GLOSSARY of Words and Concepts in Constructivist and Concrete Art

by Hans Jörg Glattfelder

English translation by Jeffrey Steele

Why a glossary? Because a constructive dialogue can only take place if everyone involved uses certain words the same way. When discussing Constructive and Concrete art, as well as Abstract art and Conceptual art, the lack of a shared lexical basis is often the root of many misunderstandings.
I wrote a first version of the glossary in 2008 for a talk I gave in French. This I translated into German and passed around to several friends, who came back to me with constructive criticisms, corrections and suggestions. The same year, I made a second version of the glossary, after many discussions with Anthony Hill, Axel Rohlfs, Peter Ruppert and Jeffrey Steele. The complete English translation here is by Jeffrey Steele.
In 2010, Eugen Gomringer included the entire glossary in the exhibition catalogue for the show “100 Jahre konkrete Kunst” (“100 Years of Concrete Art”). Based on Peter Ruppert’s suggestion, the current so-called Würzburg Version of the glossary was then expanded to include “Modular Principle”, “Serial Principle”, “Reduction” and “Structure”. I regard the glossary as a work in progress. As of 2011, it can be found on the website of the Museum im Kulturspeicher Würzburg, under information for the P.C. Ruppert collection (Sammlung P.C. Ruppert), and now includes the terms “Conceptual Art” and “Conceptional Art”. Meanwhile, a Hungarian translation externer Linkof the glossary by Dóra Maurer as well as an Italian version externer Linkby Eva Hultberg and a French versionexterner Link by Silke Hass are also available.

Hans Jörg Glattfelder, 2016

(English translation and notes by Jeffrey Steele)

 

Absolute

Abstraction

Art

Body

Colour

Conceptional Art

Conceptual Art

Concrete

Concretion

Construction

Constructivism

Experiment

Image

Light

Material

Method

Modular Principle

Morphology

Objectivity

Perception

Phenomenology

Rationality

Reduction

Serial Principle

Space

Structure

System

Time / History

Universals

Visibility

 

Absolute

Something is called “absolute” if it exists within itself and does not derive its existence from any other thing. The concept of the absolute plays an important role in the early evolution of non-representational art at the beginning of the twentieth century in the form of a pursuit of purity and liberation of the technical means in the production of art. For a long time “absolute” was used synonymously with “concrete” to characterize Concrete art.

 

Abstraction

Abstraction is a procedure that consists in the extraction of selected qualities of an observed object so as to be able to compare these qualities with their occurrence in other objects in order to simplify the understanding of functional object/property relationships and to facilitate their manipulation by the intellect. Abstraction is essential to the process of distinguishing regularities and to determining which constancies might exist among the members of a given set of objects. This establishes the identification of such ensembles and makes them available for scientific articulation.
There are three relevant types of abstraction: 1) idealizing abstraction, which postulates ideal models or paradigms; 2) isolating abstraction, which pays attention to certain aspects of an object by neutralizing all of the others; and 3) generalizing abstraction, which pays attention only to those qualities which the members of a given set of objects bear in common. The word “abstraction” is used to designate both the procedure itself and its outcome. All representational painting and sculpture – in other words, all figurative art, past and present – is abstract in the sense that painting represents three-dimensional situations on a two-dimensional surface, which necessarily involves abstraction. Sculpture, on the other hand, “abstracts” from the portrayed object in the sense that it subtracts from it all unpresented “qualia” of materiality, movement, etc.
Representational works of art do not, therefore, in this sense exist “in, for, and by themselves”. Following Alexandre Kojeve, we might define them as “abstract and subjective”.

 

Art

All attempts to define this activity end in paradox. However, four essential characteristics can be identified with some degree of certainty:
1) The spontaneous discovery, invention or creation (spontane Erfindung) of something not previously known to exist.
2) Material realization or “concretion” of this discovery as something perceivable in space and time.
3) Contextualization, or articulation, within the recognized codes of institutionalized art practice.
4) Reactivation and interpretation of the artwork in the beholder’s consciousness.

