Historical Context

International Constructivism

Constructivist art has become a kind of umbrella term which has sheltered many artists since the early part of the 20th century. Just a few years after its inception a rift appeared between two of its important members, Tatlin and Malevich. The result was that while Tatlin led his faction towards functionalism, Malevich remained true to his original aesthetic motivation. There were several factors at work, but one not widely appreciated is that many of the ideas which had shaped the movement were not unique to Constructivism, and had originated elsewhere in the arts.

One example of this is the ’Machine Aesthetic’ which can be traced directly back to the Futurists, and another is the ‘spatial ambiguity’ content in the early work of Tatlin and Gabo which derives from Cubism. The conceptual attachment to non-figuration, which was a strong component in the Constructivist ideology, despite lapses and Gabo’s denial, was believed to be a means of revealing more profound truths about the world than that revealed by its mere physical appearance. This quasi-mystical belief received an unexpected impetus from the writings of Charles Biederman which were to have such a seminal influence upon most of the artists who formed the British Constructionist movement. But here too an inclination to associate itself with new discoveries in science or more specifically theoretical physics, was shared by other artists of different ideologies. An interesting attachment with figuration surfaced again in the 70’s when computers began to be used to manipulate visual imagery. It seemed that only when computers had shown themselves capable of depicting what Biederman would have called a ‘mimetic’ reality, did they seem free to embark upon their own destiny.

It could be argued that the revolution in theoretical physics in the early part of the C20th, Relativity and Quantum Mechanics, gave the Cubists the authority to take the world apart, and the Constructivists, in their own way, the licence to put it together again into a new and different reality.

When Constructivism re-emerged as a relatively coherent movement in England in c1950, it had an identity quite distinct from that which characterised the avant-garde Russian art, and for that reason became known as Constructionist art. While the artists involved in this movement felt able to discard some of the ideas of the Constructivists, they retained others. The exhibition ’Artist vs Machine’ in 1954 began to identify some of the components of the new ’aesthetic’, and this was followed in 1956 by the more ambitious ’This is Tomorrow’ at The Whitechapel Gallery, and included works by John Ernest, Anthony Hill, Kenneth and Mary Martin.

The ideological change that most succinctly distinguishes this revival was the importance placed upon the kind of physical object considered appropriate to articulate the expressive needs of this set of beliefs. As a result the constructed relief became paramount – even sacred.

Charles Biederman was the person directly responsible for this development. In his book Art as the Evolution of Visual Knowledge he presented an historical analysis designed to prove that the constructed relief was the only valid form open to the ‘new’ artist. This argument was so powerfully presented that it convinced almost everyone – only Kenneth Martin and Stephen Gilbert resisted Biederman’s views and it is for this reason that their work of this period displays much closer links with the original Constructivist tradition. But one belief which remained strong was that art should be inextricably bound up with science: that art and science should illuminate each other, inspire each other and together create important new insights. This much was accepted by Biederman but he enmeshed it in a quasi-scientific theory. His views, persuasive and powerfully expressed, had no lasting influence on the Constructionists in England, but the ideology linking art and science became a fundamental principle for members of the movement such as John Ernest, Anthony Hill and Kenneth Martin, who were interested in mathematical concepts such as mapping, group and number theory. The polymath D’Arcy Thompson’s book ‘On Growth and Form’ became popular reading for its graphic analyses of biological systems. These issues and others were well documented at the time in a series of ‘Statement’ pamphlets issued by the ICA.


While these developments were taking place in England others were materialising in Holland and Canada, where the Synthesist work of Joost Baljeu and the Structuralist work of Eli Bornstein adhered stylistically more closely to the work of Biederman. While keenly aware of his Constructivist antecedents, Baljeu had developed a credo of his own which attempted to combine the Platonism of de Stijl and the ideas of Charles Biederman. He founded a magazine, Structure*, which for a time became a focus in Europe of ideas of international constructivism. Between 1958 and 1964 it published articles and illustrated works by all engaged in this debate such as Joost Baljeu, Max Bill, Eli Bornstein, Carlos Cairoli, John Ernest, Karl Gerstner, Stephen Gilbert, Jean Gorin, Anthony Hill, Kenneth and Mary Martin, and Carel Visser, as well as younger constructionist artists such as Ad Dekkers, Colin Jones, Peter Lowe and Terry Pope. At about the same time, in Saskatchewan Canada, Eli Bornstein started the publication The Structurist, which, while containing more broadly based subject matter, became and remains an important forum for constructivist ideas and activities.

As well as these developments in England and Holland, in 1960 a number of French and South American artists in Paris formed Groupe de Recherche d’Art Visuel or GRAV. The group members, Gracia, Park, Morellet, Sobrino, Stein and Yvaral were formalised kineticists. They shared certain ideas with Baljeu such as connecting art with social function, but there was also other important content, most specifically dealing with ways of handling visual information that owed a lot to the work of Victor Vasarely. There were contacts during the 60’s between the members of GRAV and the English constructionists. Jean-Pierre Yvaral (Vasarely’s son) visited John Ernest, and some members of GRAV exhibited at the Lucy Milton Gallery in Notting Hill Gate.

Towards the end of the 1960’s, another group known as Systems appeared in England. It had some conceptual features in common with the constructionist tradition. The artists who made up the group, included Malcolm Hughes, Colin Jones, Michael Kidner, Peter Lowe, David Saunders, Jean Spencer and Jeffery Steele, and occasionally John Ernest and Gillian Wise Ciobotaru. They had a series of well documented exhibitions both in England and abroad, and were concerned not only with creating work using an external methodology or discipline, but also in the words of Malcolm Hughes ‘to make work that is capable of notation’. Many of the group’s aspirations were articulated by Stephen Bann, who also wrote the excellent introduction for the Arts Council exhibition ‘Constructive Context’, which in addition to most of the above artists included Allen, Dilworth, Ernest, Hill, Longson, Martin, Pope, Richardson-Jones, Tebby and Watts.

Some of the artists in the Constructive Context exhibition, who did not feel that Systems art presented their objectives accurately, exhibited independently. This culminated in the ‘Non Standard- Constructions’ exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in Oxford, and in the Gardner Centre Gallery, Sussex University, in 1980, showing the work of Tony Longson, John Law and Terry Pope. The title for the exhibition ’Non-Standard Constructions’ was suggested by John Ernest, and the catalogue introduction was written by Christopher Frith and Alistair Grieve.

While it has always been in the nature of groups to go through the processes of accretion and eventual dispersal, the central constructivist ideology remains, if at times rarefied, strangely intact.

to be continued.

*Structure: De Stijl Continued
The Journal Structure (1958-1964)
An Artists Debate
Jonneke Jobse
010 Publishers – Rotterdam
ISBN 90-6450-577-2