The Canadian Art Database

Michael Greenwood

Relief Structures: Elizabeth Willmott and David Barr
Marianne Friedland Gallery, Toronto

artscanada #202/203, Winter 1975-76
[ 2,617 words ]

Both Elizabeth Willmott, who lives and works in Toronto, and David Barr, from Detroit, have for many years distinguished themselves in the practice and ideology of Structurism, an almost entirely North American offshoot of the modern movement loosely termed Constructivism. Originally confined to the ideas and methods of a small group of post-Revolutionary Soviet artists, the latter term has since been expanded in its application and become about as generalized and vague as its opposite number, Expressionism. George Rickey, himself a prominent sculptor in the same broad tradition of constructive art, widens it to include almost every aspect of concrete as opposed to metaphysical abstraction, from Tatlin's epochal space-constructions of 1914 to certain recent American Minimalists, an ecumenical view that accommodates some strange bedfellows. (1)

In point of fact, both early and more recent versions of Constructivism tend to follow a social and technological path, guided by the aesthetic principles of Neo-Plasticism and De Stijl, with the utopian goal of reforming the entire man-made visual environment. Individualistic self-expression is subordinated to a concept of art based on objective analysis of the principles underlying growth and structure in the natural physical world. With a strong philosophical bias to positivism and humanism, Constructivist art aims at a concomitant lucidity and rationality in its formal aspects. The aesthetic is stripped of mystery and incorporated with the purely structural process of the work. To Naum Gabo, the realities of space and time are basic and absolutely 'physical', as he declares in the Realistic Manifesto of 1920: 'Space and Time are the sole forms in which life is built and in which it would seem art must also be built.' (2) For the Constructivist proper this concept of reality must be embodied in concrete forms, not to copy nature but to emulate its structural processes.

However, while subscribing to this central principle of the Constructivist tradition, Structurism as practiced in North America also differs from it in certain notable respects. In particular the element of colour, rejected by Gabo and others as too superficial and accidental even in its basic primary components, is restored in Structurist theory to a position of great importance as a demonstrable factor in controlling the functions of physical perception. Colour is therefore regarded as performing a positive and 'structural' role as an instrument in the complex orchestration of reality. In fact, in Structurist work, it is often raised to a level of sensuous expressiveness that almost overflows the brink of strictly functional necessity. Certainly, the accusations of Puritanism and cold impersonality sometimes levelled at Structurist art are wide of the mark. It is clear to any regular reader of The Structurist (3) that far from sponsoring a rigid doctrinaire program the movement is open and receptive to a wide diversity of innovative ideas from such disciplines as physics, astronomy, music, biology, mathematics, optics, cybernetics, linguistics, geology and colour theory, among others.

The relief-structure as a new, independent art form was pioneered in 1930 by Jean Gorin, a French disciple of Mondrian. In its simplest form it consists of a rectangular flat plane upon which are fixed projecting solid elements, geometric and orthogonal, usually aligned on vertical/horizontal axes parallel to the edges of the ground-plane. As a variant of this, the diagonal axis of the ground-plane may be oriented vertically, putting the work in the familiar 'lozenge' position often preferred by Mondrian. The ground-plane serves to delimit a field of spatial activity generated by the interrelationships of the relief elements; while the addition of different colours to the latter and, in later Structurism, to the ground-plane itself, provides an enhancement of visual plasticity by virtue of the particular spatial functions of the primary colours and their infinitely various derivatives and juxtapositions.

Gorin's innovation derived an essential part of its theoretical base from the leading spokesman for De Stijl aesthetics, Theo Van Doesburg, who in turn was sympathetic to the space / time theories advanced by Gabo and Pevsner. Philosophically, however, Gorin remained faithful to Mondrian's Hegelian doctrine which held to the superiority of pure Idea, in the Platonic sense, of which the physical world is at best an imperfect reflection. The relief-structure, therefore, represents a compromise between the idealist creed of Neo-Plasticism and the objectivity of Constructivism. By projecting the strict orthogonal space-organization of the former into the third dimension, Gorin, with a single, brilliantly effective coup d'esprit, reconciled the opposites. The viewer's own movement in front of the relief-structure through a possible arc of 180° introduced the kinetic element that transforms a static conception into an actual physical experience of the space/time continuum. (4)

If Gorin takes credit for the original invention of the structured relief, it is the American, Charles Biederman, who was responsible for its evolution toward the idiom familiar in Canada and the United States today. In 1952 Biederman gave the name 'Structurism' to the ideas and methods with which he had been occupied since 1935. An admirer and devotee of Cé;zanne, he sought to combine the master's interpretation of nature in terms of the structural plasticity of interlocking colour planes with Mondrian's idealist relational geometry. Biederman rejected the primary colour purism of both Mondrian and Gorin and introduced a dynamic interplay of colour relationships between the projecting or frontal relief elements and the ground-plane. His aesthetic credo is thus far less metaphysical than Mondrian's. The aim of his spatially interrelated planes of colour is to produce a state of visual and physical activity analogous to what he terms 'the structural process level of reality.'