If any of these four components is missing, then the artistic procedure fails and the situation relapses either simply into one of “non-art”, or simply into a quasi-fraudulent “mock art” (Rumpfkunst).
Conversely, we could say that “art makes art out of non-art”. While this is an obvious tautology, it might have the advantage of opening a path for future speculation about this controversial theme.

 

Body

The concept of the body – understood as “this, my own material substance” – which is implicit in every perception, has for a long time been neglected by theorists of Constructivist and Concrete art. It deserves, however, to be included as an important component of these deliberations. As the meeting place of the interior and the exterior, it is the site of the coherence of mental ideality and sensual effectiveness. The importance of the human body in the earliest arithmetic formulations (counting, numbers) is well known. It is also omnipresent in the reception of all material – in other words, concrete – works of art, playing a decisive role in determining an appropriately subjective disposition. What is meant here is a pre-discursive mediation, which is a necessary, but not yet sufficient, pre-condition for the full deployment of an artistic discourse.
[Note: The greater ontological question of “corporality” itself in its relationship to space, time, inclusion, etc. is not treated in this glossary (Jeffrey Steele).]

 

Colour

Theo van Doesburg wrote in 1930: “Nothing is true in painting except colour. A colour is a constant energy, determined via its opposition to another colour. Colour is the basic, raw material of painting, and it has no meaning other than itself. Painting is a medium for the optical realization of thought: every painting is a colour-thought.”
The Concrete painting method allows this thought process to evolve, unencumbered by any figurative or symbolic intention, with no constraints other than those that derive from its own inherent character. Alongside the use of material surface colour, conceptions of colour as light, as colour-space, as space-colour have emerged more recently as new fields of experiment for Concrete art.

 

Conceptional Art

The German artist Raimer Jochims came to the public’s attention in the early 1970s with his idea of “Conceptional art” both through his works, and as a teacher at the Frankfurt Städelschule. Conceptional art differs from Concept and Conceptual art – in which a set of performance instructions gives the impetus for a chain of events that unfolds independently of the artist – in the sense that “conception” here means the formulation of a disposition or attitude (or “stance”) that governs artistic decisions and that validates the artist’s accountability as “author” within the tradition of Modernism. The first characteristic of Conceptional art is that artists of this type ground their practice upon an autonomous “artist theory”, i.e. a “conception”. An “artist theory” in this usage does not mean a general theory of art, but rather an individual network of ideas appropriate to the currently prevalent personal and historical situation of the artist. This includes opinions about the historical development of art and the artist’s self-positioning within this narrative, as well as an analysis of the means of pictorial expression and their aptitude for the realization of the conception in a plastic way.
Genuine Conceptional art is always innovative as long as it understands the development of the plastic arts as a process of enrichment, but one in which only authentic discoveries hold a meaningful place, verifiable by reference to the works themselves. The conservation of the authorial assignment indexes not only the specific characteristics of the author, but also those characteristics of the work that result primarily from the procedures of the production of the image (bildgebende Verfahren). Conceptional artists are concerned with presenting their material in an exemplary way, so as to encourage a kind of “seeing sight”, or “ein sehendes Sehen” in the words of Max Imdahl, such that, for the recipient, the act of seeing becomes clearly conscious. Conceptual art, on the other hand, is always associated with seeing as an act of determining.

 

Conceptual Art

The word “concept” means a first sketch, a plan or the inclusive description of an intention whose realization is anticipated. A concept can also consist of a set of instructions for performance that allows for a variable realization.
As a worldwide movement, Conceptual art evolved during the 1960s. It began in North America and developed within the context of Minimal art. The New York artist Sol Lewitt first used the expression “conceptualin connection with his works. The terms Conceptual art and Concept art are often used synonymously. One main innovative aspect of Conceptual art is that the work of art no longer needs to be identified with its purely visual, material constitution, but comes to be understood as a collective, social process of the construction of meanings within which the various viewers and users of the work all take an equal part. At its inception, Conceptual art sometimes had a subversive undercurrent with the declared aim of undermining the commodity character of the artwork. The artist is no longer the “author” in the usual sense, but simply gives the impetus with a concept. In this way, works of Conceptual art can unfold in time without the original authors being necessarily involved. To be sure, the reception processes of the work will be documented via a wide range of media, and these presentations often require authentication by the artist, becoming again commercialized via this route. Verbal language obviously plays an indispensable role in Conceptual art – formulations in words might even be a precondition for a work of this type – whether this be at the first stage of the idea, or during the process of its execution, or finally in the reception of the work.
[Note: Let us not forget the centrally important history of collaborations and exchanges between visual artists and experimental musicians and composers (J. S.).]

