PRINT February 1991


The streets are our brushes, the squares are our palettes.
—Vladimir Mayakovsky, “Order to the Army of Art,” 1918
Not the Old, Not the New, But the Necessary.
—Vladimir Tatlin, 1920
Go to the factories, this is the only task for artists. . . . Artists must become producers.
—Osip Brik, Art of the Commune, 1918

The major exhibition “Art Into Life: Russian Constructivism 1914–1932,” curated by Richard Andrews and Milena Kalinovska, represents the culmination of the recent historical and critical reevaluation of the Constructivist movement.1 Not only did the show present work that had never before been seen in the West, but it allowed the viewer to reexperience Constructivism in its vital, youthful idealism, emphasizing the Constructivists’ enthusiastic support of the new political system ushered in by the Bolshevik Revolution.

Perhaps the most important shift in art theory and criticism of the past twenty years has been the dismantling of Clement Greenberg’s notion of Modernism and its concomitant historicism. Instead of a hermetic, esthetic formalism defined by flatness, autonomy, and self-reflexivity, a lineage passing inexorably from Courbet, through Cézanne, Cubism, and Matisse, to the New York School of the 1950s, so-called “post-Modern” criticism has stressed a more resistant, ideological formalism defined by the contingency and utility of the political and socioeconomic context. This contra-Greenberg, anti-Modernist axis is rooted in Marx, passes through the Russian formalism of Roman Jakobson and Viktor Shklovsky, the sociolinguistic criticism of Mikhail Bakhtin and the Frankfurt School, and ultimately aligns itself with the French Structuralist and post-Structuralist critiques of Roland Barthes and Louis Althusser. If Jackson Pollock is the paradigm of Greenbergian Modernism, the Marxist equivalent would have to be Bertolt Brecht.

The upshot of this revised historicism has been the critical reevaluation of previously ignored, suppressed, or rewritten Modernisms. The most obvious example is the significant change in the scholarship of Russian Constructivism, a movement reduced by Greenberg from an innately vital, revolutionary force to the formalized, technological fetishism of Naum Gabo and Antoine Pevsner—what Benjamin Buchloh calls “The Perspex School of Constructivism.”2 According to Greenberg, Constructivism offered “instead of the illusion of things . . . the illusion of modalities; namely that matter is incorporeal, weightless and exists only optically, like a mirage.”3 As Buchloh points out, “What had once been tactile and contingent had become ‘optical’: what had been rigorously anti-illusionistic in emphasizing weight, physical mass, and process, in foregrounding surface and texture, and in ‘baring the structural device’ had turned into an ‘illusion of modalities.’”4 The neo-Marxist revision has put the politics back into Constructivism, underlining its predominantly ideological nature and its specific adherence to a program of Bolshevik socialism.

The organization of the exhibition underlined the two distinct, dialectical stages of the movement’s development. The first, “from representation to construction” (1914 to 1921), delineated the breakdown of the Western Modernist paradigm, a laboratory, experimental stage in which a focus on construction, materials, and the discovery of a new formal vocabulary led to the rejection of Cubism’s obsession with flatness and the two-dimensional picture plane in favor of three-dimensional, constructed objects. The second stage, “from construction to production” (1922 to 1932), is the period usually omitted from Greenbergian formalist accounts. Its various slogans—“Art into life,” “Art into production,” “Art into technology,” “The liquidation of art”—indicate fervent desire to dismantle not only esthetic hierarchies but also the fundamental distinction between artist and engineer, Bolshevik artist and proletarian worker. No longer divorced from the activity of daily life, art was to be redefined on industrial grounds: as production, as labor, as social engineering. One could indeed argue that “Art Into Life” needs to be evaluated less as an exhibition of art than as a presentation of social artifacts, documents of a specific moment of revolutionary history rather than as timeless objects of esthetic appeal.

“Art Into Life”’s historical frame was provided by Vladimir Tatlin, who in 1914 held a “First Exhibition of Painterly Reliefs,” a show of abstract, three-dimensional works aimed at deliberately subverting the prevailing concerns of Western Cubism and Russian Cubo-Futurism. By using nonpainterly materials such as fragments of wood, metal, glass, plaster, cardboard, and various manufactured objects, Tatlin not only destroyed the integrity of painterly illusion but also the discreet two-dimensionality of the picture plane. Moving well beyond Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque’s use of collage as a reassertion of the actual pictorial surface, Tatlin built the surface out into three-dimensional relief, creating “real objects in real space” that were part painting, part sculpture, part constructed architecture. This undermining of the dictatorship of the eye and fixed perspective in favor of sensory and bodily interaction further emphasized the construction/architectural destination of abstract art.

