A Conversation with Constant
Benjamin Buchloh - I am very honored to be in the presence of Constant, and I am very glad that Mark Wigley has asked me to do this conversation. I wish I could say I’ve known Constant for a long, long time, but in fact I met him for the first time only two nights ago.
I have followed the history of postwar European practices relatively carefully and I have been stumbling over numerous contradictions in how that segment of the postwar history that Constant and New Babylon constitute was formed. First of all, the history of COBRA, and its internal contradictions: I hope we can unravel these a little bit. It starts so early, in 1948-1949, with the publication of Reflex magazine. In hindsight, the cover of Reflex magazine always strikes me as one example of that unfathomable relapse into an atavistic expressionist primitivism. This surprises all the more since it is coming out of a context of the Dutch avant-garde which in the prewar period had focused on an extraordinary project of fusing avant-garde practice with the demand for a new collective and new audiences, the fusion of design, architecture, and art. And then, in the immediate postwar period, what seems to have been the primary model that all of you, all the members of Copenhagen, Brussels, Amsterdam, returned to was the various primitivisms of the earlier part of the twentieth century: the child, art brut, the non-Western imaginary.
Constant - Not exactly the child. Not only the child, but going back to the origins of creation – of artistic creativity. We cannot think of COBRA without thinking of the situations we were in after the war, the situation of complete emptiness. There was no avant-garde even, there was only a kind of academism after the so-called freedom, but there was not even freedom after the war finished. There were very slow processes that started. I was twenty-five at the moment – Asger Jorn was a little older, he was thirty-one. And now the Danish had an advantage over us because they didn’t have as severe an occupation by the Germans. There was more freedom of movement. But especially in Holland it was nearly nothing for these young artists, so that we turned to what was the only thing that looked at least like creation, like spontaneous expression of humanity. There were indeed, as you say, the children’s drawings. That was so important that the Stedelijk Museum of Amsterdam even organized an exhibition. It was one of the first exhibitions after the war of children’s drawings, and we were all very impressed by that compared to what was official art. It was a real discovery. These children’s drawings influenced us despite the logic.
Benjamin Buchloh - But there probably was a more mediated version of the return to models of primitivity as they are supposedly embodied in children’s ”creativity,” which all of you had encountered with Dubuffet and Miró. I suppose they represented in their own way, in the French postwar context the desire to return to an imaginary beginning. The return to a new primitivity of humanity, in the face of a historical destruction and annihilation that seemed unfathomable and unmanageable in every other cultural way, I suppose. It is important to recognize that this demand to go the Paleolithic condition of human existence was directly linked to the actual historical political conditions that artists were facing after the Second World War and after the Holocaust. And that, I think, is a link that has to be addressed somehow in terms of why the first phase of the return to cultural practice defines itself as a return to a universal model of creativity, outside of history, outside of language, outside of conventions. Would you agree with that to some degree?
Constant - Yes, I can agree with it. However, I must say that the works of Miró and Dubuffet, as you said, were hardly known to us. Personally I never had seen a work by Dubuffet. Appel had seen Dubuffet in Galerie René Drouin in Paris, but it was only later after we had already founded our group, And I had seen some canvases by Miró in a gallery in Paris in ’46, where I met Asger Jorn for the first time. But it was not exactly the spontaneity of children’s drawings. Miró was working at the time in a curious way, only with very little, little elements, almost large but almost empty canvases with only a little sign or so. So it was not much inspiration.
Benjamin Buchloh - Then in 1947 you meet Aldo van Eyck, if l remember correctly, and that encounter seems to mark a very crucial turning point because Aldo van Eyck represents a totally different facet of the prewar history. He is a direct link to the De Stijl legacy that clearly is incompatible with the model of primitivity and childhood creativity which the first moment of Reflex and of COBRA represent. So that seems to be the moment when the second layer develops in your own consciousness, in your own formation, in the confrontation with CIAM, in the confrontation with the De Stijl legacy. I would like to know what your awareness had been at that moment, as a Dutchman – beyond Aldo van Eyck, who seems to have been somewhat the mediator – of Gerrit Rietveld and J. J. P. Oud and, needless to say, of Mondrian, van der Leck, and van Doesburg. It seems to have come in a second movement, so to speak. It was not an immediate transaction of continuity that linked you with the Dutch avant-garde of the 1920s and ’30s, but rather a kind of hiatus between the return to a childhood model of creativity and primitivity and the avant-garde model.