 

Concrete

The word “concrete” denotes a directly identifiable thing (or state of affairs) that presents itself immediately to one’s consciousness.
Because no attribute is subtracted from a concrete thing through abstraction, the reception and cognition of it are the richest and most reliable possible, as this object is here and now in the present ["Haecceitas" in the latin sense, J. S.]. However, this receptional mode is, at the same time, the most impoverished. This is because unmediated perception yields nothing but the bare certainty that a concrete thing exists. Conceptual reflection is necessary in order to mediate between these two extremes and to open the way to knowledge. In this sense, Hegel speaks of the “concrete universal” (konkretes Allgemeines). The concrete is thus both the source and the opposite of the abstract.

 

Concretion

This process is the mirror image of abstraction. An idea that has previously existed only in the imagination is materialized or converted (umgesetzt) into a visible, concrete object. In this way, for example a plastic invention (formal, rhythmic, etc.) is “concretized” into an object for use. For an object to be properly called a work of Concrete art, it must comply with the following conditions:
1) Freedom from all iconic reference to any other thing existing in the visual world with the possible exception of other extant works of concrete art.
2) Subjective decisions by the artist should be kept to an absolute minimum in the work.
3) Through the structure of the work, the recipient should be able to discern a clear idea as the determinant basis of its organization.
Discussion of the ontological status of these general ideas (“pictorial universals”) and the ways in which they might come to be manifested in concrete reality takes us back to disputes amongst the medieval schoolmen (see “Universals” below).

 

Construction

A material or imaginary object is referred to as a construction when its configuration complies adequately with an intelligible, rule-governed procedure whose principles can be recovered or retrieved from the study of the object. Generally speaking, these rules will have a rational or systematic basis (rather than, for example, a magical or mystical implication). Many works of Concrete art have origins in construction, but not every artistic construction leads to an outcome which is “concrete” within the present discursive schema (constructions which serve representational purposes, such as perspective, etc., would be excluded). Conversely, there are concrete works that do not arise from constructive procedures.

 

Constructivism

The ideas and methods of Constructivism are encountered in various domains of both the natural and social sciences. All of the Constructivists mentioned here would accept that the perceived object is constructed by the percipient subject in and through the perceptual process itself. The term was first used within mathematical philosophy at the beginning of the twentieth century by Henri Poincaré, L.E.I. Brouwer and others. Its second public usage, this time as an innovatory method of artistic ideation, was by the Russian Constructivists of the early Soviet Union around 1920.
The word was used a few years later in an entirely different context by the Swiss developmental psychologist Jean Piaget to designate the specific ways in which the growing infant “constructs” his or her awareness of space and movement in the world. A “constructivist” theory of education influenced by these discoveries was later developed in the US (John Dewey). The knowledge and the techniques to which Norbert Wiener gave the name cybernetics are also a type of Constructivism (especially as these are interpreted in the theories of W. von Foerster, Silvio Ceccato, W.T. Powers and others). A branch of epistemology known as the Erlangen school of Constructivism, led by P. Lorenzen and W. Kamlah, set itself the task of elaborating a research programme that would establish a "step-by-step, rational reconstruction of scientific acts based on people's normal experience in the everyday world.” In the 1970s, the Chilean biologists H.R. Maturana and F.J. Varela developed a neurophysiologic model of living systems, interpreted as “auto-constructive” or “auto-organizational” in interaction with their environmental conditions. This was the impetus for the further development of a special branch of research that has become known as “radical constructivism”.
It is important to emphasize that there is no real common theoretical principle uniting these various “constructivisms”, much less any coordinating instance. This is regrettable to the extent that a fuller recognition and exploration of this theoretical deficit could possibly lead to a reactivation of the dialogue between art and science, which has become continually more impoverished since the time of the Renaissance.

