I was recently invited to an all-day seminar on Concretism (and Post Concretism) at the City University of New York. I confess the term escaped me and at first I thought it meant sculpture made out of concrete. Picasso did some great work with it and my friend Cici has filled her garden with little cement men attached to rocks. Of course, I googled it and it turns out Concretism (and Post Concretism) were popular movements in South America in the late 1950s and early ‘60s. No wonder I had never heard of it: I was busy changing diapers at the time with three children under the age of five. I was lucky I remembered my own name, let alone the avant-garde movements of the art world.
I Googled the topic (how did we live before Google?) and discovered it was a bona fide movement that had nothing to do with cement but was a form of non-objective art, contemporary with Minimalism, hard-edge, color field, etc;, all those movements which did away with anything figurative in favor of complete abstraction. It was an art of shapes, lines and colors that grew out of earlier 20th century experiments in “pure” painting by Kandinsky, the Russian Constructivists and Suprematists and the de Stijl movement in Holland, new art for a new world order. The abstraction that appeared in the ‘50s came from a totally different place, one of political avoidance and safety; no message was the right message in an era when McCarthy terrorized the country, what could be safer than a grid of lines? It’s Brazilian counterpart, Concrete Art (according to Google) was able to flourish “because it held no political messages or incendiary material” (as opposed to the “propaganda” murals of Orozco or Diego Rivera.)
Meanwhile, in researching Concretism (and Post Concretism, an offshoot) I got the usual unintelligible artspeak. It has probably suffered in translation but what the hell does this statement outlining the difference between the two movements mean?
While Concretism built its art upon the basis of logic and objective knowledge with color, space, and form conveying universalism and objectivity, the Neo-Concrete artists saw colors, space and form as “not belonging to this or that artistic language, but to the living and indeterminate experience of man.” Monica Amor, 1959
It reminds me of an experience I had many years ago when the Whitney Museum had a branch in the Champion Paper building in Stamford. I went to hear a lecture by a prominent art historian. I forget what generally unintelligible topic it was, but one phrase stuck out as totally unfamiliar. He referred to something as “anarchic formalism,” an oxymoron I had never heard before. I waited until the clutch of sychophantic ladies finished telling him how wonderful he was (they hadn’t understood a word of his talk) and quietly went over and asked him what it meant. At least he had the decency to blush when he confessed that he had made it up because it “sounded good.” He figured no one in that audience of suburban boobs would know the difference.
And so Dear Reader, beware of art babble. If you don’t understand something, chances are the writer doesn’t understand it either. When I taught Art History, I used to begin my semester by asking the class to read a passage from their text. “What does it mean??” I would ask. No hands would go up. “Guess what?” I would say, “I don’t understand it either. The writer is just filling up the page.”