There still remained, however, the problem of representation and its paradigm: painting. The period from 1919–21 marked a laboratory stage in which the experiments in spatial construction of such artists as Aleksandr Rodchenko, Lyubov Popova, Varvara Stepanova, and Petr Miturich resulted in a gradual move away from painting toward three-dimensional construction. Centered on two institutions, OBMOKhU (the society of young artists), founded in 1919, and INKhUK (the institute of artistic culture), founded in 1920, the group’s subsequent work, theoretical debates, and exhibitions served to define Constructivism as a movement. Their research included close attention to the results of scientific and technological investigations, so that their paintings and drawings—an organic union of painting and technical design—came to resemble engineering and architectural blueprints rather than simple Cubo-Futurist exercises in dynamics and flatness.5 Their chief focus was the differentiation between construction and composition, eventually privileging the former (active process) over the latter (passive reflection). Easel painting, with its obsession with composition, line, color, space, and form, was seen as a bourgeois anachronism of taste and esthetics. Rodchenko celebrated painting’s death in September 1921 as part of an exhibition of paintings by OBMOKhU artists entitled “5 x 5 = 25.” His Pure Red Color, Pure Yellow Color, Pure Blue Color, 1921, consisted of three monochromatic panels in red, yellow, and blue that distilled painting to its basics: “I reduced painting to its logical conclusion and exhibited three canvases: red, blue and yellow. I affirmed: It’s all over. Basic colors. Every plane is a plane, and there is to be no more representation.”6

By 1922, spatial constructions were seen not as an end product of artistic activity, but as the beginning of a new phase linked with industrial manufacture: that is, the second phase of Constructivism, “from construction to production.” Subsequent internal debates within the Constructivist movement led to a volatile split between those who saw it as a purely esthetic question—Gabo and Pevsner, for example—and others, like Tatlin, who continued to believe in an art of technological dynamism linked to agitation and social change. The symbol of the latter position is Tatlin’s Monument to the Third International, 1920, represented in the exhibition by a photographic enlargement of one of the original models. Commissioned by the Visual Arts Department of the People’s Commissariat of Education, the planned 400meter-high structure was clearly rooted in Cubo-Futurist esthetics, yet transformed mere design into a combination of utility, function, and symbol. The Monument’s symbolic message is conveyed by a constructed spiral of metal, designed to evoke the Tower of Babel, the Eiffel Tower (the symbol of industrial technology), and the dynamic of a ship’s prow carving a furrow through the ocean of history. Like most early Constructivist architecture, the supporting structure was placed outside rather than inside the tower, thus laying bare and foregrounding its structure in the best tradition of Constructivist (and later, Brechtian) theater. Inside the skeletal framework, hierarchical layers of glass spaces in the form of a rotating cube, cone, and cylinder were to be used for various political and educational functions. Tatlin’s agitprop intentions were to be manifested in the constant issuing of news bulletins, proclamations, and manifestos through built-in telegraphs, telephones, radios, and loudspeakers, while an open-air screen was to relay the latest news. Thus for Tatlin, “My monument is a symbol of the epoch. Unifying in it artistic and utilitarian forms, I created a kind of synthesis of art with life.”7

In the West, Tatlin’s Monument has been seen as a symbol of Constructivism’s failure, its full-scale realization torpedoed by a combination of economic factors—Lenin’s New Economic Policy of 1921 cut back on cultural funding in favor of electrification, sovietization, and party building—and party politics—Stalin’s repression of the movement in favor of official Socialist Realism. Consequently, the Monument has been drained of its ideological intentions and read in terms of a failed, apolitical utopianism. The import of its recontextualization in “Art Into Life” lies in its reinstatement as a successful political and ideological project within the program of productivist and agitprop practice. It thus stands as a monumental equivalent to Gustav Klucis’ designs for propaganda kiosks and agitational stands, proposed for the propagation and building of the revolution through the medium of the artist-as-engineer.