 

Experiment

From its inception, Concrete art has repudiated all formalistic closure (setting itself up, for example, against Mondrian’s version of “Neoplasticism”). It has favoured instead an attitude that is open to the variable outcomes of experimentation through which anticipated relationships, reactions and interactions among selected subjects and objects are put to test under controlled conditions. There is a necessary temporal ordering of situations here between “before” and “after” conducting the experiment. To the “before” belong suppositions and hypotheses about postulated, law-like relationships between an object and its context. To the “after” belongs the evidence that tends to confirm or refute the given hypothesis.
It could be misleading, however, to speak of the success or failure of an experiment, or the hypothesis that it was designed to verify. Whatever its outcome, the experiment might remain valid in the sense that it could indicate a fruitful direction for consequent research. Genuine rationalism is unthinkable without an experimental attitude.

 

Image

It is often said that a work of concrete art “represents itself” or that it is the image of itself. This is the opinion of most artists, and it holds true insofar as every perceived thing becomes a “picture” in the consciousness of the beholder. However, it is misleading in the sense that – within the context of the institutionally organized “art world”, wherein the “thing” in question is situated – it necessarily refers the observer back to the constituent subject or collective who has created it. It assumes therefore, even sometimes against the intentions of its creator, that the characteristic of a “picture” in the traditional sense is that of the bearer of a meaning other than its own identity.
Those who attempt to follow an idea of Nelson Goodman and others to explain Concrete art as a form of “exemplification” and to attribute to such works the function of a “sample” distances themselves from the conception of an absolutely non-referential art. This is because a sample, if it is to function as one, must always indicate at least one specific aspect of the larger ensemble that it is purposed or supposed to exemplify.

 

Light

In figurative painting in the past, light served a powerful function as a metaphor for immaterial, spiritual forces.

Within the discipline of Concrete art, any attempts to organize light artificially – via chiaroscuro modelling, etc. – are considered as a form of illusionism, which can only weaken the concrete character of the work. However, the specific organization of degrees of luminosity as an inherent component of the interaction of colour (J. Albers) belongs quite legitimately within our purlieu. In concrete photography light is not only a central theme, but also an indispensable source of energy in the generation of the work.

 

Material

Some works of art that focus a particular and exclusive attention on the characteristics of their material presence (their faktura) are often included in the category of Concrete art. This is a misleading attribution, however, because a narrower view holds that the specificity of Concrete art lies in concretization as the materialization of an abstract idea. Thus, it is not the material as such, but the justification of its organizational method that decides the status of the work.

 

Method

Richard Paul Lohse writes in his text Entwicklungslinien (Lines of Development): “The method presents itself; it is the picture [Bild].” His words indicate the close interconnectedness of three aspects without which no authentically Constructivist-Concrete work can exist: concretion, construction and rational transparency. The distinction between this and other artistic methodologies is that the method is thematized in an accountable way.

 

Modular Principle

A module is a unit of measurement. In the case of painting and sculpture, therefore, “modular” refers to plane-covering or space-filling units respectively. Methodologically, working with modular orderings corresponds to certain (e.g. normative) aspects of industrial production while also making these procedures visible. This method of working is closely related to serialization, although the serial method is more concerned with temporal perception, and the modular with spatial formations. Within the field of Concrete art, the module has, as a structural element, the function of a building block that permits the development of intelligible combinations, revealing, in their turn, hierarchies of structural relationships. When such a project is carried through over the course of a lifetime of work (as in the case of the German painter Heijo Hangen), wherein the module remains constant throughout, a definite visual syntax emerges, such that works from different chronological conjunctures can be brought together in newly coherent imbrications.

 

Morphology

In Pasadena in the 1930s, the Swiss astrophysicist Fritz Zwicky developed a research strategy intended to be capable of cataloguing all possible galactic configurations.
This consisted in the establishment of a “morphological box” wherein all of the possible combinations – including the most counter-intuitive – of the selected data were generated by permutational systems. The morphological method has been applied not only in the fields of biology, linguistics, and crystallography, but also to problems of design and urban planning. Art was also always a favourite site for morphological hybridizations, such as angels, dragons, or centaurs, but of course one cannot speak of systematic procedure in this context. Just as with Constructivism, morphology can also provide a common terrain of research and a site for privileged exchange in the dialogue between art and science.

