Cutting Edge: Geometry in Art 1910-1965
Until June 17; Dean Gallery, Edinburgh

Geometry has played a key role in art at least as far back as Plato, who considered it central to the pursuit of truth. Though Plato himself was dismissive of representational art (“the worthless mistress of a worthless friend, and the parent of a worthless progeny"), Greek art and architecture were built on the sacred principles of geometry.

By the opening of the 20th century, new technologies were transforming the world of art. Photography had divested painting of its imitative role, and a fast-paced world of motors and machines heralded excitement and liberation for all. As representational art began to recede, geometry slowly recovered its status as a route to a purer, higher truth.

In 1908, influential German art historian Wilhelm Worringer wrote that “The original artistic impulse has nothing to do with imitation of nature. This impulse is in search of pure abstraction as the sole possibility of finding rest amidst the confusion and obscurity of the image of the world, and it creates a geometric abstraction starting with itself, in a purely instinctive manner.”

Worringer had hit the nail on the head. He would not only directly influence artists such as Paul Klee, but by the 1960s, with the advent of Minimalism, his words would sound truly prophetic.

It’s precisely this period – from Worringer’s time in 1910, to the climax of abstract expressionism in 1965 – that is surveyed in Cutting Edge at the Dean Gallery. The show, taken largely from the gallery’s permanent collection, is built around the theme of geometry in art, and includes some rare British Constructivist works on loan from a private collection.

Reflecting its status as a permanent collection display, Cutting Edge is more of a loosely-themed hang than an in-depth examination of the subject. More or less any art from the period which contains straight lines has made it into the draw, and the captions don’t go far in explaining the genesis of the geometrical story in art.

Even as a loosely themed hang, the paintings do have a story to tell, but it’s not the one you’d expect. Every time I see a Mondrian painting up close, I’m hit by a fresh sense of revelation that here is an object beyond the flat, crisp lines of reproductions. Despite the painter’s careful masking, the hand-made stripes of paint still have that unique textural quality of oil. Their edges have tiny burrs and ruffles, and the once brilliant colours are crackled and faded with age.

This is true of almost every work in the show – even of Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, who famously issued instructions for two of his paintings by telephone, in order to eliminate the mark of his own hand. Hard-edged shapes are painted with oil on a new type of aluminium in Sil I, but what was once shiny and evocative of all things new, is now tarnished and dull. The texture of his paint is rough, and though you still understand Nagy’s urge to create floating planes of light, you can also appreciate the object as a fragile experiment of a past era.

Wherever you look in this show, despite the drive towards a machinist aesthetic, there are chunky brush marks and leaning, hand-made angles and edges. Ben Nicholson’s reliefs are squint and textured. Victor Pasmore’s poster combines the brave new world of abstract shapes with the homely grain of pencil and chalk. Eventually this drive would lead to a flawless world of machine-made cubes and pristine emulsion squares, but for half a century, the search for geometric perfection contained an exquisite human frailty which for me, will always outclass perfection itself.

Catrìona Black, Sunday Herald 01.04.07