Constructivism is understood as many things, chiefly as a sober approach to art and design with an industrial aesthetic. But its origins in Russia were complex. In 1914, before the concept had a name, Vladimir Tatlin created his Counter-reliefs, inspired by Cubism. Made from remnants of wire, wood, cardboard and glass, these objects spanned the corners of two walls, flouting all bourgeois notions of art. Malevich liberated painting from representation; his arch-rival Tatlin outdid him by rendering easel painting obsolete. His 1919 Monument to the Third International cemented his leadership of artists who saw themselves as workers, not aesthetes. Its spiraling form was a direct challenge to capitalism’s Eiffel Tower.
Also in 1919, Rodchenko and his colleagues created the First Working Group of Constructivists, with a manifesto calling on artist-engineers to work in “laboratories.” Their ideas went viral in the West, thanks to the efforts of El Lissitzky, Constructivism’s roving ambassador. His Proun Room (1923) exemplified the axonometric approach that was the movement’s calling card. This early period gave way to Productivism, which envisioned a new working-class utopia, with graphic design and photomontage as its propaganda. Constructivism devolved into an artistic style devoid of political fervor and endures today in commercial design. But in the 60s, Dan Flavin resurrected its anti-art roots with his homage to Tatlin, declaring, “sometimes a lamp is just a lamp.” (abridged from a guest Instagram post for Glenn Adamson 12/05/20)