PRINT April 1965

The Visual Revolution of Structurist Art

Between March 29 and May 2 the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, will present a 30-year retrospective of the work of Charles Biederman. During those thirty years, Mr. Biederman’s work and his books (“Art as the Evolution of Visual Knowledge,” “The New Cézanne,” etc.) have influenced many artists, both in America and abroad, especially, perhaps, in England. The Walker Art Center’s timely exhibition provides an occasion for the summation of Mr. Biederman’s views which follows, and for the statement of principles which have come to be known as “Structurism.”

STRUCTURISM IS NOT A LABEL for any personal direction, or any school of art, but refers to a historical process which began after Gustave Courbet brought mimetic art to its final greatness. Although the Structurist of today no longer paints or sculpts, yet he regards painters as his precursors. It is my purpose to explain the vision and reason for this art. First, some introductory comments.

Today it is beyond dispute that both Claude Monet and Paul Cezanne created a tremendous revolution in the 19th century, still reverberating in art today. Yet, whatever the nature of this revolution, it has become increasingly dispersed and obscured. At the same time, the freedom of the artist to innovate has increasingly expanded. This increased freedom, however, has not released us from confusion and doubt. To the contrary, confusion and doubt have grown apace with the freedom to innovate. While this situation is ideal for the entrepreneur, it has become a tragedy for those who feet seriously and deeply about art. This situation will not improve if we simply complain, but it can if we try to understand it. One way we can do this is to reconsider the events of recent revolutions in art.


Structurism began when Monet finally brought Impressionism to its full fruition. The Establishment of the time immediately recognized that some kind of a major revolution was being attempted. Reading the accounts of this opposition, one is struck by the predictive quality of their remarks, for their words often seem to refer to an art where all “subject matter” has completely vanished. But what about the artists attracted to Monet’s discovery? We can try to understand the artists who responded to Monet in two ways. One is by looking at what each made of Monet’s discovery, considering what each did as if the validity of the work were limited to the personal terms of the artist. Once we do this, what had started out as a single clear discovery in Monet is now seen to be dispersed into a number of personal efforts, all in conflict with one another and with the original discovery of Monet.

Another approach is to search for the truth of Monet’s revolution, irrespective of the many ways in which it could be and was exploited. Just what did Monet achieve? Essentially, he discovered that the artist could use color in a directly creative way, unique to man, as nature does in a way unique to nature. He thus began the task of freeing the element of color from the limitations of mimesis, into the infinite area of the directly creative. He did not, however, follow the new scientific discoveries about color, nor use the new color as a means for reinstilling life into the mimetic image. These two conclusions were precisely those adopted by the artists who were to disperse the revolution of Monet’s Impressionism. Only one artist, not given recognition by his generation, refused to participate in the dispersal of Monet’s discovery. He refused to exploit Impressionism for personal ends, considering such a way regressive. His name was Paul Cezanne. His concern was, first of all, to comprehend the truth of Impressionism as, in his understanding, Monet alone achieved it. Thus he was to realize the inadvertently correct prediction of the Establishment, that “subject matter” was no longer the controlling truth of art.

Cezanne recognized that Monet had set off a momentous structural revolution, that color as direct creation was now open to the artist. He then took this discovery to a deeper level of structural truth. He understood that Impressionism must be completed. Color can never stand alone, since structurally there is no such thing as color alone. For this reason color alone cannot be freed from mimesis. Cezanne was the first to perceive this in an acutely clear way. He understood then, that not only color but the form and space elements together with the structural element of color must be freed from the limitations of mimesis, if direct creation was to be fully realized. Only Monet surmised that Cezanne was taking his initial color achievements further.

Cezanne made the Structurist direction definitive in two successive steps. First, he devised a use of geometry, later known as Cubism, but for the express purpose of creating a method of analysis with which he could structurally investigate nature as a creative process. This was to go beyond the limited mimetic concern with what nature had already created––its objects. The results of his investigations were then “translated,” as he put it, into those structural terms peculiar to painting. As he progressed, the planes of his geometric analysis were more and more freed from the structural limitations of objects. He then made his second great discovery. The liberation of the color spatial planes could be the means by which the artist set into motion man’s ability to directly create an art unique to man. Thus the art of Planism was born. It was the goal of direct creation that Cezanne, in his last years, repeatedly expressed the wish that he would live to “realize.”

