Most people in Britain who are interested in contemporary art are not aware of the strength of Concrete and Constructive Art in Germany. In general, German art for us is represented by Gerhardt Richter, Baselitz or Polke, and perhaps the newer photographers Thomas Struth or Andreas Gursky. People would be astonished to learn that there are four or five museums dedicated exclusively to it; as well as several foundations. There are also many private commercial galleries which specialise in this field. Hartmut Böhm and Klaus Staudt are both artists who have significant reputations in Germany. They each have held many museum exhibitions, and their work is to be found in most of the important museum collections. In addition to a long list of one-person exhibitions, they have also taken’ part in numerous group and thematic exhibitions together, but they have never been paired in this way before.
There is some sense to the idea of this combination, in that both artists shared their beginnings in the “Nouvelle Tendence” movement in the period of 1963-65. This was an international movement which held exhibitions in various European cities: Paris, Zagreb and Leverkusen, among them. It overlapped with other groupings at the time: the Zero group, Groupe de Recherche d’Art Visuel and Op Art. In the case of Böhm and Staudt, both had started to make works composed of small identical units arranged on a grid. The idea was that the angle of each unit would be progressively altered, row by row, in a systematic way, eventually generating a new and unexpected overall configuration.
A belief that both artists still share, and which has its origin in “Nouvelle Tendence,” is that the work of a should not be painted; colour should either come from the material used in its construction, or from the light falling on it – in effect an anti-painting stance. But for Klaus Staudt especially, it was this play of light which became such an important aspect of his art. In a typical work, subtle differences of colour and tone appear on each facet of the individual units, according to the angle of the light source; or by light reflected onto those in shadow. Each individual unit receives and reflects light in a different way, according to its positioning. The appearance of these works is subject to constant change as the light alters in the course of the day. “Their essence is not one of rigid permanence but one of lasting permutation” as Gottfried Boehm has said of Klaus Staudt’s work. Instead of using clear Plexiglas glazing, Staudt has at times, used coloured Plexiglas, so that the entire relief is flooded with coloured light – another way to colour without paint. Other later works have utilised translucent Plexiglas as a means of exploring changes of focus within the relief, the units at the back dissolve into soft focus, whilst those at the front retain more of their sharpness. I think it is true to say that Klaus Staudt has continued to work within the concepts established at the “Nouvelle Tendence” time, and he has created a powerful and poetic body of work over this period, developing his interest in light and transparency. Throughout, he has held strongly to the idea of the pictorial field as a governing factor in his work, and the discipline of a square format as a parameter within which to operate. In the case of his three-dimensional work, a cubic or rectilinear space is favoured.
In contrast, Hartmut Böhm seems to contemplate the possibility of an artwork without limits, though governed by the structure of an underlying grid which he establishes at the outset. It leads quickly beyond any containing boundaries towards the infinite. Hartmut Böhm has radically changed the means of his art over the years; the complex grid patterns have given way to simpler and clearer forms. He has worked on various scales, some very large, whilst all the time retaining the idea of transformation through the application of a system. The 1970s and early 80s saw the start of the “Progression towards the Infinite” series where the angle is the “tool’ of transformation. Intervals of the progression are defined by markers; these are sometimes steel sections fixed vertically to the wall, or in other works, perpendicular lines drawn directly onto the wall in pastel or pencil. In either case they are to indicate the place where the angle meets the horizontal line of the grid. One comes to see that probably the progression of any row of elements taken from a typical early work, could have acted as the template for the “Progression Gegen Unendlich” series. There is an invincible logic to Hartmut Böhm’s development as an artist, and he has pursued the consequences of his thought with extreme rigour. It is an impressive achievement. The variety of materials he uses and the different forms that his work has taken over the years, may at first glance, conceal the absolute consistency of purpose which underlies all his work.
It is t privilege to be able to see the work of these two major representatives of the Concrete and Constructive Art movement here in London and I am grateful to the Beardsmore Gallery for their courage in putting on this exhibition in a country that has not always been sympathetic to this kind of art. But it fulfils a long held ambition of mine to bring this art, which so deserves our attention, to Britain.
John Carter, March 2004