abstract art, a systems view

Posts Tagged ‘Kazimir Malevich

“Conversations Around Marlow Moss” and “Parallel Lives”

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Cullinan Richards, Savage School Window Gallery, 2008 ongoing text: MARLOW MOSS, perspex and aluminium light box, 18 x 140 x 300cm with scaffold stand (dimensions variable). Image by courtesy of the artist

Cullinan Richards, Savage School Window Gallery, 2008 ongoing text: MARLOW MOSS, perspex and aluminium light box, 18 x 140 x 300cm with scaffold stand (dimensions variable). Image by courtesy of the artist

I think there is something rather ironic about seeing a great big cinema-style sign heralding MARLOW MOSS, as if she were a household name, when in fact, although highly deserving of attention, she has been a little known figure, especially here in the UK, where she was born and spent the latter part of her life, only recently being recognised as one of Britain’s most important Constructivist artists.

The paintings and constructions, currently on show at the Leeds Art Gallery exhibition Parallel Lives (Marlow Moss and Claude Cahoun) are marvellous. I am particularly impressed by the two paintings White Blue Yellow & Blue, 1954, a finished and an unfinished version. Comparing the two, I gain information about her working method, how the lines are drawn in pencil and ‘filled in’ with colour rather than using masking tape, and how the white is applied last. (A gallery note contrasts Mondrian’s method of painting a white ground first.) Mondrian recognised her ‘double-line’ as a contribution to the visual ‘language’ of Neo-Plasticism. If she was a disciple, she was also an innovator in her own right. She was associated not only with Mondrian in Paris in the thirties but also with other international artists: Max Bill, Vantongerloo and Jean Gorin, being a founder member of the the Association Abstraction-Création in 1931. Yet returning to England in 1941 living and working in Cornwall she seems to have been somewhat ignored by other British artists, (unanswered letters to Ben Nicholson are included in the exhibition).

Marlow Moss installation shot. Image courtesy of Leeds Art Gallery.

Marlow Moss installation shot. Image courtesy of Leeds Art Gallery.

The lightbox sign of her name is itself an artwork, by Cullinan Richards, in the window of &Model, the gallery almost directly opposite Leeds Art Gallery, announcing the exhibition Conversations Around Marlow Moss, curated by Andrew Bick and Katrina Blannin. The work Savage School Window Gallery, seems to create both an invitation and a barrier at the same time, as does all good art.

Something similar happens for me viewing the first painting I see on the inside of the gallery, a piece also by Cullinan Richards entitled Ian Poulter wore shocking pink, and including a newspaper photo of Poulter beneath an abstract composition, possibly based on (abstracted from) the colours in the photo. There’s the hint of a narrative, abstracted from a newspaper report, or perhaps  even a headline, announcing a narrative that is not actually fulfilled, now that only the photo and title remain, of a piece that I must imagine actually existed. “Meaning” is context dependent, and the change of context creates something like a jarring sensation for me as I struggle to make sense of the object/image before me. Although I attempt simply to observe, I keep on interpreting, and my own processes of interpretation keep on coming to my attention. I am myself “abstracting” in the sense that I think Alfred Korzybski, Gregory Bateson and Chris Argyris may have understood the term, identifying at least these levels of abstraction: observation, interpretation and judgement. I judge the work to be good when it has this effect on me, of alerting me to my own seeing/thinking/abstracting and in doing so bringing me “back to my senses” where I notice the colour and shapes and materials, and also make an (probably incorrect) association with that 1915 Malevich painting entitled Painterly Realism of a Boy with Knapsack – Colour Masses in the Fourth Dimension, comprising only a black and a red square on a white ground. Already, I am interpreting again.

Left: Andrew Bick, Mirror Variant Drawing #1, 2011 -12, acrylic charcoal, digital print, spray paint and watercolour on cut paper, 135 x 135 cm. Right: Cullinan Richards, Ian Poulter wore shocking pink, 2012, oil paint, canvas, household paint, polythene sheet and newspaper, 113 x 85 cm. Image by courtesy of Andrew Bick

Left: Andrew Bick, Mirror Variant Drawing #1, 2011 -12, acrylic charcoal, digital print, spray paint and watercolour on cut paper, 135 x 135 cm. Right: Cullinan Richards, Ian Poulter wore shocking pink, 2012, oil paint, canvas, household paint, polythene sheet and newspaper, 113 x 85 cm. Image by courtesy of Andrew Bick

Any conversation around Marlow Moss must surely reference Modernism, abstraction, and specifically that strand of abstract art that we might group under the heading of Constructivism, developing as she did “a Constructivism from the Russian movement synthesised with Parisian Purism and Neo-Plasticism”[1]. The show at &Model brings together contemporary artists who have some form of dialogue with the positions of Constructivism, (e.g. its emphasis on non-objectivity or abstraction, its privileging of material over form, its critical engagement of the viewer), with British Construction and Systems artists forming part of a larger exchange artists are making now with modernist positions.

I find the large Black & White paintings by Jeffrey Steele here, entirely convincing. It occurs to me that even in 2 dimensions, prints or paintings, systems are never composed, always constructed. Hence no individual part has compositional preference over another, or over the whole, we have a lack of hierarchy, every part functioning according to the purpose of the system. Every part is “determined”, yet there is also a certain amount of “free” play provided by the near infinite variety of permutations, as well as in the unpredictable phenomena of “emergence”. The paintings are radically abstract yet also completely related to my lived experience of determinism within a system. If ever I needed persuading of the power, not to mention the beauty, of this approach these works amply achieve criteria, though you probably guessed that I am already fully persuaded.

Installation shot showing portfolio on tables and Jeffrey Steele paintings on walls

Installation shot showing portfolio on tables and Jeffrey Steele paintings on walls, left: Syntagma Sg IV 117, right: Syntagma Sg 116, both 1991, pencil and oil on canvas, 122 x 122cm. Image by courtesy of Andrew Bick

I find David Saunders‘ sequence of six canvases entitled Black Transformation painted in 1973-4 similarly convincing, and I am surprised by the dates as the piece appears contemporary enough to have been painted this year.

I am interested also by other works from the same era: as well as the wonderful 1977 Rational Concepts portfolio of prints (7 English artists: Norman Dilworth, Anthony Hill, Malcolm Hughes, Peter Lowe, Kenneth Martin, Jeffrey Steele, Gillian Wise) there’s a delightful pastel colour study by Jean Spencer and two of Peter Lowe‘s reliefs from 1968 in perspex mounted on wood, both 23 x 23 cm: Permutation of 4 Groups of 2 and Permutation of 4 Groups of 3, in which rational order and faktura combine to produce objects of staggering beauty.

The influence of these artists on Katrina Blannin and Andrew Bick is self evident. Bick’s OGVDS-GW #2, directly quotes a work of Gillian Wise, and Blannin clearly follows a systems approach in her paintings. The wonderful paintings by Maria Lalic here Bohemian Green Landscape Painting and Sevres Blue Landscape Painting, both constructed by placing two landscape oriented canvases one above the other creating a “real” horizon line, also have visual similarities to the Jean Spencer study.

Installation shot, Left: Maria Lalic, Sevres Blue Landscape Painting, Front: Rational Concepts  portfolio of prints, Back Andrew Bick OGVDS - GW #2. Image by courtesy of Andrew Bick.

Installation shot, Left: Maria Lalic, Sevres Blue Landscape Painting, Front: Rational Concepts portfolio of prints, Back Andrew Bick OGVDS – GW #2. Image by courtesy of Andrew Bick.

Andrew Bick’s paintings may have a rather playful connection to systems, introducing what appear to be random markings, textures, colours, or materials, to a programmatic method of repeating the form and structure of a previous work. Sometimes the end result looks anything but rational, approaching Dada even! (Here, one of Bicks paintings is placed quite comfortably over a dishevelled stairway.) I might venture to suggest that his system is a stochastic one, wherein “a random component is combined with a selective process so that only certain outcomes are allowed to endure”[2]. There is also playfulness in his references to the history of abstraction: as well as his Gillian Wise quotation mentioned earlier, his placing of a canvas across the corner of the gallery must surely be a nod to Malevich that I interpret as humorous rather than ironic.

There’s something Dada-like in the interventions of Adam Gillam included in this exhibition, for example the placing of two sticks, pieces of wood or dowelling to which are attached high colour, painted false finger nails (from the nail salon next door), alongside the Anthony Hill pages from the publication Module, Proportion, Symmetry. It’s as if it fulfils the function of a disturbance, prompting a “double-take” in the viewer. Am I also reconnected for a moment to the actual environment within and around the gallery and jolted out of my art-trance? I don’t know why I am recalling Van Doesburg’s Dadaist alter ego I.K. Bonset, through whom he could participate in a very different kind of art making as a kind of foil for his own De Stijl Constructivism. Perhaps Gillam plays a similar role here.

I have written before about Katrina Blannin’s paintings, and seeing new ones here, I continue to be impressed by her work, not least by her commitment to her series of rotations of a bisected hexad. The variables are kept stable enough that learning can actually take place, yet there’s enough newness to create surprise and enjoyment.

Installation shot showing Katrina Blannin paintings and plinth with Adam Gillam intervention with Anthony Hill pages from Module, Proportion, Symmetry. Image by courtesy of Andrew Bick

Installation shot showing Katrina Blannin paintings and plinth with Adam Gillam intervention with Anthony Hill pages from Module, Proportion, Symmetry. Image by courtesy of Andrew Bick

What I get from Blannin’s paintings is the integration of intellectual and emotional experience, at least the part of experience that is to be had by looking at images and objects. Come to think of it, it may even be in the mediation of these two (image and object) that such integration takes place. I am trying to explain the felt pleasure (which I associate with emotion) that I am having when viewing or perhaps more accurately, studying (associated with intellect), these new works. I know it’s corny now to allude to “laughing out loud” but that’s close to the delight I am enjoying as I note the differences in scale, size and colour, and the sheer beauty of the objects themselves.

Over the last year or so, Blannin has introduced a demarcation line between the sections, and it adds first clarity and then nuance, on concentrated viewing, as the figure/ground shifts lead to constantly changing interpretations of the image.

Katrina Blannin, Bisected Double Hexad Rotation - Lemon/Delft Blue, 2014, acrylic on hessian, 30 x 25cm

Katrina Blannin, Bisected Double Hexad Rotation – Lemon/Delft Blue, 2014, acrylic on hessian, 30 x 25cm. Image by courtesy of the artist

The smaller works are painted on coloured Hessian, and whilst I am fairly sure that none of it actually shows through the opacity of the acrylic paint, I do think that it seems to add a new brightness to the paintings. The high colour of the Hessian on the sides of these immaculately painted objects casts a reflection on the wall and maybe that influences my perception of the colour, or maybe it’s simply the new colours that Blannin is using here that creates, for me, the impression of a change to a higher register or key.

Eva Berendes, Untitled, 2012, steel, brass. lacquer, 220 x 90 x 60 cm, image by courtesy of & Model

Eva Berendes, Untitled, 2012, steel, brass. lacquer, 220 x 90 x 60 cm, image by courtesy of the artist

The imposing sculptural work of Eva Berendes and Liadin Cooke take up most of the ground floor of this show so I spend some time with them on my way out of the exhibition.

