PRINT May 1968

Constructivism in Buffalo

IT IS A MIND-STAGGERING proposition to imagine what would have happened had Lenin dug the Dadaists when they were practically neighbors in the Zurich of 1916. The political insurgency of the one, and the esthetic put-on of the other would have provided one of the grandest misalliances in 20th-century culture. From this vantage, of course, the idea seems preposterous: the campaign to make a new society on the ruins of the Imperial capitalist order, and the one to discredit all society as absurd, though they had a certain mutual disgust for the present, were, on the face of it, atrociously antagonistic to each other.

And yet we tend to underestimate the actual linkage between the Constructivists, Russian avant garde artists recruited to the Bolshevik revolution, and the Dadaists, whose anarchist revolution was the inversion of reason itself. An art seriously intended for consumption by the masses could only betray the modern tradition or its own premises; an art meant to expose bourgeois hypocrisy by outrage found a comparatively ready acceptance in an audience reviled, but also made more realistically cynical by the war. On the level of literal achievement of their aims, both movements must be said to have failed. But it is the spectacle of certain values to which they allude, embodied in problematic works of art, that provides a virtual dialogue between them.

Already, in 1913, Malevich, in the first Russian Futurist exhibition, had exhibited what he called “nonsense realist works.” And if shortly later he was to create in Suprematism some of the earliest reductionist abstraction in the world, Tatlin confounded him with a view of art so utilitarian that it was to abandon the notion of “fine” quite in favor of the “applied” arts. Not only was Tatlin precocious in formulating “Relief Constructions” that were among the first junk assemblages (1914), but he was later largely responsible for inseminating, through Lissitsky and others, the anonymous, machine crafted ethic that was to deny the place of the individual’s execution as a valid element of art. Perhaps allied to the spirit of a Dada geste, Moholy-Nagy ordered five paintings in porcelain enamel by telephone in 1922. Collectivization of artistic activities such as that at the Bauhaus was no less potentially destructive of the uniqueness of vision than the Dada accent on chance, for in each case artistic initiative was subject to the equally withering claims of efficiency and caprice. Additionally, their critique of the current modes of production took the form, even if from diametrically opposed perspectives, of subverting the notion of art as existing in a completely private realm. Duchamp’s rotatives-optiques, whose motorized linear swirls produced a kind of hypnosis similar to, but more pointless than early kinetic experiments, underline some of the cross fertilization of the period. But it is in the fraternization of Theo van Doesburg and Kurt Schwitters in Holland in 1922, that the stylistic issues were most prettily illustrated. From a lecture podium, van Doesburg, attired in “black shirtfront and white tie . . . bemonocled, powdered all white,” was to signal Schwitters, in the audience, to demonstrate Dada. At the speaker’s lifting of a glass of water, the latter began to bark furiously. Enter, the team of Ariel and Caliban.

Of all the sensibilities engendered by the 20th-century artist’s embroilment with the perplexities of the machine age, none is more Arielesque than Naum Gabo. He came out of Malevich’s desert of pure feeling, tripping lightly, plucking away at his sculptural harp. His 1931 project for the Palace of the Soviets (the auditorium and theater), two coquilles supported by pylons, looks as much a platform for the Praesidium as the half shell was for Venus. Nowhere in his work is the mathematical equal to the poetic metaphor. Such is immediately evident from the Albright Knox Art Gallery’s recent “Plus By Minus” exhibition, especially featuring Gabo, and the Russian Dutch abstract heritage in general.

Gabo is forever cutting arabesques, parabolas, and helixes in three dimensions, striating and twisting linear strainers so that they exhibit not only the tensions of lines combing through each other from different stretch points, or the moiré patterns of fine lattices, but space drawn in by the shining net. Not for nothing does he make his armatures of transparent plastic (other materials are nylon thread, metal sheeting, etc.), so that light streams outward, as in some crystalline structures. The same goes for his innumerable little paintings which picture this situation in the colors of semi-precious stones. They score quite damningly the literalness with which he projects his optimistic vision, even if its kaleidoscope symmetries did not already cast doubt on his compositional invention. Worse still, and this is a fault that infects the legions who have been inspired by Gabo, its physical process of construction so dominates the object that it tends to obliterate, or make entirely secondary, the form which is being constructed. The main exception to these gossamer vulgarities is the Large Head, 1916 (enlarged in Cor-Ten, 1966–67). While it displays the inscribed ovoids that were to become such clichés in his art, it does so as a fascinating “negative,” an écorché, of the Picasso Cubist heads that had preceded it. What is more, blown up to its present huge, menacing proportions, it becomes one of the most satisfying clunks in the whole exhibition.

