The following post concerns observations by Hilton Kramer, the former N.Y. Times Art Editor, on constructivism. They were made to review a 1972 exhibition called “Constructivist Tendencies”, installed at the Finch College Museum of Art in New York City.
His review of the exhibition discusses constructivism, a major movement in modern art that attempts to “represent” the observable world by instead creating pure forms that have no personal or literary connotations. Constructivism in the 1970s re-emerged as an art movement, commanding the allegiance of many talents and enjoying a strong influence on the international art scene.
Constructivism – Background
Constructivism was a movement that emerged in Russia in the early 20th century. It was characterised by a rejection of traditional art forms and a focus on geometric shapes, industrial materials, and a functionalist approach to design. Kramer believed that constructivism was a response to the political and social upheaval of the time and that it sought to create a new visual language that reflected the ideals of the communist revolution. He also noted that the movement had a significant influence on modern art and design and that its legacy can still be seen in contemporary art and architecture.
Cues from Cubism and Collage
Constructivism, which took its cues from Cubist painting, sculpture, and collage, abandoned all attempts to “represent” the observable world. This goal the Cubists still cherished and instead focused on creating pure forms that could be systematised and reasoned through, that have no personal or literary connotations, and that are free of all historical imprints and poetic allusion. In reality, this meant perfectly clean nongeometric forms that would be just as literal and readable to the eye as a circle, a square, or a geometric form.
Matter of Fatih
For the devoted, constructivism has been the central movement and essence of what modern art aspires to be. In its heydey, constructivism was a matter of faith, going far beyond the traditional bounds of an aesthetic credo. However, there was rarely “content” in it. Its preferred forms—those purely geometrical and nearly geometrical shapes—were weighed down with various “meanings.” Everything was a motivating ideology, from revolutionary politics to mystical transcendence fantasies. Constructivist art forms were quick – though, as it turned out, only temporary.
Constructivism Tied to the Baggage of the Past
Kramer believed all that ideological baggage is a thing of the past. If an artist says that a square patch of red paint on a canvas represents “the revolution,” we are no longer particularly bothered. We might even grin. That smile undoubtedly symbolises a certain loss—how much richer those red squares were when it seemed they held the very essence of history! How limited artistic expression now seems in comparison!
But there is no denying what has happened. He stated that history has ruthlessly denuded constructivist art of every meaning but one—the aesthetic. And if, as a result, the art looks a little diminished, a little more vulnerable, and a good deal more sectarian than it used to, there is nothing to be done about it. Constructivism is now on an equal footing with other movements and styles; it has re-revealed itself as being, we might say, only art, neither more nor less.
Kramer believed that Constructivism remains a movement commanding the allegiance of many talents worldwide. Museums, galleries, and publications continue to testify to the influence it enjoys on the international art scene. Except where political ideology specifically prohibits its production – and there are exceptions there, too – there can hardly be a single corner of the industrialised world that has not harboured its little band of votaries devoted to the production of constructivist art.
Finally, he claimed that constructivism launched itself as, among other things, a vehemently antiromantic movement. The whole realm of subjective emotion, of private fantasy and individualistic imagery, was repudiated in favour of the “universal.”
Kramer’s Comments on the Exhibition
Yet how romantic the work in this collection now seems, how subjective its motives, how individualistic its “solutions” to the “problems” Constructivism undertook to solve! We are reminded once again that in modern art—and no less in constructivism than in other modern styles – it is the individual sensibility and not the collective will that speaks to us.
Byars, M., & Riley, T. (2004). The design encyclopedia. Laurence King Publishing. https://amzn.to/3ElmSlL
Kramer. (1972, October 29). Constructivism Is Fascinating. Newspapers.com. Retrieved May 12, 2023, from https://www.newspapers.com/article/the-morning-call-constructivism-is-fasci/121734736/