Abstract Critical

Georges Vantongerloo and the Anxiety of Meaning

Written by John Holland

Charlotte Posenenske, Prototype for Revolving Vane, 1967-8, Particle board, Overall display dimensions variable, sculpture, Presented by Tate Patrons 2009 © Estate of Charlotte Posenenske/Burkhard Brunn, Frankfurt/M.

Displays at Tate Modern seem to follow two rules – to mitigate the shortcomings of their Modernist collection, and to ‘expand the narrative’ of Modernism itself. The former necessitates the latter, even without the ideological imperative. So, within that context, ‘Structure and Clarity’ takes a lot of sculptures, paintings, photographs and films, from Braque’s Church of Carrières-St-Denis to Richter’s grey monochrome, all seemingly linked only by their use of straight lines, and puts them in a roughly chronological sequence. Of course, it’s actually more didactic than it first appears.

As usual, the hang makes odd juxtapositions, often based on rather pointless visual rhymes – like the clockwise movement in the opening room’s pairing of Bridget Riley and Matisse, [i] or Room 8’s punning of Andre’s Equivalent VIII with lots of arbitrary-looking photographs by someone called Lewis Baltz, simply because the photos are hung as a grid. It’s emphasised throughout that there is no hierarchy of medium or geography; there are many photographs because Tate is pushing photography in almost every show now – even in the Munch retrospective. There are a lot of relatively obscure artists, too, which is ok, though some of them are obscure for a reason.

The first two big rooms show analytical Cubist works and the pioneering abstractionists, or at least those the Tate could get – a Kandinsky, two Mondrians, van Doesburg, Moholy-Nagy, Nicholson and Vantongerloo. The paintings of Picasso and Braque – dense, empirical and figurative – are at odds in so many ways with everything that follows in the display. The point proposed by curator Matthew Gale is essentially that the Cubist project, though indispensable to Mondrian’s breakthrough into abstraction was, ultimately, less important. It was Constructivism and De Stijl that lay the ground for, and defined the parameters of, the work in subsequent rooms, and it was De Stijl’s odd mix of occult religiosity, utopianism and Puritanical iconoclasm that passed into the DNA of this intellectualized  late 20th-century work.  This is true in the context of Gale’s literalist interpretation of ‘structure’ and ‘clarity’, and his teleology that sees their fulfillment in the conceptually-imbued cube.

Georges Vantongerloo 1886-1965, No. 98 2478 Red/135 Green, 1936, Oil on wood support, 575 x 568 mm frame: 814 x 959 x 65 mm painting, Purchased 1972, © DACS, 2012

The force and clarity of Mondrian’s two paintings here hold the first long wall of pioneering abstraction; Kandinsky’s neo-Romantic (and chromatically challenged) sub-figurative incidents look fussy and weak, van der Leck and van Doesburg make flat exercises in moving things across the picture plane that do the right thing by the De Stijl programme and little more. But the Vantongerloo – No.98 2478 Red / 135 Green (surely a contender for the least lyrical title in Art ) – is a strange and obdurate thing in the context of its De Stijl contemporaries. Far from looking like a synecdoche of the Mystical Whole, it looks unstable and imperfect; very un-Platonic, it somehow evokes the contingencies of the cityscape, despite its strict abstraction. Its dynamic is horizontal rather than universally expansive, it is syncopated and unstable, contradictory even. And it uses green, the secondary, disavowed colour of Nature.

How does this awkward little painting relate to De Stijl’s utopian project, and more particularly, Vantongerloo’s own mystical, universalist vision? Is this an irrelevant question when faced with the singularity of the painting? And what did it mean to make art that was part of an eschatological project – the means to bring about a visionary end? No-one could make art aspiring to such ideas now – and if they did, no-one, surely, could take them seriously.

Mondrian’s paintings suggest an infinite expansion, a thing both self-contained and boundless. Whereas No.98 2478 Red / 135 Green has a ‘bottom’ to it, and the sense of lateral continuity is blocked on the right. Its got a strong sense of boundedness for an intimation of Oceanic connectivity; the sensibility is one of contingency and incompleteness, with an stubborn lateral dynamic that prefigures serialism. The titular mathematical ratios look less like the numerology of infinity, or a mystic algorithm, more like a measurement after the fact. Like most De Stijl paintings, the Vantongerloo uses white as the ground – a hard white, a void, yet materially present. Seven vertical bars lie on top: four red, three dark green, similar in tone so the red only slightly pushes forward. They are spaced in the ratios of the title, and it feels awkward, almost intuitively wrong. Two thick, horizontal black bars feel subject to gravity, one of them sitting on a pale grey square that reads solid against the white, like a block; while a very thin black line divides the painting, seeming to fold the space ambiguously so that the top and bottom appear to move back and forth, one part then the other lying on top. This constant reconfiguring around an axis foregrounds the dimension of time in the process of looking – a horizontal axis that doesn’t suggest a horizon, as foreground and background, solid and void are unstable and irresolvable. Looking induces a periodic ‘flip’, a rearrangement of the spatial relationship. On the right, the differing lengths of the two red bars give a slight perspectival illusion, contradicting the general frontality, or rather, narrowness. Despite the regress of the white, the painting could almost be read as two shutters and a block, an impossible space to negotiate. And this green is not really the colour of Nature, but a semi-translucent enamel green, more like the colour of a lawnmower. The bars look as though they were painted in two or three strokes, unlike Mondrian’s meticulously unmodulated application. It does share De Stijl’s rejection of any haptic physicality of the paint surface, contrary to the progressive use of paint as ‘stuff’ since Manet at least.