What applies to Gabo is sadly manifest in several of the others present in the Buffalo show—so much so that one seriously wonders whether their inadequate representation makes a better or a worse case for them. Pevsner and van Doesburg we know to be more reputable artists than their feeble works here indicate. But can the same be said of Moholy-Nagy, El, Bart van der Leck, Vantongerloo, or Sophie Taeuber-Arp? Malevich reveals the unmoored, rabidly idealistic basis for the Constructivist style: its penchant for science-fictionesque motifs rather than “prosaic” relationships, its floating rectangles or pick-up sticks, ready to be magnetized by some unseen force, its prissy execution. Throughout this painting there wavers an uncertainty as to whether to accept the pictorial properties of oil to expand and enrich the image, or to relegate them to the status of a substitute for what might better have been accomplished by compass, ruler, and pen. It is their technical homelessness that contradicts works otherwise dedicated to technological progress. (That political circumstances made so many of these artists emigres and exiles adds a poignant confirmation of their esthetic difficulty.) It would, perhaps, have been unfair to judge them on their painting, if so much of their obviously more confident architectural models, poster design, and stage sets had not been unrealized or ephemeral. The Buffalo reconstruction of Luibov Popova’s set for Meyerhold’s The Magnificent Cuckold, 1922, is a very welcome instance—partly because it is so exceptionally humorous—within the area where Constructivist energies were most fruitfully employed. Indeed, much of Constructivist painting and sculpture suffers because it represses a theatricality that is often more exuberantly released in projects like stage sets.

This repression, among many other things, mars a great deal of the Constructivist- or de Stijl- or Bauhaus-derived European work of the thirties and forties. A roster of artists which includes Albers, Herbin, Henryk Stazewski and Vasarely, exhibits a reliance on an illusionist, stage-struck light that belies any categorizing of their work as unqualifiedly abstract, let alone “pure.” Much of it is reminiscent of Cubist chiaroscuro, but now made hard and metallic, as if an unseen surfacing metal acted as a foil for a continuous graduated shading. Dependence on this academic formula goes hand in hand with the attempt to infuse the picture with cosmological overtones, to levitate the checkerboard, so to speak. This stilted shimmer was to eventuate, of course, in kinetic and Op art, whose activations of the comparatively meagre resources of paintings are now to be taken over by computerized projectors which do so much more mechanically effective a job of sensory assault. Just as one finds a predisposition to bend or bulge space to disguise a sterile positioning of elements, so, too, is discovered a preference for a lapidary decorativeness over chromatic potency. It is hard to avoid the impression of a certain defensiveness in all this output, as if the naive faith in experimental method had to be prettied by a Tiffany packaging.

Unfortunately, the enormous section devoted to the post-war developments in this mode tips us off to director Douglas McAgy’s real intentions. Earlier one might have thought that the spotty mounting of the “old masters” was conceivably due to an imperceptive eye or exhibition restrictions, or both, for which his avowal to present unfamiliar pieces could be seen as an official alibi. But it turns out that the pioneers were scanted in order to limelight, and yet still, in their few numbers, legitimize, the current interns in Constructivism. As a rhetorical maneuver, this misjudges completely the significance of the scientistic work that we see today, while it deprives us of a better look at the historical accomplishment of its mentors.

The response of a younger generation of artists to a cultural situation which has changed from anxiety to affluence, and from utopian planning to complacent monotony, has been mainly nothing more than an increased specialization and sophistication of means. We still notice the same manifesto psychology, the group spirit, the poetico-mathematical metaphors, the theatrical tendency, without any fundamental re-evaluation or criticism of the basic impulse, and with no additional formal idea other than to fringe or micro-pattern the unit in more up to date materials. Compared to such older and distinguished figures as Ben Nicholson, Fritz Glarner, Burgoyne Diller, and Max Bill, one now sees the fussy, busy, gimmicky Soto, Le Parc, Piene, Agam, the frenetic Riley and Anuskiewicz, and countless “researchers” in Yugoslavia, France, or Germany, forming an international sub-style that has mated gestalt psychology or electronics with, of all things . . . the picturesque!

If it had been to this, and to this alone, that “Plus By Minus” had thought to lead us, we could have left it as the benighted effort it is. But, by the inclusion of Americans like Frank Stella, Donald Judd, Robert Morris and Robert Grosvenor, it shows itself to be misguided, as well. For in their serial strategies, frozen compositional systems, and magnified scale, these artists issue from a legacy that has nothing to do with Dutch or Russian abstraction, even as they give us a chilling insight into technology that is most contemporary. Where the Op or kinetic people fasten on titillations that may occur in a laboratory, these Americans have perceived what has happened to the space and surfaces around us as a result of the industrial complex. And far from the encouragement or celebration of this event, they have shown themselves ambivalent about its effect: sensing the absurdity of mindless production, and yet deriving through it new ways of declaring the autonomy of the work of art. It has been their awareness of decreasing rationality and entropic stillness in structured forms which conflicts radically with the simpleminded wunderkind effervescence which is the programmatic theme of the show. Their absolute refusal to be poetic introduces a pessimism that ultimately reflects the old Dada coming home to roost. As for that other Dada, the one that laughs rather than barks, its progeny lie outside the show’s precincts. Or perhaps not altogether. For at least Moholy-Nagy’s special effects for Korda’s film version of The Shape of Things To Come ironically leads to that other story, belongs to that other camp.

Max Kozloff