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Galerie Swart, Amsterdam in the 60s and 70s, and a peculiarly British search for ‘Objective Art’ by Edward Winters

Delivered at the European Society of Aesthetics, May 30th 2014, University of Amsterdam

©Copyright Patrick Morrissey and Clive Hancock  All rights reserved.

Reikje Swart’s gallery, initially on the Keizersgracht and later on van Breestraat in Amsterdam, was an international centre for avant garde art from 1964 through to the end of the seventies and beyond. However, in the sixties and seventies, a group of young Dutch artists reacted against the dominant CoBrA Group (the name derived by concatenating the contracted names of Copenhagen, Brussels and Amsterdam) whose work had been expressionist, emotional and highly coloured.  This new group included Bob Bonies, Ad Dekkers, and  Peter Struyken, who looked back to the earlier abstraction of de Stijl in Holland and Constructivist art abroad. Theo van Doesburg’s concept of ‘concrete art’ appealed to this younger generation of artists and they turned their backs on CoBrA in favour of a new ‘rational art’. All of these artists showed at Galerie Swart along with the Netherlands-based German sculptor, Ewerdt Hilgemann .

Riekje Swart in her gallery c. 1967

From left to right: Ad Dekkers, Hans Koetsier, Riekje Swart, Bob Bonies and Peter Struyken

The work is usually collected together under the heading, Constructivism, and it marks a continuous tradition that dates back to the Russians, Tatlin, Lissitzky and Gabo; the Hungarian, Moholy-Nagy; in Germany, the Bauhaus; the Swiss artists, Max Bill and Richard Paul Lohse; and in Holland Theo van Doesburg and de Stijl (1).  The general thrust of the work can be gleaned from van Doesburg’s (et al) pronouncement in Art Concret, 1930, which proclaims:

1. Art is universal.

2. The work of art must be entirely conceived and formed by the mind before its execution. It must receive nothing from nature’s given forms, or from sensuality, or sentimentality. We wish to exclude lyricism, dramaticism, symbolism, etc.

3. The picture must be entirely constructed from purely plastic elements, that is, planes and colors. A pictorial element has no other meaning than “itself” and thus the picture has no other meaning than “itself.”

4. The construction of the picture, as well as its elements, must be simple and visually controllable.

5. Technique must be mechanical, that is, exact, anti-impressionistic.

6. Effort for absolute clarity (2)


In analytical philosophy, we might take the third pronouncement above to be grounded in Goodman’s conception of exemplification. Indeed, in his essay on architecture Goodman uses the Schroder House by the Dutch de Stjil architect, Gerhardt Rietveldt, as his example. A building, or in the case under review, a picture, can have itself as meaning by referring to its composition and the elements of which it is composed. Of the Rietveldt building, Goodman writes “the building is designed to refer effectively to certain characteristics of its structure”(3).


The Dutch artist, Joost Baljeu, was to write in Structure, in 1964 – the year Riekje Swart opened her Amsterdam Galley – that, given the choice between Pop and Zero, one should always reject Pop. For it furnishes the world with junk. In contrast, Zero is an attempt to suppress any subjectivity; the works must possess the highest possible degree of objectivity from an attempt to arrive at the absolute objectivity of the one and only truth that must exist in spite of the many (illusionistic) truths man continually surrounds it with…


A Zero work generally consists of a geometrical standard unit or a pattern which is repeated over and over again and can be seen to continue endlessly …(4)


Baljeu reiterates the call made by the early Constructivists El Lissitzky and Ilya Ehrenberg in their ‘Statement by the Editors of Veshch’ originally published  in De Stijl, V, no. 4, Amsterdam, 1922. An extract from that statement reads,


The new art is founded not on a subjective, but on an objective basis. This,  like science, can be described with precision and is by nature constructive. It unites not only pure art, but all those that stand at the frontier of the new culture. The artist is companion to the scholar, the engineer, and the worker (5). It is worth considering the work in contrast to Cobra’s production.

Karel Appel, People, Birds and Sun, 1954


Bob Bonies, Diptych, 1968

Peter Struyken, Computer Structure 5A, 1970-71

Perhaps more in line with the mathematical rigour sought by the British Constructivists, Galerie Swart also showcased Dekkers and Hilgemann.

Ad Dekkers, Title and date unknown                                                   

Ad Dekkers, Title and date unknown                                                   

Ewerdt Hilgemann, Cube Structure (Positive), 1972         

Ewerdt Hilgemann, Cube Structure (Negative), 1972

Ewerdt Hilgemann, Cube Structure (Negative), 1972

Peter Lowe, Relief Construction, date unknown                 

Peter Lowe, Relief Construction, date unknown

Peter Lowe is a British Constructivist whose work is perhaps closer to Dekkers and Hilgemann than others in the British group. It is relatively easy for the spectator to reconstruct the ‘argument’ that determines the structures at which she looks. This is not the case with Bonies or with Struyken. However, with both these Dutch artists the spectator does not feel that there is a rigorous ‘argument’ that determines the content. To be sure, there is the constraint of few flat colours and fewer hard-edge shapes in Bonies, but there is no feeling that anything other than intuition guides the process under which the work is constructed. The works do not exhibit the same ‘inner logic’ exemplified in the work of Dekkers, Hilgemann and Lowe.