Berendes Untitled sculpture in lacquered steel and brass reminds me of a screen and functions like one in this space by dividing the room in half diagonally, yet it counters such a purpose in that it’s “see through”. I think of it as a decorative screen that neither decorates nor provides privacy: an attractive object that counters its own suggested utility.

Cooke’s large scale relief in felt and Perspex entitled Housement provokes similar contradictions, being imposing, weighty, sculptural in scale whilst also fragile, soft and ephemeral in material and colour. It simultaneously affirms and denies its own materiality.

Liadin Cooke, Housement, 2010, Felt, Perspex, 100 x 200 x 21.5cm. Image by courtesy of the Artist

Liadin Cooke, Housement, 2010, Felt, Perspex, 100 x 200 x 21.5cm. Image by courtesy of the Artist

All the works in this show can be situated in relation to the Constructivist tradition in which Marlow Moss was a worthy participant, but it’s a critical relationship, questioning and perhaps even extending it. Modernisms keep renewing themselves by continually criticising their own foundations. I suspect that new modernisms will continue to find inspiration in their chequered pasts, and often by re-evaluating the contributions of particular individuals and their contexts.


Conversations Around Marlow Moss continues at &Model until 18 July and Parallel Lives: Marlow Moss and Claude Cahoun, continues at LeedsArtGallery until 7 September 2014.



[1] Lucy Howarth The Lonely Radical

[2] Gregory Bateson, Mind and Nature, 1979



Somewhat Abstract at Nottingham Contemporary

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The exhibition Somewhat Abstract, drawn from The Arts Council’s national collection, on view at Nottingham Contemporary until 29 June 2014, is abstract to varying degrees, and in a variety of ways. After all, both the following statements hold true, “all art is abstract” and “there is no such thing as abstract art”. Hence, the show’s curator, Alex Farquharson, can say of abstract art that it “is many things, if it can be said to exist at all”.

In the gallery notes we get an excellent discussion of the multiple relationships to the abstract characterised in the show (see fig 1), from work that is downright figurative but that either “verges on the abstract” or that “could not have been made without the knowledge of it” to the work of proponents of ‘pure’ abstraction like Kenneth Martin. There’s the suggestion that even the exemplars of abstraction like Anthony Caro, Bridget Riley and John Hoyland, are more connected to the ‘real world’ than we might once have allowed. I find this argument to be much more convincing in relation to Hepworth, Clough and Paolozzi than I do for Caro, Riley and Hoyland. The reference to landscape made for Hoyland’s magnificent Red Over Yellow, 18.9.73, seems somewhat spurious. The point being made is that the most abstract art may be more figurative than we think and that the old distinction between abstraction and figuration is no longer relevant. Certainly there’s a strong case for seeing ‘nature’ in the most abstract of works, if more in the sense of “the pattern that connects” to quote Gregory Bateson [1]; or in Bridget Riley’s own words: “I draw from nature, I work with nature, although in completely new terms. For me nature is not landscape, but the dynamism of visual forces – an event rather than an appearance”[2]. So whilst there is a deep connection with nature, the work doesn’t become ‘figurative’, as Riley goes on to say: “These forces can only be tackled by treating colour and form as ultimate identities, freeing them from all descriptive or functional roles.”

Fig.1 Relationships to abstraction

Fig.1 Relationships to abstraction

There are also works that specifically reference abstraction, a relatively new phenomenon in my book, because whilst there have always been “paintings of paintings” and references to art of the past, the paradoxical referencing of a class seems to me to be a postmodern invention. Its power comes from a deliberate confusion of logical types.  Abstract or non-representational art’s claim to the status of autonomous object means that it now becomes grist for the mill of representation, leading to the paradoxical position of art that is abstract by being non-abstract, and vice versa. Keith Coventry‘s CrackCity series here is a brilliant example of this. What, at first sight, look like appropriations of Kazimir Malevich‘s white on white paintings, turn out to be representations of the footprints of South London tower blocks, a critical comment on the failure of modernism at the social level, the design of tower blocks clearly sharing in the heritage of Malevich and Russian Constructivism, ending not in utopia but in dysfunction and ugliness.

Perhaps this failure was reflected in the choice by artists such as Kenneth Martin, of a specifically non-utopian abstract art. (Martin preferred the word ‘construction’ which he stated was “the opposite of abstraction”.[3])

Viewing Kenneth Martin's Endless Configuration, 1964, oil on board. (My own snapshot)

Viewing Kenneth Martin’s Endless Configuration, 1964, oil on board. (My own snapshot)

The paintings of Tomma Abts, one of the new generation of  abstract artists, recall the constructivist tradition. The contemporary resurgence of abstraction in painting and sculpture is acknowledged in the gallery notes, finding a distinct contrast between the abstract art of the middle half of the twentieth century and that of today, the mid century version being “associated with boldness of scale, conception and execution” (check out the John Hoyland) as opposed to the vulnerability of the more recent return. In Abts’ painting Heit, the scale is modest and the form looks carefully arrived at through multiple iterations. I see it from a distance and could have continued walking past without really seeing it because it absolutely doesn’t “grab my attention”. It is unassuming, reticent even, and it is only as I deliberately get closer to look at it that it discloses itself. Even then, one of its fascinating qualities is the white line that bisects the painting vertically about a third of the way in from the right. It reads like another of the lines on the painting’s surface, in fact hovering above the other lines in a space that projects outward, whilst being clearly the result of placing two stretchers almost together. The presence of the line (I am tempted to see it as a reference to a Barnett Newman ‘zip’) is in fact an absence, like the Lacanian “absent centre” of the subject.

Tomma Abts, Heit, 2011. Arts Council Collection, Southbank Centre, London. Photo: Marcus Leith. Courtesy of greengrassi, London

Tomma Abts, Heit, 2011. Arts Council Collection, Southbank Centre, London. Photo: Marcus Leith. Courtesy of greengrassi, London

The untitled painting here by Alexis Harding, is also modest in scale, without quite the intimacy of Abts, looks like it is in the process of decomposing, . The impression I have is that the materials have reacted with each other in an unstable way, the abstract grid becoming wonky, out of control in the centre, now resembling a figurative, almost cartoon-like, rendering of a disintegrating net. It’s a wonderful painting and seems to reverse the more familiar sequence of events in which a realistic image becomes increasingly “abstracted”. Here the abstract image becomes figuration.

Alexis Harding, Untitled, 1995, oil and gloss on canvas. Image by courtesy of Mummery + Schnelle

Alexis Harding, Untitled, 1995, oil and gloss on canvas. Image by courtesy of Mummery + Schnelle

There’s a strange abstract/figurative relationship in Daniel Sinsel‘s beautifully executed Untitled, where the more realistic the image the more abstract it appears. Perhaps this is the result of the close harmony of form and content, a flattened figure-of-eight arrangement of a piece of cloth, resembling so much the formal, literal, ontology of a painting: two-dimensional, motionless, fabric.

Daniel Sinsel, Untitled, 2012. Arts Council Collection, Southbank Centre, London. (c) the artist, courtesy Sadie Coles HQ, London

Daniel Sinsel, Untitled, 2012. Arts Council Collection, Southbank Centre, London. (c) the artist, courtesy Sadie Coles HQ, London

My friend suggests that, with so many outstanding works here, it’s difficult to find one that “stands out”. However, for me, the star of the show is Bridget Riley’s 1962 black and white painting, Movement in Squares. I keep coming back to it for another look, and even back at home much later, I can’t get it out of my head (a non-optical kind of after-image).  In viewing this painting I start to become aware of my own movement in the gallery space, attempting to find a position from which to really see this thing and to experience it. The nearest analogy I can find is that of music when it is ‘heard’ not just aurally but when the vibrations are also felt, physically, in the body. Here, seeing is somehow also felt in the body. I have a physical sensation approaching motion sickness (except it’s pleasurable), and observing the reactions of others around me, I sense I am not alone in this. Now, this painting does seem to ‘grab attention’ but it also has amazing subtlety that I fear could be lost in first impressions alone. It’s too easy to let the attention first be ‘grabbed’ and then to allow it to be distracted with something else. This painting deserves prolonged attention. And it’s only then that its nuances are realised. It’s not just that studying the execution of it I note that the nails fixing the board to the support are just visible, protruding slightly above the surface, or that the earlier drawing marks shine around the blocks of black paint, those are mere details, it’s the way the structure takes on different emphases, and even that the squares of black and white start to look like multiple kinds of grey. In fact, now I feel sure that I am seeing colours, yellows greens and then reds and violets, in the pulsating ‘mid’ section (more or less along the golden mean), where the squares become narrow rectangles. I have the strong sense that colours are generated, issuing from the painting into the space in front of it. Admittedly they are faint, like a diffused light, only just perceptible. I absolutely cannot get this from looking at the reproduction, only from standing at a certain point in front of the painting itself. Then, I doubt myself; this subjective experience must indeed be so subjective that it is actually entirely imaginary. So I check it out with someone else, who agrees that they are also seeing colours.

Bridget Riley, Movement in Squares, 1962. Arts Council Collection, Southbank Centre, London (c) Bridget Riley 2014. All rights reserved, courtesy Karsten Schubert, London

Bridget Riley, Movement in Squares, 1962. Arts Council Collection, Southbank Centre, London (c) Bridget Riley 2014. All rights reserved, courtesy Karsten Schubert, London

The experience of looking becomes the experience of doubting my senses and then of starting to become conscious of my own process of ‘map making’, at the point just before my own linguistic abstractions start to come into play, which they do almost immediately and I get into a conversation with myself about what’s going on. At this second stage, I am a further step removed from direct experience, commenting upon it and adding meanings. These are my own processes of abstracting: the abstractions of thought.

This exhibition brings to awareness the many uses of the word, ‘abstract’, in art, in thought and in life. It’s as visually interesting as its scope is ambitious, and I know I will be revisiting it many times.

Artists include Tomma Abts, Frank Auerbach, Francis Bacon, David Batchelor, Karla Black, Peter Blake, Zarina Bhimji, Anthony Caro, Helen Chadwick, Prunella Clough, Richard Deacon, Jeremy Deller, Barry Flanagan, Elizabeth Frink, Gilbert and George, Barbara Hepworth, Yoko Ono, Eduardo Paolozzi, Bridget Riley, Walter Sickert, Wolfgang Tillmans, Mark Wallinger, Cathy Wilkes and Rachel Whiteread.



[1] See Gregory Bateson, Mind and Nature, A Necessary Unity (1979)

[2] From The Eye’s Mind: Bridget Riley, Collected Writings 1965 – 2009, edited by Robert Kudielka, p 110

[3] See Kenneth Martin: Construction from Within, in The Tradition of  Constructivism, edited by Stephen Bann 1974, reprinted 1990

Paintings by Susan Disley at HMS

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My ongoing quest to see abstract paintings north of London brings me today to Harrington Mill Studios in Long Eaton, where there are paintings by Susan Disley. There are also works by Rosie Kearton: photograms, etchings, collagraphs, related to walking in the landscape, very enjoyable, just that it’s the painting I have specifically come here to see.


Like Kearton’s prints, Disley’s paintings are related to landscape, abstract landscapes perhaps, some more clearly connected to their starting point than others. It’s the ones that are the most ‘abstracted’ that interest me the most, pared down to almost no-thing, as if in a search for ultimate form.

