Art in a Third Space: New Tendencies and the Nonaligned Avant-gardes

This talk “Art in a Third Space” was held at the CAA conference in Washington D.C., February 04 2016, as a part of the panel Non-aligned: Art, Solidarity, and the Emerging “Third World”. The paper presents a condensed investigation of the international art movement and network New Tendencies. Non-alignment, in the context of my talk, refers both to political circumstances but also serves as a metaphor to gain access to a rich transdisciplinary understanding of New Tendencies.

The movement and network New Tendencies began in 1961 in Zagreb, Croatia, which was then part of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. After Yugoslav initially has been described as more Stalinist than Stalin, it came to a falling out with the Soviet Union in 1948, which forced Yugoslavia to define its own brand of socialism. Between 1948 and 1951 Yugoslavia developed a new state ideology of self-managed socialism. The path that Yugoslavia took from then on was read as a “third way” between capitalism and socialism. In this lecture I will argue that this created the unique conditions for New Tendencies to emerge. This movement created a “third space” through its activities, which produced a non-aligned art which broke through stereotypes of art in a socialist (and capitalist) context.

Yugoslavia was together with India, Egypt, Indonesia a founding nation of the non-aligned nations movement. The latter became formalized by a declaration signed in Belgrade in 1961, the year of the first New Tendencies exhibition. My thesis is not that New Tendencies was a meeting place of artists from non-aligned nations, but that Yugoslavia, by being non-aligned, offered itself as that meeting ground where neo-avant-gardes from East and West, North and South could come together, physically and also regarding their artistic aims. I posit that those neo-avant-gardes participated in political and artistic-cultural topographies which remain insufficiently explored. Giving due consideration to those non-aligned neo-avant-gardes will result in a qualitatively different map of postwar modernism.

Taking Zagreb as a center, the movement had participants to the East, in Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Poland, and even in Russia; looking – from Zagreb - to the West, there were many southern and western European participants, from Spain and Italy, from Germany and France; last not least, there were many participants from Latin America, most of whom lived in Paris at the time. But this map did not only contain different players and regions, out of this matrix developed also a qualitatively different type of art.

As I argue in my book, New Tendencies – Art at the Threshold of the Information Revolution (2016) (Illustration 0), a climate of modernity developed in Latin-American, Western, Southern, and South-Eastern Europe where a “constructive nexus” in arti was linked to a modernization project in politics and social development. Those artworks adopted the visual vocabulary of modern art to formulate a “project,” a modernistic projection of a utopian but attainable future.

Some of the precursors of New Tendencies, such as Exat 51, participated in the creation of a modern image of Yugoslavia at trade fairs through exhibition displays (see illustration 1) and at the Brussels World Expo of 1958 through the pavilion designed by Vjenceslav Richter (see illustration 2)

New Tendencies was from its beginning to the end a formally innovative movement, conducting “visual research” and experimenting with new media such as light and movement. The choice of materials and their aesthetics and poetics was linked to an emancipatory project of creating a better future through rational organisation. Following convincing periodisations by art historians from former Yugoslavia, such as Misko Suvakovic, New Tendencies were a neo-avant-garde movement. While connecting with the concerns of the historical avant-gardes, New Tendencies developed something genuinely new. New Tendencies created a specific politics of form, which needs to be reflected in the context of the historical situation.

Many of the participating artists stemmed from peripheral nations in a catching up process of modernization. The economic example to follow was provided by the USA who emerged from the New Deal in the late 1930s with a new economic model – Keynesian Fordism. This was copied in various ways, not only in the west but also in the Soviet zone of influence in the Khrushchev era. Those projects of modernization were of course each quite different, since each country had specific conditions and circumstances, different economic and political regimes. The processes were also uneven, they happened to be strongest in urban centers and were not evenly distributed among geographies and populations, and precarious – they remained unfinished, as we will later see.

In Latin America, nations such as Argentina, Brazil, Venezuela had not been directly affected by the Second World War. When the war ended, they entered periods of democratization, rapid economic growth and urbanisation. Brazil launched the first modern art biennial outside Europe in 1951, and built its modernistic capital in the middle of the country. Venezuela built the highly ambitious University City of Caracas. Doubt had not yet crept into the modernistic project in those countries, similar to Yugoslavia. Argentine, Brazil, Venezuela and other nations have highly original and genuinely interesting kinetic art movements, but for reasons of space I need to assume that cornerstones of those are well known.

