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A Brief History of Concrete Art

September 5, 2016

Possibly more so than any other style out there, concrete art suffers from a bit of a misnomer. Thus, it might be useful to clarify what does it actually refer to and set its boundries, for it is exactly those that are as important to it as they are to French neo-classical painting.

The word “concrete” itself is defined as “existing in a material or physical form”, as solid, material, real, and its antonyms are “abstract” and “theoretical”[1]. Yet it is precisely abstract and theoretical that concrete art is, often taking these two concepts to their very extreme. While abstract art, in the broadest sense of the word, uses shapes and forms often freely borrowed from the real world in order to take its point across, concrete art dispenses with them altogether, instead focusing solely on ideas that emanate “directly from the mind”. A fascinating idea, it didn’t exactly mushroom out of nowhere but rather sprang up from the artistic world of the roaring 20’s, to be clearly defined by Theo van Doesburg in 1930.

Fields of solid color forming an austere yet decorative scheme. The terms of concrete art.
Theo van Doesburg – Composition VIII (The Cow), c.1918, via moma.tumblr.com

How Concrete Art Came to be?

The first half of the 20th century was a lively period for Western art, possibly the most strongly transformative – dissecting, destroying, unapologetically creating, giving every individual their distinctive voice and, in the process, generating a new style, a new group a new movement every other week, be it in painting, sculpture or architecture. It was already in the 1910’s that some progressive creatives completely broke off with any sort of representation which was quite an abrupt change even to late cubism and fauvism. The Russian Wassily Kandinsky was possibly the first to paint purely abstract pieces, soon followed by Piet Mondrian numbered tableaus and compositions, and Kazimir Malevich’s Black Square. Independently from them, the Swedish Hilma af Klint developed her very own concept of high abstraction, creating visual representations of complex spiritual ideas derived from hermeticism and theosophy.

All this set the stage for De Stijl, also known as neoplasticism, a movement founded in 1917 in Amsterdam consisting of painters Mondrian, Vilmos Huszár and Bart van der Leck, along with architects Gerrit Rietveld, Robert van ‘t Hoff and J. J. P. Oud[2]. The Netherlands being isolated from the artistic melting pot of Paris during the First World War (Dutch artists were not able to leave the country after 1914 due to their governments officially neutral stance in the conflict), a modern movement emerged that was distinctly original and only partially influenced by the main currents of the art world at the time. As proponents of neoplasticism, member of the group advocated the use of simple horizonatal and vertical geometric forms, using little colour apart from white, black and the primaries, reducing everything to essentials of form and colour. Gerrit Rietveld’s Red and Blue Chair is possibly the most famous example of this.

In truth, De Stijl was actually the name of the journal published by the clique’s leader Theo van Doesburg which served to bring the group’s ideals closer to the art loving public. Neoplasticism soon gave birth to fresh, modern ideas. Less than a decade afterwards, out of it arose constructivism, Bauhaus, and – concrete art. What set concrete art apart from previous styles was its even stronger tendency to rely on pure geometric forms, its cerebral, formal qualities, its complete negation of lyricism, dramaticism, symbolism – making it seem more mechanical, more machine-made (especially in sculpting), rather than created by human touch. More often than not, the pieces posessed superb finish which later on inspired critics to call them “cold abstraction”.

Gerrit's iconic chair quickly reached international fame, making the public at home come to term with new, innovative tendencies in decorative art.
Gerrit Rietveld – Red and Blue Chair, 1917, via cassina.com

Those Who Made it Happen – Seminal Figures of the Movement

Concrete art was the brain child of the man behind De Stijl – Theo van Doesburg. Painter, writer, potter and architect, he was the driving force of it, keeping groups together that would’ve otherwise fallen apart very quickly. Initially influenced by Van Gogh, then Kandinsky, his works became ever more abstract under his belief that there was a level much higher, more spiritual in painting than what others have been doing until that time. One year before his death, he wrote the manifesto “The Basis of Concrete Art” which ushered a style that was to have its hayday for some 20 years and partially still be relevant even today.

Otto G. Carlsund conncetions to Cubism, Purism, Neo-Plasticism, and Concrete art make him almost an ideal example of an artist (and art critic) whose pinnacle, chief-de-ouvre, was in the style of concrete art. Over the years, he slowly moved towards it where he found the language for what he had to say. The group Art Concret he belonged to (along with van Doesburg, Hélion etc.) was short-lived, met with oposition from the public and mostly dissolved after several failed exhibitons. Still, Carlsund remained stalwart in his credo, not exhibiting much, but continuing to create and write until his death.

Max Bill was an architect, painter, graphic artist, teacher, possibly the strongest influence on Swiss graphic design in the 50’s. Not exactly a rationalist, he still produced artwork visually representing the New Physics of the 20th century, effectively making them heirs concrete art. He worked in stone, wood, metal and plaster, designed everything from clocks to buildings, and kept innovating his artistic pursuit while remaining faithful to his core driving force which was purist.