In this context, the ars combinatoria of Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz must be cited as a main precursor.

 

Objectivity

The Russian Constructivists and later the originators of Concrete art evoked this desideratum as one of their main innovatory principles. In this, they were influenced to some extent by nineteenth-century scientific positivism, seeing in it a way of strengthening their polemical position. They came to rely upon the ideal of a scientific, mathematically grounded objectivity at a time just when these foundations were being shaken by the discoveries of quantum mechanics.
To be sure, every realized work of art can be treated as a specimen for objective investigation – however capricious and subjective its origins might be. (Note J. S.: But Constructivist and Concrete art seeks to eliminate every trace of a subjective origin in its product.) This would seem to entail recourse to universally valid forms, such as those of geometry, or relying on numbers – ideal objectivities, which present themselves always and to every individual consciousness as immutable in space and time. The presence or absence of such entities thus provides the criterion for distinguishing between objective and concrete works on the one hand, and subjective and abstract works on the other.

 

Perception

The perception of a non-representational painting differs from the viewing of a figurative picture in an important way. In the latter case, the viewer’s attention is focused on the depicted object. The picture plane is penetrated, and a scene is reconstructed in a virtual space. In the former case, the recipient encounters no prompting toward virtual space, and attention remains concentrated on the physical surface, anchored (so to speak) to the pure visibility of the painted object.
Contemporary psychology favours the hypothesis that seeing is helped in part by contextual rules (in computer language: “short menus”) which aid classification and facilitate the cognitive process via systematic inhibitions and short circuits. Sight is a subjective act of construction, and because in a concrete painting the gaze or glance is inhibited from its tendency to divert into deep space, the viewer is encouraged to think about the act of seeing as such: “What, in seeing, do I see?”

 

Phenomenology

There is an affinity between Concrete art and phenomenology that arises from the similarity between the “non-representationality” of art and what is known as “phenomenological reduction”. The founder of transcendental phenomenology, Edmund Husserl, advocated the maxim “back to the things themselves” to summarize the method of seeing referred to as epoché, or the “bracketing out” of all preconceived assumptions that might corrupt the relationship of the seeing subject to his or her directly lived experience. The exclusion of all connotational signification from the direct encounter with a work of Concrete art obviously brings this specific mode of reception very close to the phenomenological method.

 

Rationality

Corresponding to its methodical and constructive principles, since its inception, Concrete art has presented itself as “rational”. Engaged with the modern movement in architecture and design, its first protagonists understood it primarily as a countervailing stance against the cultivated irrationalism of the Surrealists as well as that of the “realisms” (or “pseudo-realisms”) prevalent in the contemporaneous German and Russian political regimes. Their anti-romantic polemics, their insistence on numerical measurement, and their implicit belief in technological progress have provoked severe criticism and counterattacks from established cultural authorities ever since. Many twentieth-century developments associate Rationalism with a rather naïve belief in progress. Concrete artists have found themselves obliged to rethink their position vis-à-vis this changing historical situation without, however, altogether renouncing their opposition to the continually expanding influence of irrationality, mystification, and obscurantist ideologies.
Strategies have been devised to explore and test the limits to the concept of the rational and to counter some of the legitimate criticisms of it that have emerged during this debate. One contribution to these deliberations is that of the author of the present glossary, who around 1980 proposed the term “meta-rationalism” to designate “a plastic language in which rationality is simultaneously thematized and called in question.”

 

Reduction

Colloquially, reduction means making something smaller – the way we reduce speed, for instance, or reduce a budget. In art however, the word reduction does not carry this sense of diminution. Starting around the mid-twentieth century, for certain art movements and especially for Minimal art, “reduction” became a defining characteristic. In these cases, its usage revives the original Latin sense of reductio, meaning “leading something back to its primary state”, concentrating on that which is essential, and stripping away all that is not essential. This meaning was instantiated in Ad Reinhardt’s aphorism “less in art is not less” as well as in Mies van der Rohe’s “less is more”. The procedural method of reduction is abstractive. It abstracts by subtracting all that is superfluous. This process has always been important for making art, especially when investigating form.

