Exhibition review: ‘Rhythm and Geometry: Constructivist art in Britain since 1951.’

In 1953, the American Constructivist artist and aesthetician Charles Biederman wrote: ‘the new view of structure is one of a dynamic continuum, a process, process being a case of ceaseless unfolding – GROWTH…’ His words were penned in a letter to his English correspondent Victor Pasmore, whose recent work was largely shaped by Biederman’s ideas. The influence extended also to Pasmore’s close associates in London, his fellow Constructivists Robert Adams, John Ernest, Adrian Heath, Anthony Hill, and Kenneth and Mary Martin, all featured with him in this exhibition.

Famously, Pasmore had in the late forties ceased production of his much-prized landscape paintings and, in what to his admirers appeared a bewildering change of direction, began to make entirely abstract collages and constructed reliefs in wood, plastic and aluminium. The last of these, shown at the Redfern Gallery in 1952, were compared by critic John Berger to bathroom fittings. His was not the only bemused dismissal for, given the postwar tendency for the inward-looking nature-romanticism that Pasmore had so abruptly abandoned, such radical modernism appeared decidedly confrontational.

Rooted in the early twentieth century Russian avant-garde – think Tatlin, Popova, Rodchenko – Constructivism is based on geometric or mathematical processes and modular systems. It is an art of proportion and balance, striving for what Kenneth Martin described as a ‘spiritual harmony using the most fundamental means’, for which read simple, often standardised forms applied with conceptual and technical rigour. Progressive by its very definition, its progenitors tend to be international in both outlook and connections (and this incidentally, is a truly international show; its subtitle something of a misnomer). Central to the Constructivist project is the amalgamation of painting, sculpture and architecture to form a universal language, an essential tenet of utopian modernism. Concomitant also is the relationship of artistic developments with those in science and technology. In this respect the work often results from interdisciplinary dialogue and collaboration; for instance the sadly unrealised ‘Neóvision’ project for Modernist housing by artist Stephen Gilbert and Huddersfield-based architect Peter Stead, a flat roof too far for mid-1950’s Yorkshire.

Accompanied by an excellent catalogue, this fascinating show represents a broad church, encompassing not solely Constructivist art, but that of practitioners in the related fields of Op and kinetic art. Throughout, one notes an incredibly diverse range of outcomes from ostensibly limited formal means, in two and three dimensions. An artist new to this viewer is Peter Collingwood, whose woven ‘macrogauzes’ from the late 1970s and early 80s make great play of materiality, space itself forming an intrinsic element. And as the show makes clear, the development of art based on Constructivist principles continues to unfold. Among works by contemporary artists are Natalie Dower’s vibrant paintings and reliefs, and the show’s largest work, Rana Begum’s immersive ‘No. 670 Mesh Installation’ (2016).

It’s an interesting time to consider Constructivism and its legacy, with its inherent ethos of art as egalitarian, of fundamental importance to a healthy society. What a wonderful prospect…

• A slightly edited version of this review was published in the December 2021 issue of ‘The World of Interiors’ magazine.

• Image: Stephen Gilbert – House model ‘Neovision’ – 1955. Photograph by Andy Crouch, courtesy of The Sainsbury Centre, UEA.

• The exhibition ‘Rhythm and Geometry: Constructivist art in Britain since 1951’, The Sainsbury Centre, Norwich, until 30th January 2022.

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