyond their original design. While some stick to the simple picture format, as the Uruguayan painter Carmelo Arden Quinn (1913-2010), of the Arte Madí group, most of the artists who collectively joined the Denise René gallery from the 1950s, worked with colorful rhythms and scale. Yaacov Agam, coming from Israel, arrived in Paris in 1951, first passing through Zurich, where he studied with Johannes Itten, and also studied music composition and architecture. The South Americans Jesús Rafael Soto, Carlos Cruz Diez, Julio Le Park all develop a rhythmic work that extends to the field of architecture. Carlos Cruz Diez, theorist chromatic situations seconded the media colour by creating environments that allow visitors to stroll through the colourful light. His monumental creations install rhythms of colour across the city. So the momentum generated by the historic artists of Concrete Art continues to expand in public places and transform the city.

In Alsace, in September 2012, the art center FABRIKculture Hégenheim hosted a large exhibition of murals created by a group of artists who began working in the town of Fremantle, Western Australia, and who were founded on a common position in the design of the painting, although with very individualized variantions. At FABRIKculture one saw a set of monumental pieces designed by Julianne Clifford (AUS), Daniel Göttin (CH), John Nixon (AUS), Helen Smith and Jeremy Kirwan-Ward (AUS), Alex Spremberg (DE/AUS), David Tremlett (UK), Jan van der Ploeg (NL), and Jurek Wybraniec (AUS). The work of John Nixon, which has been exhibited also with John Armleder and Olivier Mosset in a movement that was designated Neo-geo (Abstract Painting Dijon, Nice 1986) is well known; as, of course, is the work of David Tremlett. The magnitude of these murals introduced the existence of this group to Europe, together under the acronym AC4CA, the Australian Centre for Concrete Art, originating from the city Perth, Western Australia.

Coordinated by Julian Goddard, an ambitious program has been in place since 2001, almost a century after the paintings of the Williamsburg Group, in the harsh light of Western Australia, on the outskirts of Perth, the AC4CA has painted the walls of more then 20 buildings in the Fremantle and broader Perth vicinity. These very public walls are covered by flat areas of bright colors in varying patterns and designs. The utopian dreams of van Doesburg and Mondrian materialised! Concrete Art, free from dogma, regains its full vocation, that of the enchantment of the everyday lives of citizens.

1 Revue Art Concret, Paris, May 1930.
2 Marcelin Pleynet notes that the first Bauhaus was led by painters. Marcelin Pleynet, Système de la peinture, Seuil, 1977.
3 Theo van Doesburg, ‘Base de la peinture concrète’, Revue Art Concret, no. 1, April 1930.
4 In particular Zehn gleiche Themen in fünf Farben (Ten similar themes in 5 colors), 1946-47, oil on canvas, 64 x 200 cm.
5 Raimund Girke, Marcia Hafif, Joseph Marioni, Carmengloria Morales, Olivier Mosset, Phil Sims, Howard Smith, Frederic Thursz, Günthet Umberg, Jerry Zeniuk. The exhibition bearing that title was held at the Williams College Museum of Art, Williamstown, Massachusetts, 1984.