New York

“Masters of Early Constructivist Abstract Art”

Galerie Denise Rene

What Western painters did with the Constructivist esthetic can be seen in a show called Masters of Early Constructivist Abstract Art. Mondrian is the real center of gravity, but a variety of other approaches helps place him in the context of what was a vastly international and largely—considering its principles—surprisingly individualistic movement, revealed in the exhibition through canvases and reliefs by American (Diller), Belgian, Czech, Dutch, Flemish, French, German, Hungarian, Polish, Russian, and Swiss artists. Sometimes the style seems to pull thin as it stretches across the Continent, but it is worthwhile to see what the phenomenon in its widest extent was like.

Several of these artists are alive and still at work—Josef Albers, Max Bill, Sonia Delaunay, Fritz Glarner, Marcelle Cahn (Paris), Jean Gorin (Meudon and Paris), André Heurtaux (Paris), and Henry Stazewski (Warsaw). Among those still practicing in France, Heurtaux is a painter whose work commands notice. His Composition of 1952 is a good example of the unexpected coloristic subtlety in which later and less well-known Constructivist painting apparently abounds. If we approach such works with our concept of orthodox neo-plasticism it is easy to conclude all too quickly that what we see is simply a decline from the purity of primary colors considered as part and parcel of the elementalism of Constructivist composition. But suppose the near-pastel colors of Heurtaux’s Composition, together with the avoidance of the exact right angle used on an oblong canvas, actually comprise an intelligent development from, for instance, Van Doesburg’s Counter-Compositions of the mid-1920s, where the orthogonal grid system is rotated, but rotated exactly 45°, often in a square of double-square format. Turning to the Heurtaux then seems like a consistent shift into a different mode, with the relation of overall proportions, the angular system, and the range of colors, maintained by the equal accommodation of all three factors to the new adjustment.

Of course Mondrian went on pursuing his system for many years, and it could even be argued that efforts like Heurtaux’s have something of the character of naughty wanderings from the true path. And yet there is a tyrannical element built into Mondrian’s own style, as though by systematically distilling painting to a kind of molecular essence, the entire art might be “cornered” and his (extraordinarily impersonal) personal style would be by definition the unimpeachable standard of the age.

One virtue of the show is that, although there are decided levels of quality (for example, two rather weak Dillers and one strong one), there are also a few pieces of “museum quality” which offer surprises. These include a beautiful Arp relief, Mirror Echo (1958), painted in orange and tan earth colors, a more than competent picture by Lajos Kassak (1922), an appealing Ozenfant-like work by Otto Carlsund (1953), and first-rate works by Auguste Herbin.

Denise René’s gallery is primarily Paris-based. The problem this poses is that those Constructivist American artists who happen not to have been very active in Europe can slip through the net. I am thinking in particular of Charles Biederman (b. 1906), of Red Wing, Minnesota, whose reliefs are every bit as good as Jean Gorin’s, but who is not represented.

Joseph Masheck