2015 / Paulina Sztabińska
It may seem that the term of concrete art excludes any discourse. However, it must be stressed that when applied to art, the notion “concrete” has a number of meanings.
As he characterised the concrete painting in his 1930 manifesto, Art Concret, Theo van Doesburg wrote in the first point that the “art is universal”. In the following points he claimed that the work of art should be conceived and formed in the artists’ mind before it is actually made in a material form. Also, works of art should not contain anything which has a source in a formal feature of nature, sensual sensitivity or emotionality. In Doesburg’s opinion, a painting should only contain artistic elements, that is, coloured surfaces which have no meaning beyond themselves. He also claimed that the structure should be strictly controlled and the technique used – a mechanical one. The final result was supposed to be an absolute clarity of the work of art.
The problematic issue, however, is how to determine the relation between the first thesis (‘art is universal’) and the other ones. A question emerges whether the subsequent theses are the explanation of the first wording (are they logically incorporated) or perhaps they are complimentary characteristics which may be subjects to partial changes? Given the fact that the term ‘universal’ can be understood in two ways, the problems is even more significant. The first meaning assumes that this kind of art has an overwhelming character, i.e., it combines typically separated elements (e.g. nature and spirit). Such was the meaning employed by van Doesburg when he wrote in “De Stijl” in 1922: "Neoplasticism is the revelation of the unity of nature and spirit" . However, it requires further investigation whether he took this meaning into consideration when he declared the universalism of the concrete art in 1930.
The second meaning of the art-related “universalism” is linked with commonness. Within this meaning, the symbolic items are not universal because different individuals can construct different associations and interpretations upon the elements visible directly. Thus, the universalism of the concrete art would combine with its reistic character and literality –a picture is a thing and we perceive things in the same or similar way. This meaning was taken into account by Max Bill, as he organised the exhibition named Konkrete Kunst. However, having studied the work of the artists who took part in it, one may have doubts whether Max Bill was indeed following the understanding of the concrete art so strictly. The same applies to contemporary exhibitions organised under similar slogans.
My paper refers to the work of those artists, whose creations meet the formal criteria of the concrete art, with the exception of one aspect – the elements used are strictly formal and at the same time they are not. At first glance, the works of such artists may be classified as a concrete art. On the other hand, however, these artists make it clear that they are inspired by, or sometimes they reproduce accurately, specific fragments of the visible reality, e.g. the structures of city streets, urban and architectural plans or structure projections. One could therefore say that they practice the discourse about a city and architecture while remaining concretists at the same time. Is it just inconsistency or perhaps an attempt to deconstruct the concrete art?
In the opinion of some critics, the discoursiveness of art that is analysed herein, combines with a strategy of double coding, characteristic for postmodernism, where particular elements may be perceived at various levels, in a more or less literal fashion . This kind of interest is visible in Peter Halley’s pictures. Hal Foster wrote that geometric forms are considered by the artist to be codes, signs , which he combines together and separates in a completely free and random way. From the formal perspective, Halley’s paintings refer to the leading representatives of the geometric abstraction, such as, among other things, Piet Mondrian, Kazimierz Malewicz, as well as the American artists, like Barnett Newmann or Kenneth Noland. Their works are built of simple, geometric forms, mainly squares and rectangles, set up in various configurations. A distinct difference between modernists and Halley is the material used by the latter one – a Roll-A-Tex texture surface (imitating stucco) applied on the canvas and then covered with a Day-Glo paints, which are characterised by very sharp and artificial colours . The geometrical abstraction in paintings and a concretistic interest in the painting materials used has been combined with the images of the contemporary urban space: strongly illuminated communication arteries, complex urban arrangements, infrastructure and modern space “divided into separate, isolated cells, defined in scope of their sizes and functions” . The order, formalism and statics which dominate in the artist’s paintings, are supposed to correspond with the image of the world dominated by numerous, artificially created divisions aimed at introducing order, but in fact only bringing the sense of alienation and weirdness, and the constant conviction of being controlled and under surveillance .