So in the context of Vantongerloo’s copious mystical theorising, his neo-Platonic idealism, this painting seems to sit awkwardly. As a reification of his beliefs, and as an instrument of their realisation, it might even be a failure – if you were to take them seriously. You could of course take the painting more seriously than the beliefs. It is easy now not to take any kind of utopian idealism seriously, never mind the occult Theosophy espoused by many of the De Stijl artists, replete with images of Madame Blavatsky levitating tables. You could see it all as the shit from which the fruit grows. Picasso or Braque or Matisse didn’t need these Spiritualist visions, but then they clung to the visible world. Even when the Cubist experiment seemed to be inexorably leading them to abstraction, Picasso and Braque pulled back, sticking tokens of the tangible and observable world – labels, wallpaper, fragments of newspaper – to their paintings. Not so surprising, then, that Mondrian and Kandinsky needed a transcendental architecture to fill the void left by their purging of nature’s claim to the subject of art. “We must embrace the laws of the infinite” said Vantongerloo. He also said “infinity, divided by infinity, equals one, where one is creation”, which may, or may not, mean anything.

The dialectic between the universalist ends that these artist were seeking, and the intense engagement with material facts that were, for them, its only means of realization, resulted in the achievement of a radically new art, fundamentally different from the relative materialism of the French schools. But when Mondrian was paring away at Cubist space, Vantongerloo was making lyrical pointillist paintings – a lyricism he lapsed back into after the war. He was a brief, contrary and tangential member of De Stijl –claiming, absurdly, “I am alone, and have nothing in common with anybody”. He only briefly worked under the strictures of the De Stijl project, and maybe the hard-edged rectangularity ran (productively) against his natural inclinations – though his small sculptures, two of which are displayed in Structure and Clarity, are unsuccessfully literal attempts to incorporate the spatial theories of the group into three dimensions, and are dull. They certainly look like exercises in exposition set against Picasso’s Head of a Woman in the following room. As such, they, more than the paintings, are the precursors of the Minimalism that follows in the subsequent rooms, and of the relentlessly literal-minded conceptualism that inherited Minimalism’s aesthetic of modular repetition and the grid. If the display shows anything, it is not only the influence De Stijl had on the ‘design’ of so much art, and so much of the world, but the normalisation of the idea that theoretic justification is central to the production and critical reception of the avant-garde (even though the ideals themselves could be said to have lost the battle), leading as it did to the reduction of visual specificality to the point where Gerhard Richter’s grids of randomly-coloured rectangles are accepted as having a wholly different meaning to Hirst’s grids of randomly-coloured spots. The inevitable paradox is that no-one behaves as though they believe them – institutions don’t take Donald Judd (surely the inheritor of De Stijl’s mystical, expansive mathematics, though he might have punched you if you said so to his face) and his desire to annexe the world around his art any more seriously than the ideas of Rudolph Steiner when they judge a Vantongerloo. If they did, they couldn’t display Judd in the conventional way they do here. Beuys is still revered, by Nicolas Serota as much as anyone, but it would be ridiculous for this international institution to take his Theosophical message and revolutionary occultism seriously. It’s not just Beuys’ dead hare that’s not listening to his shamanic discussions.

Minimalism took De Stijl’s evocation of infinite expansion, added some phenomenalism, and used it to annexe the surrounding space, using the gallery as its framing device - literally institutionalising itself in the process. In the final room, next to Judd’s crowded cube, Rasheed Araeen’s Zero To Infinity (the title seemingly lifted directly from Vantongerloo’s hermetic maths) is an assembly of modular units, De Stijl minus one half of the dialectic – the struggle with means. It’s the difference between Idealism and wishful-thinking. While the Tate pays lip-service to the work’s sociological intent with solemn wall texts, it’s all negated completely by the prohibition of the play-school audience participation that’s its purpose, and its meaning. It’s a part of the narrative of art history now, and its material integrity (as opposed to its artistic integrity) cannot be compromised.

The point being, I guess, that whatever meaning can be separated from specific form is, however fundamental to the intentions of the artist, not merely secondary, but ultimately trivial even, mere biography – the noise surrounding the personal engagement with what stands in front of you. Which is difficult.


