Giacometti 1

Willy Müller-Brittnau, Untitled (detail), 1968. © Bechtler Museum of Modern Art. All rights reserved.

Geometry and Experimentation: European Art of the 1960s and 1970s

Location: Fourth-floor gallery On View: October 7, 2011 to February 27, 2012

Artists have demonstrated a fascination for geometry for millennia. This is evident in Greek and Roman architecture, the variety of patterns used for centuries in Asian art, and the investigation into the mystery and power of form, proportion and symmetry in the Renaissance. Geometry has served as a crucial instrument of intellectual rigor, spiritual inquiry and self-discovery.

The modern artists of the 20th century did not shy away from these profound traditions but instead further extended these aspects in the works shown in Geometry and Experimentation: European Art of the 1960s and 1970s on view October 7, 2011 through February 27, 2012. The obsession with pattern was often wedded with continuing analyses of intellectual, systemic, spiritual and aesthetic modes of thought. In several cases the works in this show are tied to new ideas in engineering and architecture, to graphic art and typography, color theory, spatial representation and light refraction. Several media are used (painting, sculpture, ceramic, drawing and prints). There are familiar works by major figures of the modern movement (Victor Vasarely’s Tridem K and Bridget Riley’s Fade) as well as lesser known but important works (Programierung 032/70 by Vera Isler-Leiner and the publication Recherche, expérimentation).

The theme of geometry provides an opportunity to share the works of artists in the Bechtler collection from various backgrounds, nationalities, ages and outlooks who, during a window of only about 10 years, selected geometric forms and patterns as their principal means of intellectual and aesthetic exploration. For some, such as Max Bill, a close friend of the Bechtler family, geometry was essential to his remarkable system of thinking as expressed in his sculpture, painting and graphic art. But he was also an important engineer, industrial designer  and architect who lectured and wrote widely and had studied at the Bauhaus in Dessau under Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee and Oskar Schlemmer . 

There are pieces by Victor Vasarely, one of the fathers of Op art, whose works here in a variety of media demonstrate his ongoing contemplations of the powerful impact of geometry on our spatial awareness, the standardization of visual language and the kinetic possibilities of two-dimensional line when layered in acrylic planes. The sculptural works of Gianfredo Camesi establish a complex presence before us through their tightly wrought combination of planes and lines that reach out into the space around them with a severe geometric clarity. John Armleder’s dot fields are expressive of little more than themselves and are meant to encourage a meditative and liberating engagement that is more about a way of thinking than the specifics of seeing. The remarkable Bridget Riley is paired with her early mentor, Victor Pasmore, whose role as a teacher and whose advances in abstract art paved the way for an entire generation in England including Riley, one of the most important artists of our time. The mesmerizing optical tensions in her work are the result of her close study of the geometric relationships between lines and space and the rhythmic dynamism enhanced by color and tone.  

There is an overarching unity and common language of form in the approaches taken in these works. But it is a language that varies widely in its application and intention. For some of the artists represented, their absorption with geometry was but a flirtation; for others it was a career-long commitment.  It was both a means to an end and an end in itself; a formal language, a philosophical declaration, a mystery and the simplest and most hypnotic of truths.

Exhibition media sponsors: artsee and qcitymetro

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