Susan Disley is better known for her ceramics, and even if I had not known this I think I would still find something vessel-like in the forms she arrives at. Mr Blue Sky, shown in the installation shot above, has just three parts, a widened out, light blue “U” shape at bottom that is virtually impossible not to perceive as sea, but could also be read as a cup or similar container, cradling an earth-space that takes up most of the one meter square canvas, and a dark blue line at top that is probably the blue sky of the title. However, this blue strip is darker and heavier than sky. I find it slightly disconcerting.  Surely, in the normal scheme of things, light is up whereas dark/heavy is down. Here it is the other way around. The hint of threat contained in this inversion seems to create an element of seriousness without quite becoming angst. It’s abstract impressionism this, rather than expressionism (acknowledgements to Zak Braiterman for a novel application of this distinction). For the most part it is warmth and joy that the painting communicates, something like that feeling of well-being that comes over me on a hot sunny day. The central part of the painting, a muted earth colour, seems to reflect not just light but warmth back at the viewer.

Where the earth and light blue areas meet they form an indecisive edge, as if we can’t be sure where one ends and the other begins. In nature, boundary lines are fuzzy, but we go ahead and assign them anyway. According to George Lackoff and Mark Johnson, “When things are not clearly discrete or bounded, we still categorize them as such, e.g. mountains, street corners,hedges etc. Such ways of viewing physical phenomena are needed to satisfy certain purposes that we have: locating mountains, meeting on street corners,trimming hedges. Human purposes typically require us to impose artificial boundaries that make physical phenomena discrete…”

Susan Disley, Enclosure I, Enclosure II, oil on board, each is 35cm x 35 cm. Image by courtesy of the artist and HMS

Susan Disley, Enclosure I, Enclosure II, oil on board, each is 35cm x 35 cm. Image by courtesy of the artist and HMS

The boundaries in Enclosure I and Enclosure II, are more distinct than in Mr Blue Sky, the paintings appearing to be about the very act of demarcation. Contemplating these abstract images I am impressed by the beauty of the resultant forms and at the same time reminded of the political implications of land enclosure. Imposing artificial boundaries helps us to understand the world around us, and is also a means of exercising power. The birds eye view emphasises this for me, picture making here becoming similar to map making, again a means both of understanding and control.

Sue Disley, Landscape in Pink, 2013, oil on board, 1m x1m, image by courtesy of the artist and HMS

Sue Disley, Landscape in Pink, 2013, oil on board, 1m x1m, image by courtesy of the artist and HMS

We’re back to fuzzy boundaries in Landscape in Pink, and the interpretive cues are almost so generalised as to lose the landscape association, except that it is virtually impossible to lose, as if we carry it with us in our bodies. Even if there was no intentional link to landscape we would probably find ourselves making the connection anyway. We refer to the very orientation of the support as either “portrait” or “landscape”, hence artists such as Kazimir Malevich and Ad Reinhardt favoured the square format, incidentally Disley’s favoured format also, as if unconsciously she wanted to make the viewing of them as landscapes problematic.

As in Mr Blue Sky there are three areas: an “above”, a “below” and a large expanse between them, this time in warm pink, with other colours pushing through a scumbled light ground. Almost the opposite of the other painting: there’s a heavy dark grey below and light blue above, but if they relate to sea and sky or earth and sky I find it fairly difficult to read that way. More than anything else I think it’s a painting of space. It reminds me of a habit I like to indulge in of gazing into the mid distance. Someone usually asks what I’m staring at and I try to mark out the area of space in three dimensions with my hands: “that’s ridiculous you can’t be staring at that, there’s nothing there”. And it’s something similar that I think is going on here, as if the attempt is being made not so much to paint an area of earth as to paint the space above the area of earth, the space in the mid distance that has nothing in it. Or is it rather that viewing the painting triggers that experience? Because here I am staring and slowly becoming aware of the space between me and the painting. I get nearer so that I can see the brush strokes and the way the surface is constructed, inspecting the canvas edges where the colours underneath the unifying ground are more easily identified, and so it is the painting I am seeing rather than the space between us. Then, as I step back to make sense of the whole it’s that mid space again. The painting wants to be stared at in this way! And it dawns on me that it’s boundaries I am thinking about again, the boundaries within the painting, then the boundary between the painting and it’s environment, between the painting and me, and that is a very fuzzy boundary indeed. I find that I can identify with the painting and also dis-identify, I can be “in it” and “outside it” just by shifting my awareness subtly, in a similar way to the shifting between figure and ground that is part of what happens in these pictures. The painting is a container, but what it contains extends beyond its own boundaries, limited not so much by the edges of the canvas as by my own visual field.

Talking with David Manley, the curator of this exhibition, we note some of Disley’s influences, there’s something of William Scott in here, especially in the drawing, and I wonder if Agnes Martin’s use of muted colour might also be an influence. I think that Scott’s paintings seem to be much more about tone and Martin’s much more about hue and I attempt to characterise Disley’s paintings using the same categories, but come to no conclusion. I do find that I am influenced by them, as getting back to the studio I realise that I have filtered out the high colour in the painting I am currently working on.

Susan Disley – Rosie Kearton is showing at Harrington Mill Studios until 31 July, viewing by appointment email or tel: 07891 262 202

(The Lackoff and Johnson quote is from George Lackoff and Mark Johnson, Metaphors We Live By, 1980, University of Chicago Press)

System Painting Construction Archive at Lion and Lamb Gallery

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A detour on my way home from a day’s work brings me once again to that wonderful informal space The Lion and Lamb Gallery, in the back room of a London pub, where I get to see System Painting Construction Archive, curated by Andrew Bick.

systems lion & lamb

Pint in hand, I view works by Andrew Bick, Stuart Elliot, Robert Holyhead, Clare Kenny, Maria Lalic, Karim Noureldin, David Rhodes, Cullinan Richards, Brandon Taylor, exhibited alongside a ‘museum’ of printed matter related to British Construction and Systems Art. In the gallery notes Bick explains that the artists were invited to “place their work alongside”, rather than respond directly to the archive.

Bick’s OGV (grid GW), does directly reference a Gillian Wise image shown in one of the vitrines, and acknowledged in the ‘GW’ of the title.

systems vitrine Andrew Bick OGV (grid GW)

Its presentation, straddling the corner of the room, less directly references the Russian Tradition via Malevich’s famous Black Square. That tradition clearly also having resonance for Maria Lalic who has been working with the monochrome for some time. Here in her  Sevres Blue Landscape Painting (Le Chemin de Sevres. Corot. C1855 – 65), she reintroduces the horizon line, but it is made by the joining of two monochromes, a lower one in brown and an upper one in blue. The non-objective is simultaneously posited and negated: two monochromes entirely abstract, yet it is impossible not to make landscape associations.

Clare Kenny’s Snow Blind appears also to toy with the propositions of ‘concrete’ and ‘representational’ . I think it is collaged from photographs of windows with blinds, the abstract lines and colours occupying my attention along with blotches or painterly stains, which could be read as ‘errors’ in the printing process, or possibly photographed (‘real’) snow flakes through a window pane. I am reminded of that old notion of painting as ‘a window on the world’, this particular ‘window’ being also physically blind-like, in that the paper support is folded, creating a material object that could function as a blind, obscuring the window.

The work by Cullinan Richards also has obscured ‘subject matter’. The title Paula Radcliffe in Disappointing 4th Place is taken from a newspaper article just showing towards the bottom edge of the piece. Possibly the newspaper was used to rest the art work on whilst it was being made and, getting stuck to it, it became an integral part by the end of the production process, almost as if the article became accidental content even whilst what was being constructed was rooted in the universal ‘content’ of the geometric.

cullinanrichards clarekenny brandontaylor

Brandon Taylor’s Painting for CB is a construction with coloured wood pieces stuck to a painted grey ground on canvas that reads like a painting.  I have the impression that the composition follows a rational formula but I can’t actually work it out. I find that I am counting the pieces, checking whether they are similar in shape and size and how many times each colour is repeated.

I am in a similar mode when looking at the paintings by David Rhodes and Stuart Elliot, attempting for example to work out in what order the lines in Rhodes’ 2.5.2013 (1) were masked and painted on the raw cotton duck. It’s an impressive painting that could have been executed in three sections, and even if it wasn’t I perceive it as comprising three informal ‘panels’, each with black and off-white lines in alternating directions, resulting in an overall “N” shape. It packs a punch, yet there is softness in the lines as a result of the way the paint has gently bled through the masking tape, and a richness of colour that is hidden by the description “black and white”. Likewise with Stuart Elliot’s Untitled (73), where blackboard paint has been applied to primed canvas before being stretched and the image, in so far as there is an image, looks to have been constructed by scumbling the paint over the bars of a wooden stretcher, creating impressions of the stretcher, not only at the edges but through the centre of the canvas, in numerous directions. Again, to say it is black and white would deny the subtlety and warmth of the colours that are nearer to warm greys on ochre.

In Robert Holyhead’s Untitled (yellow), a variegated yellow ground is interrupted by two, flatly painted, white triangular shapes reading as cut-outs, accompanied by a vertical line of a different yellow, running along the right hand edge branching out at top and bottom into two triangles causing the yellow of the ground to recede, and creating a lively ambiguous space.

The two beautiful drawings by Karim Noureldin, Evo (09-11040) and Evo (07-11009), both pencil on paper, look like a geometric starting point is being empirically explored or unfolded through a series or sequence. One of them has a central mass that could be a sculptural object in a space, whereas the other has a vertical zig zag, more rhythm than object.


My attention alternates between wall and vitrine. I read texts on or by Jeffrey Steele, Gillian Wise, Charles Biederman, Anthony Hill, Kenneth Martin etc. and, wanting to turn the pages, I have the sense of a past that is locked, only partially accessible via faded documents, memory and influence, as if the works on the wall are familiarly connected to the archive material or they can be interpreted as having evolved from a “constructive context”, some more consciously connected to the base than others, like the system formula that eludes my attempt to discern it, or like Noureldin’s drawings wending their way through various permutations, continually repeating and changing, awareness of the past leading to an informed openness to an unknown future.

System.Painting. Construction. Archive is showing at Lion and Lamb Gallery until 15 June 2013, and there’s a talk on 8 June at 5pm.

Line & Circle and Edwina Leapman at Annely Juda Fine Art

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Although to speak about silence is to risk obscuring the very experience one might wish to elucidate, to keep silent is to risk it going unappreciated. I feel similarly about the wonderful exhibition(s) currently on show at Annely Juda Fine Art.  I will be careful not to say too much, but I must say something. I will keep quiet about the wonderful space on the fourth floor with a skylight that is perfect for viewing the new paintings by Edwina Leapman, and say nothing about the beauty of the works in the Line and Circle exhibition on floor three. It’s ages since I saw Naum Gabo‘s linear constructions and constructions in space, and I had forgotten just how captivating they are. Was it in the 70s that there was a big show of these somewhere and we spent ages peering at tiny constructions in glass cabinets and glass covered plinths? And whilst looking, really looking (the response that Gabo achieves so consistently, not just for me, everyone seems to be studying so intently) it is silence that accompanies us.