By 1922, Aleksei Gan was proclaiming, “Art is finished! It has no place in the human labor apparatus. Labor, technology, organization!”8 To counter the fetishistic characteristics of bourgeois art and its non-collective means of production, the work’s cult and exhibition value was to be undermined by denying its falsely auratic status and anchoring esthetic practice to the social and political reality of a mass audience. To accomplish this transition, a dialectical productivist practice was set up that opposed technology to nature, the machine to the organism, the collective to the individual, rationalism to intuition, and contingency to autonomy. Materials were to be constructed and fashioned along the tripartite lines of tektonika (the tectonic), konstruktsiya (construction), and faktura (texture). According to Gan,

Painting, sculpture, theatre, these are the material forms of the bourgeois capitalist aesthetic culture which satisfies the “spiritual” demands of the consumer of a disorganised social order. . . .The tectonic as a discipline should lead the Constructivist in practice to a synthesis of a new content and the new form. He must be a marxist-educated man who has once and for all outlived art and really advanced on industrial material. The tectonic is his guiding star, the brain of experimental and practical activity . . . the tectonic unites the ideological and the formal.9

Construction was understood as the organizing of, and giving intellectual form to, this tectonic material for a given purpose, while faktura involved the conscious handling and manipulation of material in its entirety, from its state as raw material to its properties as a finished product. In combination with increased stress on labor, technique, and organization, the products and innovations of the new movement were designed specifically for functionality: urban planning, workers’ housing, furniture, workers’ clothing, textile design, typesetting and typography, poster, book, and graphic design, theater sets, productivist cinema (Dziga Vertov’s 1922 Kino-Pravda, for example), agitprop kiosks, and mobile cinema stands. Given this collaborative bias, it was perhaps inevitable that Constructivism was suppressed or recoded in the West. As Hal Foster has stressed: “Its collectivist transformation of industrial culture could not be countenanced by Western institutions—individual artist, artisanal medium, capitalist exhibition, idealist museum, and so on.”10

Perhaps the greatest synthesis of productivist values was provided by Rodchenko’s Workers’ Club, whose full-scale re-creation was the centerpiece of the “Art Into Life” exhibition. Designed by Rodchenko for the 1925 “Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes,” in Paris, the Workers’ Club was seen as a center for recreation, relaxation, and the diffusion of culture to a mass, proletarian audience. With its reading room and cinema screen and its courses in literacy and artistic creativity, the club was designed as a new inspirational source of socialist power, counteracting the old feudal nexus of church and palace. Extremely idealist in its notion of worker self-help and self-education, the Workers’ Club also aimed to train the proletariat in a collective consciousness outside the family, while simultaneously attempting to broaden their range of interests as individuals. The innately Bolshevik nature of Rodchenko’s design is underlined by overt references to Lenin (there is, for example, a “Lenin Corner”), yet it is also clearly a product and development of the laboratory stage of Constructivism. The design throughout is based on a rectilinear geometry that functions through collapsible skeletal frameworks and telescoping devices.

Just as “Art Into Life” takes great pains to underline the Bolshevik ideology of Constructivism in its early, idealist phase, it also takes note of its eventual co-option by Stalinism in its later, disillusioned stage. After ten years of internal factionalism, industrial neglect, party suspicion, and economic drought, it is hardly surprising that the initial society-building, agitprop impetus waned. By the late 1920s, Constructivism was under attack by several groups for formalist, hermetic heresies, in particular its fetishizing of technology, which was seen as pandering to the ideology of large-scale, bourgeois industrial capitalism. In 1932, Stalin issued the edict “On the Reformation of the Literary and Artistic Organizations,” abolishing informal artists’ groups in favor of a state-controlled Union of Artists and its new official esthetic, Socialist Realism.

Appropriately, as Tatlin’s relief paintings mark the beginning of Constructivist practice, so his work in the early 1930s signifies its end. In the same year as Stalin’s clampdown, Tatlin was proclaiming his disgust for Constructivists like Rodchenko, El Lissitzky, and Klucis for their safe, nonmaterialist work in book, poster, and typographic design, sneeringly dubbing them “’Constructivists’ in inverted commas.”11 Nineteen thirty-two is also the year of Tatlin’s swan song, a one-man exhibition in Moscow dominated by his utopian flying machine, Letatlin: the people’s air bicycle. One of “Art Into Life”’s many coups is the first showing of Letatlin outside the Soviet Union.12 Based on studies of small birds and constructed of natural materials like rawhide, silk, wood, whalebone, and cork as well as of steel cable and duralumin, Letatlin finds Tatlin breaking with the Constructivist hallmarks of faktura and hard, straight lines in favor of soft, rounded, organic forms. If the Monument to the Third International represents Tatlin’s paean to the collective building of the revolution, Letatlin can only be seen as a despairing plea for individuality and escape.

