The curatorial and editorial project for systems, non-objective and reductive artists working in the UK

Website: Chestnuts Design

©Copyright Patrick Morrissey and Clive Hancock  All rights reserved.

An Open Mind at Maddox Arts

28 April – 24 June 2017

Review by Piers Veness

Gloria Carnevali has also written about An Open Mind. This is reproduced with her permission here.

Curated by Gloria Carnevali and in collaboration with Galerie Denise René in Paris, An Open Mind brings together Geometric Abstraction, Optical Abstraction, and Kinetic Art from the early 30s to the 2010s, notable for the range of nationalities of the artists. There are some big guns on display: Sonia Delaunay, Victor Vasarely and Carlos Cruz-Diez, as well as others who are less well-known.  The show is a chronicle of the legacy of abstract art which takes the central theme of ‘an open mind’ in reference to these artists who forged ahead with abstraction, pushing at its boundaries. ‘An open mind’ also considers our position as impassive viewers, asking us instead to be broad-minded and open to consider non-representational work.

During her curator's talk about the exhibition, Carnevali outlined the influence of Merleau-Ponty's 1945 book The Phenomenology of Perception, which argues that the body, as opposed to the mind, is central to our sense of worldly comprehension.  For Carnevali, abstract art’s sense of space is crucial to our perception of it; she states "the painting is a perceptual situation - we see colour in space".  These deliberations informed the selection of the pieces in the show: on the whole they are hard-edged compositions with flat blocks of colour, moving away from the realm of the pictorial and into that of the painting as object.  The encounters with the work in the show are therefore physical as much as rational.

Henryk Stazewski, untitled number 87, 1974, oil on hardboard, 64.5 x 64.5 cm (left); untitled number 24, 1979, oil on hardboard, 64.5 x 64.5 cm (right). Courtesy Maddox Arts, London.

A sense of space is undoubtedly present in the two supremely minimalist paintings by the Polish painter Stazewski. Untitled 87 (1974) is dominated by a narrow band of four vibrant colours floating diagonally in the square of white canvas. If you look at that band long enough, it seems to be drifting slowly to the right of the canvas. Untitled 24 (1979) has just two elements - a black line encased in/traversing a tapering white band, which in turn cuts diagonally across the off-white square of canvas - but it is, nevertheless, a complex painting, which develops the notion of movement and depth of picture plane apparent in Untitled 87.

Geneviève Claisse, Quark Bleu, 1975, acrylic on canvas, 150 x 150 cm. Courtesy Maddox Arts, London.

French painter Geneviève Claisse's geometric abstract piece Quark Bleu (1975), another white, square canvas, roughly divides the picture plane into nine smaller squares of white and four shades of the same blue. As with the Stazewski work, the white acts as a visual void over which the blue squares hover. The tonal difference between the blues leads the eye clockwise around the painting; logically from the right to the top; and at the same time, the darker squares seem further away than the lighter ones. Consequently, the eye doesn't just move around the canvas, it moves in and out of it.

Sonia Delaunay, Composition en Verte, Rouge et Bleu, 1959, gouache on paper, 27 x 19,5 cm. Courtesy Maddox Arts, London.

Sonia Delaunay's gouache sketch Composition en Verte, Rouge et Bleu (1959) opens the door to this spatial interplay between forms, despite not quite achieving it as successfully as Stazewski or Claisse.  A composition of circles and squares which at times sit one upon the other, it is a kind of precursor to the later pieces in the show, and helps us understand how Geometric Abstraction developed.  Forever a colourist, Delaunay's red, green and an outrageously exquisite azure blue are what really hit you; the appearance of depth plays a very second fiddle.

Victor Vasarely, Harmène, 1949-1953, oil on canvas, 87 x 80 cm. Courtesy Maddox Arts, London.

Vasarely is well-known for his rigid Op Art compositions, but Harmène (1949-1953) pre-dates these, showing a more flexible, playful approach in which a circle and a square are taken apart and then combined, creating layers of shapes - the ‘colours in space’ to which Carnevali referred: there is definite movement here. The painting draws attention to itself as an object by reiterating the edge of the picture plane with a wide band, heightened by the parallel lines within the composition.  The colours are softer and more muted, earthier than in his later work, and overall this is a friendlier environment than those of the Op Art period.

Cícero Dias, Voisinage, 1964, oil on canvas, 100 x 81 cm. Courtesy Maddox Arts, London.

Brazilian artist Cícero Dias' 1964 piece Voisinage is one of my favourites, and the one which for me which seems most recent. Its angular dynamism and the way the forms occupy the canvas, barely touching the sides save for the top-right corner, make it feel very contemporary. As with the Stazewski and Claisse works, the flat background serves as an infinite space on which the shapes vie for position. The jazzy colours are quite incredible: the combination of the pink, orange-brown and peppermint reach a satisfying harmonic as they gravitate around a black anchor.

Jesús Soto, Tirature, 1966, wood, 54 x 17 x 17 cm. Courtesy Maddox Arts, London.

Although the majority of the work in An Open Mind is painting, it's worth mentioning a sculpture by Soto, from Venezuela. A keen musician, his approach to sculpture was informed by musical structures.  Beginning with small sculptures such as Tirature (1966), he worked in black and white and primary colours to create his compositions. Sculptures are, by their very nature, spatial phenomena, but Tirature has some strong similarities with other work in the show, for example the use of black and white, a sense of depth, and hard lines.

Cruz-Diez, Induction chromatique série fedix 2, 2010, pigment chromatography on aluminum, 50 x 100 cm. Courtesy Maddox Arts, London.

The final piece that really impresses me is by Carlos Cruz-Diez, another Venezuelan. A major figure in Latin American Op Art since the 1950s, Cruz-Diez made Fedix 2 in 2010 (when he was 86); ironically, making it one of the youngest pieces in the show.  As with all of his work, it changes as you walk round it, since it is constructed from dozens of coloured strips standing on a painted aluminum backboard. The result is shimmering fields of colour that seem to dissolve into one another, blending together in space.

Did the show meet Carnevali's objectives? Yes. In the majority of the work there is a strong sense of depth, and a sense of physicality.  However, for me the overriding pleasure was seeing so many great abstract pieces from so many different moments and nationalities exhibited together, and I really appreciated the historical importance of so many key pioneers and influencers from Geometric, Optic and Kinetic abstraction in one place.

© Piers Veness, 2017