Cezanne’s revolution, however, suffered the fate of Monet’s. Once the dispersers of Monet’s discovery had been found wanting as offering any clear goal to the new generation, for which Monet was vilified more than his dispersers, attention suddenly turned to Cezanne. “Cubism” as it is commonly known, began soon after. But just as each of the “Impressionists” had turned Monet into the limitations of personal predilections, each at odds with the other, so the “Cubists” did likewise. Again, each misunderstood the discoverer, turning Cezanne too into still another new method for reinstilling life in the art of mimesis. As the Establishment had denounced Monet for moving away from “subject matter,” so this time all the major “Cubists” eventually denounced any direction towards “abstract” art. Indeed, each of them hailed his own return to “subject matter.”

Once again a lesser-known artist chose not to disperse and obscure the new direction of art evolution. Like Monet, like Cezanne, he desired to learn the truth of art. Like his predecessors he saw that the supreme interest of art lay in its being an effort of man as a whole, not something by which the artist could fashion a private world. His name was Piet Mondrian.

After looking in a number of directions, propelled by a mystical taste for the truth, Mondrian finally took on the influence of the “Cubists.” He mistakenly regarded them as continuing Cezanne, and himself as continuing the development of that aspect of “Cubism” he called “plastic expression.” Unlike them, however, he did not make Cubism into a mimetic recipe. To the contrary, he managed to free the plane more and more from the limitations of the mimetic boundary. He thus repeated what Cezanne had done, if in a different way than Cezanne would have done it, and, like his predecessor, went from Cubism to Planism. In 1917 he achieved what Cezanne did not live to “realize,” the plane as a spatial color element with which the artist could directly create. Complete structural liberation from the limitations of mimesis had become a fact. All the visual elements of structure, color, space, form, were now structurally adapted to the act of direct creation.

Thus has been traced, all too briefly, the Structurist evolution which painters sustained since the great art of mimesis was concluded by Courbet. Enough has been said, however, to reveal that it is the attitude of consideration adopted towards the genuine revolutions of art that determines our understanding of them. This consideration revolves around the question of whether art is primarily an expression of man as a whole, or primarily the private expression of each individual artist. Thus also is determined whether our attempts to innovate will fall into the quagmire of confusion and obscurity, or whether we will be truly avant-garde, as we all now take pride in being. Whether we will pursue the freedom and clarity of the search for truth, or exploit truth for the arbitrariness of personal ends. Therefore, everything depends upon the attitude of consideration we apply to the achievements of the true innovators. Put simply, it makes the difference between whether we will nourish the creative act, or annihilate it in an art of destruction. To illustrate the latter I trust is not necessary, since endless examples abound on every side of us at this very moment.


At the beginning I stated that Structurist art of today is an outgrowth not of sculpture but of painting. Why then did it become necessary to change from the illusory dimensions of painting to the actual dimensions of reality?

From Monet to Mondrian painting alone possessed the means for making the transition from mimesis to direct creation. These particular painters realized that the change was not structurally limited to space and form, as some supposed. They understood that nothing less than a total structural revolution was taking place which, therefore, from the start, included color along with the structural elements of space and form. In that moment, however, when the transition from Monet reached a conclusion in the 1917 works of Mondrian, the new direction had been taken as far as it was structurally possible for the painting medium to go. Concern with the color of light (Monet), with the space “planes in the sunlight” (Cezanne), with the color spatial plane as realized direct creation (Mondrian), all this now required a medium of more extensive structure. The actualities of light, space, form, the complete structure given by reality were required if development was to continue. Mondrian himself foresaw some such change but, like Monet, did not venture beyond his original discovery. Yet, to continue with painting would be destructive to further evolution. Indeed, beginning with the “destruction of the plane,” Mondrian would henceforth keep on repeating that the “destructive element” was a major concern. If the structural advantage of painting, its totality of structural involvement made it possible for it to realize the transition from mimesis to direct creation, this became the disadvantage of painting once its own structure was completely exhausted for further structural development. This occurred when the cycles of the transition were completed. For, once the plane of direct creation had spread itself across the two-dimensional limitations of the canvas, there was no place for further structural development to go except to the reality of the three dimensions.

Failure to comprehend these problems led most attempts in the new direction to come into head-on conflict with nature, a conflict not necessarily resolved simply because the artist adopted reality dimensions and created directly. Mondrian, in spite of realizing the necessity for reality dimensions, led the way to the conflict with nature and the consequent dimensional confusion. Only in the next generation did Structurism resume Cezanne’s concern for art in harmony with nature, and unequivocally take up the challenge of ceasing to use the ancient mediums. This important change makes it possible to resume the evolution of Structurism. Not only is the engagement of structural totality continued, but now the full reality of that structural totality has been clearly adopted. The infinite creative possibilities of structural totality are now open to the evolution of direct creation. This is a momentous realization for man’s art. What has been achieved is nothing less than the most realistic art man has yet realized. Art no longer imitates; its reality is its creative self.