[i] For more on this pairing see Robin Greenwood’s The Snail: late Matisse in Context

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  1. Danila Rumold said…

    Although I agree with Holland’s comment about the reality of the artwork abiding in the materiality of the object and that the interpretation is outside of the control of artist, from a non dualistic perspective (such as theosophists, and the other mystic religions that these artists were working from) one cannot separate the subject from the object- thus the artist from the object.

    Holland’s school of thought is obviously coming from a different perspective than these Modernists, but I think it is utterly important when looking at this work, to offer some objective points in context to the intention of the artists of this time. Perhaps we have become more cynical and skeptical, but to dismiss everything as failure shines perhaps only a light on what our state of mind is today.

    • Sam Cornish said…

      Isn’t the point that John is making about trying to see how the work can be useful, meaningful for us, rather than trying to tie it back to its original context?

    • John Holland said…

      I don’t regard the pictures as failures at all, any more than a painting of a crucifixion is a failure if the contemporary viewer is not converted to Christianity.
      The ‘spiritual’ content is either there for you in the painting or it’s not. If it’s not, then you’re talking about biography.

  2. John Holland said…

    Thanks for your response Ashley. I think the point about the artist’s ‘ideas ‘ is that ultimately only what is before us in the work itself can really be important I think.
    The artwork is a separate thing from the artist- once the thing is made it has its own life, beyond the artist’s control. This is why a decent painting is the opposite of an illustration. If a painting is reduced to ‘decoration ‘ when the viewer is not being reminded of the.philosophy of its maker, then it has failed.

  3. Ashley West said…

    An intriguing painting – this instability and incompleteness you talk about John, I find very interesting – contingency too (if I understand your use of these words correctly) – looking around my room I see four mixed media pieces where in each I have placed a single object (a pebble, a tennis ball) on the top edge, so they are part of the piece, yet at the same time suggest a relationship with something beyond the edge. For me these go against the notion of the painting representing wholeness (in itself).

    I do find a sort of expansiveness in this Vantongerloo piece as, read in one way, it looks like part of a genealogical tree, as if a continuation in a diagonal direction, upwards (right) toward further multiplicity, and downwards (left) toward a common ‘root’, which would in turn suggests a hierarchical ‘tree of life’, connecting to theosophical ideas. But the puzzling nature of the image, in some ways, keeps it rooted in this world – certainly not utopian.

    I also find interesting this idea that institutions perhaps conveniently ignore the wider intentions of the artist in favour of their own narrative (again, if I understand you right). Isn’t it important that the link between an artist, such as Beuys, and ‘where he or she is coming from’ be maintained? This may for some mean that the work becomes too far fetched – so be it; for others it would be enriched, depending on your inclinations. Could it be said that Modernism could only have become so ‘popularised’ through a reduction to some extent, to decoration or commodity?

    There was an interesting discussion about John Cage on Radio 3 this afternoon in which someone suggested that it doesn’t make any sense to separate his work from the ideas he espoused (apparently Cage had wished that he had channelled his ideas into more worthwhile fields such as technology and ecology which could have effected more significant change) – that’s quite a statement given the objectivity and democratic nature of his music (with its chance procedures and open endedness), but I can see his point.

    Another thought I had during the week which relates to this and other threads, was that if one leans towards the idea that a work only exists or functions in relation to the artist’s and viewer’s frame of reference (which I think I do), then the idea that it could exist independently (as a meaningful object) is almost akin to the kind of wishful thinking/fantasy that the utopianism of De Stijl is criticised for, and surely it cannot be verified. It would be good if someone more expert than I could bring some knowledge to bear on this contextualisation business (my apologies if I’m getting terms mixed up here – I’m no theorist).

    I do think that perhaps a lot (but not all) of the ‘spirituality’ associated with modernism is about belief , fantasy, call it what you will, and is anathema to me, given that, at its heart (underneath the shit), it is a search for truth which calls into question not just what you are painting, but also one’s own perception and consciousness. That investigation is about as down to earth as it gets. The texts of some of the great teachers of the past are not irrelevant to such questions, if one is inclined in that direction, but even without them, I do think many artists take ‘reflectivity’ to a very deep level in their practice. This is I think most productive where the content of the work is embedded in the its materiality and visual objectivity, which is perhaps the case with this piece by Vantongerloo.

  4. Sam Cornish said…

    The point about De Stijl as the beginning of the untying of visual content from meaning is a good one; though how much does a small u utopia lurk in all the design which stems from their example? The personal engagement with what ‘stands in front of you’ which John describes is in part also a testing of prior assumptions about how a picture is made or how it might communicate. I wonder where the line might be drawn between these assumptions and ‘the noise surrounding … personal engagement’?

    • Ashley West said…

      I meant to ask Sam – what do you mean exactly by ‘untying of visual content from meaning’? Do you mean meaning extrinsic to what we actually see in front of us? I’ve been thinking about it and can’t get it clear in my own head – and it’s perhaps central to a lot of recent discussion.

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