1a Structuralism: slides

Contemporary Art Slides – Captions:

US artist Donald (Don) Judd (1928-1994) became the de facto head of the Minimalist school, after creating the groundwork critically whilst a writer on the New Art Examiner magazine. His bold, terse prose transformed itself into his characteristic, pure, industrial-looking, geometric, serial productions, firstly in painting, using only one colour, cadmium red pale, and then in sculptural works which define the emblematic Minimalist work such as the “Untitled (Five part Structure)” illustrated.  Uncompromising, using materials pure in colour and surface quality, comprising pure geometric forms, whose structure is self-evident.   The ambition of the work eventually grew to take over a whole town Marfa in Texas, where he established his studio, an art colony – the Cinati Foundation – for artists he admired.

In Sol Le Witt’s (1928-2007) work the elements and processes which make up the final work are exposed as part of the work.

Here a three dimensional mathematical figure – a cube 3 x 3 x 3 squares – with a vertical perforation of I x 3 squares is shown in all its constituent elements so that the absolute (Platonic) version is graspable by the intellect in a way which would be less clear than to the eyes alone.  He forms part of the Minimalist Art group.

Sol Le Witt’s “Wall drawings” combine basic geometrical figures: squares, triangles, circles, rhomboids etc., with evenly spaced rows of stripes, painted in elementary and secondary colours (the fundamental bases of all art). A fundamental feature is that these are not painted by Le Witt, but by skilled technicians, following his written instructions, as an engineer would manufacture a product following a blueprint.  The artist does not need to be present at the execution of the work because the work was fully realised (Platonically) in the imagination of the artist.

Italian artist Alberto Burri (1915-1995) began making abstract compositions whilst a prisoner of war after the Second World War, from the basic materials he found around the camp – old sacks, bits of packing crate, tarpaulins, boxes etc.  His aesthetic does not require specialised art materials, but seeks to find beauty and impose order on the raw materials he selects. Art is always formed by aesthetic selection and the arrangement of materials by a sensitive intellect, and Burri just makes this clear.  He later formed part of critic Germano Celant’s “Arte Povera” (‘Poor Art’) group of like-minded artists.

Like the Minimalists, Burri has a preference for the square format – a pure mathematical/Platonic form, and his materials, in this case sheet metal, are usually not interfered with too much (shaped or painted) – but left to show their natural qualities and states.

English artist Gillian Wise-Ciobataru (1936-2020) was an early pioneer of abstraction and System-based painting in the UK, later, a Fellow at MIT Centre for Advanced Visual Studies. Part of the British Constructivist Group who followed the ideas of the Russian Constructivists, El Liszitsky, Rodchenko and others, that art can/should be made following extra-personal, logical and mathematical rules rather than individual subjective expression.

French Conceptual artist Daniel Buren (b.1938) developed his custom ‘signature’ stripes in 1965 whilst at the Grapetree Bay Hotel on the Caribbean island of Saint Croix, where he was contracted to make frescoes. He abandoned traditional painting for the 8.7 cm-wide vertical stripes, alternating between white and one other colour, (from a simple range of pink, blue, yellow, black), derived from beach-side deck-chair fabric.  He ‘posted’, without permission,  fragments of these paintings, poster-sized- around the streets and Metro of Paris as a kind of urban guerrilla art, and has been using this format ever since.

US Minimalist and Performance artist Vito Acconci (1942-2017) worked across installation, architecture, photography, video, text, sculpture, land art and body art. His work follows a Conceptual, Process and Performative logic: the works use Minimalist, pure/simple forms, repetitive/geometrical/mathematical structures/arrangements, and a concern for the physical/bodily experience – following someone at random.

Canadian born artist Angela Bulloch (b.1966) forms part of the YBA (Young British Artists) Group that includes Tracy Emin and Damien Hirst. Her work is often playful and concerned with sound and light installations made from arrangements of sculptural or geometrical elements (squares/cubes) which involve an interactive aspect with the audience, as viewers move around the installation, activating sensors, lights and sounds. She was nominated for the Turner Prize in 1997.

UK Conceptual artist and writer Victor Burgin (b.1941) employs semiotics and photography in his diagrammatic work to explore relations of power and gender in society. The photograph on the right, enacts the (potentially threatening) graphic on the left. A solitary female office worker, approaches a half-open door, at night in an apparently empty office building. Who is behind the door, and is it safe to enter?

“The Office” (above) compares on Edward Hopper’s painting (projected in the background) with her modern re-enactment (right) and the structural analysis of Boss/worker and Office/box on the left.

The leader of the “YBA” Group, UK Conceptual artist Damien Hirst (b.1965) studied at Goldsmiths’ College in London before becoming an artist/curator, responsible with Carl Freeman for launching the YBA group in a series of unconventional exhibitions sited in disused properties around London (Freeze, Modern Medicine, In and Out of Love, Minky Manky etc). He was nominated for the Turner Prize in 1992. The UK’s richest artist, he broke auction records  in June 2007, when “Lullaby Spring” (Illustrated) a 3-metre-wide steel cabinet with 6,136 pills sold for 19.2 million dollars to Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani,  the Emir of Qatar.

US Realist artist Edward Hopper (1882-1967) is noted for his carefully composed and brightly illuminated scenes of America in the 1930s – 60s.  Behind these disarmingly simple depictions, lies a concern for structure, both pictorial and social, reflecting the isolation and loneliness present in  modern urban life.

Greek-born Italian artist Jannis Kounellis (1936-2017) formed part of the Italian Arte Povera Group gathered by critic Germano Celant in the 1960s. Another trend in post-war Italian art, under Giuseppe Capogrossi and others, concerned itself with the elementary signifying factor of ‘the sign’ – Here, the painting becomes an arena for the interplay of a proto-linguistic calculation, awaiting our interpretation..It suggests an elementary communication or self-referential structure as in Le Witt’s work..

UK Abstract painter, Prunella Clough (1919-1999) created abstract paintings out of representations of found plastic objects which she gathered and grouped together into compositions which sometimes seem to echo Kandinsky’s later abstract work.  The depicted objects loose their function as representations and take on a new function as components of a new abstract composition.

UK painter Howard Hodgkin (1932-2017) developed a highly personal abstract-representational style derived from Indian miniatures, Analytic and rococo Cubism, US geometrical abstraction, Vuillard and Matisse, to depict Intimist interiors where the references to specific people and objects have all but disappeared to become integral elements of a new semi-abstract amalgam. The painter insisted though, that they were ‘always depictions’ of real events, in what is the most purely linguistic type of painting.

The painting above is from Hodgkin’s early period, when the figurative representations, here, of his friends the painters Anthony Hill and Gillian Wise (Ciobataru). Are still fairly recognisable.  In his later work, the abstract improvistaion, (already to be seen in the all-over pattern which is beginning to obliterate the interior space of the room), spreads to the whole painting, like a jazz improvisation upon a theme.  It never quite, however,  becomes, ‘purely abstract’. Hodgkin represented Britain at the 1985 Venice Biennale and won the Turner Prize in that year.

Canadian/UK painter Lisa Milroy (b.1959) is known for her depictions, in a flat figurative style deriving from Manet, of everyday objects, gathered according to typologies and arranged in rows against a flat background like a Museum vitrine or a shop window display. The work suggests mass-production, repetitiveness, commodification and a quest for order and control prevalent in society at large.

There are many more examples of contemporary artists whose work can be illuminated by the insights of Structuralism. Some more will be discussed in the following lectures.