Constant - But Aldo van Eyck never took part directly in our movement. When I met him, the most important thing was that he had spent the war in Switzerland and had made a collection of avant-garde art, as you call it. We didn’t consider ourselves avant-garde. The word is never used in COBRA. But Aldo van Eyck had a collection indeed of Miró, Klee, but also Mondrian, van Doesburg, and Schwitters, especially Schwitters. He was very fond of Schwitters. He showed this all to me and we became friends, and then as a second point in our friendship he taught me the first principles of modern architecture. He took me to other architects, his friends, of the Group of Eight [Den Acht]. I took part, for a time, in all the meetings of those modern architecture groups. I got used to it. I was a painter, so I didn’t know much of architecture at the time, but with Aldo van Eyck indeed I made my first steps in the field of construction and architecture. But I was rather critical toward the functionalist architecture, which was at that time the modern architecture.
Benjamin Buchloh - Can I just ask in between, did you discover only the De Stijl legacy in architecture or the De Stijl legacy at large? In particular, I would like to know what was your relationship to Mondrian when you met Aldo van Eyck. Was Mondrian a manifest obstacle or somebody to absolutely battle against?
Constant - But I didn’t discover Mondrian through Aldo van Eyck. I knew his paintings since the beginning of the war.
Benjamin Buchloh - But it is hard to paint as you did in the COBRA context when you are deeply affected by Mondrian. There is a strange contradiction there. There is a rebellion against Mondrian in COBRA.
Constant - Yes, of course. But I knew Mondrian very well, otherwise I couldn’t have rebelled against him. [Laughter.]
Benjamin Buchloh - What was the matter with Mondrian?
Constant - The father of my first wife was an old friend of Mondrian. He was a composer who had lived in Paris before the war, when Mondrian was living there, and he had been close friends with Mondrian and had several paintings by Mondrian in his house.
Benjamin Buchloh - Was he the De Stijl composer you mentioned the other day?
Constant - Yes, not at that moment, but during his friendship with Mondrian he made compositions, which tie called essays or trials of De Stijl art.
Benjamin Buchloh - In composition? As musical compositions?
Constant - Musical compositions, yes. Van Domselaer, his name, is still mentioned in books about the De Stijl movement. He is dead now long ago. These compositions are somehow vertical and horizontal and can be compared to the paintings of Mondrian. Anyhow, I was quite used to the works of Mondrian. I had them in my studio to clean them.
Benjamin Buchloh - Right. But in the moment of 1949, something must have been unacceptable in Mondrian’s apparent devotion to techno-scientific rationality.
Constant - But do you think that Mondrian was really interested in technology? Not so much, I think.
Benjamin Buchloh - Well, I didn’t say he was interested in technology things. I said there is a model of techno-scientific rationality that operates in the De Stijl movement at large and even in Mondrian’s painting that is clearly opposed to the concept of a universal primitive creativity that is embodied best by the child.
Constant - That was the opposite thing of Mondrian.
Benjamin Buchloh - And then there is a reversal in your own development around 1953, if I remember correctly, when you start making wooden reliefs that suddenly look like an early form of distribution sculpture. These reliefs look as though they had taken Mondrian’s New York series and his Victory Boogie-Woogie into account. They seem to have recognized that there is a new type of compositional seriality that can be achieved with modular units. This seems to be a dramatic departure from everything that you had done, and I don’t think that any other COBRA artist ever did anything like this.
Constant - No, but COBRA was finished in ’52, and after that the cohesiveness of COBRA fell apart. Asger Jorn was in the hospital and Christian Dotrernent went to the same hospital and other people went to Paris. I also went to Paris, to London afterward. I came back to Holland and turned to architecture. I met Aldo van Eyck for the second time and this time I expressed to him the desire to be more closely instructed in architecture. I wanted to study architecture, but he didn’t find this necessary, and he gave me all his books from his study period and said: ”Here, you can just read them yourself, and they will be enough for you.” [Laughter.] ”You don’t need to go to school anymore.” So I did, and the paintings you are comparing now to Mondrian paintings, I did these in ’53, with all these little squares, white and blue, and other things also. These reliefs have quite another purpose than the paintings that Mondrian made. They were the illustration of my thoughts about architecture, and especially urbanism. Amsterdam was being rebuilt slowly, by that time, so there was a lot of activity in the field of urbanism especially, new quarters and new suburbs arose. They were my tryouts to illustrate what I was learning.
Benjamin Buchloh - So the first reliefs that I know are still installed on the wall like a painting, even though they are wooden reliefs. But then they are taken from the wall and put into the horizontal position and they become a model.
Constant - Exactly.
