The exhibition opens with a room of works exploring the form of the cube. In the early part of the twentieth century, many artists associated with Constructivism – van Doesburg, Malevich and Mondrian – had used objective systems such as mathematics and physics to achieve compositional harmony and order in their work. These ideas continued to influence artists working in Europe and South America, and also contributed to the emergence of Minimalism in the United States during the 1950s and 1960s. For Minimalist artists like Donald Judd the cube represented an ideal form: it stands as a simple system, governed by geometric principles that can be endlessly repeated.
In the mid 1960s artists began to treat the cube in a new way. Going beyond pure abstraction, they began introducing variables into the system. A classic example is German artist Hans Haacke’s Condensation Cube 1963-5. A sealed Perspex box, it contains a small amount of water. As light enters, the cube warms up and the water condenses on the inside walls. It then runs down to collect on the bottom, and the whole process is repeated ad infinitum. Haacke is using a biological system to create a work that depends entirely on its particular surroundings: the light and temperature of the gallery directly influence the process of condensation, placing the viewer and work in real time and space.
Reacting against the limitations of geometric structure as an end in itself, American artist Sol LeWitt explored narrative systems that would engage the viewer. Muybridge I 1964, was inspired by the motion studies of the nineteenth-century photographer Eadweard Muybridge. LeWitt counteracts the passive nature of the cube by inserting peepholes in his wooden box, where the viewer can see a sequence of photographs of a nude female figure, appearing closer in each successive image.