In Britain, a group of Systems artists used  arithmetical rigour as a generator of their work. Jeffrey Steele has been working on his Sg series for more than forty years, a programme in which the artist and his free will are rejected in favour of the artist discovering rational aspects of the system as a whole. Of the British Systems artists, Steele, Peter Lowe and Norman Dilworth all showed at Galerie Swart. Writing on Constructivist art and the spectator’s response, Steele quotes the Italian Getulio Alviani:


“Exact art has the character of a science by the verifiability of the solution it offers to problems… Logic, rationality and essentiality have for centuries been the fundamental of ideation in the world of the arts, with research programmes which go, for example, from Piero della Francesca, to Leonardo da Vinci; from the Bauhaus to constructive, concrete and programmed art forms in which, I emphasise, it is always the rigorous mathematical and geometrical structuring of space which has brought art to its highest moments of achievement.”(6)

Jeffrey Steele in his studio, 1960s

It is interesting to note that Alviani stitches together the spatial concerns of Piero and Leonardo with the work of the Constructivists. I wonder if that can be sustained, especially as, from time to time, Constructivists take representation, understood as ‘illusionism,’ to be a symptom of the art they wish to remove and replace with their own concrete art. Nevertheless, it was in Amsterdam I first saw Emanuel de Witte and Pieter Saenredam and was struck by the similarity in feel between the work of these two painters and the work of Schoonhoven.

Jan Schoonhoven, Diagonalen, 1967        

Jan Schoonhoven, Untitled, 1965                   

Pieter Saenredam, Mariakerk, 1637

Exactitude, verifiability, mathematical and geometric structuring do not, in and of themselves, demand that for each spectator, she will recover the algorithm that culminates in this painting, sculpture or relief construction at which she looks. The clarity of thought and the faultless execution ought to render the algorithm retrievable. It should be, in principle, retrievable from the work on show. For the British artists, Steele, Malcolm Hughes and Anthony Hill, that is part of what is included in their programme of concrete systematic art.

Jeffrey Steele, Painting for Sg series

Jeffrey Steele, Painting for Sg series

Malcolm Hughes, Installation at Kettle’s Yard, 1996


In this second section of the paper, I want to look at the local conditions, in London, that provided the nutrients for the growth of objective art. The British artists mentioned so far have an association with The Slade School of Fine Art, a department of University College London. And it is in this section that I want to look more closely at the notion of aesthetics as that might be brought to bear upon the work going on at The Slade through the seventies. Here, too, it is worth introducing Anthony Hill, who also taught at The Slade and who was centrally concerned with establishing a mathematical basis for his work. He is introduced because he represents the serious commitment to mathematical art. In 1979, in recognition of a number of his mathematical papers, he was elected a member of the London Mathematical Society and made a visiting research associate in the Department of Mathematics at University College, London. Nevertheless, Hill insisted that mathematics was only a component in his work and that his use of mathematics was to organise something that was clearly not mathematical.


So we have three distinct positions within British Constructivism: (i) the making of concrete art which is clearly structured and seen to be structured around a simple decipherable system; (ii) the making of concrete art that involves complexity determined by the system and that remains indifferent toward its interpretation by spectators. (The spectator is not required to ‘read off’ the systematic structure that has culminated in the work in front of her.) And, (iii) Works that use mathematical and other logical structures but toward an end that is not itself either systematic or mathematical. Lowe represents the first, Steele, the second, and Hill the third.


Anthony Hill, 1964

Anthony Hill, Tango, 1974

At University College London, The Grote Chair of the Philosophy of Mind and Logic was sat upon by Alfred J Ayer (1944 – 1959), by Stuart Hampshire (1960 – 1963), and by Richard Wollheim (1963 – 1982). During that time, also at University College London, The Slade Professor of Fine Art and Directorship of The Slade School of Fine Art was occupied by Sir William Coldstream (1949 – 1975).


Alfred ‘Freddie’ Ayer published Language, Truth and Logic when he was 26 years old and, in so doing, brought the Vienna Circle’s teachings to London – and later to Oxford. The Logical Positivists of Vienna held that for any sentence, the conditions under which its truth could be verified provided the its meaning – hence the main doctrine of the school was ‘verificationism’. No provision of such truth conditions: no meaning. ‘Water boils at 100° centigrade’ is verified each time that water is boiled, its temperature checked and its reading given as 100° centigrade. Finding that the temperature at which it boils varies relative to altitude requires modification so that ‘Water boils at 100° centigrade at sea level’ is the sentence that scientists  hold true.


