Geometries of a New World

One of the most well known works of Magdalena Fernández, 1pm006 (Ara ararauna) (2006), is exhibited in the Muzeum Sztuki (Museum of Art) in Łódż, next door to the Neoplastic Room designed by Władysław Strzemiński in 1948. For anyone who knows both of these installations, the fact that they are displayed side-by-side will be no surprise. Strzemiński, one of the leading figures in Eastern European constructivism, designed an exhibition hall in the Łódż Museum, joining together an aesthetic that drew on one side from the ideas of Russian constructivism, and on the other side from Bauhaus and Neoplasticism. Fernández's abstract video, in turn, immediately evokes an association with the painting of Piet Mondrian, creator of Neoplasticism. Geometricism, rigorous horizontal and vertical divisions, broad planes of solid color—these formal features connect the project of the Polish avant-gardists with that of one of the most important contemporary Venezuelan artists.

However, it is not for their formal similarities—or at least not exclusively so—that it was determined that 1pm006 (Ara ararauna) should find itself neighboring the Neoplastic Room. Nor is it for their formal similarities—or at least not exclusively so—that the relationship between these neighbors is potentially so significant. The formal similarity is a mere expression of a more complex analogy between these two works that are so historically and geographically distant from each other. Their placement offers a chance to uncover such an analogy, while simultaneously opening the possibility of recontextualizing Strzemiński's work, no less than Fernández's. In the latter case, it also enables a review of the relationships that connect her art with modernism and with modernity more broadly. Recognizing the nature of this relationship is undoubtedly the key to understanding the work of this artist and her approach.

It is understood—and the grounding of this assumption seems to be found in the artist’s own statements—that Fernández's work is a critique of modernism. Her use of an aesthetic developed by the modernist avant-garde, above all that of a Constructivist provenance, is supposed to have a subversive character that serves to unmask the limits and claims of modernism. Modernism is here understood as a manifestation of rationalism and a belief in technological progress, as the arrival of a scientific organization of human reality, of a grasp of the full complexity of life in a permanent system of norms finding its grounding in the domain of universal truths and artistic expression—in a grid of geometric divisions. The rationalism of modernism, so understood, operates on the Cartesian division between the subject's mind—“disembodied consciousness”—and the imagined world, a division that finds an artistic counterpart in the opposition between the viewer and the work as well as in contemplation as a form of aesthetic experience.

Fernández's work essentially appears to be the polar opposite of modernism thus understood. It stands on the side of the sensuous, emotional, temporary, ephemeral, and particular. The rigor of abstract geometric structures, borrowed from the lexicon of the great modernists, clashes in her work with the concreteness of the world of nature: the shrieks of birds, the croaking of frogs, the surge of the water’s surface, the blinding flash of lightning. This clash is sometimes interpreted as a process serving to reveal the arbitrariness of the Modernist order, the appearance of its universal motivations, and above all, its disproportion in relation to the complexity of real life and the richness of human experience. According to other, less confrontational interpretations, we are dealing here not only with demystification but correction: the rationalism and essentialism of modernism is completed with the existential and phenomenological worldview, whereby the hidden deep structures are not all that matters; so, too, do sensuous surface appearances and those in which knowledge is not restricted to episteme, but depends on engagement with the world. The multisensory character and interactivity of Fernández ’s work, demanding more of the viewer than pure visual perception, would, in this perspective, be a polemic against modernist optocentrism and with it the Cartesian understanding that grasps the subject as separate from the world of the observer.

Such an understanding of Fernández's work is certainly not without relevance. I would propose, however, that we consider it not as anti-modernism or as a postmodern correction of modernism, but as its own vindication of modernism, or more precisely as an attempt to render the dialectical character of modernity in material form.