So, I shan’t say a thing about the amazing paintings here by Friedrich Vordemberge-Gildewart (an artist only recently brought to my attention by Terry Greene in a recent blog post), Composition N. 204, 1944/5, demanding silent contemplative viewing, like the Max Bill painting pura III, modest in size at just over a foot square, and containing almost no detail, the space divided in half down the centre and each half being divided diagonally from upper left to lower right resulting in four triangles, two in a colour approaching indigo and two in green, also resembling a zig-zag or ‘W/M ‘shape.

Max Bill

Max Bill Swiss 1908-1994, pura III 1990, oil on canvas, 33 x 33 cm

Impossible to determine which form is figure and which is ground, it shifts continually, from green figure against blue ground to blue figure with green ground, the colour relationship between them seeming somehow to be just right, as if there was such a thing as “correct”. Motion is arrested as I fix my attention on this object/image. It’s not just that the experience is a silent one, it’s more that the painting is the visual equivalence of silence: shifting, dependent on our perception of it, between presence and absence.

The other, much larger, Max Bill painting on show here, rotation around expanding white, a brightly coloured diagonally oriented canvas, equally interesting, seems a little ‘noisier’.  Perhaps it’s all that visual excitation. Similarly with the marvelous painting by Kenneth Martin from his Chance, Order, Change series: although quietude continues to attend my viewing, it seems slightly ‘noisier’ somehow than pura III; It has a ‘buzz’ about it. Based on preliminary drawings, this series of paintings is highly programmatic and yet incorporates chance, which defines the position of the lines and their sequence. The points of intersection on a grid of squares are numbered and the numbers written on cards which are then picked at random. A line is made between each successive pair of numbers. I am unsure how the colours are determined but I think I am right in saying that where a line has been crossed by another its colour is changed.

Kenneth Martin, Chance Order Change 20, Symmetry B, 1981, oil on canvas, 91.4 x 91.4cm, image by courtesy Annely Juda Fine Art

Kenneth Martin, Chance Order Change 20, Symmetry B, 1981, oil on canvas, 91.4 x 91.4cm, image by courtesy Annely Juda Fine Art

It’s a lively painting, and I am enjoying seeing it here in this room along with others that share with Martin an affinity with the tradition of constructivism (some more some less so: Ben Nicholson, Antony Caro, Josef Albers, Laszlo Moholoy- Nagy, Naum Gabo, Kazimir Malevich and Olga Rozanova ). I am also aware that it belongs in a series and I would like to see more of the series to place it within it’s own more specific context. But most of all I am enjoying the dialogue that this painting seems to invite me into. Perhaps that’s why I say its a noisier painting than some of the others: here I am talking to it about the process followed for its own production.

On the fourth floor Edwina Leapman‘s paintings also encourage thoughts about the process of making them, and the series context is also present: 15 paintings all made in 2012, all of two colours with a ground on which is drawn a sequence of horizontal lines. I have the impression that on each line the brush is loaded with paint and the paint deposited along the line until the brush is empty and then re-loaded to recommence on the line below. It looks as if the position of the line has been determined beforehand but the way the painted line looks is determined only by the process of drawing the brush across the coloured canvas.

Untitled, 2012, acrylic on canvas, 168 x 183 cm, image courtesy of Annely Juda Fine Art

Untitled, 2012, acrylic on canvas, 168 x 183 cm, image courtesy of Annely Juda Fine Art

In some of the paintings the ground and the line colour contrasts in hue and sometimes they match, but they are generally closely matched in tone. Although I feel drawn into that conversation about process, and even more so having seen the Max Bill painting pura III and wanting to compare and contrast them, they do then bid me to become silent again as I view.

Edwina Leapman, Untitled, 2012, acrylic on canvas, 168 x 183 cm, image by courtesy Annely Juda Fine Art

Edwina Leapman, Untitled, 2012, acrylic on canvas, 168 x 183 cm, image by courtesy Annely Juda Fine Art

They have amazing optical qualities, that must be ‘simply’ the result of the colour and close tonal relationships. That so much sensation can arise from so little intervention I find surprising, also that each painting has a distinct character of its own, vastly different from the others whilst in structure being entirely similar.

It’s true that appreciating these is something more for experience than for words, and also that their visual charge ( I want to say power but that suggests something much more brash and not ambiguous enough for these) is extremely difficult to put into words. So I will cease my speaking and continue to look on in silence.

Edwina Leapman New Paintings is showing until 28 March and Line and Circle until 23 March.

The Spatiotemporal Dimensions of Abstract Art and the Genesis of Modern Architecture by Ross Wolfe (guest blog)

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Iakov Chernikhov's "Architectural Fantasy" (1929)

Read Ross Wolfe’s “The Graveyard of Utopia: Soviet Urbanism and the Fate of the International Avant-Garde”

Modernist Architecture — Positive Bases

The theory and practice of modernist architecture were positively based on two primary phenomena that developed under capitalism: the abstract sense of space and time created by the internal dynamic of capitalism, and the more concrete process of industrialization that took place in Europe over the course of the nineteenth century. The former of these developments, the abstract side of capitalism’s spatiotemporal dialectic, first manifested itself spatially in the medium of Cubist and post-Cubist abstract painting (Neo-plasticism, Purism, Suprematism) and temporally in the simultaneous representation of motion and light by movements such as Futurism and Rayonism. This abstract temporal dimension was deepened and refined by the avant-garde’s appropriation of Taylorism, the system of “scientific management” in industry founded in America just prior to the First World War.[211] A discussion of Taylorization’s impact on modernist architecture will lead into a more general discussion of the inescapable influence that European industrialization had on its overall development. Specifically, it will examine the modernists’ fascination with machine technologies, efficiency, and the principle of standardization. All these aspects of modern society had been brought into existence by nineteenth-century capitalism in the shift from more primitive manufacturing techniques to full-blown industrialism. In this way, modernist architecture can be seen in its positive connection to the forces and logic unfolding out of capitalist modernity, in addition to its negative bases that were outlined in the previous subsection. Modernism captured in its architecture the greater project of “rationalization” that was taking place throughout the Western world during this time, as theorized by thinkers such as Weber, Adorno, and Horkheimer.

A tertiary influence may be cited alongside these two main positive bases of avant-garde architecture: the working class. In some sense, the modernists’ identification with the European proletariat can be traced to their general disgust with bourgeois society, coupled with the widespread leftist idea that the working class could play a revolutionary role in the construction of a new and more rational society. But in another sense, the modernists’ valorization of working class must have stemmed from its association with industrial production, which held an obvious positive appeal for avant-garde architects. Though this affirmation of the laboring masses of Europe thus had its sources in both positive and negative aspects of modern society, its general character should be seen as positive. Either way, the avant-garde expressed its solidarity with workers in its quest to provide them with adequate dwelling conditions, and, more broadly, to overcome the chronic shortage of urban housing. The modernists’ efforts to this end can be seen in their commitment to the creation of a standard Existenzminimuml’habitation minimum, Kleinstwohnung, or “minimum dwelling.”[212]




































FIGURE 1: The Spatiotemporal Dialectic of Capitalism and Architecture

Before detailing this more social component of modernist architectural ideology, it is proper to examine the formal properties imparted to it by the abstract spatiotemporal dimension of capitalism. Referring back to the characteristics established beforehand as belonging to the abstract forms of space and time manifested under capitalism,[213] the extent to which these qualities were expressed by modernist art and architecture will be made clear. The scientific, cyclical, and synchronous character of its temporality; the geometric, centrifugal, and global/international character of its spatiality; their mutual homogeneity — all these categories will be important to bear in mind moving through the following analysis. For these traits, generated by the inherent dynamism of modern society, would embed themselves in the artistic unconscious of a generation of painters and architects. These then would bubble to the surface in the works of the modernists, which expressed the new spatiotemporal sensibility of their age. Such expressions of this new aesthetic orientation should be seen as manifestations of the latent social dynamic of capitalism, however, mediated perhaps by the genius of individual artists.[214]

Ivan Kudriashev's "Construction of a Rectilinear Motion" (1925)

Iakov Chernikhov's "Architectural Fantasy 11" (1925-1931)

In his groundbreaking 1938 lectures on Space, Time, and Architecture, the modernist and insider historian of the avant-garde movement Sigfried Giedion credited the rise of the new architecture to a newfound sense of “space-time” that congealed around the turn of the twentieth century. According to Giedion, this modern aesthetic[215] sensibility described an abstract, four-dimensional unity of temporalized spatiality, much like the kind outlined in physics by Albert Einstein in 1905. This placed a heavy emphasis on the notion of “simultaneity.”[216] Giedion could have easily added the work that was taking place in philosophy in the writings of Henri Bergson around the same time.[217] In either case, he claimed that explicit awareness of this new sense of space and time appeared first in the works of abstract art, years before the artists’ insights were later taken up and applied by modernist architects. In the first decade of the century, Giedion asserted, “[p]ainters very different in type but sharing a common isolation from the public worked steadily toward a new conception of space. And no one can understand contemporary architecture, become aware of the feelings hidden behind it, unless he has grasped the spirit animating this painting.”[218]

Georges Braque's "Le Guéridon" (1911)

Pablo Picasso's "Violín en el café" (1913)

The pioneers of this radically new approach to spatiality, in Giedion’s account, were the Cubists. While Cubism was restricted mostly to the medium of painting, and only found itself translated directly into architecture in rare instances,[219] its explosion of linear perspective was a crucial step in the move toward a new spatiality. “The cubists dissect the object, try to lay hold of its inner composition,” wrote Giedion. “They seek to extend the scale of optical vision as contemporary science extends the law of matter. Therefore contemporary spatial approach has to get away from the single point of reference.” A consequence of this approach is the simultaneous representation of a single object from multiple points of view. “Fragments of lines hover over the surface, often forming open angles which become the gathering places of darker tones. These angles and lines began to grow, to be extended, and suddenly out of them developed one of the constituent facts of space-time representation — the plane.”[220] This was one of the major achievements of the Cubists in painting: their move toward a geometric, planar spatiality. In this respect, even the self-styled “Cubist” architects in Czechoslovakia before the war failed to live up to their artistic counterparts. As Teige observed, with characteristic astuteness: “Czech cubist architecture failed to assimilate the most fertile lesson of cubism: the adherence to geometry, to [Paul] Cézanne’s truth of geometric archetypes. Czech cubists might have been able to derive the principles of regularity and perpendicularity required by the new architecture from these sources.”[221] Marcel Janco, a Romanian-born Dadaist, in his 1928 “Reflections of Cubism,” was so bold as to assert that architecture would have never freed itself from the decorative arts had it not been for the contribution of Cubism.[222]

Aleksandr Rodchenko's "Red Yellow Blue" Triptych (1921): "I reduced painting to its logical conclusion and exhibited three canvases: red, blue, and yellow. I affirmed: this is the end of painting."