A sentence need not be true to be meaningful. ‘All giraffes have five legs each’ brings with it the conditions under which we can verify the sentence. We take a sample range of giraffes and count the legs on each. Since all or most have four legs, the checking enables us to understand the sentence meaning and to declare it false. But some sentences are neither true nor false and do not provide conditions under which their truth can be measured. They cannot be checked. ‘God is all provident’ is purported to be one such sentence. Since nothing could be regarded as a test of its verification, it is regarded not as false but as meaningless. The claims of morality and of aesthetics are similarly destitute. What, then, do we mean when we utter sentences of the kind, ‘We must care for others’, or, ‘Guernica is a beautiful painting’?

According to Ayer:


“Aesthetic terms are used in exactly the same way as ethical terms. Such aesthetic words as “beautiful” and “hideous” are employed, not to make statements of fact, but simply to express certain feelings and evoke a certain response. It follows, as in ethics, that there is no sense in attributing objective validity to aesthetic judgements, and no possibility of arguing about questions of value in aesthetics…”(7)


Logical Positivism was ‘positivist’ in that it sought to circumscribe the realm of rational thought; and it was ‘logical’ in that it sought to provide logical grounds for sustaining that realm – dismissing metaphysics, ethics, religion and aesthetics along the way. In their stead was a clear and scientific conception of what thought might properly take as its subject matter. ‘Objectivity’ was its aim and the application of ‘verificationism’ the method.


In William Elton’s collection, a number of eminent analytical philosophers give short shrift to aesthetics as a place in which philosophy (conceived as a system of logic) has anything useful to say. Less scientifically ‘objectivist’ than Ayer, but still sceptical with regard to aesthetic argument, Stuart Hampshire writes:


“One engages in aesthetic discussion for the sake of what one might see on the way, and not for the sake of arriving at a conclusion, a final verdict for or against; if one has been brought to see what there is to be seen in the object, the purpose of discussion is achieved. Where the logicians’ framework of problem and conclusion does not apply, the notion of ‘reason’ loses some of its meaning also; it is unnatural to ask ‘why is that picture or sonata good?’ in parallel with ‘why was that the right thing to do?’ There are no reasons why some object is ugly in the sense that there are reasons why some action is wrong.”(8)


The Slade admitted its first students in 1871. Felix Slade provided for The Slade Professor and for a number of studentships with the aim of placing Fine Art within the context of a university education. In this, he presaged the world in which art schools are now departments of universities the world over. In such a setting artists can enjoy the intellectual stimulation and conversation to be nurtured between painters, writers, philosophers, musicians and architects; as well as with social and physical scientists who can broaden the intellectual base upon which matters of the arts rely.

At the Slade a group of painters concerned with objectivity relegated aesthetics to the realm of the ‘merely’ subjective. These artists, in a university setting, turned away from the search for ‘beauty’ and the expression of the subject in favour of a closely observed measuring of the visual world. The Slade became famous for its ‘F’ studio; the studio in which a succession of painters taught the method of measure - to such an extent that the work became known as objective drawing. Here are some of the pictures made by professors, tutors and students at the Slade:

William Coldstream, Reclining Nude, 1971

Euan Uglow, Self-Portrait, 1964

Patrick George, Natalie Dower, 1965

Jane Patterson, Mussels, 2012

However, these pictures, whilst employing the method of measure, remain good pictures just because they demand of the artist that he look at his subject. That is to say that such painting requires a sensitivity that only comes with developing a talent. Whatever the artists might say about the work under view, they are beautiful paintings.


This surreptitious return of beauty – as it comes to inhabit the ‘objective’ drawing is on a par with Functionalism in architecture. The notion is not supposed to exert any pressure upon the activity of painting. It returns, as a guarantee of the work’s objectivity. Because the work is a true depiction of the sitter, the scene or the event, then it is accorded the status of beauty. But this seems doubtful. Why should it guarantee beauty? And, if it does not, then what is the point of the method employed in the making of a painting?


At the Slade in the seventies Malcolm Hughes, a founder member of the Systems artists, convened a seminar with Euan Uglow in order to explore the similarities between the F studio and the graduate school Experimental studio – largely a Systems based studio. Steele, Lowe and Dilworth all taght in the Experimental studio. Perhaps, then, artists like Steele are in search of content analogous with content of analytic truths, whereas artists from the Slade’s ‘F’ studios are in search of measured observations that are analogous to synthetic truths. This might then explain how each, in turn, aims at objectivity.