While discussing Halley’s work, Irving Sandler stressed the pessimistic atmosphere of his paintings and noticed mainly the loss and alienation of contemporary human beings who are not able to find their place in a “hard geometry of hospitals, prisons and manufacturing plants” . According to Sandler, Halley “has rejected the trust in utopian rationalism that lies at the basis of geometric abstraction in visual arts and international style in architecture” . Employing simple Euclidean forms allowed him to demonstrate the alienation of a human being in a contemporary world, dominated by international corporations. In Halley’s work, geometry no longer has objectless character. Owing to the double coding, it induces associations with modernistic tradition on one hand, and on the other – it opposes such tradition by means of references to reality – the arrangement of urban arteries, railway lines, microchips and other similar items, which are familiar in the contemporary world.
While Halley started with the arrangements of geometrical elements to create references to reality and to fit into the discourse of life in contemporary city, Tadeusz Mysłowski, in his series Avenue of the Americas, begins from a specific place, namely the structure of the New York streets, perceived from airplane and explored by the artist on maps numerous times. The border between reality and geometric forms fades during the following stages. Particular paintings are constructed of vertical and horizontal lines, crossing at right angle and creating a complex network with elements of varied thickness. In some pictures, there is a dominance of black colour, while in others the white prevails, depending on which is used as a background. Mysłowski tells about the source of the cycle: “The first time I saw New York was from the plane and, believe me, it has completely changed my visual perception of reality. […] New York is very uncomplicated and orderly arranged, and its structure is based to a certain degree upon the grid of inter-crossing lines. I immediately understood that I need to learn the way how the structure of New York is formed and as soon as I started living here I began collecting all available information about the city, such as maps, photographs taken from the bird’s view, etc.” . However, Mysłowski did not recreate any specific situations but rather a general, map-inspired, view. The entire work could be associated with the layout of streets on the Manhattan map or an image of a tall skyscraper with rows of windows, delimitating a rhythmical division of a wall. While writing about the works included in the Avenue of the Americas series, Grzegorz Sztabiński emphasised that the associations induced by particular pictures “may be so varied and multifarious that they could not be used to determine a specific reference for the picture. Even taking the associations into account, it was impossible to say that Mysłowski presented a specific item or situation. Despite the suggested relation with the reality, a given work was eventually to remain a layout of lines on a plain” .
Watching the works of the Avenue of the Americas series, there is almost an automatic association with the work of Piet Mondrian, in particular, with his later pictures, as a matter of fact created in New York, such as Brodway Boogie – Woogie (1942-43), or Victory Boogie – Woogie (1943-44). However, the element of distinction between the works of both artists is mainly the genesis, or mental route that led to the creation. To Mondrian (in case of his late, New York based stage of work ) the starting point were geometrical elements. By means of properly arranged colours, the artist was giving them the rhythm, which created an impression of a link between the paintings and the streets of New York. The opposite is true for Mysłowski – he begins with specific streets, drawn on a map and then, by gradual enlargement of particular elements, he weakens the associations with the starting point of the artistic work and blurs the borders between the geometrical and organic character of the forms. While writing about Mysłowski’s work, Ireneusz Kamiński emphasised aptly: “Maps were drawing the artist’s attention because they were a combination of reality with abstract values, they were free from the function of object representation” while at the same time relating to things that exist.
In both instances presented here, the discoursiveness of geometry is based on the references to a town defined as the concrete, such as we may learn in its positive or negative understanding. In Zdzisław Olejniczak’s work, the discourse about a city is presented in a different manner. In his graphical works, the starting points are impossible forms – the flat drawings that seem to be three-dimensional items. However, their exceptionality consists in the fact that such structures cannot be built as a solid. Such items could not exist in reality as there are contradictions in their structure, and particular elements are impossible to fit together in the process of constructing a three-dimensional object. Still, it is not the artist’s intention to use impossible forms for studying or scientific analysis – he combines them with reality by “blending” them into the landscape and making references to a city or even specific architectural and urban arrangements. Olejniczak’s works resemble a complicated labyrinth. As we rationalise it, we try to identify very complex, yet logical layouts, which, despite their complexity, allow to find a way out of the constructed space. However, very often it is practically impossible to find the exit successfully, as there are inconsistent elements in the apparently logical entirety. Thus, we are becoming prisoners of a deceptive rationalism. Unlike in normal situations, in which geometrical shapes are intended to introduce order, here they are used to induce chaos, sense of loss and alienation. Olejniczak creates mysterious arrangements which resemble cities or constructions linked with real items. For instance, his work, titled Ostatni akord dla XX wieku (Last Chord for the 20th Century) of 2000, may seem to viewers to present a modern underground or a railway station with a series of tunnels running in parallel. In fact, the careful scrutiny reveals that these are just adjacent cuboids connected in a manner which is impossible in reality. Another work, Próbna fuzja (Test Fusion) of 2002 may be associated with a design of three skyscrapers interconnected with corridors and tunnels in such a way that it is possible to move between then without going out. A more careful study proves that such structure could not be linked under the principles of a real space in which we dwell every day.