Thus was the geometric aspect of capitalism’s abstract spatiality given definite form, depicted by the Cubist painters in the first decade of the twentieth century. After the war, a new wave of abstract painters rose up to build upon their accomplishments. Kazimir Malevich founded Suprematism in Russia, Piet Mondrian formulated Neo-Plasticism in Holland, and Amédée Ozenfant established Purism in France. Giedion regarded these painters as merely carrying Cubism forward to its logical conclusion. And as he correctly noted, each of these movements eventually extended themselves into the sphere of architecture. “In France appeared Le Corbusier and Ozenfant; in Russia, Malevich; in Hungary, [László] Moholy-Nagy; in Holland, Mondrian and van Doesburg,” recorded Giedion. “Common to them was an attempt to rationalize cubism or, as they felt was necessary, to correct its aberrations. The procedure was sometimes very different in different groups, but all moved toward rationalization and into architecture.”[223] Each of these painters would eventually address the question of architecture in their theoretical writings. Moreover, each of them would have major modernist architects join them as allies in the search for new tectonic forms. Malevich’s paintings inspired El Lissitzky’s PROUNs as well as his subsequent move toward architecture. Le Corbusier extended Ozenfant’s Purism into his writings on building for L’Esprit Nouveau. Oud and van Doesburg for the most part followed Mondrian’s conception of Neo-Plasticism in their architectural works of the 1920s.

Piet Mondrian's "Composition with Red, Yellow, Blue, and Black" (1921)

Theo van Doesburg's "Contra Composition XVI" (1922)

The members of the De Stijl movement in Holland were fully aware of the evolution of modern architecture out of the new spatiotemporal sensibility established by painting. “Only in our time,” wrote van Doesburg, “has the leading art form, painting, shown the way which architecture must take in order that it may,…with mechanical means and disciplines, realize in material form what is already present in the other arts in imaginary (aesthetic) form.”[224] Mondrian and van Doesburg, both during their years together in De Stijl and after their split, authored several programmatic essays on Neo-Plasticism and architecture. The first was written by Mondrian shortly after J.J.P. Oud joined the group in 1922. In it, he challenged the notion that “Neo-Plasticism’s ‘planar’ expression is…inapplicable to architecture.” Mondrian stressed the “planar” aspect of Neo-Plasticist architecture’s abstracted and absolutized notion of space and time, just as Teige would later. As in his paintings, the relativity of Renaissance linear perspective was abandoned in favor of the standpoint of infinity. “The new vision…does not proceed from one fixed point of view: it takes its viewpoint everywhere and is nowhere limited,” wrote Mondrian. “It is not bound by space or time…In practice it takes its viewpoint before the plane (the most extreme possibility of plastic intensification). Thus it sees architecture as a multiplicity of planes: again the plane.[225] Doesburg, in his 1924 manifesto “Towards a Plastic Architecture,” likewise expressed the spatiotemporal element of Neo-Plasticism in architecture: “§10. Space and time. The new architecture takes account not only of space, but also of time as an accent of architecture. The unity of time and space gives the appearance of architecture a new and completely plastic aspect (four-dimensional temporal and spatial plastic aspects).” At no point did he forget the indebtedness of modernist architecture to modernist painting, however. “[T]he plastic architect, under which heading I also include the painter, has to construct in the new field, time-space.”[226] Even after breaking with van Doesburg in 1924, Mondrian continued to push for Neo-Plasticism in the medium of architecture. Seconding Doesburg’s insistence on the use of color in new construction,[227] Mondrian proposed the total unity of plane and color: “[A]s the plastic expression of the plane, Neo-Plastic architecture irresistibly calls for color, without which the plane cannot be living reality.”[228] Doesburg, though his publication of De Stijl came to be less important (and less frequent), would continue to be one of best European commentators of modernist architecture, as can be clearly seen from his articles for Het Bouwbedrijf in the latter half of the 1920s.[229]

Le Corbusier's "Red Violin" (1920)

Amédée Ozenfant's "Le pichet blanc" (1926)

Meanwhile, in France, Le Corbusier-Saugnier (he would later drop the “Saugnier”) and Ozenfant were formulating their own post-Cubist doctrine, “Purism,” through their journal, L’Esprit Nouveau. In their co-authored manifesto for the movement, written in 1920, the intrinsic relationship between painterly and architectural modernism is stated explicitly: “[P]ainting is a question of architecture, and therefore volume is its means.”[230] Though both men were originally trained as painters, and though Ozenfant would never venture into architecture, their approach to the link between architecture and painting was nevertheless the inverse of that taken by Doesburg and Mondrian. For Le Corbusier and Ozenfant, architecture did not simply extend the results of modern painting to the realm of building; rather, architecture was already built into painting. Both had to be seen in terms of abstract space: “Space is needed for architectural composition; space means three dimensions. Therefore we think of the painting not as a surface, but as a space.”[231] The universality of such spatial composition was implied by the authors’ search for a “universal language”[232] of forms and colors, its mathematico-geometric character shown in its search for a “mathematical order…[to] be sought among universal means.”[233] What is more, the homogeneous quality of Purism’s modernist spatiality was conveyed through its ideal of artistic “unity”: “Unity in plastic art…is the homogeneous relationship of the surface or volume with each of the elements brought into play.”[234] Many of the concepts Le Corbusier and Ozenfant introduced in this early manifesto later reappeared in the former’s Towards an Architecture written three years later, especially in its notions of “volume,” “surface,” and “regulating lines.”[235] Ozenfant, reflecting on the subject of modernist architecture in his 1928 Foundations of Modern Art, declared the artistry of the architect to consist in the spatial precision of his designs: “The architect’s genius is in relating all the internal organs of the house…Each square centimeter must yield its maximum, and the rooms must be exactly related if they are to be pleasant to live in: a perfect harmony which though much to be desired, is rarely attained.”[236]

Kazimir Malevich's "Suprematist Painting: Eight Red Rectangles" (1915)

Olga Rozanova's "Non-Objective Composition" (1916)

Nikolai Suetin's "Dynamics in Suprematism" (1921)

Kazimir Malevich’s evolution out of Russian Cubo-Futurism into what he dubbed Suprematism was accomplished as early as 1916.[237] Although he would not foray into architecture until the mid-1920s, the fundamental reconception of space enacted in his paintings had immediate consequences for the development of modernist architecture, first through a fellow Russian painter, El Lissitzky, and second through Lissitzky’s Hungarian associate and collaborator, László Moholy-Nagy. Nevertheless, Malevich prophesied the birth of a Suprematist architecture out of the principles it established previously in painting, in his internationally-renowned book on The Non-Objective World, published in German as part of the Bauhausbücher series in 1926. “The new art of Suprematism,” he wrote, “which has produced new forms and form relationships by giving external expression to pictorial feeling, will become a new architecture: it will transfer these forms from the surface of canvas to space.”[238] Malevich took up this subject at greater length in several articles he contributed to the Ukrainian avant-garde journal New Generation, particularly his 1928 essay regarding “Painting and the Problem of Architecture.” As with the Purists in France and the De Stijl Neo-Plasticists in Holland, Malevich asserted that Suprematism could be easily transposed from the easel into space.[239] But Malevich himself was not interested in proposing new architectural designs; at most, he submitted abstract sculptural models of intersecting geometric shapes that he called “architectonics.”[240] Giedion recalled the significance of these projects:

Interrelation, hovering, and penetration form the basis of Malevich’s half-plastic architectural studies, which he calls “architectonen.” These objects are not intended for a particular purpose, but are to be understood simply as spatial research. Interrelations are created between these prisms, slabs, and surfaces when they penetrate or dislodge each other.[241]

Nikolai Suetin's "Architecton" (1926)

Kazimir Malevich's "Architecton Beta" (1926)

Malevich left it to professional architects to design the buildings that would embody the architecture of Suprematism. Unconsciously, he felt, modernist architects in the West were already moving towards its realization. “I do not mean to say that the new architecture of the West is Suprematist,” he clarified, “but I can say that new Western architecture stands on the road to Suprematist architectonics.”[242] Malevich tended to prefer buildings produced by the French Purist and Dutch Neo-Plasticist architects[243] (for reasons we might guess) to the utilitarianism of Russian Constructivism[244] and German functionalism, the so-called “New Objectivity,”[245] though he did state his approval of the works of the Germans Gropius and Korn.[246] Malevich did not fail to notice the abstract planar aspect of the new architecture’s spatiality, as Teige and Mondrian had also pointed out: “Analyzing new architecture we find that it is under the influence of ‘plane painting,’ i.e. of artistic form containing the plane element…For this reason contemporary architecture gives the impression of being two-dimensional.”[247]

Marcel Duchamp's "Nude Descending a Staircase No. 2" (1912)

Umberto Boccioni's "Bottle Evolving in Space" (1912)

Before passing on to the subsequent development of Malevich’s spatial theories by Lissitzky and Moholy-Nagy, the more temporal aspect of avant-garde experimentation in the early twentieth century deserves mentioning. For while Doesburg might have spoken of spatiotemporal unity in De Stijl architecture,[248] the specifically temporal dimension of this unity remained underdefined. As Giedion argued, however, this work was carried out in the “research into movement” undertaken by members of the Futurist movement in art, along with some strains of Cubism. Again, he claims this mirrored a new scientific understanding of time that arose concurrently.[249] Avant-garde art, in turn, attempted to simulate dynamic motion within static media, either in painting or in sculpture. Giedion thus cited the Futurist sculptor Umberto Boccioni’s Bottle Evolving in Space (1912) and famous Unique Forms of Continuity in Space (1913), the painter Gino Severini’s Walking Dog (1913), and the unaffiliated artist Marcel Duchamp’s celebrated Nude Descending a Staircase (1912) as examples of modernism’s exploration of temporal simultaneity.[250] He could have easily added Giocamo Balla’s Light and Movement.

Umberto Boccioni's "Unique Forms of Continuity in Space" (1913)

Giedion’s claims are corroborated not only by the Futurists’ works, but also by their writings. From the moment of its foundation, Futurism in Italy championed dynamism, movement, and speed. “We intend to exalt movement and aggression, feverish insomnia, the racer’s stride, the mortal leap, the slap and the punch,” shouted Marinetti, in his 1909 Manifesto. “We affirm that the beauty of the world has been enriched by a new form of beauty: the beauty of speed.”[251] This attitude, the Futurists claimed, reflected the modern pace of life — hectic, buzzing, and frantic — especially in the newfound sphere of the metropolis. In an odd way, the concrete spatial accumulations of the modern capitalist city converged with its abstract temporality of deadlines, the daily punch-in clock, store hours, the whole tyranny of standardized time to create the hustle and bustle of city life. As the legendary Russian Cubo-Futurist poet Vladimir Maiakovskii put it:

The city has enriched our experiences and impressions of the new urban elements, which were not known to poets of the past. The whole modern cultural world is becoming a vast, Cyclopean city. The city replaces nature and the elements. The city itself becomes an environment out of the bowels of which arises a new, urban people. Telephones, airplanes, express-elevators, rotating machines, sidewalks, chimneys, stone masses, soot and smoke — these are the elements of beauty in the new urban nature. We see electric light more often than the old, romantic moon. We, the urbanites, do not know the forests, fields, and flowers — we are familiar with the tunnels of the streets with their traffic, noise, their roaring, flashing, perpetual circuit. And most importantly — they have altered the rhythm of life. Everything has become lightning-quick, as fleeting as film on a tape. The smooth, quiet, slow rhythms of old poetry do not correspond to the psyche of the modern city dweller. Feverishness — that symbolizes the pace of modernity. In the city there are no smooth, measured, rounded lines: angles, bends, zigzags — these are what characterize the picture of the city.[252]

Giacomo Balla's "Paths of Movement + Dynamic Sequences" (1913)