Due to the very serious consequences that resulted over the question of sculpture, it becomes imperative to understand why this method will not suffice structurally any more than will painting. Since structural evolution has now reached the dimensions of reality, why not sculpture, as in fact the Pevsner Constructivists did decide? But they attest them· selves to the fact that sculpture was not prepared to take on the new tasks, as can be seen in the words of their own manifesto of 1920. There they denounce sculpture as heatedly as they denounce painting, clearly stating that sculpture was not suited to the needs of the new direction. Thus they “renounce volume,” the characteristic mass element of this mode of art, and chide sculptors for their “age-old prejudices.” But one could have gone further and pointed out that sculpture was a limited method even for its ancient task, being very limited structurally in what it could imitate. For the new tasks of art its limitations would become drastically increased, to say the least. Therefore, if the Pevsner Constructivists’ criticisms of sculpture were certainly to the point, they made the even more serious mistake of wanting, just the same, to continue sculpture.

If they did indeed free sculpture by means of space, they failed to see that sculpture would remain structurally limited. They supposed the way to the new art was open on all sides, as though spatial freedom for sculpture solved the principal structural problem. Their serious error was in regard to color, to what was in fact an indifference to a structural element. Indeed, the 1920 manifesto contains only one sentence referring to color, which stated their intention to “renounce color.” For them Impressionism was, to begin with, a “bankrupt” effort.

It was then inevitable that they should miss still another critical structural problem which had been worked on between Cezanne and the early Mondrian. This was the necessity of making a simple beginning for the new, if one was to achieve a structural coherence amenable to the order of evolution. Failure in this would lead the new direction to disperse in any and all directions of obscurity, as in fact resulted from the influence of the Pevsner Constructivists.

Their fundamental error, however, lay in their failure to discern that it was painting, not sculpture, which needed to be freed into the actualities of space. Space was a problem that had been dealt with from Cezanne on through Mondrian, but correctly regarded by the painters as only one aspect of the totality of creative structural reality. It was the painters, then, who first introduced the necessity for spatial awareness. The significance of the painters’ doing so was missed by the sculpturally oriented Constructivists. The painters rightly saw that as there was no such reality as color alone, so there could not be any such reality structure as space alone.

Present day Structurism began by realizing that it was painting which needed to be freed into structural reality. It was recognized that the painters alone had properly and fully prepared the way structurally, that at the conclusion of the transition from mimesis to direct creation the painters had again stated matters correctly by starting the new direction at a proper structural beginning. This beginning was comprised by the simple spatial color plane of the rectangle, a mechanical plane of geometry. Since ancient times the mechanics of geometry had been the open door by which man could assert his innate ability to creatively perceive and act, as in architecture, astronomy and in all the sciences, to mention only these fields. The modern machine is now a highly perfected method for realizing creations through the method of geometry; indeed, the machine itself is a product of geometric creation.

What about the machine? Will it stifle rather than allow creation? But man has always used mechanical means for creating art. So we have to look at the mechanical methods themselves. As artists have advanced their capacities to express themselves, they have found it necessary to advance their mechanical means of expression. Furthermore, it should be remembered that neither the brush nor the chisel has ever stopped individual artists, or even whole periods of art, from stifling creation and ending in a static mechanical result. On this score nothing has changed with the new mechanical methods; some artists will understand how to create and others will render expression mechanically.

True, until the 20th century the two major mechanical methods had not seen any really fundamental change since the very beginning of art. But change they did. They were refined each time the artist’s ability to express himself made any marked advance. The 20th century, however, is the time when a truly fundamental change took place in the expressive mode of art creation, a change from creative. mimesis to direct creation. Being the first such fundamental change in the expressive mode of man’s art, it follows that the mechanical means of expression have undergone a similar depth of fundamental change. It is the first of its kind in all of man’s history as an artist.


The moment Structurism began a new evolution of art with Monet, another revolution commenced. This consisted of an entirely new mode of perceiving nature resulting in a new relation of vision to art.

This new vision of nature and art cannot be comprehended verbally. One must reach understanding of the new vision visually. But therein lies the rub. We are not aware of how deeply our vision has been conditioned by thousands of centuries of mimeticism, which each of us alike inherited into the very structure of his vision. The great difficulty is that this ancient vision does not disappear on the instant we decide to dispense with it, or merely because the artist decided to cease making mimetic forms. We simply cannot have “instant” new vision. Only when we adequately understand the limited structural function of our vision can we really extend our vision. That is, go beyond the limiting visual bonds of mimesis, to see the world without visual prejudices. To see nature, as Cezanne put it, “as if no one had seen it before us.”

