Gallery 5: Grid

In contrast to the gestural painting in the previous room, Grid examines the more austere, geometric form of abstraction emerging within twentieth-century European and North American art. This language of rational thought, harmony and space emerged in Moscow and Paris during the 1910s, and was developed by Modernist artists as a social and political agenda in the post-First World War world.

This outlook was epitomised by the German Bauhaus school, whose radical ideas spread across Europe and America as its teachers, such as László Moholy-Nagy and Josef Albers, fled Nazi persecution. Two members of another international Modernist group, Abstraction-Création, were fundamental in shaping the work of British and consequently St Ives artists: Dutchman Piet Mondrian and Russian sculptor Naum Gabo. Mondrian’s codification of nature to its essentials of pure colour, line and balance inspired many artists to reduce their experience of landscape to basic elements. Gabo’s teaching encouraged many St Ives artists to explore the ‘architecture’ of space and draw on the mathematical laws within nature. Notably the Constructionist group in London, including Mary Martin, took these ideas to their most abstract extent.

The grid re-emerged in 1960s New York with the development of Conceptual art. Minimalist sculptors such as Donald Judd and Carl Andre completely jettisoned both subject matter and gestural marks by using modular, industrially-fabricated materials. Hovering between large-scale painting, sculpture and architectural feature, they turned viewing into a physical experience. Their works echo the call for an engagement with modern methods and materials made in Gabo’s Constructivist manifesto four decades earlier.