This new feeling of constant, feverish motion had major repercussions for the members of the Futurist current. “In sculpture as in painting,” declared Boccioni, “renewal is impossible without looking for a style of movement.”[253] The Russian Ego-Futurist Vadim Shershenevich shared this sentiment: “We have lost the ability to understand the life of a motionless statue.” This loss, he suggested, was symptomatic of the dynamism of their age.[254] The struggle for the Futurists, therefore was to capture in a moment the evolution of an object in time. Their mathematical approach to understanding this time, moreover, was commensurate with the abstract time of capitalism.[255] Unlike Cubism, which created merely spatial fragmentation, Futurism aimed at temporal oblivion — the decomposition of flux. This effect, the simultaneous representation of dynamic continuity, produced in the object a quality that the founder of Futurism, F.T. Marinetti, called “geometrical and mechanical Splendor,” while provoking in the subject “the numerical sensibility.”[256] In Severini’s 1913 manifesto on “Plastic Analogies of Dynamism,” the artist recognized the historical character of this new sense of temporality. “Today, in this epoch of dynamism and simultaneity,” he wrote, “one cannot separate any event or object from the memories, the plastic affinities or aversions, which its expansive action calls up simultaneously in us.”[257] Hence the Futurists’ fascination with the whirring of machines, automobiles, and airplanes.[258]

Mikhail Larionov's "Red Rayonism" (1913)

Futurism’s temporal self-understanding was of a twofold nature, however. While the movement was interested in achieving a more dynamic, rationalized comprehension of the passage of time as it transpired under modernity, the Futurists understood themselves to be the culmination of the artistic processes of their age and thus the supersession of all that came before it. Their nihilistic stance toward the past, and ruthless intolerance for anachronism in the present, was taken up by subsequent incarnations of the avant-garde. Each new “ism” that took up the mantle of the avant-garde claimed to render all others obsolete.[259] If, for Malevich and the post-Cubist abstract painters his Black Square was to spatially embody “[t]he absolute zero that was to mark the beginning of a new world in which the new ‘white humanity’ would be cleansed of all previous images,” as Groys put it,[260] then for the Futurists, the present was to mark a sort of Year Zero. The plodding, irrational time of the past was to be abandoned in favor of a sleeker synchronicity, the rationally choreographed motions of a new, harmonious humanity. Renouncing the spatiotemporal order that had come before, the brothers Naum Gabo and Antoine Pevsner wrote in 1920: “We proclaim: For us, space and time are born today.”[261]

Naum Gabo's "Construction in Space" (1925)

While contradictory temporal elements persisted into the present, inhabiting the same space, these were to be extirpated — cleared to make way for the new spatiotemporal order. Traditionalism held onto remnants of the past at the expense of the future. “The speed of cultural evolution is reduced by the stragglers,” lamented Loos. “I perhaps am living in 1908 [the year of his essay’s publication], but my neighbor is living in 1900 and the man across the way in 1880.”[262] Loos’ sentiment was later conceptualized more rigorously by the German Marxist Ernst Bloch, in his notion of “non-synchronicity.” In an essay he wrote on the subject, he explained succinctly: “Not all people exist in the same Now. They do so only externally, by virtue of the fact that they may all be seen today. But that does not mean that they are living at the same time with others.”[263] This can be seen as the incarnation of the concrete, contradictory spatiality of capitalism that was described earlier.[264] The leftovers of ages that had been superseded by the ceaseless revolutions in production (itself a result of the concrete temporality that stemmed from relative surplus-value)[265] were deposited in one and the same locality. The “unevenness” of capitalist development could be witnessed in a single space. Ginzburg observed this phenomenon precisely: “The old is regenerated gradually; frequently one can observe how elements of the old world, still persisting by reason of traditions that have outlived the very ideas which engendered them, coexist side by side with elements of the new world, which overwhelm us with their barbaric freshness and the absolute independence of their unexpected appearance.”[266]

Of course, this fact did not sit easily with the members of the Futurist avant-garde, nor with those who succeeded them. It could well be argued that the very recognition of such concrete anachronisms, of “backwardness” in general, was unique to modernity, a symptom of the heightened pace of life. Either way, the Futurists were notoriously impatient with those who could not keep up with new developments, and who kept them from instituting a new regime of rationalized, uniform time. This might have been the source of their violent anti-traditionalism. Marinetti thus heaped scorn upon those who revered the art of the past, calling museums “cemeteries,” “public dormitories,” and “absurd slaughterhouses.”[267] The Futurists detested “Academicians,” as well as the works and figures they had canonized. “SHIT to…Dante, Shakespeare, Tolstoi, Goethe,” roared one of Marinetti’s young followers in France, the poet Guillaume Apollinaire.[268] Their counterparts in Russia, the Cubo-Futurist contingent, were equally blunt. “Throw Pushkin, Dostoevskii, Tolstoi, etc., etc., overboard from the steamship of Modernity,” they advised. “We alone are the face of our Time. Through us the horn of time blows in the art of the world.”[269] This unapologetic hostility toward tradition would be continued by all the avant-garde movements that followed. Even Malevich, who was generally more respectful, announced proudly that “we, the most daring, have spat upon the altar of its [tradition’s] art.”[270]

El Lissitzky's "PROUN 24" (1922)

El Lissitzky "PROUN" (1923)

The ultimate synthesis of Cubist and post-Cubist painting’s abstract spatiality and Futurism’s abstract temporality in architecture was achieved in the theoretical writings of Lissitzky and Moholy-Nagy. In one of his earliest essays on architecture, Lissitzky explained the spatiotemporal aspects of modernist art and where they came from: “[T]he revolution in art began by giving form to the elements of time, of space, of tempo and rhythm, of movement. Before the war Cubists in France and Futurists in Italy advanced new theses in art.”[271] Lissitzky began his career as a painter following Malevich’s path of Suprematist non-representation, but later fell under the influence of the Constructivists in art, Tatlin and his protégé Aleksandr Rodchenko. Upon arriving in the West, he was greeted nearly universally as a cause célèbre, playing a pivotal role at the International Congress of Progressive Artists in Düsseldorf.[272] His abstract PROUN compositions were featured prominently at the Exhibition of Russian Art that took place in Berlin in 1922. Journalists and critics such as Paul Westheim,[273] Adolf Behne,[274] Ernő Kállai,[275] and Branko Ve Poljanski[276] all took note of Lissitzky’s innovations in the field of abstract art, and reviewed his work favorably. Giedion, reflecting on Lissitzky’s work in 1929, recalled how the artist himself regarded his PROUNs as “the interchange station between painting and architecture.”[277] Even in designing the room in which the PROUNs were to be viewed, one of Lissitzky’s foremost concerns was with the spatiotemporal layout of the exhibit. “Space has to be organized in such a way as to impel everyone automatically to perambulate in it,” he wrote.[278] Lissitzky ended his article on the PROUN room with an emphatic statement: “We reject space as a painted coffin for our living bodies.”[279] Later he would propose that art could create a sort of dynamic “pangeometry” in which abstract time and space could be interchangeably united.[280] With such goals in mind, it is therefore little wonder that the new spatiotemporal sensibility described by Giedion would prove so important to Lissitzky in his writings on architecture. In a 1926 article on “Architecture of the Steel and Ferro-Concrete Skeleton,” he thus wrote that “[w]e are faced with the task of creating spatial architecture which is not only seen by the eye from a distance, as in painting, and not only touched by the hands, as in sculpture, but among which people live and move — an architecture of space and time.”[281]

Composition by Moholy-Nagy (1924)

Moholy-Nagy's Composition A-II (1924)

Moholy-Nagy, whom Lissitzky converted to Constructivism soon after they met in the early 1920s, would also present a concept of architecture born out of an organization of space and time. Following his initial encounter with Lissitzky, Moholy-Nagy and his fellow Hungarian avant-gardist Alfréd Kemény collaborated on a project for a kinetic sculpture entitled “Dynamic-Constructive System of Forces.” They expressed their idea of a temporally dynamic, motive sculpture moving through space. “Vital constructivity is the embodiment of life and the principle of all human and cosmic development,” they declared. “Translated into art, today this means the activation of space by means of dynamic-constructive systems of forces.”[282] Not long after writing this, Moholy-Nagy was appointed by Gropius as a professor at the recently opened Bauhaus school of design. In his 1928 lectures on The New Vision, Moholy-Nagy laid out the successive stages of art in painting, sculpture, and architecture as corresponding to material/surface, volume, and space. Already beginning in his section on “Kinetic Sculpture,” he cited Boccioni and the Futurists as well as his own work with Kemény. He also quoted from the Russians Gabo’s and Pevsner’s “Realistic Manifesto” of 1920: “Space and time are the two exclusive forms for the fulfillment of life, and therefore art must be guided by these two basic forms if it is to encompass life.”[283] All this, for Moholy-Nagy, still only takes place within the sphere of volume, or sculpture. It is only with the transition to “space” that architecture enters the picture. “The root of architecture lies in the mastery of the problem of space,” wrote Moholy-Nagy. “One of its most important components is the ordering of man in space, making space comprehensible, and taking architecture as the arrangement of universal space.”[284] But just as it was in sculpture, “[t]he common denominator is the concept of the dynamic (kinetic) in the balanced application of all elements of a [spatial] relationship.”[285]

[211] “Like the scientific managers, the modernist architects initially sought to improve building practices but soon realized that method, standardization, and planning enabled them to formulate a new approach to architecture. The overarching idea in scientific management was that of order, one that subsequently captivated the modernist architects because it enabled them to move away from the prevailing eclecticism and to present themselves as organizers, as technocrats who could ameliorate social conflict and improve standards of living.” Guillén, The Taylorized Beauty of the Mechanical. Pg. 4.

[212] See footnote 34 of the present paper.

[213] Refer back to the schematic chart on pg. 44.

[214] In his exposition of the unprecedented modernist sense of “space-time,” Giedion acknowledged the importance of socioeconomic factors in determining architectural ideology, but urged historians not to dismiss the significance of “emotional” factors: “Social, economic, and functional influences play a vital part in all human activities, from the sciences to the arts. But there are other factors which also have to be taken into account — our feelings and emotions. These factors are often dismissed as trivial, but actually their effect upon men’s actions is immense.” Giedion, Space, Time, and Architecture. Pg. 430. Without writing off these emotional influences wholesale, we must nevertheless regard them as epiphenomenal to the more fundamental sociohistorical forces which made them possible.

[215] “Aesthetic” also carries spatiotemporal connotations, as in the Kantian “Transcendental Aesthetic”: “In the transcendental aesthetic we will…first isolate sensibility by separating off everything that the understanding thinks through its concepts, so that nothing but empirical intuition remains. Second, we will then detach from the latter everything that belongs to sensation, so that nothing remains except pure intuition and the mere form of appearances, which is the only thing that sensibility can make available a priori. In this investigation it will be found that there are two pure forms of sensible intuition as principles of a priori cognition, namely space and time.” Kant, Immanuel. The Critique of Pure Reason. Translated by Paul Guyer and Alan W. Wood. (Cambridge University Press. New York, NY: 1998). Pg. 174.

[216] “The presentation of objects from several points of view introduces a principle which is intimately bound up with modern life — simultaneity. It is a temporal coincidence that Einstein should have begun his famous work, Elektrodynamik bewegter Körper, in 1905 with a careful definition of simultaneity.” Giedion, Space, Time, and Architecture. Pg. 436.

