It is important to mention straight away that whatever I refer to here will be a tiny fraction of a huge survey of works spanning one hundred years of abstract art (starting in 1913) concerned with the representation of movement and light. There must be around 200 individual works here including many installations, interventions, walk in environments and films, as well as sculptures, reliefs and paintings. It took me over five hours to see it all properly, nearly missing some important rooms at the end. Dynamo, curated by Serge Lemoine, at the Grand Palais in Paris this spring was possibly one of the largest exhibitions I have been too. It was overwhelming, hugely enjoyable and informative, and a show I could never imagine being put on in any major institution in Britain.
The show was elegantly presented in a series of beautifully designed smaller rooms and large spaces using generic themes such as Contemporary, Openwork, Vision, Immersion, Distortion, Flicker, The Grid, Concentric/Eccentric, Halo, Tactile, Space, Abyss, Cloud, Force Fields, Maelstrom and many more, ending with a polarising section called The Pioneers (see photo below) which included two momentous Calders in a hall sized room of their own, Balla, Gabo, a rotating Duchamp, Moholy-Nagy and a kind of colour wheel motif painting by Robert Delaunay which was possibly one of the earliest pieces in the show. These ‘chapter headings’ with short curatorial explanations were brief but important introductions to each area and were not in any way intrusive or prescriptive. Each artwork was simply titled and since the catalogue and most of the information is in French I was left to ‘think visually’ and rely on my own perceptions, explorations and scant knowledge. Apart from the first and last sections each theme allowed for sympathetic juxtapositions of works from all decades, and often it was hard to guess which works were contemporary. This democratising timeless aspect of the show’s presentation cleverly highlighted the egalitarianism integral to a lot of this work and what is an on-going body of research and experimentation.
Serge Lemoine has chosen artists that he believes are some of the key figures in the development and experimentation of kinetic and light art. Another curator or scholar may suggest there are omissions, but whichever way there is undoubtedly a particular overall aesthetic and, crucially and unashamedly, a sense of design at play here. With regard to colour much of the work is monochromatic, elementary (in the De Stijl sense) or binary in nature, ie. black and white. This results in allowing individual works to visually breathe but also to interact with each other, prompting the viewer to compare and contrast throughout. A thrilling experience to be able to study so many different blacks and whites! Not to mention the subtle material changes in facture, texture and manufacture. Could you imagine, by side-lining the mechanical/electrical, a similar exhibition just about light and colour? And since light is colour or colour is light…The Hayward show barely nodded in that direction and there were no paintings! However, this show is actually punctuated with stunning examples of works which investigate the perceptual effects of colour. I was knocked out by the single extra large Josef Albers ‘Homage to the Square’ 1971 in four gradating reds. In the Concentric/Eccentric section Kenneth Noland’s powerful and transfixing Spring Cool 1961 was hung just around the corner from Julio Le Parc’s electric polychromatic Surface Couleur – Série 14-2E 1971 and Claude Tousignant’s deceptively simple dichromatic Transformateur 1965: paintings that need to be sensorially experienced and which, as with nearly everything in the show, reproduce badly in photographs. In the Interference section a little further on I spent a long time studying a pairing of a Richard Paul Lohse, the seminal painting 30 Vertical Systematic Colour Series in a Yellow Rhombic Form 1943-70 (see image below) and a Yaacov Agam, Double Métamorphose lll 1968-69, a complex multi-coloured relief made in oil on aluminium that changes as you move along it until, from an acute angle, it transforms into flat blocks of colour resembling the Lohse seen from head on. But of course the Lohse is anything but flat! It is, for sure, two-dimensional and a painting furthering the tradition of painting, but through a rigorous mathematical systematic approach it has achieved a magnificence of perceptual depth, movement and light play which, from a personal perspective, provides a catalyst for what the whole show is about: this without having to experiment with actual mechanically moving parts or actual light bulbs.
Lohse states in Lines of Development 1943-1984:
‘To obtain a new operative basis it was necessary to systematize the media so that they could form logical sequences and would permit a multiplicity of operations. The result: variability and extensibility.’
‘The colour series provides the law for formal expression, colour and form cancel each other out as opposites.’
‘The machine and the expression are developed at the same time, the method represents itself, it is the picture.’
