Matters of Freedom - A Look Back at Concrete Art
Dec 25, 2017
Along with Suprematism, Constructivism, De Stijl, Neo-Concrete Art, and Minimalism, Concrete Art is one of half a dozen geometric abstract art movements that emerged in the 20th Century, roughly between 1913 and 1970. But it is distinctly different from all of the others on this list. The difference may not be easily apparent. Visually, all six of these movements produced similar work. That is because all were based on the same syntax—a visual language rooted in non-objective, formal elements like lines, shapes and colors. The essential difference between them was almost entirely semantic, meaning the intention and meaning underlying each was unique. Suprematism used geometric abstraction to communicate the “supremacy of pure feeling or perception.” Constructivism used it to construct new useful symbols for a modern world. De Stijl used geometric elements to explore the intrinsic harmony of the universe. Concrete Art was purely plastic—every visual element it employed was created in a mechanical way and was devoid of any symbolic, emotional, spiritual or naturalistic meaning. Neo-Concrete Art used the same visual language as Concrete Art, but rejected its pure plasticity, focusing instead on the phenomenological potential that arises when people interact with art. Minimalism agreed that plastic elements should be self-referential, but took that belief to its extreme, endowing aesthetic components with autonomous power to the point of sublimating the artist, removing all evidence of authorship, narrative, biography, or anything else that might interfere with the totalitarian presence of the work. Of all of these movements, only one—concrete art—can claim to be purely abstract. It alone actively sought to eliminate any outside meaning, freeing artists from having to communicate anything beyond what was clearly visible in the work.
Moving Toward Concretion
The tendency toward a pure, plastic art took root in Europe around the mid-1800s. That was when painters associated with movements like Impressionism and Divisionism started isolating elements like light and color as things worthy of individual consideration. But subject matter and meaning were still important to people at that time, if not to the artists themselves, at least to their patrons. It took movements like Cubism and Futurism to start to change that outlook, clearing the way for artists like Wassily Kandinsky and Kazimir Malevich to paint completely abstract works in the early 1900s.
But even Kandinsky and Malevich made work that referenced outside sources of meaning, such as spirituality and symbolism. It was not until 1930 that the first European successfully verbalized the desire to embrace a truly meaningless, pure form of abstract visual art. That artist was the Dutch painter and writer Theo van Doesburg. Van Doesburg had first become prominent around 1917, when he co-founded De Stijl with Piet Mondrian. But he and Mondrian soon parted ways, because Mondrian, like many other abstract artists, was heavily influenced by utopian spirituality. Van Doesburg wanted to escape all such influences, along with all naturalistic or figurative references. So, in 1930, along with Swiss artist Otto Gustaf Carlsund, French painter Jean Hélion, Armenian painter Léon Arthur Tutundjian, and French typographer Marcel Wantz, he co-authored the Concrete Art Manifesto.
Leon Arthur Tutundjian - La Boule Noire, 1926, © Leon Arthur Tutundjian
The Concrete Art Manifesto
The manifesto laid out six principals: “1) Art is universal. 2) A work of art must be entirely conceived and shaped by the mind before its execution. It shall not receive anything of nature’s or sensuality’s or sentimentality’s formal data. We want to exclude lyricism, drama, symbolism, and so on. 3) The painting must be entirely built up with purely plastic elements, namely surfaces and colors. A pictorial element does not have any meaning beyond “itself”; as a consequence, a painting does not have any meaning other than “itself”. 4) The construction of a painting, as well as that of its elements, must be simple and visually controllable. 5) The painting technique must be mechanic, i.e., exact, anti-impressionistic. 6) An effort toward absolute clarity is mandatory.”
Van Doesburg died one year after the Concrete Art Manifesto was published, so he was not around long enough to defend it from the army of critics that attacked it in the decades that followed. The complaints of those critics mainly centered on what they perceived as the cold soullessness and sterility of Concrete Art. But, of course, that was the intent of the movement all along. In fact, it is hard to imagine that, had van Doesburg lived longer, he would have bothered to argue with his critics. He likely would have interpreted the word soulless as a compliment, and the words cold and sterile as high praise.
Art Concret Manifesto, May 1930, via wikiart.org
Clarity is Elusive
To understand why Concrete Art first appealed so strongly to many artists, it is essential to understand that van Doesburg was part of a generation that had become jaded following decades of violence. The mass death and destruction that accompanied modern warfare shocked them. And many intellectuals came to the conclusion that the violence had not arisen out of a vacuum. On the contrary, they saw it as the inevitable result of political, religious and ideological conflict. Concrete Art was a plea for artists to disconnect from the reality that had brought the world to the brink of destruction.
Even today, many artists, such as Daniel Göttin and Tilman, embrace the principals of Concrete Art, striving toward absolute clarity. But it remains a complex goal. Contemporary audiences cannot help but find meaning in Concrete Art. The intent of the artist means little to us, because we see the work in context with art history, and with our personal histories. That is what Brazilian artists like Lygia Pape, Hélio Oiticica and Lygia Clark, who established the Neo-Concrete Movement, also realized. They knew that even if a color, a shape, or a line references nothing but itself, it takes on new meaning when we experience it for ourselves. Despite the best efforts of Concrete Artists, absolute clarity in abstract art is elusive, because the human mind always stands happily by, ready to muddy the water.
Tilman - Untitled (257.11) , 2011, 25.6 x 19.7 in
Featured image: Theo van Doesburg - Counter-Composition VI 1925, Oil paint on canvas, 500 x 500 mm, Tate Collection
All images used for illustrative purposes only
By Phillip Barcio