Now, objectivity in our apprehension of the world is to be obtained by using our observational skills in such a way that we gain knowledge by the use of our senses. Sentences that propound these observations are said to be true. They are synthetically true, which is to say that they happen, contingently, to be true. But there is another kind of truth. The truth expressed by mathematical statements or by logical arguments are also true but do not rest upon observation. These truths are independent of experience. How then are these sentences held to be true? According to Ayer, these are both necessarily true and analytically true. We could not, without abandoning the very structure of thought, accept the refutation of a necessary truth. But being analytical, these truths contain within them, that which is predicated of them. Now, mathematics can develop because we can find new and surprising truths by analysing the sentences that express either mathematical or logical truths.  According to Ayer, 7 + 5 = 12 is an analytical truth but it might surprise someone learning this because the intensional meaning of ‘7 + 5’ is not the same as the intensional meaning of ‘12’. Thus, for Ayer, all mathematical and logical truths are tautologies. That we have to study hard to get to them does not alter this fact.


Perhaps, then, artists like Steele are in search of content analogous with content of analytic truths, whereas artists from the Slade’s ‘F’ studios are in search of measured observations that are analogous to synthetic truths. This might then explain how each, in turn, aims at objectivity – pictures like Karel Appel’s People, Birds and Sun, are non-objective and very likely meaningless.

Jeffrey Steele, Sg Series, c1974

Norman Dilworth, Wall Structure (date unknown)

Now the aesthetic problem that confronted the F studio artists arises for those Constructivists whose work is characterized by (i) and (ii) above. For, if the character of the system, whether simple or complex, determines the work; and the artists, in her search for objectivity, denies herself artistic choices, then the look of the work cannot be derived from aesthetic considerations. If the works are beautiful, then their beauty is a mysterious bi-product of the activity, rather than a guiding light in their creation. (It doesn’t arise for artists whose work is characterized by (iii) above, as, for an artist such as Anthony Hill, other components of the work can be addressed from an aesthetic point of view.)


That the work looks to be compromised by its relegation of the aesthetic to adjunct status has led many artists to think of their practice as independent of aesthetics altogether. This is the case with much, if not most, Conceptual Art; and it might be mentioned here that Riekje Swart moved from the promotion of concrete art to the promotion of Conceptual Art in the eighties. The relegation of the aesthetic in Constructivism and in the ‘objective’ painting of the ‘F’ studios is, I think, a mistake. We should regard these two forms of art as being at the upper  limit of objectivity and at the lower limit of subjectivity. In this we can liken them to engineering. But the fact that we do find engineering and its employment of mathematics as beautiful ought to alert us to a kind of beauty that adheres to the objective. After all, the products of engineering – both artificial: the bridge, the tunnel, the wind turbine; and natural: the carapace of a shell-fish, the extraordinary growth pattern of the florets of purple broccoli, the formation of crystals – are wonderful phenomena. What we need to do, when confronted by the examples with which I have illustrated this paper, is to reconsider the nature of the aesthetic intention of the artist; and to see that intention in the context of a world independent of human beings – a wonderful world for all that. I note that the exhibition of systematic work upon which I have drawn was entitled, A Rational Aesthetic. (9)


If Ayer influenced the cultural climate at UCL, then that climate was imported from Vienna, where Philosophy of Science was central to members of the Vienna Circle, in particular to Rudolf Carnap and Walter Neurath. Perhaps UCL’s British search for objectivity through concrete art is a small picture of the broader international culture that was represented for a couple of decades at Riekje Swart’s Amsterdam gallery.

Footnotes

(1) See, for instance, Stephen Bann (ed.), The Tradition of Constructivism, New York: Viking Press, 1974, p. Xviii.

Ibid., p. 191.

(2) Nelson Goodman, ‘How Buildings Mean’ in Nelson Goodman and Catherine Z.

(3) Elgin, Reconceptions in Philosophy and Other Arts and Sciences, London: Routledge, 1988, p. 38.

(4) Joost Baljeu, ‘The Costructive Approach Today’ reprinted in, Ibid., p. 291.

(5) Charles Harrison and Paul Wood (eds.), Art in Theory: 1900 – 1990, Oxford: Blackwell, 1992, p. 321.

(6) Getulio Alviani, quoted by Jeffrey Steele in his contribution to the catalogue of the exhibition, A Rational Aesthetic, Southampton

(7) City Art Gallery, January 11th – March 31st 2008, p. 48  A. J. Ayer, Language Truth and Logic, London: Pelican, 1971, p. 118. First published in 1936 by Victor Gollancz.

(8) Stuart Hampshire, ‘Logic and Appreciation’, in William Elton, (ed.), Aesthetics and Language, Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1954, p. 165.

(9) A Rational Aesthetic was exhibited at Southampton City Art Gallery, January 11th – March 31st 2008. Euan Uglow, Patrick George, and Jane Patterson are all represented by Browse and Darby, London.