Comments on: Conversations around Marlow Moss Abstract Critical is a not-for profit company aiming to establish a new critical context for all generations of artists involved with ambitious abstract art. Sun, 09 Nov 2014 17:23:33 +0000 hourly 1 By: Lucy Howarth Wed, 01 Oct 2014 09:56:15 +0000 This is a very interesting discussion and much of what has been said is of great concern to my forthcoming book on Moss -especially the issue of focussing on Moss as a singular figure (essentially the approach of the monograph) versus the arguably more historically accurate approach of contextualising her within the scene of which she was part. The former seems necessary for the elevation of the individual reputation of a typically neglected female artist, but perhaps leaves her vulnerable to being dismissed as a novelty. The latter, while necessary to secure a permanent place for Moss in future dialogue, fails to adequately celebrate her in the manner that is afforded to equivalent male artists.

Alan Fowler objects, legitimately, to Mondrian alone always being evoked in discussion of Moss; whilst I quite agree that other artists, particularly Vantongerloo and Bill, make more appropriate comparisons, it remains the fact that most people immediately make the Mondrian association, and so it needs to be addressed. This is especially true in this country right now in the wake of two major Mondrian exhibitions, at Tate Liverpool and the Turner Contemporary in Margate.

Further dangers of the monograph might include over-emphasis of the biographical. This is a common trope in writing on women artists. Focus on Moss’s personality, especially her radical gendered appearance in portrait photographs, might detract from consideration of her as an artist. The issue of letting her work speak for itself, which was very much Moss’s own approach (she wrote very little in terms of polemic) or contextualising her, was central to discussions at the various instituition venues of the touring display I have curated (Tate St Ives, the Jerwood Gallery Hastings, Leeds Art Gallery and now Tate Britain). Initially we found it appropriate to show the work alongside three large vitrines of archival material (letters, catalogues, photographs etc), in order to effectively introduce Moss to an unfamiliar audience and provide a ‘way-in’ for the sceptical. I am pleased with the decision to not include the archival material in the final display at Tate Britain; Moss’s work does not need justification. Maybe, as Andrew Bick suggests, this silence can also be understood as a rebuke.

The discourse here, and at events such as AGender, the conference at Leeds Art Gallery back in June, and Andrew Bick and Katrina Blannin’s fascinating exhibition at &Model, open up another potential danger in the reappraisal of Moss: that her work could be entirely co-opted by academic debate to illustrate theoretical positions. Some artist women feel that courting a feminist approach is a compromise, a relinquishing of something (what? integrity? authenticity?) in exchange for critical attention. The same transaction could be being made between Moss’s body of work and the post-modern critical lens presented at &Model. I however favour the view that the more angles Moss and her work are approached from, and the more voices that contribute to the discussion, the more undeniable she becomes, until eventually she won’t be left out of accounts of international constructivism or British modernism.

As for Sam Cornish’s ‘outrageous’ question, ‘who wants art about art’, this prompts me to think about Moss and countless other artists who work within established traditions, in Moss’s case constructivism (if her work is ‘about’ anything it is surely that), but in the case of Andrew Bick, Katrina Blannin and the other artists they showed in the &Model exhibition, maybe something else. Are any artists purely innovators? Is that even possible? Would it be art? How would we know?

The Marlow Moss display has now opened at Tate Britain and will be there until 22nd March 2015.

By: Katrina Sat, 06 Sep 2014 21:03:07 +0000 Thanks so much for this informative and important contribution Alan. We know that often ‘curatorial’ projects like these are never perfect but as intended the dialogue has been interesting – I have learnt a lot and it has given me new things to think about or investigate. One hopes to keep on learning about the whole evolution of constructivist art but also want to be able to appreciate, understand and enjoy the works in their own right away from their historical context. That’s where I started – by just spending time looking/analysing.

By: Sam Wed, 03 Sep 2014 05:50:34 +0000 I will reply to this soon, I promise. A busy week!