Many now see Constructivism as a response to the contradiction between capitalist art (the heritage of Modernism) and communist production,13 its development hamstrung by party controls and the innate conservatism of Russian industry. The latter was particularly uncooperative, for as Anatolii Strigalev explains, “Industry did not support ‘industrial art’ projects or put them into practice, but continued to use old designs that had evolved gradually and without the participation of artists. The production of goods for mass consumption remained in general one of the most conservative branches of industry, and seriously deficient in output.”14 Nor did the movement travel well, the marriage of art, industry, and ideology that Constructivism represented inspiring dire warnings in the West from commentators as diverse as Theodor Adorno and Greenberg himself. Adorno saw the same valorizing of technological esthetics in Nazi Germany, in particular Leni Riefenstahl’s estheticizing of the political in her 1935 film Triumph des Willens (Triumph of the will), as well as in the production-line, automated “culture industry” of the United States. Greenberg, in his 1939 essay “Avant-Garde and Kitsch,” saw capitalism reducing all mass-oriented art to consumable kitsch, which merely reinforced his ideological retreat into a hermetic estheticism divorced from the realities of everyday life. For Greenberg, formalized esthetics was the only place to find the necessary continuity to ensure the survival of high culture in its struggle against barbaric forces. No wonder he historicized Gabo and Pevsner as the only true Constructivists: in his eyes, they were the only ones untainted by the totalitarianism of party politics.

The importance of “Art Into Life” in summarizing and encapsulating the revised, post-Greenberg view of the Russian avant-garde is obvious. Less so, perhaps, is the relevance of Constructivism in current art practice, both inside and outside the Soviet Union. A barometer for evaluating the situation within the USSR was provided by “Between Spring and Summer: Soviet Conceptual Art in the Era of Late Communism,” an exhibition curated by David A. Ross that ran parallel to “Art Into Life” at the Tacoma Art Museum, in Washington, in the summer and fall of 1990.15 Although the Constructivist legacy is being rehabilitated in the Soviet Union as part of perestroika and glasnost, its historical association with Stalinist co-option and subsequent totalitarianism has meant that the movement has largely negative connotations for most contemporary Russian artists. The preferred historical paradigm is 1960s American and European Conceptualism, as represented by such artists as Joseph Beuys and Joseph Kosuth or the artists’ group Fluxus. The youthful optimism of Constructivism is countered by a weary negativity, as if the old optimism had gone terribly sour.

Ilya Kabakov, for example, one of the founders of the contemporary conceptual movement in the USSR was represented by Sixteen Strings, 1983, from his “Ten Characters” series, a work reiterating a recurring theme of life in Soviet communal apartments. Fragments of human detritus were suspended from pieces of string across the installation space, like so many pieces of laundry hanging on a line. Recorded snippets of banal, everyday conversation and petty bickering echoed across the room as if to underline the claustrophobia, insipid dullness, and appalling lack of privacy of communal apartment living. The reality of 1920s theorist Moisei Ginzburg’s collectivist architectural dream was here transformed into a domestic version of Michel Foucault’s panoptikon.

The only artist to reference Constructivism directly was the architect Yuri Avvakumov. However, his Youth Residential Complex in Imaginary City of Magnitogorsk, 1987, and Space Bridge, 1989, have less to do with harnessing productivist ideals to construct a new urbanism than they do with conceptually referencing their utopian impossibility. Avvakumov is a self-conscious “paper architect,” fully aware that his plans have no hope of realization. Thus the model Space Bridge, with its vertical, skeletal framework and horizontal, dirigiblelike spans, while clearly pointing to Lissitzky’s utopian plans for horizontal skyscrapers, is partly constructed of playing cards, as if to emphasize that in the home of gray functionalism all progressive, utopian design is doomed to remain on the drawing board: Constructivism is transformed into a sad paradigm of futility.

The Constructivist legacy in the West is more complex. With the shift of the avant-garde to New York-based Modernism in the late 1940s and ’50s, Greenbergian hermeticism reached theoretical and practical fruition. In the wake of fascism and in the context of the cold war, there was little interest in the culture industry, technology, photography, or mass production, which were understood as the very mechanisms of alienation and totalitarian control. Of course these are the stuff of art practice today, a shift made possible by the inroads achieved by Minimalism and Conceptualism in the 1960s, movements that stressed the contingency and dialectical nature of the object and its context. Yet even during the late ’60s and early ’70s, many artists were questioning Conceptualism’s effectiveness as a strategy of resistance. Although doggedly anti-Modernist, it still defined itself and its program within a historicized Modernist framework. Moreover, even anticapitalist work will inevitably fall prey to fetishizing commodification insofar as it enters the discourse and economy of capitalist production, a point well made by Walter Benjamin in his seminal essay “The Author as Producer” (1934). What was needed, it was felt, was a socialist art practice that would involve alternative modes of production. One finds Victor Burgin in 1976, for example, advocating a return to a form of productivist strategy that would deconstruct capitalist codes such as advertising: “We may integrate the concerns of Russian Formalism and Factography within a modern Western art problematic: the first requirement of a socialist art practice is that it should engage those codes and contents which are in the public domain. These present themselves, and thus ideology, as natural and whole; a socialist art practice aims to deconstruct these codes, to unpick the apparently seamless ideological surface they present.”16 Much of Burgin’s work at that time focused on exploiting and simultaneously laying bare the complex visual and linguistic codes of advertising practice.

