Visiting Rhythm & Geometry: Constructivist Art in Britain since 1951 at the Sainsbury Centre, brings a rush of pleasure at seeing artworks up close rather than on-screen or in reproduction. As you walk into the building, Rana Begum’s immersive Work No. 670, a large-scale brightly coloured steel mesh construction feels strangely ethereal and monumental. Walking through it, colours and grids mutate, creating the sensation of blurred forms glimpsed on a busy street captured in peripheral vision.
Downstairs in the lower ground galleries are over 120 Constructivist artworks, including sculpture, painting, works on paper, kinetic and early computer art. What is Constructivist art? Its roots lie in early 1900s Russia when radical artists Vladimir Tatlin and Alexander Rodchenko embraced industrial forms and materials to reflect revolutionary utopian ideals. Art was not solely for representing the world, it could shape and influence society. From this pivotal point, abstract art and design splintered into different international schools and traditions.
In the late 1930s to early 1940s, the short-term presence of leading emigré European abstract artists in Britain, including Naum Gabo, Piet Mondrian, László Moholy-Nagy and Walter Gropius, sparked the development of ‘Constructionism’ – an offshoot of Constructivism that grew after the War. With geometric forms and patterns, either derived from nature, or from systems generated artificially or by chance, Constructionist art offered a new lens through which to observe the world. Amid lingering austerity and rationing in early 1950s Britain, and increasing Cold War tension, abstract forms offered artists, designers and architects radical ways to rebuild and envision the world around them.
Rhythm & Geometry is grouped in distinct themes: Constructivist Art in Britain since 1951, Utopianism, Chance and Order, Movement and Participation, and Colour and Rhythm. You’re invited to spend time absorbing forms, colour, space and light in artworks by Kenneth Martin, Mary Martin, Victor Pasmore, Wilhelmina Barns-Graham, Anthony Hill and Mary Webb among many others. On show are artist groups including the Systems Group from the late 1960s, and Countervail, the all-women group established in the late 1980s to disrupt the perception that systems-based art was inherently a male practice. Movement and light animate the exhibition with Kenneth Martin’s constructed brass Screw Mobiles from 1953-67, Eric Snell’s mesmeric motorised sculpture, Cuneiform III (1978) and a rhythmically flashing light sculpture by Takis from his standing Signals series of the late 1960s.
Algorithms and coding, so part of today’s digital world, inform several works in the exhibition. A pioneer of early computer art, Hungarian artist Vera Molnár, made a series of computerised drawings, Twenty-Five Squares (1989), using an algorithm to explore and create grid formations at random. Contemporary works by Lubna Chowdhary, an artist known for her large-scale ceramic installations, re-work the Constructivist tradition. Made during the pandemic, are two works from her ‘Switch’ series – collaged compositions of painted stickers layered onto underlying grid formations on graph paper. Merging and dazzling hypnotically, they reference the act of ‘code switching’, a linguistic term used to describe the act of shifting between several different languages in one conversation. Considered in this context, Chowdhary’s works resonate like visual metaphors for the multiplicity of identities and languages embodied by contemporary diasporic communities.
Does Constructivist art run the risk of being too austere? I defy you not to smile and feel brilliantly zingy in front of Michael Tyzack’s 1967 painting, Nickel Yard. Other works were also originally conceived for audience participation. Look at Li Yuan-Chia’s Cosmic Point Multiple (1968), a white steel board on which magnetised white and red discs can be randomly moved; or Victor Vasarely’s Planetary Folklore Participants No. 1 (1969), a colourful grid of magnetised squares and circles offering endless rearrangements. The labels for both works advise ‘Please do not touch’ – it would have been a brilliant move to provide visitor-friendly versions of these to play with.
Rhythm & Geometry is a must-see exhibition. The diversity of artworks owes a huge debt to the legacy of Joyce and Michael Morris, two UEA alumni who bequeathed an impressive collection of over 200 artworks to the University in 1984. Equally, the energy and dedication of former and present academic staff, Veronica Sekules, Alastair Grieve and Calvin Winner, have ensured that Norwich is the home of an incredible collection of modern and contemporary abstract art.
Rhythm and Geometry: Constructivist art in Britain since 1951 is on show at the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts until 30th January. Tickets are free and available here.
About the Author
Chantal Condron teaches Art History at City Lit and the WEA in London and is public engagement curator at the Government Art Collection. Chantal wrote the first ever monograph on Danish abstract artist Peter Hedegaard and loves leading art tours for London Art Salon and across the UK. Chantal discovered Norwich in the late 1980s as a student at the University of East Anglia (UEA) and still thinks it’s the best place to study in the UK. Curator, teacher and writer, Chantal is on a mission – to engage people with modern and contemporary art.