Benjamin Buchloh - That is an interesting transition, and it looks like a sculpture if you forgive me for making comparisons, which is what art historians live for. [Laughter.] It looks like a sculpture that incorporates models of the ludic that were at that time formulated by Alberto Giacometti, for example. To make sculpture as an architectural model or in the manner of a game board. This conception of sculpture as a model that has a direct relationship to some type of function, even if the function is only a ludic or participatory function, or an imaginary game, seems to follow Giacometti’s model. Sculpture as transition from the refief to architectural vision. Would you agree that is one way of describing it?
Constant - Yes, that’s right, because I knew Giacomctti personally when he lived in Paris.
Benjamin Buchloh - I didn’t know that.
Constant - Yes. And he had shown in the last COBRA exhibition in Liège. He had shown with us, and, as a matter of fact, indeed, as you say, the things I made have nothing to do with what Giacometti made, but the idea of making a sculpture that looks like an architectural model came from Giacometti, for example his Palais à 4 heures. You know, the model with all the little objects hanging in it.
Benjamin Buchloh - Yes.
Constant - It is in the MoMA, though I didn’t see it this time. I have never seen it in reality, I have only seen it in photos. But this was strange architecture, compared to real architecture. I liked Giacometti very much both as a person and as an artist.
Benjamin Buchloh - In the gradual transformation of your models, through the use of technological materials and of a techno-scientific morphology, let’s put it this way, another historical dimension enters. One recognizes another presence entering your horizon which seems to be the presence of a highly mediated Russian and Soviet legacy. Clearly at a certain moment, in the deployment of tension wires, in the deployment of translucent materials, such as Plexiglas and Lucite and other materials, there seems to have been a contact with what washed ashore, if one can put it that way, from the Russian and Soviet legacy in the work of Naum Gabo and Antoine Pevsner in the 1950s. They received what was the first wave of a recognition of the Russian and Soviet legacy of modern sculptural practices, and it seems that there was a recognition of that in your work as well.
Constant - Well, Gabo and Pevsner were not actually Soviet artists because they lived in Western Europe, both of them. I was more interested at the time by Vladimir Tatlin and El Lissitzky.
Benjamin Buchloh - Well, that’s good news for me. [Laughter.]
Constant - Yes? How do you mean?
Benjamin Buchloh - I think that Tatlin and Lissitzky and Rodchenko, who should also be brought into this, are infinitely more important.
Constant - Yes, certainly. And also much more architectural.
Benjamin Buchloh - Yes. Let’s talk about that. So the connection with the Soviet avant-garde would have been established early on. Can you trace that for a second? Would that have been mediated through J. J. P. Oud, for example, who was a close friend of Lissitzky and who had corresponded with, who had published and collected Lissitzky – and Lissitzky had been in the Netherlands many times, due to Oud’s presence. Was that a figure with whom you had contact? Who mediated the legacy of Lissitzky, Tatlin, and Rodchenko in the Netherlands in the 1950s, which is an early moment for people to recognize the centrality of that avant-garde project?
Constant - No, I had never seen the work of those Russian artists, in reality. But I knew them from publications, books in my library, and photos. Aldo van Eyck was also an admirer and we talked a lot about them. I didn’t know Oud personally and think he doesn’t show much of the influence of the Soviet artists in his own work. He left the De Stijl movement also. I was personally friend with Rietveld. I did work together with him later, and he was a very interesting man, at the time.
Benjamin Buchloh - What did you do with him? Interior design?
Constant - Yes, interiors.
Benjamin Buchloh - Can we talk about that for a while? What Rietveld was doing and how you collaborated with him? Since Aldo van Eyck and Rietveld seem to have been two direct links between your work and the De Stijl legacy.
Constant - Yes, I also worked together with Aldo van Eyck for a moment. But I was a painter, I still am a painter, of course, so part of the work was principally concerned with color, with the function of color. Rietveld used only the three primary colors during the first period of his life – red, yellow, and blue.
Benjamin Buchloh - Which you do also at that time with those models, right? The primary colors gained a certain importance in your early models?
Constant - Yes, but not only the three primary colors. I’m a painter. I was asked to color the walls of the constructions, which are very simple with Rietveld, you know. They are always square, square, and so on. It was for a department store. It was the De Bijenkorf and they asked us to make a home dwelling.
Benjamin Buchloh - Gabo did a major sculpture for the De Bijenkorf. Did you think about that at the time?
Constant - Yes, it was interesting watching Gabo.
