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Learn more about Concrete Art

Vi ser tre abstrakte malerier i flere farger, på en hvit utstillingsvegg

Written by: Anette Basso

Foto: Dag Fosse / Kode

Geometric shapes and utopian ideals of a common visual language:

Gain some insights into concrete art before you visit the exhibition featuring nearly 100 works from Erling Neby's collection!

Visit the exhibition at Stenersen!

The term "concrete art" was introduced by the Dutch artist Theo van Doesburg in 1930.

He was a painter, architect, and theorist, as well as the founder of the Dutch De Stijl group, in which Piet Mondrian was a central member.

Concrete art is typically associated with Europe, during the interwar and postwar periods, and it also spread notably to Latin America.

Forsiden på et eldre magasin, med bokstavene AC

Forsiden og baksiden av magasinet Art Concret, designet av Theo van Doesburg og utgitt i Paris i april 1930. Inneholdt manifestet hans for konkret kunst. Foto: Wikimedia, Public Domain.

Art itself as the most important

Concrete art was not meant to refer to anything outside of the artwork itself: it should not represent anything or imitate a form from nature.

Concrete art should exclusively rely on the "plastic" elements of painting, such as color, line, and surface.

The visual language was thus restricted to universal geometric shapes, like circles, squares, and rhombuses.

The idea was that the artwork should constitute an independent and "concrete" reality - a thing in itself!

Concrete art had international ramifications and encompasses a diversity of positions and approaches.

In the extension of concrete art, we find, for example, kinetic art and op-art.

The conceptual content associated with the geometric formal language has evolved over time and varies among artists.

En person står foran to abstrakte fargerike malerier

Foto: Anette Basso / Kode

In the 1940s, the French painter Auguste Herbin developed his own image alphabet in which the letters from A to Z were represented through geometric shapes combined with musical notes and colors.

In the artwork on the left in the image above, we can see the word "BLANC," which means "white".

Concrete Art as utopia?

The movement served as the basis for a wide and international range of exhibitions, groups, and manifestos, both before and after World War II.

Central to this movement were utopian ideas about a universal and forward-looking art - an art that could be accessible to everyone.

After the horrors of the war, there was a strong desire to start anew and build a new global society.

Many artists were searching for a common visual language.

Geometric art could be a guarantee for art that was independent and free, serving no external purposes other than itself.

Concrete Art + Bauhaus

Several artists, such as Victor Vasarely, Josef Albers, and Max Bill, had connections to the German Bauhaus school and its ideals.

The Bauhaus school was founded in Weimar in 1919 by Walter Gropius and aimed to bridge society, architecture, art, and design, with collaboration as a significant value.

The school was shut down by the Nazis in 1933.

Et abstrakt bilde med kvadrater i oransje og gult

Josef Albers: Homage to the Square: Gay (1956). Olje på masonitt. ©The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation / BONO. Fra Erling Nebys samling.

Josef Albers (1888–1976) was a painter, graphic artist, and theorist. He was both a student and a teacher at Bauhaus. When the school was closed by the Nazis in 1933, he emigrated to the United States and continued his educational work at American universities.

Albers had a significant impact on the development of abstract painting in American art.

The image above is part of Albers' extensive project "Homage to the Square," in which he explores how colors affect each other.

Here, Albers paints the yellow and orange squares as if they are floating or vibrating on the canvas. Regarding the color yellow, Albers wrote that it can evoke a sense of warmth and light, symbolize joy and energy, but can be challenging to work with as it is very light-sensitive and changes significantly depending on other colors.

Concrete realism is what, instead of showing the thing, shows thoughts and emotions; what, instead of demonstrating thoughts and emotions, evokes thoughts and emotions; what, instead of gathering forms from the external world, creates a living reality.

Artist Olle Bærtling (1911-1981) on Concrete Art in 1956
En rekke abstrakte malerier som henger på en hvit utstillingsvegg

Foto: Dag Fosse / Kode

Swedish artist Olle Bærtling (1911–1981) developed a distinctive visual language characterized by a unique system of diagonal lines, bold contour lines, and synthetic colors.

From 1950 onwards, he regularly exhibited in Paris and was part of an international circle of concretists. Later on, he also turned his attention towards the emerging art scene in New York, where geometric abstraction was associated with Hard Edge painting.

The second artwork from the left in the image above is titled "IRGA." It's a word the artist created himself, and it has no specific meaning or reference.

The viewer was intended to have a direct and personal experience of the art, free from the influence of meanings or associations.

This ideal is also a key to his artistic language. The visual experience of the artwork should be pure and direct, devoid of any symbolic meaning.

From Concrete to Kinetic

How do we experience color and space?

With geometric-based art, a new interest emerged in how we perceive and process visual impressions.

Insights from gestalt and perceptual psychology, which emerged as a field roughly contemporaneously with concrete art, could be used artistically to create dynamic and "lively" images.

This interest reached its peak with optical and kinetic art, where ambiguous forms and motion are used as artistic tools.

Motion can be mechanical, with actual objects in motion, or as visual sensations in the viewer, created by optically stimulating forms, colors, materials, and textures.

When encountering kinetic art, we, as viewers, play a co-creative role through the very act of seeing.

Et bilde som viser et relieff med små knotter i tre, malt i hvitt

Sergio de Camargo: 286 A (Bemalt trerelieff / Painted wood, 1970). The Erling Neby Collection.

Several prominent figures in the kinetic art movement were Latin American artists based in Paris, such as Jesús Rafael Soto from Venezuela and Sérgio Camargo from Brazil.

The idea behind Camargo's reliefs, as seen here, is said to have originated from an apple:

When he cut half of an apple - and then made a cut at a new angle to carve out a piece of the apple to eat - he discovered how the two surfaces formed a very interesting interplay of light and shadow.

The episode with the apple made Camargo aware of how the refractions of light in an object depend on the surroundings. This experience served as the starting point for the first of a series of painted wood reliefs.

Et abstrakt maleri med geometriske former i mange farger

Gunnar S. Gundersen, Uten tittel, 1961. Olje på lerret. © Gunnar S. Gundersen/BONO. Fra Erling Nebys samling.

One of those who was interested in perceptual psychology was the Norwegian artist Gunnar S. Gundersen. He challenged the viewer's perception of depth, motion, and space in many of his artworks.

Gundersen was among the Nordic artists who visited Paris in the post-war period and were inspired by artists like Victor Vasarely and Jean Dewasne.

Gundersen himself played a crucial role in promoting concrete art in Norway.

Galerie Denise René

One important figure in promoting concrete art was the French gallerist Denise René.

Galerie Denise René in Paris attracted the largest group of post-war artists working on art as a concrete reality.

The gallery had a significant international reputation. In 1955, it organized the exhibition "Le Mouvement", which greatly contributed to the popularity of kinetic art.

Denise René also had significance for Erling Neby. He visited the gallery in his early years as an art collector in the 1970s.

The gallery represented many of the artists featured in the exhibition "The Square´s Heart", such as Auguste Herbin, Victor Vasarely, Jean Dewasne, Robert Jacobsen, Richard Mortensen, and Olle Bærtling.

This article is based on texts from the exhibition by curators Frode Sandvik and Karin Hellandsjø, as well as the audio guide provided by Torunn Myrva and Mette Bolkan.