By: Alan Fowler Sun, 31 Aug 2014 14:29:53 +0000 There’s no great mystery as to why Marlow Moss is all but unknown in Britain. It results from her identity as an artist in the mainstream of European constructivism. and the British art establishment’s long-standing lack of interest in (and sometimes antagonism towards)the constructivist approach. Moss’s gender, sexual orientation and eccentricity probably also played a part on her return to Britain in 1940, but the broader reasons affect a whole range of artists across Europe (and South America) who have been largely ignored by the major public galleries and many art commentators in Britain.

The reasons are various. At times – including during the Cold War – there was a perception that constructivist art was politically contaminated by its association with communism. British art in the inter-war years was characterised by a hangover of post-impressionism, romantic expressionism, cautious experimentation with surrealism and landscape-oriented abstraction. Leading figures in the British art world, such as the Tate Director John Rothenstein, were unresponsive to all forms of abstraction. In the 1950s there was a reaction by artists such as Pasmore, and writers such as David Sylvester, against the domination of Paris – the artistic home of Moss and many other constructive artists and groups. And extending to the present day there has been an assumption in some quarters that rationality in art and the use of non-subjective mathematical and geometric systems produces dull or austere imagery. (A Guardian reviewer expressed surprise in 1971 that works by Lowe, Steele, Wise and others in the Systems Group’s Matrix exhibition generated visual pleasure by their ” clean elegance”.

Given these attitudes it is not surprising that the generality of the British art-going public know little about Moss, vantongerloo, Bill or dozens of other constructivist artists. The Tate collection holds just three works by Moss (rarely shown), two Vantongerloos, one van Doesberg and none by Bill, Taueber-Arp, Stazewski, Kobro or Freundlich, to mention only a few. There are no museums in Britain where constructive art can be studied, as it can be at the Haus Konstructiv in Zurich or the museum at Wurzburg with its superb collection of post-1945 constructive art by 171 artists from 22 countries. There are no art publications in Britain which provide a forum for relevant information and discussion, like KunstKonkret in Germany. Exhibitions showing work by systems-based artists have been far fewer here than on mainland Europe. For example, between 1980 and 2000 Lowe’s work was in 34 shows across mainland Europe but only seven in Britain. And the exhibition I curated at Southampton City Art Gallery in 2008 with 60 works by 19 British artists – A Rational Aesthetic – was the first show of constructive abstraction of any size since the Arts Council’s Constructive Context exhibition 30 years earlier.

Andrew and Katrina are to applauded for what they are now doing as contemporary artists to generate interest in an aspect of abstraction which has been so comprehensively ignored in Britain, but which can still provide a stimulus for artistic explorartion and development. But as a enthusiastic viewer of constructivist art, I feel that a knowledge of its whole historic evolution contributes more to a full appreciation than an approach which tends to cast Moss alone as an overlooked artist. That said, I hope the transfer of Lucy Howarth’s Moss exhibition from Leeds to Tate Britain later this month will trigger the wider interest this aspect of abstraction deserves.

By: Andrew Bick and Katrina Blannin Fri, 29 Aug 2014 11:30:48 +0000 It is hard to say whether investigating British, European and South American concrete or constructivist art can be separated from making work. Both of us are interested in a lot of aspects of art history and its relationship to contemporary art – in that sense one thing leads to another and the belief that life as an artist involves many more kinds of engagement than what goes on in the studio is at the core of what this project was about. The dialogue and the learning on the way has to be part of the process – not the backdrop. Conversations with artists such as Jeffrey Steele mean time spent discussing Matisse, Kirchner or Donald Judd as often as ideas about ‘principles’ or the ‘rational’. Jeffrey has been open-minded, immensely knowledgeable and generous spirited, and talking with older artists in this way is not only mutually sustaining, but also important for the future. Artists like Lowe, Saunders, Spencer and Steele (just to mention some included in the exhibition) are particularly inspirational in their ‘approach’, which we have both come to realise is endlessly experimental and generative rather than an ideological and practical ‘closed circuit’. And this aspect is crucial; there are too many misconceptions about this work that get lazily perpetuated, just because it has a system or a pre-planned methodology doesn’t automatically mean that it is strict or boring, merely strategic, or the source of an academicised form of “neo concrete”. There are no ‘certainties’ for the original groups of artists… Yes a ‘bid for the rational’, perhaps a search for ‘internal logic’, but what is revealed when one actually spends time with this work is an immediacy and tactility that finds a beautiful way of unfolding visually.

