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 & Accomplishments
- 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.
Overview of Concrete Art
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.
Important Art and Artists of Concrete Art
Though this painting was not conceived as a work of Concrete Art, Mondrian's vision of a universal compositional language rooted in a minimum of elements - horizontal and vertical black lines framing squares of white, red, yellow, and blue - summed up the spirit of Concretism avant-la-lettre. Moreover, the earliest works of Concrete Art were imbued with the spirit of Neo-Plasticism, and took their impetus from a manifesto penned by Mondrian's sometime compatriot Theo van Doesburg in 1930. In 1960, Max Bill mounted the exhibition Konkrete Kunst in Zurich in order to celebrate 50 years of Concrete Art's development, suggesting that the movement's primary polemicist was happy to incorporate early twentieth-century artists into its heritage.
A quintessential work of mid-century Concrete Art will often consist in the methodical visual expression of a mathematical formula. In a comparable spirit, Mondrian's Composition with Red Blue and Yellow was intended to express the mathematical forces underpinning all of sensory reality. In particular, the early development of Neo-Plasticism was heavily influenced by the theosophist and mathematician M.H.J. Schoenmaker's 1916 text Principles of Plastic Mathematics, in which he declared: "[t]he two fundamental and absolute extremes that shape our planet are: on the one hand the line of the horizontal force, namely the trajectory of the Earth around the Sun, and on the other vertical and essentially spatial movement of the rays that issue from the center of the Sun...the three essential colors are yellow, blue, and red."
We can see the results of this statement borne out in Mondrian's ascetic, non-symmetrical construction, in which abstract compositional elements come to stand for the essence of all life, while eschewing all specific subject-matter. In the works of Concrete Art produced in Europe and Latin America over the coming decades, this principle would be redefined through a more materialist worldview, and through more vibrant combinations of color and shape.
In 1934, Max Bill, then in the early stages of defining the Concrete Art movement, began a series of artworks based on a simple geometrical exercise. He created an unfinished equilateral triangle whose third side would protrude out at a different angle to create a square, whose fourth side would protrude out at a different angle to create a pentagon, and so on (potentially ad infinitum, though Bill's formula stopped at the octagon). This simple mathematical principle was used as the basis for a series of lithographs which expressed the concept in a number of different ways: for example, by creating circles connecting up the shape's implied corners. In 1938 he published the series, asserting in his introduction to the Variations that "concrete art holds an infinite number of possibilities", even though "[s]uch constructions are developed only on the basis of their given conditions and without any arbitrary attempt to modify them."
This, in a nutshell, sums up the spirit of Concrete Art. Artworks were to be created which would express nothing more than the logic of their own creation, and yet within these rigid compositional constraints, as Bill put it, "an infinite number of very different developments can be evolved according to individual inclination and temperament." The large-scale series was a primary vehicle for this idea, and Bill created many serial works throughout his life, Fifteen Variations on a Single Theme (1934-38) being the first. This particular series also reflects his keen interest in color combinations. He had studied at the Bauhaus in the late 1920s under Josef Albers, the primary theorist of color in twentieth-century art. As vital to this work as its playful exploitation of geometrical constraints are the risks taken with tonal harmonies, with purples, oranges, greens, and pinks introduced into the primary color-palette in a number of the variations.
In 1937, during the creation of his Fifteen Variations, Bill founded the Allianz group of Concrete Artists in Switzerland, with compatriots including Richard Paul Lohse and Leo Leuppi. The Allianz Group was the first of many such Concrete Art collectives to spring up across the world during the 1930s-50s. Indeed, Concrete Art became as defined by its collectivist, internationalist spirit as by its commitment to compositional formulas.
Max Bill was a sculptor, architect, and industrial designer as well as a painter. Indeed, his creative career, like that of his Argentine peer Tomás Maldonado, marked a gradual movement away from the canvas towards evermore large-scale and functional realisations of his principles. An early staging post on this journey was the creation in 1935 of his first Endless Ribbon sculpture, a later recreation of which is shown here. Based on the principle of the Möbius strip - a ribbon whose two surfaces run into each other - the series would occupy Bill continuously until his death in 1994, incorporating works in paper, metal, and stone.
