Breakthrough

1953 is a turning point in Constant’s artistic and intellectual development. So far Constant has demonstrated almost no interest in architecture.

Looking back, in 1981 he says: I felt I needed to take a leap over the fence and go browsing in that cold abstraction. Because I realized that while we had been busy with Cobra, all around us entire city districts had been erected that were part of this ‘abstraction froide’: straight lines, steel structures, huge concrete surfaces. I wanted to explore this field for myself sometime, on an aesthetic level. After all it did lead me to New Babylon.

At a time when Paris is still the centre for the art world, and New York is up and coming, in November 1952 Constant decides to go and study in London. Once there he visits the studios of Henry Moore, Anthony Hill, Kenneth Martin and Alan Davie and the studios of Ben Nicholson and Barbara Hepworth in St. Ives (Cornwall). He meets Victor Pasmore and Roger Hilton, with whom he becomes friends and continues to correspond with for many years. In London Constant discovers that the ‘art climate’ is very open. In contrast to Paris, art is judged more ‘objectively’ in London. Probably because here artists are closely involved in art education.

In bomb-damaged London Constant ponders the question of the city as a set for daily life. In London he starts to reflect on the relationship between life’s activities and living conditions. And how he can contribute to the reconstruction of post-war Europe. He wonders how art can make a contribution to life’s all-encompassing intensification. Back in Amsterdam Constant studies the textbooks of his friend, the architect Aldo van Eyck. Whereas in the Cobra period imaginary creatures dominated his paintings, Constant now abstracts and produces paintings, collages and reliefs of intersecting planes of color and compositions such as Compositie met 158 blokjes [Composition with 158 Cubes] (1953), which show an affinity with (Russian) constructivism. In 1953 Constant makes a relief Compositie met blauwe en witte blokjes [Composition with Blue and White Cubes], in which he adds a dimension to the two-dimensional painting. In an interview in 1999 with Benjamin Buchloh, during a symposium, accompanying an exhibition by Constant in New York, the following discussion on this subject arises:

BB. And then there is a reversal in your own development around 1953, if I remember correctly, when you start making wooden reliefs that suddenly look like an early form of distribution sculpture. These reliefs look as though they had taken Mondrian’s New York series and his Victory Boogie-Woogie into account. They seem to have recognized that there is a new type of compositional seriality that can be achieved with modular units. This seems to be a dramatic departure from everything that you had done, and I don’t think that any other COBRA artist ever did anything like this.

C. No, but COBRA was finished in ’51, and after that the cohesiveness of COBRA fell apart. Asger Jorn was in the hospital and Christian Dotremont went to the same hospital and other people went to Paris. I also went to Paris, to London afterward. I came back to Holland and turned to architecture. I met Aldo van Eyck for the second time and this time I expressed to him the desire to be more closely instructed in architecture. I wanted to study architecture, but he didn’t find this necessary, and he gave me all his books from his study period and said: “Here you can just read them yourself, and they will be enough for you.” [laughter] “You don’t need to go to school anymore”. So, I did, and the paintings you are comparing now to Mondrian paintings, I did these in ’53, with all these little squares, white and blue, and other things also. These reliefs have quite another purpose than the paintings that Mondrian made. They were the illustrations of my thoughts about architecture, and especially urbanism. Amsterdam was being rebuilt slowly, by that time, so there was a lot of architecture in the field of urbanism especially, new quarters and new suburbs arose. They were my tryouts to illustrate what I was learning from the books of Aldo van Eyck.

Spatial colorism