With this in mind, let us return to the video mentioned at the beginning, 1pm006 (Ara ararauna). As stated above, compositionally this video evokes the painting of Piet Mondrian, especially his extremely simplified images from the 1920s and '30s. Fernández's work distinguishes itself from them only diverging from time to time in its somewhat different coloration. Instead of the triad of primary colors—red, yellow, and blue—she uses a triad of blue, yellow, and green. There is also the animation of the static composition: abstract divisions from time to time undergo deformation under the influence of sounds coming from outside the frame. These sounds are the shrieks of the titular Ara ararauna, the blue-and-yellow macaw, parrots common to the Caracas region—their plumage being connected to the coloration of the composition.

1pm006 (Ara ararauna) is not the only work by Fernández that evokes the work of Piet Mondrian. Three years later, she produced the monumental multichannel video installation, 2iPM009, a variation on the theme of the Dutch painter's earlier abstractions, especially those from the Pier and Ocean series he made in 1914-15. Characteristic for their composition, short vertical and horizontal sections intersecting at right angles are set in motion by Fernández, and transformed into a representation suggestive of a tropical downpour. The artist heightens this suggestion by synchronizing the animated image with the more and more intensive (artificially generated) sound of falling raindrops, and ringing out in a thunderous finale.

One can get the impression that with 1pm006 (Ara ararauna) as much as 2iPM009, the Venezuelan artist stands Mondrian’s principle of Neoplasticism on its head. Mondrian was interested in art's devotion to that which is elementary and general, which establishes the irreducible essence of reality, its hidden structure. In the arduous process of abstraction he passed from the painting of synthetic landscapes through geometrized compositions allusively referring to real views, to raw, minimalist abstractions based on rigorous “rhythms of relationships, colors, and shapes.” This rhythm, he writes, “makes possible the appearance of that which is absolute in the relativity of time and space,”1 adding, “Neoplasticism is the demonstration of strict order.”2 Fernández opposes the process of abstracting from nature with what critics describe as a process of “naturalizing abstraction:” she mixes the strict geometries generated by Mondrian in devotion to absolute order, with elements derived from the world of natural phenomena. Further still, she forces the abstract code to represent them. The Venezuelan artist is inclined not so much toward an interest in hidden structures, as in the shimmering and sensuous surface; not the higher universe and eternal order, but rather a concrete valley in Caracas, flooded with tropical rain. At first glance, nothing seems further from Mondrian’s idea of abstraction.

But there is also Mondrian’s art painted in New York, during the last years of the artist’s life: Broadway Boogie Woogie (1942–43) and Victory Boogie Woogie (1942–44). On the one hand, these images implement the earlier principles of Neoplasticism, but on the other they lead one to conclusions that show another way of viewing the meaning of abstraction in Mondrian's work. With regard to the construction of the image, not much has changed: the surface of the canvas is still divided by vertical and horizontal lines in a regular geometric plane. Whereas the earlier images were divided by black lines, the New York images were made with short, multicolored sections. The raw drawing of black vertical and horizontal lines should be the purest representation of the fundamental determining relations with absolute harmony. Much more so than to the reality of the absolute, the dense grid of multicolored lines alludes to the grid of the streets in Manhattan, pulsing with neon lights and automobile reflectors. The titles themselves lead us to understand that it is not about the mental but the sensual perception of the world, and that geometry does not refer so much to some pre-established harmony, but to the real organization of modern life in a city vibrating to the rhythm of syncopated jazz.

Neither Broadway Boogie Woogie nor Victory Boogie Woogie constitutes a direct inspiration for Fernández's work. Moreover, they are usually seen as a denial of Mondrian’s earlier experiments in painting, referred to in 1pm006 (Ara ararauna) and 2iPM009. Is this, however, the only way to see them? The essay “Natural Reality and Abstract Reality,” written in 1919-20, may suggest a different perspective.3 In this text, written in the form of a dialogue between a naturalist painter, an admirer of art, and the representative of Neoplasticism, Mondrian allows us to understand that his theory of abstraction as the pure representation of the universal, is born from the strong experience of nature. According to this, there is no greater difference between the naturalist and the abstract painter. They both arrive at a given essence: ideal relationships establishing the greatest harmony. Naturalism does this, however, in a mediated way, and abstraction in an immediate manner. Although Mondrian sides with abstraction, this does not mean that he disregards the material surface of things in a Platonic sense. Neoplasticism should be an expression of the unity and harmony of the material (nature) with the spirit. He writes, “In the life of a society, the balance of the value of that which pertains to matter and that which concerns the spirit, may create a harmony that surpasses all that is previously known.”4