New Tendencies was the result of a chance conversation between the Brazilian painter Almir Mavignier and Zagreb based critic Matko Meštrović. The first exhibition was called New Tendencies in the plural for good reasons. It brought together a diverse range of groups and collectives, as well as individuals. Piero Manzoni is said to have had a strong influence behind the screen. He sent three works, Achrome, one of his “Lines” and a famous can of Merda da Artista (see illustration 3); according to a famous anecdote, the organisers decided not to test the tolerance of the party apparatus by showing the Achrome.

Other participating artists were Group de Recherche d'Art Visuel (GRAV), Group N from Northern Italy, Zero group from Düsseldorf, and other individuals from Germany (Gerhard von Graevenitz, Uli Pohl and others from the Geitlinger class), Marc Adrian from Austria, and Paul Talman and Karl Gerstner from Switzerland (see illustration 4, Exhibition view NT1).

Since 1957 increasingly dense networking between those groups and individuals had been formed, which also included Spanish group Equipo 57 and Italian T group, and as supportive elder figures Yves Klein, Jesús Rafael Soto, Victor Vasarely and Lucio Fontana. The first Zagreb exhibition brought home the point that this collection of artist resembled a new movement.

Despite big differences among the participants, there were also a lot of common ground. The orientation of those groups and individuals was in many cases collectivist and anti-art. The market was seen as distorting the function of art. In their view, art was not hanging in galleries, it was supposed to be part and parcel of the human life-world, realized in everyday objects and the environment. Between this first and second exhibition in Zagreb in 1963, New Tendencies became a veritable movement and network with a shared, but not unified, agenda. Those collectives of mostly young men and a few women abandoned the term art for visual research.
French painter Francois Morellet expected “a revolution in art, similar to that in science.” Some of those groups such as GRAV and N combined collective work with a rational, constructivist orientation, and leftist ideas. There were also those groups who primarily saw their new aesthetics as experiments, to create new sensations, such as Zero, who thought that by creating new aesthetic experiences they were liberating their audiences from social norms.

The Italian critic Giulio Carlo Argan became one of the most prominent supporters. He argued that artistic research helped to realize homo ludens (man the player) inside homo faber (man the maker). Argan's term Gestalt ricerca (Italian, Gestalt research) became the name of a new movement in Italy. Gestalt psychology had strong roots in Italy because of the existence of a native branch of Gestalt psychology in Padua. In this illustration (Nr 5), we see members of Group N on the rooftop of their studio in Padua, holding a work, Dynamic Vision, which is a good example of the application of Gestalt phenomena. Plastic tape is mounted in front of a painted background in such a way that rapid foreground-background relation changes appear.

The artists creatively applied principles from Gestalt psychology. Those optical illusions create a visual vibration or a dazzle, a sensation which is real and intersubjective, yet can only be explained by perceptual processes, because what is seen is not actually there, it only exists in the perceiving eye and mind. New Tendencies artists sought a dynamic relationship between work and viewer which resulted in an optical instability, a vibration on the margins of the visual field, a dazzle (see illustration Nr 6 large version of Dynamic Vision).

I suggest to understand the aesthetics of New Tendencies in the context of unorthodox postwar neo-Marxism, represented in the West by figures such as Henry Lefebvre, Ernst Bloch, Herbert Marcuse. In Zagreb and Belgrade, philosophers edited Praxis magazine, which published articles by those international starts of the new left, as well as by homegrown philosophers. Praxis also organised the famous Korcula Summer School from 1964 to 1974. Praxis was, although not directly linked with New Tendencies, like a theoretical counterpoint or equivalent to it. Praxis' core topic was self-management, the official ideology of Yugoslavia.

“Autogestion” (French for self-management) became the battle cry of the 1968 generation. The Yugoslav third way attracted the interest of leftists from all over the world. After Yugoslavia had become founding member of the nonaligned movement of nations, it tried to find a third way also intellectually and artistically between the capitalist West and the Soviet dominated Eastern bloc. Yugoslavia did not impose any restrictions on art and allowed its own citizens to travel abroad and granted Visa free entry to citizens from East and West.

I propose to understand the “relational aesthetics” of New Tendencies in this context of a quest for self-management and self-governement as part of a “project”. In Ernst Bloch's philosophy of the project, which was in turn derived from Marx and Hegel, history was understood as negation of reality as it existed and the result of creating an outline for self-development in front of an open historical horizon. The participatory artwork can be read as the physical manifestation of the Hegelian process of mediation between subject and object, between the particular and the universal. The dazzle is the moment of reversal, the turning point (German “Umschlagpunkt”) of Hegelian dialectics, when a thesis, through its negation, turns into synthesis.