It is precisely this problem of vision that is at the bottom of what determines our attitude of consideration towards art revolutions. Awareness of this problem allows us to see why “Impressionists” and “Cubists” alike, in spite of the gifts of some of them, turned each step of the revolution back to a past “gone forever.” This was always the choice before the great innovators and those who used their discoveries––to go forward or backward, the choice between construction or destruction of creation.

In any case, the reader has been forewarned that verbal consideration is no substitute for visual consideration, as regards understanding the new vision of nature and art. For what we are about to consider are the silent, non-verbal operations of our mode of vision.

How does the new vision of nature differ from the mimetic one? Put simply, where past artists focused their vision on the particularity of structure, the new center of visual attention is upon the general or process structure of nature as a creative process. It is not based on some idealistic (Neoplastic) interpretation of visible nature which claims a structural reality superior to the visible one. To the contrary, the fullest reality of the creative process is discerned in visible nature. This requires the artist to perceive visible nature on a higher order of visual abstraction. Then vision is no longer limited to the formative structure peculiar to objects, but is extended to the formative operation of the creative elements of structure, as such. The question is no longer only with what nature creates, but how nature creates. Visually our structural abstractions go beyond what is already formed to the formative principles themselves.

Nature thus ceases to offer art any models (objects). In their stead nature gives the artist the creative process by which any structure is creatively realized, the means by which man can realize direct creation of art. Once these deeper levels of visual abstraction are put into motion, the artist’s vision is immersed in the whole vast complexity of nature’s creative process. How is it going to be possible to cope with this infinite complexity? Furthermore, the two levels of nature and art are at once involved. There are, however, certain similarities between the two, or, more correctly, similar differences between the two.

Observation of the creative process of nature reveals basic principles of structure. Here only one important principle, if not the key one, will be considered. This is the creative structural principle of the simple to the complex. This principle not only operates in the creative process but is easily observed on the manifest level of nature’s creations. There we see simple creations, less simple creations, and finally very complex creations, but also both the simple and complex creations are structured from the simple to the complex. This characteristic of structure is the very essence of visual order. Without it the visibility of everything would be some unimaginable chaos, a visual jungle making coherent vision impossible. The structural principle of the simple to complex, giving vision order, makes order possible for the abstractions man makes from nature, be he artist or scientist. Without this principle man could not entertain any coherent theories of reality. If nature’s reality expands to a depth and extent immeasurably beyond the ken of man to comprehend, yet the principle of the simple to complex allows man to do what at first sight seems both impossible and paradoxical. For with his much sim· pier notion of reality man is able to continue abstracting ever further into the immense complexity of nature and his own nature. As Cezanne so aptly observed: “All is so simple yet so complex.”

Can we then expect the artist to truly create unless he consciously engages the structural principle of the simple to complex? This consciousness is necessary in all his activities, in his perceptions, in his abstractions both visual and theoretical, above all in the very formative principles whereby he creates each single work of art. The artist must establish a simple beginning which will sustain an evolutionary course into ever greater creative complexity. The act of creation itself requires creative development. It must grow. To grow it must be firmly planted in soil that will nourish its growth.

It is impossible to over-emphasize the fact that the artist is not born a master of direct creation any more than past artists were born masters of mimetic creation. That is only to note again the operation of the simple-complex principle of structure and function. As with mimesis, the artist will have to learn to develop his innate potentialities to be a direct creator of art.

Such an effort must be distinguished from the common notion of creation as merely inventive, arbitrary exploitation of space, light, form. Such an art object, even when it is complex and ordered, perhaps even an exemplification of the simple-complex principle, will only secure false creative structure. It only exploits creation by dispersing it. This does not develop the evolutionary order necessary if man is to realize his capacity to truly create art. In fact such art ignores the fundamental aspect of the simple-complex principle. For this principle must operate in the very continuity of relations from each work to the next. This requires beginning with the order of simplicity before one can create with the order of complexity. Thus the truth of creation. To disperse creation into the personalized is, as Cezanne observed, to limit art to the “puny self” of the artist.

One begins to understand why Monet saw the new nature in the simple act of colored commas; why Cezanne saw nature and art as creation in the simple act of color planes in space; how Mondrian realized direct creation in the simple act of rectangular color planes in space. Thus did simplicity lead to creative complexity, through ever higher orders of visual abstraction from nature to art. The rectangular plane itself is a formative simplification of nature’s complexity, which can be symbolized by the continuous complexity of the single plane of the sphere, the simple and complex forming a most fundamental principle of structure.

Today then, the artist proposes to be the direct creator of his own art in the true spirit of creative man. Not in arrogant defiance of or superiority to nature, or in subservience, but in the truth of creation. For the artist now is, as Cezanne said, “parallel” with nature.

––Charles Biederman

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