This is why, in Mondrian’s later images, one does not necessarily discover a denial of his earlier principles, but rather their dialectical evolution. The transcendental reduction, which, in search of an adequate of expression of absolute order, had led him to maximally simplified forms, was now being incorporated into a process of synthesis, in which images being the result of the speculative work of the intellect are combined with sensually given data, creating a new whole of a higher order. It is possible to conclude that in the New York works, Mondrian synthesized two experiences of modernity. The first, shared with other Europeans, was the experience of the crisis of the old order and chaos culminating in the horror of the First World War. Out of that experience was born a need to establish a new order based on rationality, overcoming the dark, irrational forces of the past. The second experience of modernity would be connected with Mondrian’s move to New York and finding himself in the world of modernity actualized. The earlier geometric order extracted with effort from observed reality, is imposed here in the figure of the visible data of urban and architectural structures. Likewise, that which seemed to be an image of the Apollinian absolute, unmovable and eternal here revealed its Dionysian sensuousness as a manifestation of life full of momentum and change.

Both of these experiences of modernity make their imprint equally in Fernández's geometry. On the one hand, the memory of modernization's ambitions and the efforts of previous generations is inscribed in it: Fernández alludes to them, exposing in her work the relevance of the great modernists like Malevich, Torres-García, but also Soto and Otero. On the other hand, it is a representation of the realia in which the artist lives. These realia are rather contemporary Venezuela, her hometown of Caracas, developing in the lush tropical surroundings of nature a modern city filled with monumental examples of architectural and urban modernism. This is a world in which geometrical structures are as material as the tropical raindrops or the screeches of parrots. This is a world of modernity fulfilled, but at the same time a denial of the dream that drove it—a dream of a better life, wellbeing, harmony, and justice.

The geometrical forms present in Fernández's works constitute both a symbolization of the utopian goals of modernism to the establishment (or discovery) of an ideal order, and a concrete manifestation of its factual instantiations. Their coexistence with natural sounds may thereby be a suggestion that for the artist, the ontic status of one is comparable to the other. They are not constructions of a speculative mind, but things in the world. Creating extensive multisensory installations with them, Fernández would compel us not only to surrender to their contemplation, but also to feel their bodily impact, their physical presence.

In this oscillation between representation and thing, Fernández’s geometry undoubtedly crosses the line of Mondrian’s modernism. It approaches, rather, the modernism of Władysław Strzemiński, the specific location of which Yves-Alain Bois attempts to describe with the use of the concept of the entre-deux.5 According to Bois, the artistic program that Strzemiński developed with his wife, the constructivist sculptor Katarzyna Kobro, is located between (entre-deux) Mondrian’s own recognition -and that presented by Malevich-, of the work as a matrix or a metaphor of ideal order and the recognition -found in the writings of Clement Greenberg- of the work as a material thing, a thing that does not refer to anything outside of itself. In one of his theoretical writings, Strzemiński notes, “The artistic work does not express anything. The work of art is not a sign of anything. It is (exists only in itself).”6 The task of the artist consists, in his opinion, in the construction of a picture (and by analogy, sculpture or architecture), based only on that which belongs essentially to that art form, and is in agreement with its internal laws. At the same time, however, Strzemiński argues that results produced in the laboratory of pure form have to establish a model for rational methods of organizing living space. “Abstract art,” as he declared in the passage cited by Bois, “comprises the terrain of laboratory experiments in the field of form. The results of these experiments come into being as indispensable ingredients of everyday life.”7