Biederman's work and writings proved more influential abroad than in his own country. (5)The first major tribute to the artist took place in London, in the form of a retrospective exhibition at the Tate Gallery in 1969. His most influential book, Art as the Evolution of Visual Knowledge (1948), converted many artists from representational methods to making abstract reliefs. In England this book was the inspiration of a movement styled Constructionism which is still attracting younger adherents and producing new developments. The Constructionists, however, never adopted a vital aspect of Biederman's art — his theory of colour; probably for the simple reason that while familiar with his writings they had no opportunity to see his work until very much later. (6) In any event, they have remained closer to the spirit and ideology of European Constructivism than to the Structurist developments in Canada and the United States.

That the gap between Biederman as theorist and practitioner is far less pronounced in Canada than elsewhere is entirely due to the seminal influence of Eli Bornstein's work and teaching since 1960 at the University of Saskatchewan, Saskatoon. It is, incidentally, a sad reflection on the biased and fashion-obsessed attitudes of the art establishment in Canada that while students from around the world flock to Bornstein's workshops the country of his adoption has so far signally failed to recognize his vital contribution to the highly respected international status of Canada in this area. The fact was brought home vividly to the present writer two or three years ago in the course of conversation with a former Visual Arts Officer at the Canada Council. Incredible as it may seem, that high official admitted to never having heard of Bornstein's internationally renowned journal The Structurist. (7)

While Bornstein's original interest in the relief-structure as an autonomous idiom – his first essays in this direction were made in 1957 – was undoubtedly kindled by Biederman's example and theories, his own work has since taken a quite independent and personal course. As teacher and theorist also, Bornstein has developed a distinctly individual viewpoint tending, in Jan van der Marck's words, toward 'a cosmic philosophy of the intermingling of nature and art.' Like certain late eighteenth-century artists, he aspires to dissolve the boundaries between art, science and nature. Intellectual curiosity in a wide range of modern advances in knowledge takes the place of the purely inspirational awareness of the unity of art and nature that is often typical of Romanticism. His rational and synergistic approach indeed transcends the traditional classic/romantic division and establishes the nature of Structurism within a broad interpretation of the term 'organic'. Most issues of The Structurist have been prefaced by the same brief definition of the term and of the journal's policy. The word 'structurist,' Bornstein maintains:

. . . is not meant in the sense of 'ist' as a professed follower of some 'ism' but . . . simply as 'a builder'. This is meant to suggest formative, organic, integrative ideas / principles / processes / approaches. The Structurist artist as 'a builder' is concerned with the building / growing process of creation in Art and Nature. THE STRUCTURIST does not adhere to or interpret an individual or group 'isms'. It is neither interested in promoting personalities nor fostering 'schools' or 'styles' of art. It is interested in the free exchange and exploration of the widest variety of ideas contributing to man's growing knowledge of the process of creation [present writer's emphasis] in all fields relating to art.

Bornstein's 'organic' view of Structurism, shared in principle by both David Barr and Elizabeth Willmott, a former student, would therefore appear to embrace ever expanding scientific and epistemological horizons. Far from being a closed system, it is a freely developing and evolutionary discipline. If any further description is needed, the expression 'scientific romanticism' might be appropriate. Critics may object to such a formulation as an inherent paradox and point out the problem of reconciling intuition and rationality within what Anthony Hill has termed 'the constructive syndrome'. But such apparent dichotomies have lost much of their former intractability in the light of contemporary knowledge. Unconscious and intuitive processes, so-called, have long been admitted to equal status with the rational, as fellow members of a wider, all-encompassing reality. Nature, the acknowledged reservoir of Structurist art, is not necessarily confined to the limits of scientific knowledge currently available and certainly not to any narrowing interpretation of the term. If that were the case it is doubtful if Structurism would rise above a merely diagrammatic function. It would lack the element of ambiguity and, if the word is admissible in this context, mystery, that still remains in an essentially metaphorical transcription of nature's processes. But the very limitations imposed by the relief-structure medium to a large extent ensure its integrity as a visual language that must transcend itself, so to speak, in order to justify its validity as an independent art form. Works that employ, as in Structurism, the most rudimentary formal elements, that by their physical nature demand a conceptual and precisely planned execution, will come to life only if guided by a creative mind and instinct of rare quality. As in any classicizing, that is, strictly formulated idiom, it is not simply the requisite flawless and impersonal execution that counts, but the qualities of mind, insight and restrained emotion that illuminate it. Failing the latter, the result cannot be more than a mere exercise in academic theory.