[217] Bergson, Henri. Duration and Simultaneity: With Reference to Einstein’s Theory. Translated by Herbert Dingle. (Bobs-Merrill Press. New York, NY: 1965). Originally published in 1906.

[218] Giedion, Space, Time, and Architecture. Pg. 433.

[219] Notably, there was a prominent architectural strain of Cubism that appeared in the Czechoslovakian part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire prior to the Great War. As Teige recorded: “The foremost representatives of cubism in Czech architecture were Pavel Janák, Josef Gočár, Vlastislav Hofman, Josef Chochol, and Jiří Kroha. These architects transposed the principles of cubism from painting into architecture.” Teige, Modern Architecture in Czechoslovakia. Pg. 140. Teige further explained: “The aesthetic of cubist architecture is derived from cubist painting. The treatment of space and matter that we can read in cubist paintings is here applied to building.” Ibid., pg. 145.

[220] Giedion, Space, Time, and Architecture. Pg. 437.

[222] “Architecture itself was ‘contaminated’ by the decorative arts. It can certainly be claimed that the groundwork for this event was prepared by a multitude of factors; still, without the cubist experiment it would not have been brought to birth. Certainly the architects Perret and the builder of the abattoirs from Lyon were the inspired forgers of revolutions, but the one who formulated in genial fashion the time’s sentiment, its needs, was Le Corbusier-Saugnier: ‘The home is an machine for living.’ The shout of hatred rising against aestheticism was the unification signal that caused architectonic Europe to gather around it. Today, because of the little resistance encountered by it in France, we have many modern accomplishments in Holland, Belgium, and Russia.” Janco, Marcel. “Reflections of Cubism.” Translated by Julian Semilian. From Between Two Worlds: A Sourcebook of Central European Avant-Gardes, 1910-1930. (The MIT Press. Cambridge, MA: 2002). Pgs. 705-706.

[223] Giedion, Space, Time, and Architecture. Pg. 439.

[224] Doesburg added that this movement from abstract art to architecture was not limited to Holland: “Not only in Holland but also in Russia (after 1917) this new movement ‘from the aesthetic to its material realization’ proceeded from the consequential development of painting (in Holland Neo-Plasticism, in Russia Suprematism [Malevich] and [Lissitzky’s] Proun)…Now at last architects are gaining confidence in the use of their expressive medium.” Doesburg, Theo van. “From the New Aesthetic to Its Material Realization.” Translated by Hans L.C. Jaffé. De Stijl. (H.N. Abrams. New York: 1971). Pg. 181. Originally published in De Stijl, 1922 (Vol. VI, № 1, pgs. 10-14).

[225] Mondrian, Piet. “The Realization of Neo-Plasticism in the Distant Future and in Architecture Today: Architecture, Conceived as Our Total [Non-Natural] Environment.” Translated by Hans L.C. Jaffé. De Stijl. (H.N. Abrams. New York: 1971). Pg. 169. Originally published in De Stijl, 1922 (Vol. V, № 3, pgs. 41-47; №5, pgs. 65-71).

[226] Doesburg, Theo van. “Towards a Plastic Architecture.” Translated by Hans L.C. Jaffé. De Stijl. (H.N. Abrams. New York: 1971). Pg. 187. Originally published in De Stijl, 1924 (Vol. VI, № 6/7, pgs. 78-83).

[227] “Color planes form an organic part of the new architecture as an element of the direct expression of its time and space relationships. Without color these relationships are no living reality; they are not visible.” Ibid., pg. 188.

[228] Mondrian, Piet. “The Neo-Plastic Architecture of the Future.” Translated by Harry Holtzman and Martin S. James. The New Art — The New Life: The Collected Writings of Piet Mondrian. Pg. 197. Originally published in L’Architecture vivante, Autumn 1925.

[229] Doesburg, Theo van. On European Architecture: Complete Articles from Het Bouwbedrijf, 1924-1931. Translated by Charlotte I. Loeb and Arthur L. Loeb. (Birkhäuser Verlag. Boston, MA: 1990).

[230] Le Corbusier and Ozenfant, Amédée. “Purism.” Translated by Robert L. Herbert. Modern Artists on Art. (Dover Books. Mineola, NY: 2000). Pg. 62. Originally published in L’Esprit Nouveau in 1920.

[231] Ibid., pg. 59.

[232] “The means of executing a work of art is a transmittable and universal language.” Ibid., pg. 54.

[233] Ibid., pg. 54.

Even further: “The choice of surface for…geometric determinations has been a preoccupation of every age.” Ibid., pg. 61.

[234] Ibid., pg. 61.

[235] Volume: “In the expression of volume, color is a perilous agent; often it destroys or disorganizes volume because the intrinsic properties of color are very different, some being radiant and pushing forward, others receding, still others being massive and staying in the real plane of the canvas, etc.” Ibid., pg. 62.

Surface: “[S]urface has important geometric properties; it permits various regulating lines which determine geometric locations of the highest plastic value.” Ibid., pg. 60.

Regulating lines: “[I]n all ages and times, great works of architecture as well as of painting of have been composed by imperious regulating lines of this nature.” Ibid., pg. 61.

These three Purist concepts are brought up again in Towards an Architecture. From the chapter “Three Reminders to Architects: 1. Volume”: “Architecture is the masterful, correct, and magnificent play of volumes brought together in light.” Le Corbusier, Towards an Architecture, pg. 102.

From the chapter “Three Reminders to Architects: 2. Surface”: “[I]t is the architect’s task to bring the surfaces that envelop these volumes to life.” Ibid., pg. 109.

From the chapter “Regulating Lines”: “The regulating line is a satisfaction of a spiritual order that leads to a search for ingenious relationships and for harmonious relationships.” Ibid., pg. 137.

[236] Ozenfant, Amédée. Foundations of Modern Art. Translated by John Rodker. (Dover Publications, Inc. New York, NY: 1952). Pg. 140. My emphasis. Originally published in 1928.

[237] Malevich, Kazimir. From Cubism and Futurism to Suprematism: The New Realism in Painting. Translated by Xenia Glowaki-Prus and Arnold McMillin. Essays on Art, 1915-1933, Volume 1. Pg. 40. Originally published in 1916 as Ot kubizma i futurizma do suprematizma: Novyi zhivopisnyi realizm.

[238] Malevich, Kazimir. The Non-Objective World. Translated by Howard Dearstyne. (Paul Theobald and Company. Chicago, IL: 1959). Pg. 78. Originally published in 1926.

[239] “Suprematism has two methods of revealing the elements of perception: the ‘spatial’ method and the ‘easel’ method: space and canvas are the places where they appear.” Malevich, Kazimir. “Painting and the Problem of Architecture.” Translated by Xenia Glowaki-Prus and Arnold McMillin. Essays on Art, 1915-1933, Volume 2. Pg. 11. Originally published in Nova generatsiia 1928, № 2. Pgs. 116-124.

[240] “The architectonics — ‘Alpha’ of horizontal building and ‘Gota’ of vertical — reveal those features, which, it seems to me, ought to be in the new architecture.” Ibid., pg. 17.

[241] Giedion, Space, Time, and Architecture. Pgs. 439-440.

[243] “[L]et us compare the Suprematist construction of…texture with the texture or structure of architecture by the Dutch architect Theo van Doesburg or Le Corbusier, Korn, etc…[T]his architecture is similar in structure to the structure of Suprematism, i.e. the new type of Suprematist art according to one Suprematist formula.” Malevich, Kazimir. “The Constructive Painting of Russian Artist and Constructivism.” Translated by Xenia Glowaki-Prus and Arnold McMillin. Essays on Art, 1915-1933, Volume 2. Pg. 81. Originally published in Nova generatsiia 1929, № 8, pgs. 47-54; № 9, pgs. 53-61.

[244] “The architect [Aleksandr] Vesnin sought a pure function, which resulted in a box divided up by a network of glass, whilst in Korn and Doesburg we see a multitude of different forms linked together by the harmony of contrasts;…[I]n the new, Constructivist building…signs [of art] are absent, as a result of which the artistic form in the majority of cases is missing.” Ibid., pgs. 82-83.

[245] “[A]rchitecture is basically a pure art form (architectonic)…And therefore no ‘matter-of-factness’ (Sachlichkeit) can offer us what art does. The most sachlich engines, telegraph, and radio apparatuses do not help us to reach the Promised Land.” Malevich, Kazimir. “Suprematist Architecture.” Translated by Tim Benton. Architecture and Design, 1890-1939: An International Anthology of Original Articles. (The Whitney Library of Design. New York, NY: 1975). Pgs. 109-110. Originally published in Wasmuths Monatshefte für Baukunst 1927, Vol. XI, pg. 412.

[246] “Characteristic examples [of Suprematist principles] can be found in the new architectural work of such artist-architects as Theo van Doesburg, Le Corbusier, Gerrit Rietveld, Walter Gropius, Arthur Korn et al.” Malevich, “Painting and the Problem of Architecture.” Pg. 16.

[247] Ibid., pg. 16.

[248] See the quotation of Doesburg’s “Towards a Plastic Architecture” on pg. 81.

[249] “In the first decade of [the twentieth] century, the physical sciences were profoundly shaken by an inner change, the most revolutionary perhaps since Aristotle and the Pythagoreans. It concerned, above all, the notion of time.” Giedion, Space, Time, and Architecture, pg. 443.

[250] In each of these works, “movement is dissected mathematically.” Ibid., pg. 445.

[251] Marinetti, F.T. “Founding and Manifesto of Futurism.” Translated by Lawrence Rainey, Christine Poggi, Laura Wittman. Futurism: An Anthology. (Yale University Press. New Haven, CT: 2009). Pg. 51. Originally published in 1909.

[252] Maiakovskii, Vladimir. “Otchet.” Trudovaia gazeta. November 14th, 1914.

[253] Boccioni, Umberto. “Futurist Sculpture.” Translated by Lawrence Rainey, Christine Poggi, Laura Wittman. Futurism: An Anthology. (Yale University Press. New Haven, CT: 2009). Pg. 116. Originally published April 11th, 1912.

[254] “Urbanism with its dynamism, its beauty of speed, its intrinsic Americanism, trampled our integral soul.” Shershenevich, Vadim. “Preface to Automobile Gait.” Translated by Anna Lawton. Words in Revolution: Russian Futurist Manifestos, 1912-1928. Pg. 149. Originally published in 1916).

[255] “We must take the object which we wish to create and begin with its central core in order to uncover the new laws and new forms which link it invisibly but mathematically to external plastic infinity and to internal plastic infinity.” Ibid., pg. 114.

[256] Marinetti, F.T. “Geometric and Mechanical Splendor and the Numerical Sensibility.” Translated by Lawrence Rainey, Christine Poggi, Laura Wittman. Futurism: An Anthology. (Yale University Press. New Haven, CT: 2009). Pg. 175. Originally published March 18th, 1914.

[257] Severini, Gino. “Plastic Analogies of Dynamism: Futurist Manifesto.” Translated by Lawrence Rainey, Christine Poggi, Laura Wittman. Futurism: An Anthology. (Yale University Press. New Haven, CT: 2009). Pg. 165. Originally published in October 1913.

