Constantin Flondor. When Eye Touches Cloud

Alina Șerban, ed., Constantin Flondor. Când ochiul atinge norul/When Eye Touches Cloud (Bucharest: P+4 Publications, 2021), 505 pp.

In comparison with other Eastern European countries such as Poland, the Czech Republic, or Hungary, the Romanian neo-avant-garde received international attention relatively late. Nevertheless, for the past ten years, art historical research in Romania has steadily addressed the work of several noteworthy Romanian artists who were engaged in artistic experiments in socialist Romania. Edited volumes covering the activity of artists including Ion Grigorescu, Geta Brătescu, Andrei Cădere, Decebal Scriba and, most recently, Paul Neagu, have been published by international publishers including Sternberg Press, JRP/Editions, and Kettler Verlag. These monographic studies have promoted comparative analysis, while also providing a rich contextual understanding and attentiveness to each artist’s particularities and the singular trajectories charted within the often-hasty homogenization of experimental art under socialism in Eastern Europe.

The latest such monograph, edited by Alina Șerban, is dedicated to Constantin Flondor, adding another important Romanian artist to the map of Eastern European experimental art during socialism. Flondor was already well-known internationally as an artist with a remarkable career. He became notorious as a co-founder of the neo-constructivist artist groups 111 and Sigma, which were active between 1965 and the beginning of the 1980s, and received much acclaim for his mail art activities. He was perhaps less known for his involvement in the artists group Prologue, or for his unconventional artistic pedagogy in the Romanian educational system of the 1970s. One of the main values of this volume dedicated to Flondor lies in its ambitious and successful attempt to identify a common thread running through Flondor’s works: his artistic research and its focus on the mechanisms of visual perception, complemented by a structural understanding of natural forms and systems that Flondor visualized by scientific means. This thread runs through the artist’s early studies of painting as a visual medium and his return to painting during the 1980s; his structuralist experiments with constructive, kinetic, and informational systems as a member of the Sigma group; their engagement with nature; his conceptual reflection on the grammar of visual forms and the structures of visual perception; and his participative art projects and experimental films.

There are two existing books devoted to Flondor’s work: Flondor, de la “111” + “Sigma” la “Prolog”, edited by George Lecca (Cluj: Idea Design and Print, 2005), and Constantin Flondor. Wege Zur Form, edited by  Ileana Pintilie and Doina Talmann (Essen: K-West Verlag, 2022). However, When Eye Touches Cloud is the first comprehensive study to feature a catalogue raisonée of Flondor’s works, complemented by a selection of critical texts published by Romanian art critics since the 1960s, including Theodor Redlow, Octavian Barbosa, Andrei Pleșu, Livius Ciocârlie, and Dan Hăulica, as well as texts by the artist himself, which offer a glimpse at Flondor’s writings and the early reception of his works. The book also comprises an interview with the artist, and three commissioned texts written by Dieter Roelstraete and Abigail Winograd, Rainer Fuchs, and Katarzyna Cytlak that deal with the complexities of Flondor’s practice and attempt to contextualize that practice in an international perspective. These interpretive texts are preceded by two introductions, one written by the artist himself and the other by the editor, Alina Șerban.

In their contribution, Dieter Roelstraete and Abigail Winograd contextualize Flondor’s neo-constructivist works from the Sigma group period within the networks of kinetic and op-art in Eastern Europe and Latin America, respectively. In the Western historiographic canon, kinetic art, which thrived in these regions between the 1950s and the 1970s, appears as a marginal art form that is largely overlooked by art historical scholarship. By contrast, Roelstraete and Winograd’s coherent and elegant argument highlights the embrace of science (and technology) in art produced outside post-World War II Western modernism, as well as the universalist, democratic aesthetic that was characteristic of kinetic art from such regions. Both authors see the marginalization of kinetic art in Western art historiography as the result of a more profound mistrust in the development of art beyond the emphasis on individual creativity, existential anxiety, and the cynical mistrust in the destructive power of science. On the other hand, the aesthetic principles of kinetic art were consistent with the kind of collective artistic production and teamwork that may be found in the artistic groups, such as Sigma, that Flondor co-founded, and with the scientific perspective on art as a laboratory of visual research.

Further examining Flondor’s involvement with scientific knowledge (especially bionics, systems theory and mathematics), Rainer Fuchs analyzes the artist’s quest to uncover and represent geometric models found in nature by applying complex principles of artistic research that fused structuralism with phenomenology and its insistence on the embodiment of perception, but also its variability of perspective. Natural elements such as soap bubbles that coagulate into foam, honeycombs, dandelion flowers, or snowflakes appear to Flondor as models for a universal, visual morphology, elementary mathematical projections that can be translated into hemi-spheres and tetrahedral structures to become part of a generative visual syntax. As Fuchs explains, these ephemeral elements occupy a privileged position in Flondor’s research due to their shifting form dependent on their environment and the fleetingness of their perception. Thus, they occur as transitional forms that exemplarily, and temporarily, solidify the immaterial into visual structures.