Benjamin Buchloh - I’m just bringing him back in because it doesn’t seem quite fair to dismiss him altogether, because he did have an enormous presence in the 1950s in Western Europe. Where did the material and the structure and the morphology come from in your work at that time? There is a photograph, one of those magic iterations of history, where you’re sitting in your studio surrounded by techno-scientific sculptures and it’s almost exactly the same photograph as Rodchenko in 1922 standing in his studio surrounded by his concentric metal and wood sculptures and concentric wood sculptures. It is an amazing document. I’m sure you never saw the Rodchenko photograph at that time and the photographer never saw the Rodchenko photograph. It was probably inaccessible at that time still, but there you are surrounded by a new type of sculpture that supposedly fuses science, technology, and art.
Constant - If you mean the photo that is in the catalogue for this exhibition, well, they are not sculptures. They are maquettes, models, for the New Babylon which you see in the drawings here. Here are only the drawings, but all these things are made in quite large models, in scale, scale models, not sculptures.
Benjamin Buchloh - So that’s really a mistake, to refer to them as sculptures?
Constant - I never refer to them as sculptures.
Benjamin Buchloh - But you have said a few times, ”I’m a painter,” so we are looking at some type of contradiction in the practices within which you operate. The early 1950s are a very complicated moment to redefine artistic practices in public space, to reinscribe avant-garde activities within the urban collective public sphere. That is the moment of transition where New Babylon is born and when your contact, eventual contact, with the Imaginist Bauhaus members and the Lettrists begins to come to fruition. Those interests are shared by you, by members of the Imaginist Bauhaus, and by the Lettrist International when you get together in 1956-1957 and you become a member of the Situationist International.
Constant - 1956, yes. But the models that you are speaking about were made long afterward. They were made in the 1960s. The influence of these architects, Aldo van Eyck and Rietveld, that was long before. I was still painting, a painter, an abstract painter, and I hadn’t made the models yet at this moment. The models followed my contact with situationism. Actually, I’m a co-founder of situationism because I got to know Guy Debord and [Gil] Wolman when the lettrists still existed. I was living in Alba, Italy, for a moment and Debord and Wolman came to visit me there separately. Then we were talking a lot about unitary urbanism, which was a completely different thing from what I had practiced with Aldo van Eyck. Incidentally, van Eyck was very much against the ideas of the situationist unitary urbanism. That led to a kind of separation between us, between Aldo van Eyck and me. We didn’t meet for several years in that period because of the idea of unitary urbanism, which I developed with Debord, and which we defined in a so-called Declaration of Amsterdam that was published in the review. I decided something for myself. Debord, he was a man of theory. He was not a practical artist. He was a writer and philosopher, and he didn’t consider it very necessary to make things materially, like we artists. But I insisted on that and I built the first models – I think two, the Orange Sector and the small Yellow Sector – and they were published in one of the first numbers of the Internationale Situationniste. And later on, it sounds strange perhaps, but I quit the situationist movement because to my tastes...
Benjamin Buchloh - Your name vanished from the masthead of the magazine with issue nº5 in 1960.
Constant - About a year, yes, a year and a half about.
Benjamin Buchloh - You quit, you were not excommunicated? [Laughter.]
Constant - No, no. Later Asger Jorn also quit. We were the only ones who were not excommunicated, excluded. Then l felt free. But l quit it because there were actually too many painters in this situationist movement. [Laughter.] Really! I always opposed it. How can you work on urbanism when you are surrounded only by painters? There was Asger Jorn, [Giuseppe Pinot-]Gallizio, Maurice Wyckaert, and the Gruppe SPUR in Munich, Helmut Sturm, Heimrad Prem, Hans-Peter Zimmer, and Lothar Fischer. And all these painters were neo-COBRA.
Benjamin Buchloh - And they were all primitivist COBRA painters too.
Constant - Yes, yes!
Benjamin Buchloh - That’s one of the mysteries of Asger Jorn which I’ve never understood, to whom our great colleague Timothy Clark still refers as the most important postwar European painter, placing him side by side with Jackson Pollock. I’ve always been bewildered by the appreciation of Jorn as a painter and totally amazed by Jorn’s paradoxical conception of Memoires. But I don’t really know whether Jorn was the man who did the book or if it really was Debord who did his two most remarkable books: Memoiresand Fin de Copenhague. There is internal contradiction of neo-primitivism in painting as you just addressed it, and situationist theories, as you and Jorn and Debord were developing them at that moment.
Constant - I had a choice whether to continue the already begun project, New Babylon, or to be a situationist, but theoretical. I didn’t want that. After the Munich conference, I don’t remember exactly the year; I think it must be ’59...
Benjamin Buchloh - It took place from April 17 to April 20, 1959, in Munich.