In Olejniczak’s most recent works, the shapes of the impossible forms were enlarged simplified and very often reduced to just contours. Unlike earlier works, where such forms were placed next to one another, the most recent images are characterised by a higher degree of complexity, with the forms blending with one another and with attempts to identify the relations between them.
Olejniczak’s interest in constructing spaces associated with industrial landscapes and using impossible forms has an optimistic meaning. Employing such structures, the artist is far from creating a sense of threat, nor does he suggest oppression or alienation. Contrary to appearances, his “landscapes” with impossible forms are intended to be positive. The artist stressed that throughout the history of mankind, this desire of fiction, unreality, served on many occasions to eventually build something real. It stimulated human subconsciousness to continue the struggle with nature and universe. It turns out that the compositions which resemble “exit-less” mazes and suggest wandering astray among the impossible, are in fact the bearers of not only the fear, but also (or perhaps mainly) the hope for new solutions. They encourage to look for new ways.
Another example of the references to a city and architecture in the concrete art are the works of Rita Ernst, in particular the series of works presented at the exhibition in the Trapani Diocese Bishop Seminary. The works fit in a very curious manner into the trend of the discursive geometry. Ernst constructs her geometrical shapes by way of stressing their links with architectural projections of historical buildings, such as churches, castles, palaces, etc. This selection of objects as well as the sense of continuity with the European tradition are the elements which make these works distinct from those of previously mentioned artists, who preferred clear references to a present day, both in architectural suggestions and the forms linked with the most recent technological inventions and devices. Ernst chooses the plans of the historical structures, which are more complicated when compared to the contemporary buildings, and then she simplifies them, transfers them onto carbon papers and uses such basis to paint the pictures which in visual terms seem to be completely abstract, not linked with either the reality or with the original plan. Also characteristic are the titles of the works, which also happen to be the title of the exhibition - Vanishing Structures . The word “vanishing” may be associated with a gradual disappearance, “dissolution” of the reality in the land of abstraction. Thus, the works by this artist are strongly rooted in a real world on one hand, and on the other – they demonstrate collusiveness, conventionality in presenting the things which exist in reality. The architectural projection of a structure is a collection of abstract marks, which become representative when they are read properly. Their adequate understanding and interpretation depends on the viewers’ knowledge. This issue is even more complicated in Ernst’s works, as she gradually simplifies the plans and transforms them in such a way that their legibility is even more blurred – they become the systems of circles, squares and rectangles. The constructional projections turn into the ”vanishing structures”, which demonstrates liquidity and intermingling of the worlds of abstraction and representation.
The examples I have discussed here demonstrate four different ways of undertaking the discourse about a city and architecture by the artists operating in the trend of geometrical abstraction. It turns out that the contemporary artists move away purposefully both from the formal as well as the philosophical understanding of geometry, combining it with their interest in the surrounding world, architecture and urban planning. It may be viewed as a expressed conviction that geometry loses its previous meaning related to transcendence, universality in the contemporary social discourses. On the other hand, geometry has not become “mute”, it is not just a strictly technical way of discussing the properties of the elements and their constructional arrangement. The geometric art “speaks” by means of making references to the contemporary discourses. Moreover, by using the strategy of double coding, the artists make smooth transitions between the elements of reality, symbols and clean abstraction, thereby giving their works a complexity, which corresponds with the manner of the functioning of discourses in the minds of contemporary human beings.