 

Serial Principle

Deriving originally from its usage within the “new music” of the post-war period, the word “serial”, in its application to Concrete art, indicates a strict adherence to standardized elements brought into a systematic unity on the basis of definite sequences of numbers or proportions. The aspiration here is toward the avoidance of subjective or arbitrary formal decisions – a discipline advocated by Theo Van Doesburg in his manifesto art concret. Serial procedures are deployed with equal validity to single works as well as across sets or groups of works. Even in the former case, serial structures imply a temporal sequentiality, and hence a rhythmical iteration. Where sets of related works are concerned, serial structures often provide a starting point for interactions – as when, for example, a formal structure gives rise to a specific structuration of colour presentations (Lohse). Serial artists regard their work as a research programme, from which all emotional or subjective decisions are necessarily excluded in the interests of a self-consistent, self-driven procedure, which is found, in the event, to yield more surprising and unconventional results.

 

Space

In a work of Concrete art, the space of the painting or the sculpture is identical with that within which it is presented. This “self-identical” or concrete space differs radically from the pictorial space types of traditional art, which is, as has already been claimed, “abstract”.

 

Structure

To describe a structure is to comprehend the particular way in which a thing, a substance or a set of things is assembled or articulated. The orderly arrangements which, by this method, are “analysed out” (herausgelöst) from concrete entities exist timelessly. They turn up identically in ever-changing situations. We can distinguish between ideal and material structures: geometric, algebraic or logical structures are ideal structures; physical, chemical and biological structures are of the material kind. In the technological age, engagement with structures – and with infrastructures – in architectural construction, traffic and communications networks, etc., often take on a decisive importance.
Visual structures play a central role in Constructivist and Concrete art as intelligible, rule-governed orderings that enable the internal arrangement of parts to be seen. The above-mentioned double-sidedness of junction can be found in such visual structures: On the one side, there are material data; on the other side, there are also the forms by means of which consciousness completes its acts of perception.

 

System

A system is defined as an ensemble of interacting elements, purposefully determined in such a way that nothing can be added or taken away from it without impairing that purpose’s core function. Closed and open systems are distinguished according to whether their interactions are deemed to be exclusively internal or, alternatively, as engaging with their enveloping circumstances. The major philosophical systems of the past aspired to totality. Alongside these there are microsystems whose function is to encompass a bounded field exhaustively and exactly.
A particular development of Constructivist and Concrete art arose during the 1960s called “systematic”, or “serial”, art; and it remains productive today. The artists of this movement produced predetermined sequences of works derived from purposely prepared programmes (which can be designated as closed microsystems) and to which they ascribed paradigmatic significance.
These artists’ interests in research programmes based on closed and formal, often very restricted systems diminished later because of their redundancy. Open systems (for example, in Lohse’s work) are still being deployed today in order to extend the purview of Concrete art. Along with morphology, experimentation, phenomenology and methodical rationality, they constitute the “research toolkit” of Concrete art.

 

Time l History

In their one-sided enthusiasm for the beauty and perfection of platonic forms and bodies, for the “golden section”, and other allegedly aesthetic ratios, some commentators have engendered the notion that Concrete art is something timeless and removed from history. But any artistic practice evolves within a definite historical context, and Concrete art is no exception. This historical context includes the totality of social evolution, modes of production, forms of life, the circulation of information, etc. An agrarian society will develop different forms of art from those of a post-industrial civilization. In its methodical impetus and constructive rationality, Concrete art reflects and elaborates broad aspects of our epoch. It responds to it and also corresponds with it in a visual way. This is its specific way of making art out of that which is not art.

