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.
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