The efforts of Burgin, and other like-minded artists, would suggest that Constructivist practice under capitalism is impossible. Changing the means of production in capitalist society is a utopian quest, yet without such a transformation, Constructivism’s strategies can be effectively used only to demythologize prevailing myths rather than to build new socialist ones. This is essentially a Barthesian, semiotic tack, combined with Althusserian formalism, in which art is seen as a means of revealing otherwise concealed ideologies. Thus, according to Althusser, “What art makes us see, and therefore gives to us in the form of ‘seeing,’ ‘perceiving’ and ‘feeling’ (which is not the form of knowing), is the ideology from which it is born, in which it bathes, from which it detaches itself as art, and to which it alludes.”17 Deconstruction, by decoding established practices, desutures the subject from ideologies of power and destabilizes the master narrative, drawing attention to the arbitrary, ideological nature of its formal structures, and making room for those who have been marginalized. Tatlin’s credo was “Art into Life.” A more appropriate reformulation for us might be “Life into Art before Art into Life.”

Colin Gardner, a writer who lives in Los Angeles, is a visiting lecturer at the Art Center College of Design, Pasadena, and the Otis Art Institute of Parsons School of Design, Los Angeles. He contributes regularly to Artforum.


1. “Art Into Life” was curated for the Henry Art Gallery of the University of Washington, Seattle, in collaboration with the Ministry of Culture of the USSR and the E. V. Vuchetich National Art Production Union, Moscow. The exhibition was at the Henry Art Gallery of the University of Washington, Seattle, 4 July–2 September 1990; and the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, 7 October–30 December 1990. It will travel to the State Tret’yakov Gallery, Moscow, in spring 1991.

2. Benjamin Buchloh, “Cold War Constructivism,” in Reconstructing Modernism: Art in New York, Paris, and Montreal 1945–1964, ed. Serge Guilbaut, Cambridge, Mass., and London: MIT Press, 1990, p. 93.

3. Clement Greenberg, “The New Sculpture,” revised version, in Art and Culture: Critical Essays, Boston: Beacon Press, 1961, p. 144.

4. Buchloh, p. 104.

5. “The craft of painting is striving to become more industrial. Drawing in the old sense is losing its value and giving way to the diagram or the engineering drawing.” Aleksandr Rodchenko, “The Line,” 1921, quoted in Selim O. Khan-Magomedov, “Early Constructivism: From Representation to Construction,” Art Into Life: Russian Constructivism 1914–1932, exhibition catalogue, New York: Rizzoli, 1990, p. 73.

6. Rodchenko, from Working with Maiakoeskii, 1939, quoted in Anatolii Strigalev, “The Art of the Constructivists: From Exhibition to Exhibition, 1914–1932,” Art Into Life, p. 47.

7. Vladimir Tatlin, quoted in Richard Andrews and Milena Kalinovska, “Introduction,” Art Into Life, p. 10.

8. Aleksei Gan, Constructivism, 1922, quoted in Khan-Magomedov, p. 83.

9. Gan, Constructivism, 1922, quoted in Victor Burgin, “Socialist Formalism,” Studio International 191, March 1976, p. 154.

10. Hal Foster, “Some Uses and Abuses of Russian Constructivism,” Art Into Life, p. 244.

11. Tatlin, quoted in Strigalev, p. 39.

12. The version of Letalin in “Art Into Life” w as a 1960s reassemblage of surviving pieces from the three versions Tatlin constructed between 1929 and 1931.

13. A position taken by Foster in his essay, “Some Uses and Abuses of Russian Constructivism,” pp. 241–53.

14. Strigalev, p. 17.

15. Also involved on a curatorial level were Josef Bakshtein, Elisabeth Sussman, and Margarita Tupitsyn. The itinerary of “Between Spring and Summer” included the Tacoma Art Museum, 16 June–9 September 1990, and the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston, 1 November 1990–6 January 1991. It will open at the Des Moines Art Center, Des Moines, Iowa, on 16 February (to 31 March).

16. Burgin, p. 151.

17. Louis Althusser, “A Letter on Art,” Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays, trans. Ben Brewster, London: New Left Books, New York: Monthly Review Press, 1971, p. 222.