Decorative fields of color and a simple yet powerful design on silk. The search for perfection.
Otto Gustaf Carlsund – Silkscreen, 1953, via affordableart101.org

In and Out of the Club – Artists Only Briefly Associated with the Movement

Jean Hélion‘s changes in style make him somewhat difficult to place, which is a problem with most of those connected with concrete art. As an artist, he went through several transformative perods, ending up a figurative painter – a track he went on to pursue for some five decades. Yet, for a while, he was a member of Art Concret and produced pieces distinctly belonging to this style.

Many of the leading abstract creatives of the first half of the 20th century were in one way or another briefly connected to it, influenced by it, practiced it, but later abandoned it for less limiting forms. Rigid and self centered, it sometimes failed to communicate with the audience and is more interesting as an exercise in itself, a sort of a monologue, rather than a movement which could go further and reach the heights of cubism or abstract expressionism. Because of this, it quickly turned from a full-on stylistic orientation into yet another language a versatile individual could use at will.[3]

The international press heralded Hellon as the innovator in the field of concrete art.
Jean Hélion – Équilibre, 1934 via wikiart.org

Later Developments and Crossing Over into the 21st Century

Like any other strong artistic idea, the style continued to live and transform itself, even after its initial period in the limelight. In the late 50’s, several groups appeared in Latin America (Arte Concreto-Invención, Arte Madí, Grupo Neoconcreto), all continuing to pursue purely abstract artistic goals in rationalist oposition to muralist propaganda popular at the time.[4] In Europe, Alberto Magnelli, an unlikely figure of Dom Sylvester Houédard (a Benedictine priest and proponent of concrete poetry, typewriter-composed visual poems) and highly versatile Dieter Roth continued pursuing some form of cold abstraction.[5]

Franҫois Morellet, who died in 2016, is possibly the most important figure of concrete art of our time. Minimal, conceptual and geometrical abstract art were all modes of expression for this versatile man. Having liberated the process of creation from any personal emotion, he opened up new ways for the public to appreciate art, effectively demystifying the artwork.

Reinhard Roy is a German painter who has taken the geometrical side of concrete art to new heights, using raster structure, seemingly eliminating any fixed boundary, in order to play with the viewers impression, sometimes causing perception of non-existent movements within a perfectly still work of art, drawing the onlooker deeper into the artificial yet mesmerizing world.

Josef Linschinger‘s sudoku pieces, Hd Schrader‘s so-called cubecracks, and the artwork of Hasso Von Henninges all continue in a similar vein, bringing concrete art and the patterns stemming from it to contemporary audiences and influencing everything from furniture to web design.

read the manifesto of concrete artworks on tate page
François Morellet – 8 trames 0° – 22°55 – 45° – 67, via rerylikes.tumblr.com

It’s Still Around – Concrete Art as a Part of the Contemporary Art Scene

Perhaps a somewhat marginal movement, concrete art still produced (and continues to produce) art that has power to fascinate us even to this day. Conscious of its initial shortcomings, its intelectual aloofness and idealism, later generations of creative talents expanded its influence, its application, and thus its accessability to the general public, not limiting it to gallery spaces but expanding into every surface of our modern world.

more on the topic on the tate pageEditor’s tip: Concrete Art In Europe After 1945

Concrete art is a style that stands only for itself, an abstract art form that does not rely on the visually perceptible. Often called “cold abstraction”, it instead focuses on formal qualities and the more cerebral aspect of creation. Showcasing the pieces of Victor Vasarely, Josef Albers, Max Bill, and many others, this extensive catalogue gives us a glimpse into the private collection of Peter and Rosemarie Ruppert, arguably the most comprehenisve in the world, thoroughly covering the last 70 years of concrete art.

References:

  1. Anonymous, Concrete art, Wikipedia [September 2, 2016]
  2. Anonymous, De Stijl, Wikipedia [September 2, 2016]
  3. Besacier, H., Concrete art, Dijon 2014 (AC4CA, Australian Centre for Concrete Art) [September 3, 2016]
  4. Anonymous, Concrete art – Definition, History, Famous Artists, Abstract Paintings, Encyclopedia of art education [September 3, 2016]
  5. Gaderian, D., Concrete Art in Europe since 1945, Hatje Cantz, 2002.

All images used for illustrative purposes only. Featured images in slider: Max Bill – Endless Ribbon from a Ring I, 1960, image via hirshhorn.si.edu ; François Morellet – Sphere Matter, 1962, image via Wikipedia.org ; Dieter Roth – Untitled, 1971, image via arteseanp.blogspot.rs ; Josef Linschinger – Composition 2, 2011, image via danubeartfest.org