Boccioni reiterated this point: “With dynamism, then, art rises toward a higher ideal level; it creates a style and expresses our age of speed and simultaneity.” Boccioni, Umberto. “Absolute Motion + Relative Motion = Dynamism.” Translated by Lawrence Rainey, Christine Poggi, Laura Wittman. Futurism: An Anthology. (Yale University Press. New Haven, CT: 2009). Pg. 192.

[258] Even Malevich was enchanted by these frenetic phenomena: “The new life of iron and the machine, the glitter of electric lights, the whirring of propellers, have awoken the soul.” Malevich, From Cubism and Futurism to Suprematism. Pg. 29.

[259] “And I must repeat, all together, and without any distinction between Constructivism and the art of protest. Cubism, Futurism, Dada, all the historical avant-garde movements arose and succeeded each other according to the typical law of industrial production, the essence of which is the continual technical revolution.” Tafuri, Architecture and Utopia. Pgs. 84-86.

[260] Grois, The Total Art of Stalinism. Pg. 19.

Compare with Malevich’s own statement: “At the present time man’s path lies through space, and Suprematism is a color semaphore in its infinite abyss.” Malevich, Kazimir. “Non-Objective Creation and Suprematism.” Translated by Xenia Glowaki-Prus and Arnold McMillin. Essays on Art, 1915-1933, Volume 1. Pg. 121.

[261] Gabo, Naum and Pevsner, Antoine. “The Realistic Manifesto.” Translated by Stephen Bann. The Tradition of Constructivism. (Da Capo Press. New York, NY: 1974). Pg. 4.

[262] Loos, “Ornament and Crime.”

[263] Bloch, Ernst. “Nonsynchronism and Our Obligation to Its Dialectics.” Translated by Mark Ritter. New German Critique, № 11 (Spring 1977). Pg. 22. Originally published in 1932.

[264] See the “concrete anachronisms” described on pgs. 42-43.

[265] See the “spasmodic transformations” described on pg. 28.

[266] Ginzburg, Style and Epoch. Pg. 76.

[267] “Museums: cemeteries! Identical, really, in the horrible promiscuity of so many bodies scarcely known to one another. Museums: public dormitories in which someone is put to sleep forever alongside others he hated or didn’t know! Museums: absurd slaughterhouses for painters and sculptors who go on thrashing each other with blows of line and color along the disputed walls!” Marinetti, “The Founding and Manifesto of Futurism.” Pg. 52.

[268] Apollinaire, Guillaume. “Futurist Anti-Tradition.” Translated by Lawrence Rainey, Christine Poggi, Laura Wittman. Futurism: An Anthology. (Yale University Press. New Haven, CT: 2009). Pg. 154. Originally published on June 29th, 1913.

[269] Khlebnikov, Velimir; Maiakovskii, Vladimir; Burliuk, David; Kruchenykh, Aleksei; Kamenskii, Vasilii; and Livshits, Benedikt. “Poshchechina obshestvennomu vkusu.” Originally published December 12th, 1912.

[270] Malevich, From Cubism and Futurism to Suprematism. Pg. 27.

[272] With the avant-garde novelist Il’ia Ehrenburg, Lissitzky authored an important piece on the export of Russian modernism to the West. Lissitzky, El and Ehrenburg, Il’ia. “The Blockade of Russia is Coming to an End.” Translated by Stephen Bann. The Tradition of Constructivism. (Da Capo Press. New York, NY: 1974). Originally published in Veshch/Gegenstand/Objet, March-April 1922 (Vol. I, № 1/2).

He also issued the editorial statement of his journal Veshch/Gegenstand/Objet at the International Congress in 1922: “I come here as a representative of the magazine Veshch/Gegenstand/Objet, which stands for a new way of thinking and unites the leaders of the new art in nearly all countries.” Lissitzky, El. “Statement by the Editors of Veshch/Gegenstand/Objet.” Translated by Nicholas Bullock. The Tradition of Constructivism. (Da Capo Press. New York, NY: 1974). Pg. 63. Originally published in De Stijl, 1922 (Vol. V, № 4).

Lissitzky was also a signatory of Theo van Doesburg’s foundation of an International Constructivist group. Doesburg, Theo van; Lissitzky, El; Richter, Hans; Maes, Karel; and Burchartz, Max. “International Constructivist Creative Union.” Translated by Steven Lindberg. Between Two Worlds: A Sourcebook of Central European Avant-Gardes, 1910-1930. (The MIT Press. Cambridge, MA: 2002). Originally published as “Manifest der K.I. (Konstructivistische Internationale schöpferische Arbeitsgemeinschaft),” De Stijl, 1922 (Vol. V, № 8).

[273] Westheim, Paul. “The Exhibition of the Russian Artists.” Translated by David Britt. Between Two Worlds: A Sourcebook of Central European Avant-Gardes, 1910-1930. (The MIT Press. Cambridge, MA: 2002). Pg. 406. Originally published in Das Kunstblatt (November 1922).

[274] Adolf Behne. “On the Russian Exhibition.” Translated by Don Reneau. Between Two Worlds: A Sourcebook of Central European Avant-Gardes, 1910-1930. (The MIT Press. Cambridge, MA: 2002). Originally published as “Der Staatsanwalt schüzt das Bild,” Die Weltbühne № 47 (November 23, 1922).

[275] “Lissitzky’s PROUN…is utmost tension, violent jettisoning. A new world of objects is in the process of being built. Space is filled by all possible variant physical forms of a constant energy. They are very much synthesized, but down to the last details they are strictly subject to the central, unifying law of their structure. This structure is multi-dimensional. Thrusting sharply into space on all sides, it contains layers and strata, diametrical opposites thoroughly intertwined, held in a state of tension, and drawn into the tightly-knit complex of components, which cut across, embrace, support, and resist each other. Numerous projections, incisions, and gradations in all directions help the physical, defined nature of the form to set. All the dialectical wealth available to the creation of form is concentrated on objective synthesis, definition, and clarification.” Kállai, Ernő. “Lissitzky.” Translated by Sophie Lissitzky-Kuppers. El Lissitzky: Life, Letters, Texts. (Thames & Hudson Press. London: 1980). Pg. 379. Originally published in Das Kunstblatt, Vol. 6, № 1, 1922.

[276]Lissitzky. The second Suprematist, Constructivist, spectral specialist, and explorer of ultra-violet rays. He is searching for a way to apply Suprematist painting to a true realization of visionary worlds, made real as concrete objects; he is looking for a way to apply this kind of painting to life, to things: a bridge, a monument, a submarine, an airplane, a train, and others.” Poljanski, Branko Ve. “Through the Russian Exhibition.” Translated by Maja Starčević. Between Two Worlds: A Sourcebook of Central European Avant-Gardes, 1910-1930. (The MIT Press. Cambridge, MA: 2002). Pgs. 414-415. Originally published as “Kroz rusku izložbu u berlinu,” in Zenit, Vol. 3, № 22 (March 1923).

[277] Giedion, Sigfried. “Live Museum.” Translated by Sophie Lissitzky-Kuppers. El Lissitzky: Life, Letters, Texts. (Thames & Hudson Press. London: 1980). Pg. 382. Originally published in Der Cicerone, Vol. 21, № 4, 1929.

Moholy-Nagy also remarked upon this fact: “Lissitzky says that his pictures (PROUN) are a kind of transition between painting and architecture.” Moholy-Nagy, László. The New Vision: Fundamentals of Bauhaus Design, Painting, Sculpture, and Architecture. Translated by Daphne M. Hoffman. (Dover Publications, Inc. Mineola, NY: 2005). Pg. 84. Originally published in 1928.

[278] Lissitzky, El. “PROUN Space: The Great Berlin Art Exhibition of 1923.” Translated by Eric Dluhosch. Russia: An Architecture for World Revolution. (MIT Press. Cambridge, MA: 1984). Pg. 139. Originally published in G № 1, 1923.

[279] Ibid., pg. 140.

[280] “In their vital quest for the enlargement of F[orm] in A[rt], a number of modern artists…believe that they can build up multidimensional real spaces that may be entered without an umbrella, where space and time have been combined into a mutually interchangeable single whole.” Lissitzky, El. “A[rt] and Pangeometry.” Translated by Eric Dluhosch. Russia: An Architecture for World Revolution. (MIT Press. Cambridge, MA: 1984). Pg. 145. My emphasis. Originally published in Europa Almanach, 1925.

Lissitzky’s colleague in the Constructivist publication ABC, the Dutch architect Mart Stam, wrote an article on space that was directly inspired by “A[rt] and Pangeometry”: “Space is — is everywhere, penetrating and surrounding everything…Time has no boundaries — time crosses all boundaries…Our task is: 1. to perceive our relationship to this specific space, to this specific time; 2. to give this relationship of ours, through our work, a form that everyone can assimilate.” Stam, Mart. “Space.” Translated by C. v. Amerongen. Mart Stam: A Documentation of His Work, 1920-1965. (Royal Institute of British Architects. London: 1970). Pg. 20. Originally published in ABC 1925, № 5.

[281] Lissitzky, El. “Arkhitektura stal’nogo i zhelezobetonnogo skeleta.” Stroitel’naia promyshlennost. (Vol. 3, № 1. Moscow, Soviet Union: 1926). Pg. 63.

[282] Moholy-Nagy, László and Kemény, Alfréd. “Dynamic-Constructive System of Forces.” Translated by Krisztina Passuth. Between Two Worlds: A Sourcebook of Central European Avant-Gardes, 1910-1930. (The MIT Press. Cambridge, MA: 2002). Originally published in Der Sturm № 12 (1922).

[283] Moholy-Nagy, The New Vision. Pg. 138.

[284] Ibid., pg. 181.

[285] Ibid., pg. 184.

Written by Andy Parkinson

September 11, 2011 at 9:11 am

the monochrome as system

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I am enjoying the book Monochromes, from malevich to the present, by barbara rose


created and edited by Valeria Varas and Raul Rispa, first published on the occasion of the exhibition of the same name organised by the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, Madrid 2004.

I tend to feel dubious about a book that starts out with the words “this book takes an innovative organizational approach”. If it’s that innovative surely they don’t need to tell me. Although they make the mistake of bringing my attention to it, it is innovative; it is organised so that it interconnects, like a system.

One organising principle is the use of colours as theme, black, red, blue, gold and white. I like that the cover is reminiscent of Yves Klein’s famous International Klein Blue.

Barbara Rose credits Klein with the discovery of the power of the monochrome to displace attention from the art object to the exhibition space, emphasising the interdependence of artwork and context. This is one of the ways in which the monochrome could be thought of as systemic. Also, artists who make or have made them often employ a systems approach to producing the work.

Many years ago, for possibly a whole year (and painting every day) I painted little else but monochromes. I was young, and some people would criticise me for ‘painting like an old man’ (“this is the kind of painting I would expect someone to do at the end of their artistic career “).

Way back then, I thought I was making ‘content free’ paintings. What became interesting in the long series of monochromes were the subtle differences between each one. The paintings were best seen together (as a system) and those subtle differences started to look less and less subtle after all. The patterns that connected them were as much to do with the differences as they were the similarities. I got into the habit of always showing them in pairs, I can’t believe now that I had overlooked the autobiographical content: being an identical twin myself, I experienced first hand that what becomes more interesting than the similarities between twins are the differences, much more easily noticed when they are together than when they are apart.

Written by Andy Parkinson

July 21, 2011 at 7:44 am