In 1935, Bill was invited to design a sculpture to hang above an electric fireplace, potentially to be rotated gently by the upwards surge of hot air. He struck on the idea of a ribbon-shape whose opposing sides would merge with one another, mesmerized by this neat visual evocation of a mathematical conundrum. It was only after the work's completion that viewers informed him of its connection both to the Möbius strip and to the traditional figure-of-eight symbol for infinity. It is also easy to see the work as speaking to the recent discovery of space-time relativity, whereby two seemingly separate aspects of reality were revealed to be intimately related and interdependent.
If Concrete Art on the page was defined by playful, permutational works, in three dimensions it had the capacity to express mathematical and scientific concepts with a more singular and static grandeur. In later years, South American artists such as Gyula Kosice would advance this project by producing Kinetic Artworks influenced by the spirit of Concretism. Bill's Endless Ribbon stands at the forefront of such advances, evoking timeless and contemporary themes with an imposing grace.
Useful Resources on Concrete Art
- Border Blurs: Concrete Poetry in England and ScotlandOur PickBy Greg Thomas (He is also the writer of this The Art Story page)
- After ConstructivismOur PickBy Brandon Taylor (New Haven CT: Yale University Press, 2014)
- The Tradition of ConstructivismOur PickBy Stephen Bann (ed.) (New York: Viking, 1974)
- De StijlBy Paul Overy (London: Thames and Hudson, 1991)
- Max Bill: Endless RibbonsBy Jacob Bill (ed.) (Salenstein: Benteli Verlag, 1999)
- Richard Paul Lohse: Colour Becomes FormBy Norbert Lynton (London: Annely Juda, 1997)
- Art in Latin America: The Modern Era, 1820-1980By Dawn Ades (ed.) (London: South Bank, 1989)
- Tomás Maldonado in Conversation with María Amalia GarcíaBy María Amalia García et al (eds.) (New York: Colección Patricia Phelps de Cisneros, 2011)
- Ulm Design: The Morality of ObjectsOur PickBy Herbert Lindinger (ed.) (Cambridge MA: MIT Press, 1990)
- Lygia Clark: The Abandonment of ArtBy Cornelia H. Butler et al. (eds.) (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 2014)
- An Anthology of Concrete PoetryBy Emmett Williams (ed.) (New York: Something Else, 2013 [reprint of 1968 original])
- Walking on a Möbius Strip: The Inside/Outside of Art in BrazilOur PickBy Luiza Proença / Bauhaus Imaginista / 2018
- Art Review: Gathering Up the Rich Strands of the Brazilian Avant-GardeBy Pepe Karmeljan / The New Yorker / 20 January 1995
- Exhibition: The Concrete InventionBy Carlos Jiménez / ArtNexus 89 / 2013
- Concrete Art in ArgentinaBy Adriana Lauria / Centro Virtual de Arte Argentina / 2003
- The Uses of Art: Little BeastsBy Sal Randolph / The American Reader / 2014
- Neo-Concretism and Minimalism: On Ferreira Gullar's Theory of the Non-ObjectOur PickBy Michael Asbury. In Cosmopolitan Modernisms, ed. Kobena Mercer / Cambridge: MIT Press / 2005
- Contemporary Brazilian Artists at Home with Neo-ConcretistsBy Elisa Wouk Almino / Hyperallergic / 20 August 2015
- What is Concrete Poetry?Our PickBy Christina Aube and Nancy Perloff / The Iris: Behind the Scenes at the Getty / 23 March 2017
- The Noigandres Poets and Concrete ArtOur PickBy Claus Clüver / Ciberletras 17 / 2007
- Max Bill and Georges Vantongerloo: A Lasting FriendshipHauser & Wirth
- Tomás Maldonado in conversation with María Amalia GarcíaColección Cisneros
- Composicíon, de Tomás Maldonado [In Spanish]Film & Arts
- Hochschule für Gestaltung Ulm 1953-1968 [German-language newsreel and archive footage of the HfG]InfolioTV