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The online editorial and curatorial project for reductive, geometric and systems artists working in the UK

Website: Chestnuts Design

Art in the System


Viewpoint by D. W. Pike | July 2017

©Copyright Patrick Morrissey and Clive Hancock  All rights reserved.

In 1930 Theo van Doesburg originated the term ‘Concrete Art’ to signify a theoretical basis in solid and immutable mathematical reality, but from the perspective of almost 90 years later the name might also seem to have delivered on its implication of durability. The persisting resonance of an art which refers to nothing but itself is perhaps a consequence of that very self-containment: it exists without reference to the prevailing political and philosophical milieu – the ‘intersubjective fictions’ as Yuval Noah Harari calls them. Today it is liberal humanism, with its elevation of the experience and self-expression of the individual, that dominates our culture: contemporary art that references the empirical ideas of the Concretists might seem to stand aloof from the autobiographical and identity-based cultural commentary of the mainstream.


The Dresden-based artist Karl Heinz Adler, now aged 90 and enjoying renewed attention in Germany, spent much of his long career contending with a very different intersubjective fiction in the former GDR. Adler’s ‘experimental concrete’ was developed in relative isolation from mainstream influences and in the face of obstructiveness and hostility from the communist authorities. A new book, The System in Art / Art in the System (1), illustrates his singular and rigorous exploration of the empirical and geometric across many decades, and contains a recent interview with the artist and an illuminating essay by Olaf Nicolai.


In the East Germany of the ’60s and ’70s, abstraction was regarded as refusenik and degenerate: only the exponents of Socialist Realism were permitted to function as artists. Adler, meanwhile, was obliged to subsume his ideas into work that had an ostensibly practical application, as architectural ornamentation. The book contains striking photographs of a system he developed of interlinking mouldings – concrete art in the most literal sense – that formed decorative faces on high-rise buildings or dividing walls in playgrounds and other public spaces. The moulded components were designed to fit together in various complex ways that created flowing, rhythmic progressions, at once geometric and organic; these assemblages (most were subsequently destroyed, unvalued by the state planners) appear as mesmerising sculptural objects that transcend their mundane function.

Karl-Heinz Adler, Friedrich Kracht. Two-sided sculptural, moulded stone wall (moulded stone system),1972/73, sculptural object, concrete, Berlin Hohenschönhausencourtesy Galerie EIGEN + ART Leipzig/BerlinPhoto: Archive Karl-Heinz Adler]

It was not until 1981 that Adler, by then aged 55, was first able to exhibit as an artist, revealing a rich back catalogue of drawings and collages, some dating back to the 1950s. Themes emerge across the decades: elements progressing through multiple repetitions, the formation of curves from the gradual rotation of a repeating line or shape; the production of geometries through layered transparency, using coloured films, glass and semi-transparent papers.

Layering of semicircles, 1959. Collage, Ingres paper and graphite on card 26 3/4 x 26 3/4 in. Courtesy Galerie EIGEN + ART Leipzig/Berlin. Photo: Uwe Walter, Berlin]


The book contains a series of analytical drawings from the 1980s in which elegant gestalts emerge from systems of radiating, converging and intersecting lines – some straight, some arcing – which form grids, horizons and singularities. In other works, the same lines are used to dissect the rectangle of paper, and the component pieces rearranged to form new gestalts.


Karl-Heinz Adler  Design (blue) 1, 1988. Painting, acrylic on hard fibre. 41 7/8 x 14 1/2 in. Courtesy Galerie EIGEN + ART Leipzig/Berlin. Photo: Uwe Walter, Berlin]

Karl-Heinz Adler. Design (blue) 2, 1988. Painting, acrylic on hard fibre 41 7/8 x 14 1/2 in. Courtesy Galerie EIGEN + ART Leipzig/Berlin Photo: Uwe Walter, Berlin]


Karl-Heinz Adler. Diagonal tension, diptych, 1987. Painting, acrylic on particle board. Each panel 55 1/8 x 38 5/8 in. Courtesy Galerie EIGEN + ART Leipzig/Berlin. Photo: Herbert Boswank, Dresden]

Karl-Heinz Adler. Diagonal tension, diptych, 1987.

Painting, acrylic on particle board. Each panel 55 1/8 x 38 5/8 in. Courtesy Galerie EIGEN + ART Leipzig/Berlin. Photo: Herbert Boswank, Dresden]

This concept of the divided and reassembled whole is revisited in Adler’s object paintings from the 1990s and 2000s. Here the slices of square or rectangle reform as simple sculptural shapes, their minimalism in tension with the subtle and complex colouring. Transparent glazes overlay a gestural underpainting so that there is a kind of metaphor for the relationship between order and randomness in the contrast between the austere, precise geometry of the object and the seething energy of the painting.

Karl-Heinz Adler Serial line works with circular areas.

4 Sequences, Sheet 2, 1987. Drawing, graphite on card 31 7/8 x 24 in. Courtesy Galerie EIGEN + ART Leipzig/BerlinPhoto: Herbert Boswank, Dresden]

Karl-Heinz Adler  Serial line work, 1991. Drawing, graphite on sealed particle board. 89 3/4 x 59 7/8 in. Courtesy Galerie EIGEN + ART Leipzig/Berlin. Photo: Uwe Walter, Berlin]

Karl-Heinz Adler  Interlocking, 2007. Painting, acrylic on particle board 32 5/8 x 32 5/8 in. Courtesy Galerie EIGEN + ART Leipzig/Berlin. Photo: Herbert Boswank, Dresden

Max Bill and the Swiss Concretists in the 1930s saw their work not as aloof or mute but as having a political dimension: an assertion of order amidst the chaos being unleashed in surrounding countries and an expression of healthy ideological agnosticism at a time of political fanaticism. Perhaps in the internet age this most empirical way of thinking about art can make it a counterpoint to the data deluge of subjective experiences and opinions, and the resulting blurring of truth and fiction. Adler’s quiet revolt in single-mindedly pursuing Concrete methodology for so long in an inhospitable political environment should be a further inspiration as artists seek to respond to the current disintegration of social certainties.



(1) System in der Kunst, Kunst im System/ The System in Art, Art in the System is published by Spector Books (text in German and English).