Cementing the Influence of Concrete Art

Concrete Art: Theo van doesburg, controcomposizione XVI, 1925. Theo van Doesburg, controcomposizione XVI, 1925. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Abstract and entirely free of any association with reality or symbolic meaning, the emergence of Concrete Art in the early 20th century emphasized geometric forms with a focus on materials. Through Theo van Doesburg’s defining manifesto for the non-representational art movement, it influenced Neo-Concretism and Minimalism, brought about a design revolution in South America, and even changed how we view mass produced furniture.

“[A] pictorial element has no other meaning than ‘itself’ and thus the picture has no other meaning than ‘itself’,”

Theo van Doesburg, Basis of Concrete Painting

Based around precise compositional structures representing mathematical or scientific formulas, Concrete Art was imbued with a strong emphasis on geometrical abstraction that Theo van Doesburg used to define the difference between his vision of art and that of other abstract artists. His 1930 Concrete Art manifesto was published in the journal he published with his colleagues, called Art Concret. In it, stated that there was nothing more concrete or more real than a line, color, or a flat plane.

Concrete Art: Jean Helion, Sans titre. Sold for $278,500 via Christie’s (May 2009)

Jean Helion – Untitled. Sold for $278,500 via Christie’s (May 2009).

Stating that the aim of Concrete Art was to create “in a visible and tangible form things which did not previously exist – to represent abstract thoughts in a sensuous and tangible form,” Swiss artist, Max Bill popularized the movement and organized the first international exhibition in Basel in 1944. Despite the name, Concrete Art wasn’t limited by material. Far from it. Instead, the term was used to counter van Doesburg’s opinion that ‘abstract,’ when applied to art, had negative connotations, so he preferred the term ‘concrete’. And together with Otto G. CarlsundLéon Arthur Tutundjian, and Jean Hélion they published a single issue of Art Concret, which featured a joint manifesto, positioning them as a radical group of abstractionists.

Concrete Art: Leon Arthur Tutundjian, Untitled. Sold for €150,000 via Finarte (December 2021)

Leon Arthur Tutundjian – Untitled. Sold for €150,000 via Finarte (December 2021)

Geometric Abstraction

‘Art is universal,’ declared the foundational document of Concrete Art in its six point manifesto. It continued, ‘the work of art must be entirely conceived and formed by the mind before its execution. It must receive nothing from nature’s given forms, or from sensuality, or sentimentality,’ to outline its ethos. The idea that an artwork should refer to nothing other than itself was one of the central ideas underpinning Concrete Art and that it should not represent reality in any way.

Intangible subject matter like mathematical and algebraic formulas, and scientific theories were central to Concrete Art. Artists like Max Bill produced paintings and sculptures visualizing modern scientific theories like space-time relativity, as artists brought mathematical formula to life, and it was Concrete Art that cemented the idea of pure conceptualism, whereby a painting could represent an algebraic formula, rather than a person or object.

At the root of this interdisciplinary movement was the idea that art should be based on compositional principles so basic and universal that they could be applied to any medium. “An infinite number of very different developments can be evolved according to individual inclination and temperament”, said Bill.

Concrete Art transcended boundaries and did so following in the non-representational footsteps of Constructivism and De Stijl. Art was to be created under the Concrete Art banner, which expressed nothing more than the logic of its own creation; it was a language of pure form, signifying nothing more itself.

Artists and Manifestos

Concrete Art: Doesburg, Theo van - Art Concret. Sold for CHF700 via Koller Auctions (March 2023)

Theo van Doesburg – Art Concret. Sold for CHF700 via Koller Auctions (March 2023).

Concrete Art and Theo van Doesburg are inextricably intertwined. After all, it was his manifesto, Basis of Concrete Painting (1930) that laid the groundwork for Concrete Art and would guide the movement towards divorcing itself from any expression of reality or symbolic meaning. It led the charge towards total abstraction and advocated for total freedom of art.

His six point manifesto stated:

1. Art is universal.

2. A work of art must be entirely conceived and shaped by the mind before its execution. It shall not receive anything of nature’s or sensuality’s or sentimentality’s formal data.

