Home Magazine A plunge into Geometric Art

When we talk about Geometric Art, we have to refer to those that were the first forms of use of geometry in artistic production: that is, the Greek art produced between the 9th and 8th centuries BC, an important decorative artistic style.

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Known by the name of “Geometric”, during this period Greek artists began to create and develop an artistic style used mainly in the production of precious ceramic vases decorated precisely by skilled craftsmen with geometric patterns. Among the main decorative motifs found in these amphorae and vases there are chequered, concentric circles, triangles, wolf’s tooth, the greek and meanders (of all these motifs we see an example in the image below).

It is therefore from the centuries before Christ that artists began to use geometric figures as a form of artistic expression, which, however, was gradually abandoned over the centuries in favour of increasingly realistic, perspective, and three-dimensional representations. Western art was in fact, from the Renaissance until the 19th century, marked by the logic of perspective and the attempt to produce an illusion of visible reality. 


Ton Schulten, De graanvelden, 2010


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But from the beginning of the twentieth century, many artists began to feel the need to create a new type of art that would include the fundamental changes that were taking place in technology, science, and philosophy. Thus began the movement of Abstractionism, an artistic movement that set out to use a visual language of shapes, colours, and lines with the aim of creating a composition that could exist with a degree of independence from visual references in the world. 

So, in 1917 a group of Dutch artists, Piet Mondrian, Theo van Doesburg and Gerrit Rietveld gave life to the magazine De Stijl (the style) and together with it to the artistic movement of Neoplasticism, also known as Geometric Abstractionism. The desire was to give life to an artistic form that once again abolished the third dimension, expressing itself through lines and colours (in particular the primary colours in addition to black and white) spread in flat shades and claiming independence from emotional values. The world is therefore conceived as order and harmony of mathematical principles.

Theorists: Mondrian, van Doesburg, Rietveld

Between 1911 and 1914 Piet Mondrian is in Paris and begins to learn about Cubism, which will represent an essential step towards its progressive abstraction that will lead to the production of “Compositions” that will make him famous and immediately recognizable throughout the world. Geometrical abstraction is for the artist the result of a detachment from emotionality to prefer a recovery of rationality: to give order and rigor to reality as life should be guided by the rigor of thought. 


Piet Mondrian, Composizione con rosso, giallo e blu, 1929, olio su tela, Amsterdam Stedelijk Museum.


Theo van Doesburg elaborates an idea of painting for which it had the precise task of enhancing architecture, a painting also in this case characterized by the use of primary colours and elementary geometric shapes, such as lines and squares. These principles will also be applied in the world of editorial printing through a reflection on the relationship between the book and art and a study of the graphic and typographic composition between book and magazine.


Theo van Doesburg, Cafè de l'Aubette in Strasbourg, 1926-1927, via Wikipedia


The last of the three founders was an exponent in the field of architecture and design. The neo-plastic ideals thus find expression in Gerrit Rietveld in an architectural form aimed at emphasizing the experience of space now emancipated from the superfluous and ornamental. The architectural space can be enjoyed by the user only if it is coherently modulated through a careful scanning of geometrically exact planes. Even the thoughtful choice of building materials (such as linoleum or plywood) suggests an intact and clean spatial experience. 



Gerrit Rietveld, Rietveld Schröder House in Utrecht, 1924, (collage).


In Italy: the “comasco” Abstractionism

The leaders of the school in Italy were the so-called Astrattisti comaschi (abstractionists from Como), a group of artists who represented the most homogeneous transposition in Italy of the abstract avant-garde movements that had flourished in those years in Europe, from Russian Suprematism to the De Stijl movement.  

Among the leading names we find Manilo Rho whose original painting consists precisely in the miraculous synthesis between a very rigorous geometry, similar to that of the Russian Suprematists, and a moderate warmth, typically Lombard. 


Manlio Rho, Composizione, 1953, © 2002-2018 Roberta Lietti Arte Contemporanea.


Rho’s name is linked to that of Mario Radice, also from Como, and one of the first Italian artists to free himself from the schemes of the twentieth century to participate in the first ferments of abstract painting. His painting is built according to a precise geometry set through the mediation of space and light, which gives rise to new relationships between colour and plastic dynamism.



Mario Radice, Geometrie, 1962.


Along with them, we cannot fail to mention the architect Giuseppe Terragni, an exponent of the rationalism that developed in parallel with fascism and that is often associated with it, becoming its characteristic artistic expression. In these years Terragni, with his architecture, was an absolute innovator because he was able, with his compositional and de-compositional strategies, to put the functionalist statute back in the foreground in search of new architectural forms.


Giuseppe Terragni, Casa Rustici in Milan, 1936.


The main representatives in the world

1. Kazimir Malevič

When we think about the geometric rigor, we cannot fail to mention the founder of the Suprematist movement, Kazimir Malevič, which began with the painting “Black Square on White Background” in 1913. In developing his own style, he hoped for an absolute supremacy of plastic sensibility. For some years his compositions were gradually enriched in the range of colours and shapes (although always strictly geometric), and then return to the purity of his original ideals by painting “White Square on White Background” with which, in 1919, declared the experience of Suprematism ended. 


Kazimir Severinovič Malevič, Quadrato nero, 1915, Galleria Tret'jakov, Mosca.


2. František Kupka

The Czech painter František Kupka joined the Abstraction-Création group in 1931, after a long research work done in his youth. He was among the pioneers of abstract art in Europe experimenting with the development of his abstract lines in different ways, through vertical lines, organic shapes, and linear movements, thus focusing on geometric abstraction.


František Kupka, Linee rette e circolari, 1937, © Adagp Paris 2018, © National Gallery in Prague.


