Friedrich Vordemberge-Gildewart: Composition No 15 1925

Friedrich Vordemberge-Gildewart: Composition No 15 1925

Vordemberge-Gildewart was a late member of the De Stijl group that had been formed by Theo van Doesberg and Piet Mondrian in 1917. One of the first painters to focus on abstraction from the very beginning of his career, he produces these balanced, beautiful and harmonious works throughout his life (died in 1962). In Art and Photography (1968), the art-historian Aaron Scharf describes the kind of harmonious aesthetic-technical innovation process evangelised by De Stijl:
“The idea of art as play, discussed by Kant and then by Schiller late in the 18th century, and elaborated upon by Konrad Lange at the turn of the nineteenth, became an important consideration in the aesthetics of twentieth century theoreticians. The spiritual pleasure inherent in the freedom of experimentation was believed by the De Stijl artist, Theo van Doesburg, to be an essential pre-requisite of the truly creative process – the gestalting or forming process as he called it. ‘Play he wrote, is the first step of creation.’ In Film as Pure Form in 1929, characteristically structuring its evolution, he noted that, like other media, photography, having first gone through a phase of imitation, then a second stage of experimentation and manipulation in the mastering of its technical means, must now (as with film), give way to purely creative expression.”

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Tom Philips: A Humument 1970 (book) 2011 (app)

Tom Philips: A Humument 1970 (book) 2011 (app)

Tom Philips is one of those leading artists not bound to a personal style or signature methodology. His work is fascinating, various, eclectic and always just right. A Humument is an experiment. It involves creating new texts and readings from an existing book, in this case A Human Document by W.H. Mallock – an obscure novel that Philips bought for 3 pence in a Furniture Repository in Peckham Rye.

He writes:

“Like most projects that ended up lasting half a lifetime, this work started out as idle play at the fringe of my work and preoccupations. I had read an interview with William Burroughs (Paris Review 1965) and, as a result, had played with the “cut-up” technique, making my own variant (the column-edge poem) from current copies of the New Statesman. It seemed a good idea to push these devices into more ambitious service. “

Oyvind Fahlstrom: World Politics Monopoly 1970

Oyvind Fahlstrom: World Politics Monopoly 1970

From the perspective of a neutral, the Swedish Fahlstrom brings a cool, incisive and avant garde eye to the Cold War – that ghastly period of the nuclear arms race, Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD), rabid anti-communism (etc) that dominated our youth in the 1960s. In the development of MAD, the think-tanks that built US cold-war policy (the RAND Corporation, the Hudson Institute) used von Neuman and Morgenstern’s Theory of Games to explore strategic decision-making. This philosophical investigation gave rise to concepts like zero-sum and non-zero sum games, the prisoner’s dilemma, and the idea of mutually assured destruction – a set of ideas satirised bleakly in Kubrick’s Dr Strangelove (1963). Here Fahlstrom takes the ever-popular Monopoly board game and casts it in the frightening equations of cold-war thinking. Fahlstrom was one the most important multi-media artists emerging in the 1960s. While in New York, he worked with Robert Rauschenberg and Billy Kluver in their Experiments in Art and Technology (EAT) events and happenings.

Hans Prinzhorn: Artistry of the Mentally Ill 1922

Hans Prinzhorn: Artistry of the Mentally Ill 1922

Hans Prinzhorn was a psychiatrist and art historian who had worked with Emil Kraepelin at the University of Heidleberg on a collection of art by mentally disturbed patients. By 1921, when Prinzhorn left Heidleberg, this collection had grown to include over 5000 works by about 350 patients. Prinzhorn’s 1922 book Artistry of the Mentally Ill (profusely illustrated with images from the Heidelberg collection), was the first attempt to analyse this type of art, that subsequently became known as ‘Outsider Art’. Prinzhorn was interested in the borderline between psychiatry and art, mental illness and self-expression, and his work became very influential among artists, especially the Expressionists and Surrealists, with their interest in self expression and in visualising the working of the unconscious mind.

As most serious artists and designers are interested in the act of perception and cognition – the way we transmute the visual and other sensual input from the outside world into mental images – and how we then illustrate these images and evoke them with works of art, Prinzhorn’s book stands out as the first major study to analyse these issues. Of course we know much more now of the workings of the brain, and have begun to develop coherent theories of the Mind (see for example Marvin Minsky’s Society of Mind, and Daniel Dennet’s Consciousness Explained), but the issues addressed by Prinzhorn are still central to these developments. ‘Outsider Art’ is the label now used to describe the art of the mentally ill, the ‘naive’ work of untrained ‘folk artists’, the work of so-called primitive tribes and other similar artefacts, and remains a source of inspiration for artists, nor merely in the radically unconventional images that are produced by ‘outsiders’ but as evidence of these process of perception, cognition and expression that are central to all our experiences of art and design.

Other good books on this subject: Steven Rose: From Brains to Consciousness, Igor Aleksander: How to Build a Mind, and Margaret Boden: The Creative Mind.