Many of the works in Dynamo employ optical trickery: synthetic textiles, Perspex, polished surfaces, neon tubing and machinery to produce moiré effects, illusions, flickering, spinning, mirror distortions and moving shadows. There are headache inducing environments, walls of flashing lights and a coloured mist filled room in which you are unable to see anything beyond your own hand. In Tactile a range of sculptural pieces such as one of Lygia Clark’s Bichos 1969 and Siegfried Cremer’s o.T. 1960 depend on people to interact with them, move things around and make their own decisions. A small film is provided for each one showing this engagement in action. The ZERO group’s (Günther Uecker, Heinz Mack, Otto Piene) Lichtraum (Homage á Fontana) 1964 has been re-created: a grouping of strange spot lit, moving shadow forming sculptures.To give a glimpse of what they were about here is a Günther Uecker quote from a 1961 ZERO publication:
Technology as a medium of composition offers great possibilities in the formulation of aesthetic information. Since imitative values cannot arise here, originality is unimpaired. Thus the creative element in the phenomenon of movement is preserved. To render the development of a movement visible as a dynamic state is a significant action. It is not a matter of routine but fertile in its repetition, in its very monotony, like the experience of prayer. My objects constitute a spatial reality, a zone of light. I use the means of technology to overcome the personal gesture, to objectify, to create the conditions for freedom.
Early film works, predominantly experimental abstract animations from the 1920s, include Viking Eggeling’s Diagonal-Symphony 1921, one of the first time based explorations of the transformation of geometric form, which began as sequences of paintings on long scrolls of paper often fifteen meters long. There were others by Hans Richter and Walter Ruttman and a 76 minute long contemporary film piece by Florian and Mick Quistrebert Ex Futuro 2010 which consciously recreates, by using analogue equipment, the juddering low-tech nostalgic qualities of an early black and while film animation and appropriates the very geometric sequences and imagery in those Constructivist films just mentioned. The effect is surprisingly seductive and mesmerising.
Francois Morellet’s large aluminium Sphére-Trame 1989 was the centrepiece of The Grid section. Morellet’s initial interest in geometrical abstract forms in 1950 led him a few years later to research two-tone surfaces and the first superimposed patterns, painted or metallic, in order to explore retinal effects of alteration. In 1960, in Paris, he was a founding-member of GRAV (Groupe de Recherche d’Art Visuelle). He investigated kinetic perception – the different intensities and qualities of the rhythms of perception – by means of geometrical lattices or grids that determined vibrant chromatic surfaces and new graduations of colour. His journeys and explorations are echoed everywhere in the show. An earlier Morellet, a painting executed in impossibly fine lines in black oil paint on white in 1958, 4 Doubles Trames, Traits Minces 0°-22°5-45°-67°5, was the first ‘all over’ grid painting of this kind. Other artists in this section, such as Jeffrey Steele, are concerned with adhering to mathematical principles and systems as an on-going development of the Constructivist idea as it was expressed in post-war Britain. In their work systems are also used to explore concepts around psychological perception, implied movement, optical disturbance and illusion. – in the same breath it would be impossible not to mention some of the strongest and most interesting early Vasarely paintings placed thoughtfully throughout the whole exhibition. These, along with other works by Julio Le Parc, Milan Dobeś, Marina Apollonio, Luís Tomasello, Mario Ballocco, Vera Molnar, Ivan Picelj, Enrico Castellani and Walter Leblanc (I could go on), highlighted the fact that Bridget Riley was just one of so very many artists in the field of optical perception in two dimensions in the late 50s/early 60s and certainly no pioneer. Contemporary artists re-thinking and re-evaluating this field, such Philippe Decrauzat, Laurent Grasso, Évariste Richer and R.H. Quaytman were some of the highlights and I, for one, will be investigating further.
By way of a full stop, or a series of full stops, in Halo there is a marvellous placing together of Peter Sedgley’s truly pulsating Light Pulse 1968 and Ugo Rondinone’s equally pulsating ACHTUNDZWANZIGTERAUGUSTZWEITAUSENDUNDVIER 2004 in an ornate foyer area separated neatly by a huge black wrought iron gate, and which demonstrates the perfect curatorial decision here of dispensing with chronology. Getulio Alviani’s jewel-like polished steel Disco 1965, which precedes Jason Martin’s monochromes, Gerhard von Graevenitz’s Kinetisch Objekt mit Konkaver Ellipse 1972 and the spinning concentric rings of dots in Grande Disco Stroboscopio 1968 by the Italian group MID are fine examples of how simple yet functional, technological (and thereby mathematical), experiments with the two dimensional picture plane can produce remarkable clarity and focus.
Dynamo was on at the Grand Palais, Paris from 10th of April until the 22nd of July.