3. Paul Klee

Paul Klee, another important exponent of abstractionism, considered art a discourse on reality and not a simple reproduction of it. For this reason, he chose to represent in his works a rarefied reality, made essential, sometimes reduced to simple lines or coloured backgrounds. A striking example is “Fire in the Evening” (1929) in which he put on cardboard (even the choice of supports highlights the artist’s desire to experiment) the memories of his trip to Egypt: the canals and fields of this land are thus represented geometrically through rectangles clearly divided into different shapes and colours.   


Paul Klee, Fire in the Evening, 1929.


4. Hilma af Klint

A female name on our list: Hilma af Klint. A radical forerunner of an art that distances itself from visible reality, the artist developed an abstract language as early as 1906. However, her works are not mere abstractions of shapes and colours, but rather the representation of the invisible. Like many of her contemporaries, she was strongly influenced by philosophical and esoteric currents, in particular Spiritualism, Theosophy and later also Anthroposophy. Her interest in abstraction and symbolism stemmed in fact from Hilma’s involvement in Spiritualism, which was very much in vogue in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. 


Hilma af Klint, Il Cigno, 1915.


5. Max Bill

A multifaceted genius, Max Bill encompasses the entire field of visual arts, being an architect, designer, painter, sculptor, and graphic artist, as well as a theoretician of the various art forms to which he contributed. In 1929 he set up his own business as an architect in Zurich, where throughout his long career he was in constant contact with the leading artists of his century, representing Swiss art at the highest level.

He also produced many paintings and sculptures, as well as design pieces, in which the various geometric forms are developed in logical sequences and structures governed by mathematical rules. His contribution can thus be identified in an extreme and rigorous essentialism, which in fact concedes little to external form. The result, whether a print or an object, is a design that is far removed from randomness.


Max Bill, Pavillon-Skulptur in Zürich, 1983.

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6. Barnett Newman

Barnett Newman formed himself in the environment of abstract expressionism by searching for a suitable subject for his ideas for a long time, until he decided to place the theme of origin at the centre of his world, so much so that in many cases even the titles of his paintings will be closely linked to this concept. 

His art is one in which the difference between line-figure and background is suspended.

Observing Newman’s style, one immediately thinks of Mondrian, but it has to be said that it was not until the mid-1960s that the American painter realised how close his ideas were to those of the Dutch painter, and that in fact their differences were based solely on a different conception of the sense of wholeness. This gave rise to the homage series entitled “Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue”.


Barnett Newman, Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue, 1966.


7. Agnes Martin 

After a period of experimentation with watercolours and figurative landscapes, Agnes Martin finally abandoned this technique at the end of the 1950s and turned to surrealist oil paintings. Three-dimensional objects were thus abandoned in favour of an abstraction of great simplifications. These mature works (recognisable by their square format, the grids or lines drawn on the canvas, the monochrome with slight shading) were to exert an enormous influence on the younger generation of artists.

Conceived as antidotes to everyday distraction, his works are presented as attempts at prolonged concentration, immersion in calm, appropriation of the line and its dilution.


Agnes Martin, Happy Holiday, 1999, © estate of Agnes Martin.


8. Victor Vasarely

After leaving Hungary, Victor Vasarely settled in 1930 in Paris, where he began working as a graphic designer. During this initial graphic period, the artist laid the foundations of his aesthetic research, exploring themes that he would take up again later. He was the founder of Optical Art, known as “Op Art”, an artistic movement that developed within Kinetic Art, of which he examined the effects of two-dimensional illusion. 

Vasarely’s art is essentially graphic. In the chromatic juxtaposition of simple geometric figures, he manages to create powerful optical illusions, veritable visual deceptions capable of inducing perceptive instability with maximum involvement for the observer. Although at first glance the Op Art works may appear to be simple virtuosities of effect. In reality they are based on the very strict visual codes and scientific foundations relating to the study of visual perception, drawing on the graphic experiments relating to the Gestalt phenomena. The aim was therefore to investigate the cause-effect relationship between the image and the observer’s gaze, between the object and the receiving subject.


Victor Vasarely, collage.


9. Bridget Riley

Towards the end of the 1950s, Bridget began to produce work in a style that was recognisably her own, inspired by other artistic movements and sources. Her main source of study and curiosity was Pointillism, whose style she carried into her interest in optical effects. Victor Vasarely’s paintings, which in the 1930s were composed of monochromatic lines and shapes, also had a strong influence, especially in Riley’s early works.

It was during this period that she began to paint the black-and-white pictures for which she is best known today. These works present a wide variety of geometric shapes, producing feelings of movement through the use of colour, which seems to move from one figure to another. The paintings are characterised by a strong use of optical illusion, which gives them a sense of movement, as well as their cold and calculated appearance.


Bridget Riley, Blaze 1, 1962, © Bridget Riley 2018.


10. Marcello Morandini

Morandini entrusts the development of each work to the certainty of mathematics and the balance of scientifically controllable formal relationships, overcoming the limits of the sectorial nature of the disciplines.

His artistic vocabulary is made up of elementary geometric forms that interact to investigate the combinatory possibilities and transformations determined by movement in space. In all his works, in fact, what is investigated and then visually translated through two- and three-dimensional geometry are the different types of movement in space. Rotations, twists, spirals, and flexions characterise his research works, from sculpture-objects to paintings, as well as his architectural projects and design productions. Thus, the reduction to two colours emphasises the dynamism of the forms.

In his works, rhythms and volumes, horizontals and verticals, solids and voids, straight lines and curves alternate in a logic of variation and repetition.


Marcello Morandini, Scultura 358 B, 1990, Courtesy Cortesi Gallery


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Cover image: Theo van Doesburg, Art Concret n. 1, prima e quarta di copertina, 1930.

Written by Noemi Forte

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