The Belgian, Georges Vantongerloo (1886-1965), whose important retrospective goes on view today at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, was a strangely humble artist, a long-neglected master whose neglect was self-inflicted. He slid away from fame.
He may have been the first man to design, in 1917, wholly abstract sculpture; he was one of the signers of the De Stijl manifesto, a theoretician of constructivism, and a colleague of Piet Mondrian's. These are grand credentials. Vantongerloo, however, preferred to discard them. "I never belonged to any 'school,' to any 'ism,'" he claimed, not quite correctly. I am alone and have nothing in common with anybody." It seems almost as if he hoped that we would overlook him, and overlook his art.
It would not be hard to do so. His work is full of quiet and empty of theatrics. The few colors that he uses are applied so sparingly, employed with such restraint, that their hues are overwhelmed by the glowing whiteness that is the central image one remembers from his show.
In the colored world of painting, whiteness is, of course, an analaog of silence. Here that whiteness seems to vibrate, to grow into a vastness, to urge the viewer's mind toward a quiet contemplation of those interwoven laws, ordered yet unknowable, that govern physics and biology and the flow of space.
Vantongerloo cared little for mere decoration. He thought himself a scientist. He called his painting "research." He was trying, he insisted, to gauge the laws of space. "It is space which has always haunted me," he wrote. "I am telling you all this because it was connected with my urge to understand Space, which I gradually extended to a study of the universe."
He was a sort of physicist, a student from the start. The titles that he gave his works -- "Construction in the Sphere" (1917), "Composition Derived from the Equilateral Hyperbola XY=K With Green and Red Harmony" (1929), "Varient Curves" (1939), "A Gaseous Star" (1964) -- suggest computation, theory-testing, science. Yet what makes his show so memorable is the play, the sense of darting that brings a strange prophetic feel of disordered order to his spare and thought-out art.
Among the oddest pictures here is one he titled "A Member of Our Galaxy." It shows an ovoid form which appears to be bursting under stress."It is difficult," the artist wrote, "to predict the future . . . Nevertheless one may have a presentiment of something." Scientists last week released an extraordinary photograph of a staphylococcus bacterium (magnified 150,000 times) exploding under the attack of a mild antibiotic. That photograph, it turns out, is the spitting image of the little painting that Vantongerloo made nearly 30 years ago.
Somehow he foresaw -- in art -- the spirit and the look of those recently considered subatomic particles that have "charm" and "color," that move back and forth in time.
Most constructivists, unlike Vantongerloo, pledged their firm allegiance to the rigorous, the pure. Mondrian, for instance, thought that he could paint the truth with little but the rectangle and the three primary colors, a trinity of hues he fastened to with near religious fervor. Vantongerloo, however, was willing to add green, the color of the grass, of things that grow and die.
A sense of growth, of movement, of meandering and spin, give to his small works of art, his sculptures made of wood, metal and clear plastic, his drawings and his paintings, and his odd machines for disecting light, a mood less mathematical than biological. While many of his peers were bringing abstract order to two or three dimensions, Vantongerloo was trying to portray the laws that he suspected ordered space and life.
His work has aged extremely well. If one had to place him in the firmament of modern artists, one might put him in between Mondrian and Marcel Duchamp, those two far-brighter stars. His art, like theirs, is highly intellectual, original, influential. He is less of a goof than the game-playing Duchamp and less of a puritan than the rigid Mondiran. Jane Livingston who with a friend of Vantongerloo's, Swiss artist Max Bill, organized this show believes that "constructivism was the single most crucial impulse in the development of American abstract art in the '60s and '70s." That would make Vantongerloo an example of importance.
Should the abstract painting of the '80s, as seems likely, continue to shed rigor, to explore the suggestive, to drift away from the minimal -- perhaps toward the maximal -- Georges Vantongerloo will, in the 1990s, seem a grander figure still.
He was, there is no doubt, an artist of significance. His retrospective exhibition, the first large one to be mounted, is long overdue. Organized in conjunction with Belgium Today, the festival of exhibits, performances, symposiums and lectures that began on Sunday with a fireworks display, the Vantognerloo retrospective will travel to Dallas and Los Angeles after closing here on June 17.