One advantage of seeing the work of two prominent Structurists side by side is the opportunity that such a juxtaposition offers to disprove the reproach frequently levelled at their art that 'it all looks alike'. That observation is about as absurd as suggesting that Palladio's and Wren's architecture is indistinguishable because they both use the same formal components: arches, cupolas, entablatures, pilasters, cornices, pendentives and the rest of the classical repertoire. A comparison of the works of Barr and Willmott is instructive, among other reasons, precisely because it illustrates the divergence of emphasis and variety of personal approach possible within the broad framework of Structurist principles.

As might be expected of an artist closer to the original influence of Biederman, David Barr places considerable emphasis on colour as an organic structural element; whereas Elizabeth Willmott, though by no means indifferent to the role of colour in modifying perceptual space, seems more concerned with the organization of purely relational elements in a pragmatic application of principles stemming ultimately from Mondrian's Neo-Plasticism.

Other characteristic distinctions between the work of the two artists are immediately recognizable. Barr now tends to use thin, vertically oriented planes that project quite prominently from the ground-plane and sometimes divide its entire depth from the upper to the lower extremities. The basic field is thus separated into rhythmic, upright spaces of varying widths, broken in places by the interception of short horizontal planes that serve to check the uninterrupted flow of verticals. Colour, interval and rhythm are the formal devices that compose sequential patterns developing in space and time, like a progression of musical chords interspersed with grace-notes and pauses. The effect of Barr's compositional phrasing is more suggestive of a transcendental experience of nature than of a classic structural resolution of contending forces. His concern for what he himself has described as the 'simultaneous weavings of space/time systems' led him to adopt certain mathematical systems, such as the logarithmic spiral and the Fibonacci series, as 'a vehicle to provide continuity for the various rows of colour/forms'. (8) Systems of this nature provide Barr with a 'serviceable metaphor' for interpreting the cyclical process of growth / decay / regeneration through a formal structure. For this artist, structural process and numerology are not incompatible, since one system echoes the patterns of the other.

Elizabeth Willmott, on the other hand, employs a greater variety of relief elements, ranging from cubes and their extensions and divisions to thin planes grouped in clusters, vertically or horizontally set on the ground-plane. Her disposition of these elements as indicators of unseen spatial modules also clearly differentiates her specific aims from Barr's. Willmott establishes a momentary equilibrium between interacting forces that seem to be contained within a definitive field of spatial activity. But, while in a purely physical sense her structured configurations are stable, they never give an impression of inertia. Their stability is in fact no more than the materialization of a transitory pattern of energies in the process of continuous creation. Like Barr's in this respect, Willmott's art is closely related to systems of biological activity — growth, decay and the transfer of energy. An active potential for change co-exists with the concrete reality of her reliefs, reflecting the tendency of biological forms to proliferate and to assume ever more complex and differentiated aspects in response to environmental pressures. She does not so much reduce the world of nature to a formalized system of dynamic relationships as the reverse: from an internalized awareness of dynamic relationships she creates a formal equivalent of nature. Her reliefs do not, of course, at all resemble trees, flowers or landscapes; but they share with these the same qualities of permanence and evanescence, of stillness and contained energy, of simple clarity and an incalculable reserve of the unknown.

Like many thoughtful artists in this century, David Barr and Elizabeth Willmott have both deeply pondered the issues and problems that confront the development of art. They believe that a progressive and evolutionary art form cannot ignore the physical realities of the universe but should take cognizance of the immense advances in human knowledge of natural processes and endeavor to interpret the latter through the universal language of form and colour. Structurism, like related manifestations of 'the constructive syndrome', continues to attract serious adherents because, although as susceptible as any other to the dominance of method over content, it is fundamentally an inexhaustible idiom. Its human appeal is based on the simple attraction of one orderly system to another. In the biological world of which we are part, survival and satisfaction depend on order and differentiation, on the proper functioning of interrelated energies. It is these life-enhancing qualities or, if you like, human necessities, that Structurist art at its best epitomizes.

artscanada #202/203, Winter 1975-76

Text: © Michael Greenwood. All rights reserved.

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