The Neoplastic Room, mentioned at the beginning of the text, constitutes a good but late example of the practical application of this thought. Geometric rhythmicization of both the divisions and colorful planes that create it recalls, of course, Mondrian’s visualization of an ideal order, however their fundamental goal is the organization of the real movement of the human body in space. In accordance with that, which is formulated in the treatise written by Strzemiński and Kobro at the end of the 1920s, “The composition of space. The calculation of spatio-temporal rhythm,” architecture constitutes merely a “sheath, directing the movements of people within it,” and defining “the spatio-temporal rhythm of the person who accomplishes this or that function in life.”8 The Neoplastic Room—like Fernández ’s installation more than half a century later—has inscribed in its very structure the corporeal presence of the active viewer. “It is not the absolute eye,” as another researcher of Kobro and Strzemiński's work has observed, “but the embodied person and his ‘activity in space’ that begins to determine divisions, alterations, sequences.”9

In spite of the aforementioned analogy, clearly, no factual connection exists between the work of Strzemiński and Fernández. Such analogies, however, encourage us toward a position entre-deux, as a Polish constructivist takes “within” modern art—and, one might add, Piet Mondrian within abstract painting—referring as well to a position that the Venezuelan artist takes “against” the tradition of modern art. Entre-deux in the case of Strzemiński signifies the dialectical confrontation between different modernist conceptions: the conception of the picture as a metaphor for ideal order, with the conception of the picture as a thing in the world, and also formalism with the idea of art understood as an instrument for the organization of living space. In Fernández's case entre-deux may rather signify the dialectic of the use of the geometric code of modernist abstraction: on the one hand subjecting it to critique as the expression of the endeavor to establish a universal order, on the other exploiting it as a kind of “readymade,” something that comes from the real world that has been radically changed by modernity. This dialectic does not lead to any new synthesis, but permits a renewal and carries the question of modernity's place in the contemporary world to another level.

Translated by David A. Goldfarb

1 Piet Mondrian Neoplastycyzm w malarstwie” (1917), in Artyści o sztuce: Od Van Gogha do Picassa, eds. E. Grabska and H. Morawska (Warsaw: PWN, 1969), 368 [based on English translation in: M. Seuphor, Piet Mondrian: Life and Work (New York: Harry Abrams, 1958)].

2 P. Mondrian Zasady neoplastycyzmu” (1926), in Artyści o sztuce: Od Van Gogha do Picassa, 382.

3 Mondrian Rzeczywistość naturalna i rzeczywistość abstrakcyjna,” in Artyści o sztuce: Od Van Gogha do Picassa.

4 Mondrian Zasady neoplastycyzmu,” in Artyści o sztuce: Od Van Gogha do Picassa, 381.

5 Yves-Alain Bois, W poszukiwaniu motywacji,” in Władysław Strzemiński in memoriam, ed. J. Zagrodzki (Łódź: Muzeum Sztuki, 1988), 56-80, [originally published in French: Strzeminski et Kobro: en quete de La motivation,” Critique, 440-441 (January-February 1984); English version of the text in Yves-Alain Bois, Painting as Model (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1993)].

6 W. Strzemiński, “To co się prawnie nazywa Nową Sztuką,” Blok 2 (1924): n.p.

7 Strzemiński, “Masowy skok ku kulturze...,” Komunikat Grupy a. r. 2 (1932): n.p., quoted in ibid, 66.

8 Katarzyna Kobro and W. Strzemiński, Kompozycja przestrzeni: Obliczenia rytmu czasoprzestrzennego (Łódź: Muzeum Sztuki, 1931), 55.

9 Andrzej Turowski, Awangardowe marginesy (Warsaw: Instytut Kultury 1998), 120.

Jarosław Suchan