20th century, abstract expressionism, architecture, constructivism, contemporary, drawing, film, minimalism

Review: Modern Times – Responding to Chaos

April 24, 2010

Exhibition: Modern Times, De La Warr Pavilion, Bexhill-on-Sea, until June 13 2010

Somewhere between art and architecture sits a drawing by minimalist sculptor Fred Sandbeck. His pencil and chalk plan for a Zurich gallery construction hovers in mid air, reminding us of the Utopian potential of pictorial space.

The architectural role of this work would have come as no surprise to El Lissitzky. In the 1920s the Russian artist developed a mysterious term for such constructions of art. He called it Proun.

Given that eight lithographs by the inventor of Proun find their way into this show, the concept appears central to the fantastic selection of drawings here. If so, it is also central to the history of 20th century art proposed by curator Lutz Becker.

If that story begins with Lissitzky and Suprematism, it ends here with the minimalism of Sol Lewitt. By numbering the blocks in his Working Drawing (1996) he produces a piece of deadpan technical drawing, like a terse fullstop on all the preceeding “isms”.

The artist’s line, once a vehicle for representation and then abstract expression, now becomes fully realised as a means for drafting perfect structures in the mind’s eye.

Indeed, abstract expressionism here seems almost a folly. Willem De Kooning’s smudges, Franz Kline’s daubs and Robert Motherwell’s painterly blobs could be a vain rebellion against the spatial powers of the line.

But drawing too can represent chaos, rather than clarity. Night Celebration III by Mark Tobey is an even, methodical scribble which spreads across the surface of a sheet of card like cigarette smoke at a riotous party.

However, the lasting impression from this show is that less equals more. The works are largely monochrome. There are few figurative reference points. For every feat of excess there is a study in restraint.

You come away feeling that in art so much can be achieved with the simplest means. A case in point is Norman McClaren film Horizontal Lines, shown alongside moving image works by Fernand Léger, Hans Richter and Viking Eggeling.

The horizontal lines rise, fall and proliferate as if set in motion by an algorithm, but this is no dry exercise in geometry. The film is also a perfect narrative. It is high drama. Excitement runs thoughout this show like lead through a pencil.

Written for Culture24.

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