We speak of concrete and not abstract painting because nothing is more concrete, more real than a line, a colour, a surface.'_ Theo Van Doesburg
The concept of ‘Art Concrete’ was coined by Theo Van Doesburg in his 1930 ‘Manifesto of Art Concrete’. It proclaimed an art based on elementary principles of form and colour, organized in a systemic manner. Josef Albers’ painting series ‘Homage to the Square’ in which he researches the ‘interaction of colours’ to create the pictorial space is a strong example of these principles being put into practice. Albers employs simple geometric shapes and a systematic colour chart, a methodology he shares with a lot of other ‘masters’ at the Bauhaus, such as Johannes Itten and Wassily Kandinsky. They introduced the notion of visual research based on a rule-based grammar. Similar to words in a language, the visual elements are clearly recognized and defined and, like grammar, structure the work. The artistic attitude is constructed as a language having a clear visual syntax. Such a ‘concrete’ use of colour is opposed to abstract use, since colour is not brought into service to tell us something about the world outside the painting, but is purely and only about the constituent elements of art, its grammar and semantics. This systemic art seeks to establish an artwork as having its own ‘reality’, rather than expressing, illustrating or imitating an external one. As such, it opposes mimesis, the imitation or representation of nature, in the arts.
‘A pictorial element has no other significance than 'itself' and therefore the picture has no other significance than 'itself '
_ Theo Van Doesburg
The meaning of concrete art is based on the way the very elements of art are placed into ‘picture’, the arrangement. (Art Concrete) This art is qualified by its almost scientific approach to investigate primarily geometric and colour rules and their ‘interactions’. Accordingly the differentiation of ‘concrete’ and ‘abstract’ allows us to define an artistic approach focusing on the specificities of a medium, having its own grammar - be it the one of painting, the one of light or the one of computation. Here, ‘concrete’ stands for a general artistic attitude - one of a systematic thinking employing the elementary parameters of a medium. Although both tendencies in art appeared almost at the same time they are in strong opposition. Their juxtaposition addresses a fundamental question of art, one that opposes mimesis in art as a systemic thinking. This is the foundation of Systems art.
Within the evolution from Art Concrete towards Systems art Victor Vasarely is a key figure. Vasarely’s painting series ‘Plastic Alphabet’ is based on a grid system that established modular relationships between forms and colours. Each painting is based on 15 root forms derived from the circle, square and triangle. Variations on these root forms are then developed and painted using colours from different colours values in a range of 20 hues. What Vasarely ultimately created was a programming language that allowed for endless permutations of forms and colours. Vasarely called them ‘programs’.
'The system is the work of art; the visual work of art is the proof of the System. The visual aspect can't be understood without understanding the system. It isn't what it looks like but what it is that is of basic importance.’ _ Sol LeWitt
This principle of 'programs' is also found in the wall drawings of Sol LeWitt, which materialize from what he called 'instructions. These programs are at the origin of a series of geometric shapes or pencil drawings, applied directly on the surface of a wall. The implementation of this process sometimes took a team of people several days or weeks. At the centre of this artistic concern is the initialisation of a process through which the outcome emerges from a series of simple rules. Consequently, they are an artistic methodology dematerialising the artwork that is entirely contained in this written instruction, the concept. Apart from a materialist critique of art, this attitude reflects common systemic thinking present in the art of the sixties and can be frequently found in conceptual art.
’In my case, I used the elements of these simple forms - square, cube, line and colour - to produce logical systems. Most of these systems were finite; that is, they were complete using all possible variations. This kept them simple.’ _ Sol LeWitt
The work of Sol LeWitt is based on another element derived from system theories. The series of drawings ‘Schematic Drawings for Incomplete Open Cubes’ (1974), shows all possible edge combinations of an isometric cube. This process follows the principles of a closed system and its ‘instructions’ display all possible combinations inside a commonly known visual representation system. As such it is finite. The work follows a stochastic logic, which is the reason why his work is often associated with serial art and how this method was brought into relation with stochastic music. All these aspects describe a concrete and visual mode of research, bearing witness to a pre-algorithmic state of art.
In the early 70’s, the artist Vera Molnar, a member of the 'GRAV, (‘groupe recherche art visuel’ or ‘visual research group’), belongs to the first artists that truly carry this stochastic logic into the computer’s realm. The work becomes a program executed by a machine using a programming language. Accordingly, the visual appearance of the artwork results from a logic working on a semantic level as much as on a technological one. Here again, the notion of language and syntax is at the centre of visual research. But what, in the case of the Bauhaus artists, was an allegory to describe the artistic attitude, becomes a logical system where the artwork is truly based on a language. Vera Molnar’s works are part of what we could call the 'plotter drawings' movement, as the plotter figured, for many artists, to be among the few opportunities to visualise the results of the computer’s calculations. These examples, besides many others, sketch the obvious evolution of concrete art to the digital realm.
