A brief history of Constructivism

A guide to the art movement that originated in early 20th-century Russia and impacted modern art across the globe — illustrated with lots offered at Christie’s

El Lissitzky, Self-Portrait (‘The Constructor’), 1924 (detail). Gelatin silver print

El Lissitzky (1890-1941), Self-Portrait (‘The Constructor’), 1924 (detail). Gelatin silver print. 9⅝ x 11 in (24.4 x 27.9 cm). Sold for £947,250 on 6 March 2019 at Christie’s in London

What is meant by Constructivism?

In short, Constructivism was a particularly austere from of abstract art that emerged in Russia around 1913 with Vladimir Tatlin (1885-1953) and Alexander Rodchenko (1891-1956). Other notable proponents of the movement included Naum Gabo (1890-1977), Antoine Pevsner (1884/6-1962) and El Lissitzky (1890-1941).

As supporters of the political ideologies propagated by Russian revolutionaries, Constructivists imagined art as an active agent in the Socialist cause. Art should reflect the modern industrial world, and, above all, be accessible to the masses. The group strived to make art that was relevant in a rapidly changing world, free from academic tradition, and devoid of any emotive or subjective properties.

Alexander Rodchenko (1891–1956), Lestnitsa (Steps), 1929. Gelatin silver print. Image/sheet: 15 x 22½ in (38.1 x 57.2 cm). Sold for $281,250 on 2 April 2019 at Christie’s in New York

Constructivists considered their art a product of an industrial order, a precursor to the factory-made, mass-produced object, rather than a unique commodity. They often explored collective ways of working, and regarded the object-maker as a builder or engineer rather than as an individual artist.

What were Constructivism’s key styles and mediums?

Broadly speaking, the Constructivists aimed to bring art back to its material foundations by focusing on the construction rather than the conception of objects. Constructivists often made work from modest materials or those used in industry, such as wood, iron, glass and steel. Many of their works, whether two- or three-dimensional in form, are characterised by their austere, angular geometric shapes.

Liubov Popova (1889-1924), Six prints: one print, circa 1917-19. Linocut with watercolour and gouache additions. Sheet: 13¾ x 10¼ in (349 x 260 mm). Sold for $68,750 on 10 May 2018 at Christie’s in New York

How did Constructivism influence early modern art movements?

Although Constructivism was suppressed in Russia by the 1920s, core members of the group continued to spread its ideas across Europe and the Americas. Constructivism influenced many contemporary and subsequent modern art movements, including the Bauhaus in Germany, De Stijl in Holland and the post-war Zero art collectives that sprang up across Europe in the 1950s and 1960s.

Bauhaus

From its founding in Weimar in 1919 by Walter Gropius to its subsequent closure in Dessau in 1933, the Bauhaus — a German school offering classes in performing arts, design, fine art and applied arts — was known for its progressive teachings, its disregard for traditional art hierarchies and a radical vision whereby design and production would be united.

Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944), Tiefes Braun, 1924. Oil on canvas. 32¾ x 28⅝ in (83.3 x 72.7 cm). Sold for $23,290,000 on 9 November 2022 at Christie’s in New York

Notable teachers there included friends Paul Klee and Wassily Kandinsky. Born in Russia, Kandinsky had settled in Munich in 1896, but went back to his homeland after the end of the First World War, where he encountered the ideologies and work of the Constructivists.

On returning to Germany in 1922 to take up a post at the Bauhaus, Kandinsky began to move away from representation to experiment with geometric forms of abstraction. Circles, triangles, lines and colour dominate his works from this period.

De Stijl

De Stijl, or The Style, was a Dutch movement founded in 1917 by the architect, designer, writer and painter Theo van Doesburg. Practitioners of De Stijl — including Gerrit Rietveld and Vilmos Huszár — were greatly influenced by architecture and urban planning, and saw their stark forms of right angles and crossed lines, magnified by bold colour, as a response to the geometric abstraction championed by early 20th-century artists.

The movement gained and maintained influence through the initially scandalous exhibitions of its most famous practitioner, Piet Mondrian, as well as the ambassadorial work of Van Doesburg, who brought his concepts to the Bauhaus in the early 1920s.

How did Constructivism evolve after the Second World War?