How might that reflect on new work? You can never really know how an artwork will look when you begin – you set yourself a proposition and you want to see how it will work out. You improve the method, deviate, analyse, reflect, play… Neither of us has a position that is about furthering a ‘tradition’, nor a ‘continuation’ in the way that we think Sam means. That would be pompous, and would invite the dreaded idea of direct ‘comparison’ argued against by Cath Ferguson in the essay Katrina mentions. We both recognise that there is a lot of prejudice against all things ‘concrete’ in this country, and see it often in the comments on this site, and because of this we just want to open up engaged debate and address our collective ignorance. Sam makes some interesting points, but that final question is outrageous! Surely, all art has to be partially, if not wholly, about art today (whether through discourse or practice) and Abstract Critical is testament to that.

It would also be a mistake to think that this exhibition and its relationship to the work of Marlow Moss is not about finding ways of “seeing past the muddle”. Making things visible, with all of the divergence this involves, is a vital first step in having a visual exchange about what happens next; an inevitable part of including current work is that doubt, hesitancy and a certain amount of playfulness has to be incorporated into its making and therefore affects the ways we end up looking at and discussing the earlier art that has been placed in the same context. Too much is at stake not to acknowledge that doubt and scepticism, inherent in the lack of attention given to most visual art by the world at large, must become part of addressing this art to the present and its own past simultaneously; for concrete art, of course, it is an undervalued past. In these terms Alan Fowler’s points are valid, but don’t help deal with the question as to why Marlow Moss is still so under known in the UK. Max Bill and Vantongerloo can’t help her with a British public any more than they can help the same public appreciate a Jean Spencer or a Jeffrey Steele and for this reason what we are doing is not art history, but another form of engagement.

This engagement, for want of a better name, (interviews we have both made with Jeffrey Steel and David Saunders, conversation with Gillian Wise, Anthony Hill, Peter Lowe, curated exhibitions of their work and so on) we see as part of a critical and social responsibility. But it is not pedantic or academic, includes plenty of cheerful disagreement as well as the patient need to point out the contradictions between the various protagonists stated intentions; not as a flaw, but as an ongoing aspect of their vitality. If everyone got out more (and saw more exhibitions) perhaps the level of real attention to the artworks in question would generate a stronger debate. A major Sophie Taueber Arp retrospective has just opened at Aargauer Kunsthaus, we should all go and see it and then work collectively towards getting Marlow Moss, Gillian Wise and Jean Spencer treated in the same way. Perhaps Abstract Critical could pay for the flights?

By: Patrick Morrissey Thu, 28 Aug 2014 05:21:38 +0000 Myself and Hanz Hancock curated a show at And Model gallery in Leeds in January of this year, called ‘Crossing Lines’which was a survey or overview of UK artists work, namely constructivist, systems and related areas of activity which arguably addressed this very debate.

By: Julia Wed, 27 Aug 2014 09:15:47 +0000 In January this year I visited the Crossing Lines exhibition at & Model Gallery in Leeds. This was an overview of formal abstraction, comprising many artists’ work, with an emphasis on geometric, systems and constructivist works. In terms of the current debate on constructivism, it gave a very interesting insight into the direction and development of this practice in the UK. I saw two reviews: and