Fuchs’ analysis also highlights the spiritual engagement of Flondor’s art that may help explain the artist’s connection, during the 1980s, with the Prologue group that had affinities with orthodox religious thinking. Fuchs highlights Flondor’s involvement with this group not as an instance of radical discontinuity, but rather as a modulation of Flondor’s early analytical research into nature, visual and mental perception, and the conceptualization of the invisible. The author also compellingly presents Flondor as a unique conceptual artist who differs as such not only from his British or North American counterparts, but also from the existentialist, performative, ironic, or “Romantic” versions of conceptualism that critics such as Boris Groys, Ekaterina Degot, László Beke and others view as representative of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. Fuchs notes that “in painting, as the visualization of the intangible, Flondor finds that golden balance between the intellectual and the sensuous, which not only sensitizes one to an appreciation of the aesthetic, but also casts the mechanism of perception as an interplay between the passive and the active function of the eye. To this end, the artist goes out into nature in order to explore.” (p. 185)

In her careful examination of Flondor’s experimental films, Katarzyna Cytlak argues that most of them, generally classified as “documentary” or “conceptual”, comprise processes of reflection or self-reflection “which may be considered as preparatory materials and moving sketches that precede the process of realization of his works” and as “tools which help him to rethink his practice and to find solutions to the visual problems posed in his art,” such as movement and light. (p. 289) Cytlak also notes that the political element prevalent in some of Flondor’s films from the 1980s—much like Flondor’s mail art activities that are mentioned in passing by Rainer Fuchs—is a reaction to the confining effects of socialist politics during the dictatorial years of the Nicolae Ceaușescu regime, and represents an effort to overcome the ensuing cultural isolation imposed by the then-prevalent neo-Stalinist aesthetic.

In retrospect, it may appear as if Flondor’s experiments can be understood as genuine research, undertaken by visual means, into the structural conditions of visuality and the perceptual conditions inherent in diverse visual media such as painting, sculpture, photography, and film. The book’s poetic title, When Eye touches Cloud, further highlights this encounter between the perceptual apparatus as an active, constructive agent and the perceptual horizon, thus signaling the visual construction of the invisible space in-between.

There are several topics that these refreshingly attentive and complex readings touch upon, but that remain yet to be explored in more detail. One of them is the ongoing debate regarding the political/apolitical dimensions of experimental art in socialist Europe. For his part, Fuchs views the Sigma group’s structural experiments with geometrically simplified forms and spatial constructions as implicitly political due to their concurrence with certain artistic and philosophical ideas prevalent during the 1970s. Roelstraete and Winograd also note that the fact that such forms manifested themselves not as underground cultural activities but as pedagogical experiments in art and design was due to the fact that in Eastern Europe, technology and rational science were seen as harbingers of social progress.

The pedagogical dimension of Sigma’s activities, as well as the concept of “design”, also warrant further exploration—not only inasmuch as they connect Sigma’s artificial constructions with the Bauhaus, but also because they can help explain why the study of elementary artistic forms was encouraged by the state authorities who foresaw their potential use for shaping socialist urban space and architecture. It should be noted in this context that Flondor’s and Sigma’s artistic experiments were relatively marginal both within the national Romanian and the Eastern European context, not least because they were realized in the Western city of Timișoara, not in Bucharest, the center of political power. However, this does not necessarily diminish the political efficacy of apolitical, abstract, neo-constructivist art. So-called “apolitical” art was still political inasmuch as it resisted its own social instrumentalization and pointed towards cosmic, universal aesthetic principles.

Another observation relates to Flondor’s idea of nature as a partner and constant referent in his analytical works. Scholars including Maja and Reuben Fowkes have highlighted the ecological dimension in artistic experiments involving nature during socialism. Although it would be anachronistic to project our current preoccupations onto Cold War artistic experiments, one may find a subtle displacement of the anthropocentric hierarchy in Flondor’s treatment of the artist, artwork, and nature as belonging to the same ontological plane. Indeed, if we shift our focus from Fuchs’ phenomenological interpretation of Flondor’s experiments towards a more Heideggerian framework, we can see that many of the artist’s works affirm the cosmic dimension of inhabiting the world as a medium rather than opposing it to the subject as a mere subject of representation. Always mindful of the paradox that Flondor’s approach to the spiritual universe was scientific and rationalistic, one might view Flondor’s research into nature and visuality as being close to other artists from the Socialist bloc who were interested in the cosmic, spiritualist dimension of art, including Stano Filko or Jerzy Ludwiński.

All told, this book is a fundamentally useful instrument for future research into Flondor’s contribution to experimental art in Eastern Europe during socialism, complete with informed and well-written analyses, lavish illustrations, rich contextual explanations and a helpful timeline. Beyond that it can serve as a point of departure for an analysis of transmodernism, based on artists active in different margins of the modern art project.

Cristian Nae
Cristian Nae is associate professor at the National University of Arts ”George Enescu” in Iași, Romania. He is senior advisor for  the project Periodization in the History of Art and Its Conundrums. How to Tackle Them in East-Central Europe (New Europe College, Bucharest), supported by the Getty Research Institute's Connecting Art Histories initiative. His writing has appeared in Journal of Contemporary Central and Eastern Europe (2019),  and in edited volumes published by de Gruyter (2020, forthcoming). He is editor of the book (In)Visible Frames. Rhetorics and Experimental Exhibition Practices in Romania 1965-1989 (Idea, 2019), and curator of Unfinished Conversations on the Weight of Absence, the Romanian exhibition in the 58th Venice Biennale (2019).