 

Universals

In the medieval “dispute about universals”, the realists, who thought that ideas really exist in time and space, opposed the nominalists, for whom ideas and general concepts were fabrications of the human mind. Concrete art does not derive its vocabulary through “abstraction” from other existing things, but rather tries to render general ideas into concrete forms that might be called “visual universals”. This means that it ascribes a certain reality status to these pre-existing ideas, and that it comes out, perhaps unexpectedly, on the side of the realists (see, for example, Hans Heinz Holz’s “Konstruktive Kunst ist ein Universalienrealismus” [“Constructive Art is a Universal Realism”]).
These days, of course, it is less a case of trying to resolve this dispute on one side or the other and more about the elaboration of the consequent epistemological implications. Here, too, Concrete art takes up an exceptional position. It demonstrates clearly that we can perceive concepts only in the singular, concrete object. At the same time, however, in the words of Ernst Cassirer, the concrete can be thought “only with regard to the general”.

 

Visibility

“From Lascaux till today, pure or impure, figurative or not, painting never celebrates any other enigma than that of the visible.” With these words, Maurice Merleau-Ponty describes what is surely the central objective of Concrete art, namely to establish a body of work whose sole justification and mode of accessibility is through pure visibility. The fascination of seeing that which one sees is bound to take precedence over every consequent notion of the “concretion of an idea”. Only if this procedure makes that idea, across in its entirety, into visible terms can one speak legitimately of a realized work of art.
Merleau-Ponty insists on the existence of an enigma. Because of its elimination of all distraction and illusionism (all associative meanings, metaphors, symbolism, and everything of that kind), the type of art that we have been concerned with in this glossary seems to be well placed to introduce an innovative path toward the tractability of this inherently enigmatic relationship between sight and cognition.

 

Translator’s notes
by Jeffrey Steele

“All right, I am really a constructivist artist.” (Piet Mondrian to Naum Gabo, 1938)

Over and above the well-known “traduttore, traditore” problem, and the complex issues arising from the “linguistic turn” in philosophy, translating this glossary has posed a third layer of problems.
I am reminded of a meeting in Caracas at which – when the party got rough – the professional translators became more indignant than the protagonists themselves. The point at issue was precisely the antagonism between advocates of “ordinary language philosophy” and others who insisted on the need for specialist technical terminologies.
“Pragmatic” philosophy is not “pragmatist” philosophy, and “pragmaticist” philosophy is a third thing again.
Adding or subtracting a single phoneme can change or invert a whole metaphysical schema and these nuances can provide the whole raison d’être for an artist’s lifework.
The question arises: In the context of visual art, and in its daily practice, how important or effective is the instrumental use of the word (already a dubious category in linguistic science) to demarcate an idea, with its inevitable chains of connotation?
After all, “De Nieuwe Beelding” of De Stijl seems to have survived its potentially disastrous Anglicization as “Neoplasticism”.
Another way of putting this question is: In order to enjoy or appreciate Constructive/Constructivist art, is it necessary to evaluate the theories of the artists who have produced it?
It would be a mistake to think of this glossary as a kind of catechism. There is no injunction anywhere in the offing. It is a work in progress: necessarily always corrigible and incomplete – in Piaget’s sense, “En un mot, le sujet existe parce que, de façon générale, l’ ‘être’ des structures, c’est leur structuration” (Le structuralisme, P.U.F., 1968, p. 120), or “The subject exists because, to put it very briefly, the being of structures consists in their coming to be, that is, their being ‘under construction’” (Chaninah Maschler’s translation of the above sentence in Jean Piaget, Structuralism, R.K.P., 1971, p. 140).
Next question: Is “being under construction” a fair translation of the substantive “structuration”?
When Hans Jörg Glattfelder invited me to translate his initial draft – first written in French – I accepted without considering too carefully the amounts of time and responsibility that this task would entail. And also the amounts of stress, because I am an artist who has a strong personal investment, both in the ideas expressed here and in the linguistic forms through which they are expressed. Throughout I have sought to find forms of phrase which might satisfy both the author and the translator, and only in very few instances have I found myself writing sentences with which I flatly disagree.
Constructive art is undoubtedly a collaborative project, but its day-to-day production, since its inception, has involved many quarrels and sometimes violent antagonisms. The entries in this glossary open up many unresolved polemical issues, which go far beyond the purlieu of visual art, and it would be a mistake for the reader to look for any underlying “united front”.

Jeffrey Steele, Portsmouth, 23 June 2013

 

 

 


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