The moving artwork or the work that demands movement leads to a sudden visual sensation, the dazzle. This sensation can be understood in analogy to the expected revolutionary, qualitative jump arising from the actual realization of the political ideal of self-management. Hegelian, Marxist views of history emphasize the sudden jump: a long and slow build-up, the tendency, leads to a sudden explosion, the qualitative shift.ii The relationship between work and viewer in the visual field created by the artworks is equivalent with the abstract logical form of the Hegelian close of argument. The kinetic art work realizes such a qualitative shift, as if under laboratory conditions, in art. This projective, ideal moment was arrived at with the viewer experiencing the dazzle – when a Gestalt effect physically worked in the mind of a viewer.

According to co-founder and chief theorist of New Tendencies Matko Meštrović,iii the historical tendency was one of the total humanization of the life-world. The project of New Tendencies was to link this with the humanization of the sciences through art. The modernistic expectation to go pregnant with the future at any moment becomes realized in the artwork that materializes such a leap inside its own structure. The content of each work is nothing else but a demonstration, in the abstract, of Hegelian turning points, each one marking a point in history when new horizons open, when the dialectics of master and slave, capital and producer, order giver and order receiver experience qualitative changes; when the objects of history turn themselves into subjects.

New Tendencies were most productive between the first and the second exhibition in 1961 and 1963 respectively. The movement became nearly dominant in Europa by the mid 1960s. The scale of works also shifted from small objects to environments. Sometimes the whole range of dynamic, visually interactive experience was deployed together in large scale cooperative artworks, such as the Labyrinth created by GRAV. After a first version created for the Biennale of Young Artists of Paris in 1963, another Labyrinth was produced on the occasion of the New Tendencies exhibition at the Louvre in Paris in 1964 (see illustration 7). The Labyrinths were signed collectively; those works amounted to strong visual shock tactics, consisting of stroboscopic lights, virtual movement (the phi effect), mirrors and other devices on a grand scale.

Many artists involved in New Tendencies participated in The Responsive Eye at MoMA in 1965, but sudden fame was corrosive for the movement and some of the groups involved. A crisis was experienced and reflected at the symposium in Brezovica in 1965 (see illustration 8). After a break from the biannual rhythm, New Tendencies returned in 1968/69 under the banner of “the computer as a medium of visual research.” The Stuttgart Circle of Max Bense, and the information aesthetics of Bense and Abraham Moles provided the theoretic background for work such as Frieder Nake's and Hiroshi Kawano's (see illustrations 9 and 10).

In a string of events, from summer 1968 to 69, and then again in 1971 and 1973, New Tendencies showed visual research realized by computer, but also still constructive art. The Zagreb exhibition of 1973 presented constructive, computer and conceptual art side by side. That time saw conceptual art and related new types of practices gradually gaining in importance. Artists from the autonomous region of Vojvodina, like Bosch + Bosch group and Bálint Szombathy carried out work such as Szombathy's famous Lenin in Budapest, which challenged the conventions of image making in a socialist state (see illustration 11). The 1973 exhibition was seen as a failure by contemporaries, but in retrospect becomes recognized as an important moment in 20th century art, to be put into a sequence with Cybernetic Serendipity (1968), Software (1970) and Information (1970), as well as When Attitudes become Form (1969).
The curators in Zagreb also published a magazine, Bit International, from 1968 to 1972, which reflected not only on computer art and information aesthetics, but also on design and on electronic media (see illustration 12). New Tendencies created art of an advanced neo-avant-garde position on the cusp of the transition from industrial society to the information era.

Around the late 1960s, Keynesian Fordism started to experience its own crisis, and modernization projects fell apart for different reasons. Yugoslavia, after enjoying high economic growth rates of up to 11%, suddenly entered a start and sputter pattern. After 1968, in which Yugoslav students had participated lively, the regime turned increasingly repressive and shut down Praxis in 1974, while New Tendencies was left to peter out. In Latin America, hegemonic influence, such as the USA-supported military coups in Brazil and Chile, brought about a change in governance, which abandoned the modernistic emancipatory project and initiated what would become known as “neoliberal experiment” and “lost decades”.


The “third space” created by this movement in non-aligned Yugoslavia enabled an art movement that took the modernistic paradigm and developed it into something that pointed beyond it. The peripheral status of the country of origin of many participants enabled them to embrace modernity more radically and produce a project where bottom-up forms of social self-organization were rehearsed in a participatory, 'social' art. Yet for exactly the same reasons – the peripheral status of the critics and institutions supporting it, and the precarious character of the modernization projects – this movement lost its support structures after 1968 and went almost forgotten in the 1980s. I would like to end with questions rather than strong conclusions: What can we learn form the demise of such a movement, that centered on a project? Is there anything to be recovered as an unrealized but desirable potential? Or can we also learn from the failure, from the impossibility of its unrecognized, sometimes contradictory assumptions?