PRINT December 2010

Hal Foster

FOR A LONG TIME I carried around a caricature of Theo van Doesburg, the leader of De Stijl. I saw him as an animator along the lines of Marinetti or Tzara, more skilled at publicity than at practice, and at best an effective foil for more gifted collaborators such as Mondrian, J. J. P. Oud, El Lissitzky, Schwitters, and Hans Arp and Sophie Taeuber-Arp. I thought his abstraction was mostly vapid, too often a didactic reduction of cow or card players to colored rectangles—the kind of thing that can give the whole enterprise a bad name. And his aesthetic moves appeared helter-skelter—at times hubristic, as in his one-man challenge to the Bauhaus on its own turf (he moved to Weimar in 1921), at times quixotic, as though his 1922 Congress of Constructivists and Dadaists could actually mediate such contradictory movements, and at times opportunistic, as if he had to attend every party no matter what the theme (this modernist Zelig participated in seven groups in a professional life of only seventeen years). Like many clichés, my image of van Doesburg as avant-garde gadfly, by turns dogmatic and charlatanish, is not exactly wrong, but it is hardly just, and “Van Doesburg and the International Avant-Garde”—an ambitious exhibition at Tate Modern, organized by Gladys Fabre, Vicente Todolí, and Doris Wintgens Hötte—corrected it. Here was van Doesburg in his multiple modes as painter, polemicist, and designer, and in his various milieus in the Netherlands, Germany, and France (with select works by many associates, famous and not), presented in a way that revealed both his conceptual rigor and his artistic range. God knows what tourists made of this varied archive of modernist experiment, but for aficionados it was a treasure—and one more in a good string of modernist shows at Tate Modern in recent years (including “Albers and Moholy-Nagy: From the Bauhaus to the New World” in 2006 and “Rodchenko & Popova: Defining Constructivism” in 2009).

The exhibition overturned my misconceptions one by one. Van Doesburg emerged less as an impresario on the go across Western Europe than as an idealist committed to an international modernism, and less as a publicity hound than as a newfangled artist for whom the networking of people, projects, and publications was the primary work. Although his politics were vague—a decrying of baneful individualism was its main theme—van Doesburg was committed to the avant-garde as a small collective that might trigger a spiritual revolution (a sort of Leninism without Lenin on art). As for his own painting, well, head-to-head with Mondrian, he does pale (who doesn’t?)—his compositions are without the oxymoronic intensity of intuition and necessity that distinguishes those of his compatriot—yet the loss is not as lopsided as one might think, and the comparison here allowed one to glimpse why to paint or not to paint a diagonal or a green could seem, at one point in the modernist age, a world-historical question. Moreover, there were superb examples of his production on view, including stained glass in De Stijl mode, graphic design in both Constructivist and Dadaist idioms, and architectural collaborations with Oud, Cornelis van Eesteren, and the Arps. Here, too, van Doesburg doesn’t win in every (perhaps any) category—his graphics don’t match up to Lissitzky’s and Schwitters’s, or Piet Zwart’s and Jan Tschichold’s, and he was not the designer that Gerrit Rietveld was—but to view these juxtapositions as competitions is to miss the point of the collective project that was Doesburgian modernism (at least in principle—no doubt he was as vain as the rest of us, if not more so).

The cows and card players are still semiludicrous, but maybe at that time in modernist advocacy (ca. 1917–18) a diagram was what was needed, and finally van Doesburg’s abstraction is more capacious than these cartoons suggest. For the “De Stijl idea,” as Yve-Alain Bois has shown, was a relational one: to distinguish a key component in one medium, and then to use it as a means to link that discipline with others, ideally through a shared element. (The classic example is the colored plane that binds De Stijl painting to De Stijl architecture.) “Harmonious combination comes about not through characteristic equality,” van Doesburg wrote in the November 1918 issue of his journal De Stijl, “but really through characteristic oppositionality.” Rather than a medium-specific idea of modernist art, this is a medium-differential notion that resonates to this day. (Much of the “expanded field” of sculpture operates in this way.)

Finally, as to his aesthetic moves, such as his challenge to the Bauhausler and his convening of Constructivists and Dadaists, I tend to favor his counterparts: Van Doesburg is too disdainful of function and program for me, and given the choice he might have opted for a total work of art over a total revolution. Yet these encounters were not simply stunts: He kept the pressure on the Bauhaus, whose 1923 shift toward design was not due to Walter Gropius and László Moholy-Nagy alone, and he brought a differential clarity to the Constructivist-Dadaist spectrum of the avant-garde. In fact, van Doesburg forced this particular dialectic (or is it an antinomy?), which he also embodied in his artistic persona. (Another merit of the show was that it displayed and documented the work of his Dadaist alter ego, I. K. Bonset, in some depth.) No doubt this performance was a taxing one; van Doesburg “scattered the poison of the New Spirit everywhere,” as he said of his Weimar caper, and he absorbed more than his share of this elixir. Eventually he retreated to an abstraction that, though announced as a redemptive response to the catastrophe of World War I, had become semiacademic only a decade later, and he died from a heart attack in 1931, exhausted, one imagines, at the age of forty-seven.

“Van Doesburg and the International Avant-Garde: Constructing a New World” was organized by Tate Modern, London, in collaboration with the Stedelijk Museum De Lakenhal in Leiden, the Netherlands.

Hal Foster teaches at Princeton University. His Design And Crime will be reissued by Verso in the winter, followed by The Art-Architecture Complex in the spring.