The post-war Constructivists followed in the footsteps of Theo van Doesburg’s 1930 manifesto for Concrete Art, which called for an adherence to rational aesthetics. This generation reacted strongly to the then-dominant position of the CoBrA group formed in 1948, whose work was highly emotional, colourful and expressive.

As a collective, they embraced a simple chromatic palette, geometric abstraction and, like their early 20th-century Constructivist predecessors, regarded art as the objective product of its material constituent parts.

The Dutch and German Zero groups

The Zero Group was formed in Düsseldorf in 1957 by Heinz Mack and Otto Piene. This loose collective of international artists, who exhibited alongside notable names including Yves Klein, Lucio Fontana and Jean Tinguely, made art that called for simple forms and colours, and used everyday materials. Many Zero artists made kinetic art, using light, space and motion to engage alternative modes of perception.

Heinz Mack (b. 1931), Three Wings of Light, 1972. Aluminium on wood. 78¾ x 47¼ in (200 x 120 cm). Sold for £137,500 on 23 March 2021 at Christie’s in London

The Dutch Nul artists, who included Armando, Herman de Vries, Jan SchoonhovenJan Henderikse and Henk Peeters, found much in common with the Düsseldorf-based Zero Group. Like their German counterparts, they sought to infuse painted surfaces with a sense of light and movement. Many works by Zero artists are characterised by a monochromatic palette, repetition, seriality and grid-like shapes.

The British Systems Group

This collective, which included artists Jeffrey Steele and Malcolm Hughes, aspired to find order in chaos, by denoting probable patterns within certain painterly and sculptural arrangements. Galerie Swart in Amsterdam hosted an exhibition of works by Systems Group artists in 1973, to considerable acclaim.

Notable Dutch Constructivists and Geometric artists of the 1960s and 1970s

Galerie Swart had been founded in 1964 by Riekje Swart and played an important role in the commercial success of many Dutch Constructivists and Geometric artists in the 1960s and 1970s.

These artists wanted to build a new society in which art could be incorporated into architecture and design. Unlike the Zero Group, however, who often used old and recycled materials, they were looking to new and innovative methods of art-making.

Notable Dutch post-war Constructivists include Bob Bonies, Peter Struycken, Jan Schoonhoven, Joost Baljeu and Ad Dekkers.

The work of Dekkers is in particularly high demand among collectors, primarily because he died quite young and the number of works available is therefore very limited. Stylistically, his art is as minimal as possible and, more often than not, made using only one colour. He also experimented with new materials, using polyester, for instance, in many of his works cast in relief.

Schoonhoven embraced a more human form of Constructivism, while Struycken, who embodied the movement’s future, incorporated the latest technology in his computer-generated artworks of the 1960s. His spatial, light and sound designs walk a fine line between non-figurative and decorative art.

Peter Struycken (b. 1939), Structuur II (Structure II), 1969. Lacquer on Perspex. 150 x 150 cm. Sold for €31,250 on 1 May 2019 at Christie’s in Amsterdam

Many of the Dutch Constructivists of the period shared a similar vision to that held by contemporary Minimalist and abstract artists working across Europe and the Americas. International Constructivist practitioners include Bridget Riley in the UK, François Morellet in France, and Carl Andre, Agnes Martin and Sol LeWitt in the United States. They all shared an understanding that the visual elements of the work — such as line, plane, form and colour — presented their own forces of expression.

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Does Constructivism survive today?

The roots of contemporary abstract art and its predecessors in Color Field painting and Post-Painterly Abstraction can be traced back to earlier Constructivist movements, while today’s AI and Generative Art — made using algorithmic codes or mathematical formulas — allow artists to surrender partial or complete ‘decision-making’ to an autonomous system.

Pioneers of the AI and Generative Art movements, such as the Paris-based collective Obvious and the American artist Tyler Hobbs, use computer algorithms to introduce unpredictability and automatic processes into their work, echoing the early Constructivists’ concept of art as a mass-produced artefact of industrial systems.

Many artists and movements influenced by Constructivism, such as the Bauhaus, de Stijl and Zero, are represented in German and Dutch museums, including the Museum Boijmans van BeuningenBauhaus Archiv and Kuntsmuseum Den Haag. A broader chronological overview of the movement can be found in major international collections including Tate Modern, London, and the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

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