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Concrete Art

Concrete Art Collage

Started: 1930

Ended: 1959

"A pictorial element has no other meaning than 'itself' and thus the picture has no other meaning than 'itself'."

Theo van Doesburg Signature

Summary of Concrete Art

Concrete Artists, following in the footsteps of movements such as Constructivism and De Stijl, offered an art entirely divorced from realistic subject-matter, based around precise and preemptive compositional structures, many of which represented mathematical or scientific formulas. In practical terms, Concrete Art was a movement of the mid-twentieth century: though it was given impetus by a manifesto penned by Theo van Doesburg in 1930, the term was popularized over the following two decades by the Swiss artist and designer Max Bill. By the 1950s, Concrete Art had grown into an internationally prevalent and immediately recognizable style, spreading outwards from its initial bases in France and Switzerland to find fertile ground all over Europe and, most significantly, in Latin America. The emergence of Neo-Concretism in Brazil in 1959 arguably signalled the demise of Concrete Art, but movements across a range of media, including Kinetic Art, Hard-Edged Painting, and Concrete Poetry, continued to bear the trace of its influence.

Key Ideas

One of the ideas underpinning the development of Concrete Art was that the artwork should refer to nothing other than itself: that is, that it should not represent external reality in any way. As van Doesburg put it in his "Basis of Concrete Painting", "[a] pictorial element has no other meaning than 'itself' and thus the picture has no other meaning than 'itself'." This emphasis is related to - but distinguished from - that of abstract art in the broader sense, wherein the initial stimulus for a painting and sculpture is often an external object or scene.
In practice, Concrete Art's emphasis on non-representation meant that it often turned to intangible subject-matter such as mathematical and algebraic formulas and scientific theories for inspiration. In the Allianz Group fronted up by Max Bill in 1930s Switzerland, for example, artists would create paintings in which every possible visual combination of a pre-determined number of compositional elements was presented on the canvas, in fulfilment of a mathematical formula. Other artists such as Bill himself produced paintings and sculptures which visualized modern scientific theories such as space-time relativity. Though much abstract art had been moving in this direction since the 1910s, it was the Concrete Artists who brought to full realization the idea that a painting could represent, say, an algebraic formula rather than a person or an object.
Like its ancestral movements Constructivism and De Stijl, Concrete Art transcended medium boundaries. Its most famous exponent Max Bill was an industrial designer and architect as well as a painter; in Latin America, the example of the Concrete Art movement inspired the development of modernist architecture, culminating in the construction of Brasília during 1956-60. At the root of this interdisciplinary agenda was the idea that the movement should proceed from compositional principles so elemental and universal that they could be applied to any medium.
Though it divested itself of the task of representation, Concrete Art was deeply engaged with the social realities of its time, and often implicitly political. From its original base in Switzerland - a country whose neutrality during World War II ensured the movement's early survival - it grew to comprise an international language of visual symbols and logic, which spoke to a post-1945 desire to rebuild international cultural relations. In Brazil and Argentina in the 1940s-50s, Concrete Art became the symbol of an idealistic youth culture that sought to reconstruct society on more rational, humane lines.
Concrete Art Image


Concrete Art can trace its origins back to the early-twentieth-century movement of Constructivism, which in turn cannot be discussed in isolation from the invigorating effects of the 1917 Russian Revolution. Since the late 1900s, Russian artists such as the Suprematist Kazimir Malevich, and various individuals attached to movements such as Rayonism, Neo-Primitivism, and Cubo-Futurism, had been undertaking exercises in breaking down the picture plane and redefining sculptural form. This aim was shared with other movements across Europe, such as Cubism, but in the febrile political atmosphere of Russia in the mid-1910s it was increasingly pegged to a revolutionary political agenda. Non-figurative representation was seized on as a metaphor for the revolutions in thought and perception that the Revolution would usher in.

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