3. The painting must be entirely built up with purely plastic elements, namely surfaces and colors. A pictorial element does not have any meaning beyond “itself”; as a consequence, a painting does not have any meaning other than “itself”.

4. The construction of a painting, as well as that of its elements, must be simple and visually controllable.

5. The painting technique must be mechanic.

6. An effort toward absolute clarity is mandatory.

Concrete Art: Theo van Doesburg - Art Concret. Sold for CHF700 via Koller Auctions (March 2023).

Theo van Doesburg – Art Concret. Sold for CHF700 via Koller Auctions (March 2023).

Theo van Doesburg - Contra-composition IV. Concrete Art:

Theo van Doesburg – Contra-composition IV. Sold for £942,500 via Christie’s (June 2021).

This call to non-representational arms combined previous movements to create the rational expression of non-naturalistic subject-matter. But on 7 March 1931, at the age of 47, van Doesburg died of a heart attack and wouldn’t see the impact of his ideas. Instead, it would be industrial designer, architect, and painter Max Bill who was to carry Concrete Art into the 20th century.

After studying at the Bauhaus under Wassily KandinskyPaul Klee and Oskar Schlemmer, Bill was recognized for his significant contribution to Swiss graphic design, but it was his series of artworks based on a simple geometrical exercise in Variation 14 (1934) that helped to define Concrete Art. Designed with an “infinite number of possibilities,” each shape had another shape protruding from it at a different angle, which could be repeated infinitely, although Bill’s stopped at the octagon. This simple mathematical principle encapsulated Concrete Art, as “an infinite number of very different developments can be evolved according to individual inclination and temperament,” explained Bill.

Mathematical formulas continued to fascinate and in 1937 Bill fronted the Allianz Group in Switzerland. Advocating Bill’s Concrete Art theories with more emphasis on color than their Constructivist counterparts, the collective created paintings in which every possible visual combination was in fulfilment of a mathematical formula. Their first group exhibition, Neue Kunst in der Schweiz, was held in 1937 and showcased their visualization of modern scientific theories, like space-time relativity, to help this new form to be understood by the senses.

International Influence

Concrete Art: Max Bill, Ulm Stool. Sold for $800 via Heritage Auctions (January 2022)

Max Bill – Ulm Stool. Sold for $800 via Heritage Auctions (January 2022)

In the years following World War II, the influence of Concrete Art grew. From an abstract manifesto to an internationally prevalent and recognizable style, groups influenced by Concrete Art sprung up across the world that were united by non-figurative expression, with a focus on science, maths, and logic. Spreading across Europe as far as Latin America, Kinetic Art, Hard-Edged Painting, and Concrete Poetry, continued to bear the trace of its influence, even as the original movement lost momentum.

It was a tumultuous time, and despite the movement denying any political association, Concrete Art was engaged with social realities and as a result was often implicitly political. Emerging from neutral Switzerland in post-WWII Europe, Concrete Art’s visual symbols and logic became an international language, which in Brazil and Argentina in the 1940s and ‘50s was harnessed by an idealistic youth culture aiming to reconstruct society on more rational, humane lines. Such was its influence that Max Bill is credited with being the spark that lit the fuse of Brazil’s artistic revolution, while his art strongly influenced artists like Franz Weissmann.

Concrete Art’s use of minimum of functional and constructive elements also impacted mainstream design, which is encapsulated in Bill’s iconic Ulm Stool, created in 1954. The masterwork of mid-century modernist design that doubles as wall-mounted storage was created in a simple construction and its legacy is still felt today. Step inside IKEA and the Ulm’s influence as the first example of flat-pack furniture is obvious, while its focus on ergonomics continues to inform commercial product design.

Concrete Art’s influence in the world of painting and sculpture also led to the emergence of Neo-Concretism and Minimalism in the 1960s, proving that its legacy would endure on a number of social and artistic fronts, and that Concrete Art’s “infinite number of possibilities” wasn’t just limited to artistic possibilities.

Sources: NYTimes.com | MoMA | Tate.org.uk – Concrete Art | TheArtStory.org | Tate.org.uk – Theo van Doesberg