By: Alan Fowler Fri, 22 Aug 2014 15:19:07 +0000 In discussing Moss, Katrina says that “many of us did not know who she was”. But this lack of knowledge of just one artist is indicative of the much more extensive blindness of the British art establishment to the whole spectrum of European constructivism. It is not just Moss who has been ignored : much the same could be said about many of her contemporaries, such as Taueber-Arp, Vordemberge-Gildewart, Kobro and many others.
In the 1930s Moss was a respected and active member of Abstraction-Creation – the movement of which she was a founding member. She was one of only ten artists, along with Gorin, Herbin and Moholy-Nagy, whose works were illustrated in all five of the movement’s annual cahiers. Her significance in British art history was recognised by the Swiss art historian, Willy Rotzler, who described her as “the woman who made Britain’s most compact contribution to constructive art” – a position followed in the 1950s and beyond by Mary Martin, Jean Spencer and Gillian Wise.
By concentrating entirely on Moss’s relationship with Mondrian, and omitting any reference to constructivism, Katrina and Andrew miss the critical impact of her friendships with Max Bill and Georges Vantongerloo. These had as much, if not more significance than her contacts with Mondrian, and both these artists have greater relevance than Mondrian to the art practice of others in the Leeds exhibition such as Peter Lowe and Jeffrey Steele. Bill, like Moss and later Hill and most Systems artists, used mathematics and calculation in a structuring process, while Mondrian used improvisory trial and error. Vantongerloo – the De Stijl master of orthogonal, hard-edged geometric abstraction, was Moss’s closest friend as a fellow artist, and in frerquent conversations they shared the same aesthetic.
Andrew rightly points out major differences between Moss and Mondrian, but he overlooks her relationship and consonance with Bill and Vantongerloo, and her integral place within the European constructive movement as a whole. This seems to lead him to consider her as a unique, solitary figure and as “an overlooked protagonist for conversations that never happened” (whatever that means). The hard fact is that as a constructivist she was far from being alone in being ignored in Britain, and any consideration of her artistic legacy is best be set within a much wider examination of the very limited interest and involvement- if not antagonism – of the British art establishment in and towards the constructivist tradition.

By: Sam Fri, 22 Aug 2014 09:46:05 +0000 Reading between the lines, and perhaps going on hints I have picked up elsewhere and in their work, it seems to me that Katrina and Andrew have quite different attitudes to the relation of their work to the recent past. I wonder if they would agree?

Both obviously share a fascination with a somewhat neglected strain of British abstract art and feel that it deserves to be reinvestigated, brought into light. However Katrina’s interest seems more straightforward: she says, even if slightly guardedly – “I still think that the idea of a ‘rational aesthetic’ is a tricky one, though very much alive…” She wants it seems to make work which is a continuation of the Systems & Constructivist aesthetic-ethic. The subject / content of her work are the geometric patterns and mathematical progressions which formed – still forms – the subject-content of the work of Steele, Lowe etc. Doubts as to the validity of this position – almost an instinctive reaction within recent art training – are kept outside the work, and her historical project is a natural consequence of her fellow feeling.

Andrew on the contrary brings these doubts into his art. Though he must have a visual attraction to the work, the subject-content of his paintings is not the geometric patterns and mathematical progressions of the earlier generation; rather it is a highly self-conscious laying out of a position in relation to this subject-content; one which questions its seeming certainties, suggests an unbridgeable gulf between the time they sprung from and the one we exist in (etc, etc).

Andrew says: “Arguably we are still in muddled dialogue with the things Modernism represents and in the UK this means that the stalled and chequered nature of that conversation has an important effect on what contemporary art means and how it operates.”

From what I can tell Katrina wants to see past the muddle; Andrew does not: if there was no muddle, or if a muddle could not be convincingly proposed, his art could not exist. I cannot share Katrina’s faith, but – assuming the above is at least partially correct – I respect her position more. Andrew’s seems to be quintessentially academic in the way it feeds off the rules and regulations other artists have established. If I was being optimistic about the present situation I would say that his art itself seems like a moment in the past, in which abstraction could only be approached through clearly signalled quotation and irony (which I accept is not sneering, but that does not completely let it off the hook) – to me, a generation again on, these doubts seem posed, an art-making convention, rather than a living tension. Ultimately who wants art about art?