In this lineage stands the chronoPrints series, a work of LAb[au], created in 2009. The process is based on the assignment of the primary colours of light - red, green and blue - to the basic units of time - hours, minutes and seconds. The progression of time leads to a successive suffusion of coloured surfaces while the plot of the process, in the form of 24 prints, displays chromatic textures of time. The process is based on the 12 a.m. / 12 p.m. time convention and visualises all possible variations following this simple assignment; it is a finite system. This relationship between colour and time follows a systematic exploration of a colour scale impossible to achieve without a computer. The conception of such a system further relies on a precise and unified language, an algorithm.
The theme of the artwork is light and its relationship with time. The series is part of a mode of visual research and follows painting tradition, displaying one of its central themes: colour and light - rendered in its most elementary way by the means and logics of computer. These chonoPrints demonstrate that language based programming can be employed within various media and, as such are not the demonstration of a technology, but an artistic method within the tradition of Concrete Art, and leading to the notion of ‘Digital Concrete’.
‘Colour – light. We finally have the tools, the technology and the knowledge to attempt the plastic-kinetic adventure. …painting and sculpture’ become anachronistic terms: it’s more exact to speak of bi-, tri- and multidimensional plastic art. We no longer have distinct manifestations of a creative sensibility, but the development of a single plastic sensibility in different spaces.’ _ Victor Vasarely
LAb[au]’s luminous-kinetic installation 'mosaique 15x26' researches the perception of colour in relation to movement. The retraction of 390 motorised tiles leads to a play of coloured shadows, as white light decomposes into its primary colours - red, green and blue - as well as all secondary colours - yellow, magenta and cyan. Due to the individual control of the motors activating the tiles, infinite permutations between retracted or extracted tiles can be obtained. This logic follows the idea of a stochastic system and is the basis of the concept of randomOrder. Geometric patterns and random combinations alternate, with one emphasising the structural and architectural strictness of the design, while the other gives way to the deliberate play of colour. These two synergic ‘registers’ add to this mode of visual research and the concrete use of coloured light applies variation on the level of rhythm, one of movement. In its relation to space it is a multi-dimensional fusion of art and architecture, a plastic-kinetic artwork. This architectural thinking plays an important role in the work of LAb[au] and informs an attitude shared with Vasarely, who defines his works as integrations, with his most significant achievement, the Vasarely Foundation building and Theo Van Doesburg whose discussions concerning the synthesis between art and architecture find in L’Aubette, in Strasbourg, their strongest expression.
‘Our condition has changed. Our ethics and aesthetics need to change at their turn. The understanding of art evolves from ‘pleasant utilitarian object’ to ‘l’Art pour l’Art’ and from ‘tasteful’ to ‘transcendent.’ _ Victor Vasarely
Bringing Concrete Art’s attitude into the definition of a contemporary visual language is motivated by its artistic methodology and vision. The concrete language of art is based on rational aesthetics and is coherent within an artistic practice that uses contemporary production processes, methods and materials. This is what ultimately gives an expression and form to a certain moment in time. Triggered by technological progress, new codes (semantics) and methods (practice) emerge, new semiotics appear with art their strongest manifestation. Just like ethics, aesthetics are the carrier of a meta-thinking, which extracts and amplifies the zeitgeist. As our society evolves, ethics and aesthetics change progressively along.
‘Unity is the abstract essence of ‘Beauty’; the very first level of sensitivity. Conceived artistically, unity is the artwork, and poetic equivalent to the World it represents.’ _ Victor Vasarely
The concrete language of art is based on the idea of unity and is contrary to the idea of beauty as being the expression of the individual and the achievement of the genius, as in the pre-modern thinking. This individual expression is replaced by the coherency of a visual language which results from artistic methodology using current forms and techniques, based on current knowledge. Through its ‘concrete’ use the artwork reflects the current state of time and acts like a sign. It is within the field of Art Concrete that semiotic aesthetics appear, introducing a theory of signs, communication and information into artistic discourse. This is the basis of Systems art. Here the creation of what was formerly considered enhancement, through the spectator’s amazement in response to the aesthetics of the ‘beauty’, becomes an appreciation of contemporaneity and unity. Accordingly the Digital Concrete describes aesthetics as being a ‘meta’ language, an expression of our zeitgeist.