Constant - After that conference, I decided to quit, and the exact moment was, I believe, an exhibition of Gallizio in the museum of Amsterdam. That was the moment when I said, well, that was a neo COBRA.
Benjamin Buchloh - Ten years after.
Constant - Yes, ten years after. I cannot turn back to COBRA after all I’ve done after COBRA. I had to continue this way, so I quit, and from that moment on I started to fill my studio with models and all the things you see here. The photo that was taken and you have seen was after the situationist movement.
Benjamin Buchloh - Yes, right. What about unitary urbanism? I know it’s not your concept, but you, along with Debord, were very crucial in developing and forming it. What about the Ivan Chtcheglov essay from 1958 that seems to have anticipated so many elements of the definition of unitary urbanism? Was that an important essay for you?
Constant - That was an article or an essay that was published in the first number. I didn’t take part in that number. I worked together as a coeditor for the IS for the second through the fourth numbers, three numbers, for a little more than a year. My name is in there. I published. Gilles Ivain...
Benjamin Buchloh - Yes, Gilles Ivain, his nom de plume...
Constant - Yes, Gilles Ivain, he published, ”Formulaire pour un urbanisme nouveau.” That was the title of it, and I criticized it also, in the second number, I think.
Benjamin Buchloh - Right, you said it was not specific and concrete enough. You called it ”chimerique.”
Constant - Because he was working with the material of the existing city and he didn’t think of other possibilities. He was not talking like an architect but as an inhabitant of an existing city, of the use of the city but not of the construction of the city,
Benjamin Buchloh - That essay still seems to be for me an instant link between the surrealist legacy of urban psychogeography and the situationist model of that. I mean, between the surrealist flanerie and the dérive. I think there is a really interesting link between those two approaches, but what comes into the fore- ground with your first formulation of New Babylon at that time – and that I think is a really complex subject – is: Why does Debord prosecute you once you leave the IS? Why does he get so incredibly aggressive with regard to your project of implementing, constructing, and conceiving actual models, if not actual projects, for unitary urbanism? He turns around on you in ’60, publishing vitriolic attacks on you. What did you do wrong? [Laughter.]
Constant - I didn’t have the impression that he was so aggressive... [Laughter.] Debord especially, he tried for a long time to get me back, and he wanted to keep contact with me. Actually, I didn’t want this contact anymore, because I was continuing in my own way and it led me away from the situationists. Debord and the other situationists, they turned more and more to politics, political statements. The concern with urbanism, unitary urbanism, was fading away slowly.
Benjamin Buchloh - If one reads your first texts from ’48 and ’53 and then the wonderful conference that you gave in ’63 at the ICA London, one could get the impression that you were a Marxist at that time.
Constant - I am still a Marxist in a philosophical way. A Marxist philosopher. I’m sure that Marx, if he were alive, would be anti-Communist.
Benjamin Buchloh - But it seems somehow that Johan Huizinga got the better of your Marxist legacy. After all, even if we go to the most elementary definition of Marxist thinking, the concept of labor and production is integral to any model of Marxism that one wants to address – early, middle, late. But the concept of play and game, and the idea of the construction and constitution of identity through ludic practices, rather than through productive practices, is profoundly anti-Marxist and profoundly antihistorical. That seems to me one of the most provocative elements of psychogeography and your model of New Babylon that one would have to address further: its hidden and unconscious analogy to the ideologies of leisure culture. What is happening between that Marxist approach and Huizinga’s model of ludic practices as unlimited emancipation from labor and production (which, of course, has a utopian optimism at that time but has in contemporary consumer culture a very polemical dimension, to say the least)?
Constant - It is not so difficult, I should think, to make a link between Huizinga and Marx. But you are thinking, when you think of Marx, of Das Kapital and the economic views. But Marx has also written Die deutsche Ideologie, and that is a philosophical work, which remained hidden and lost until 1936. But after 1936 it was rediscovered and became very influential. Huizinga, in his Homo Ludens, was speaking about a state of mind, not about a new kind of humanity; of human being, but in a certain sense a state of mind, of certain temporary conditions of human beings. For instance, when you are at a carnival, a feast, a wedding party. Temporarily you become the homo ludens, but then the next day you can be the homo faber again. He has to earn his pay. Marx, for instance, in the Deutsche Ideologie, he expresses this explicitly. He says creativity is a state of mind. A man cannot always be a painter. He is only a painter when he paints. (I don’t know the citations by heart at the moment and they would be in German.) That is very important in this Deutsche Ideologie. That is close. I have always tried to reconcile those two points of view, those visions of Marx in his Deutsche Ideologie and Huizinga in his Homo Ludens.
Benjamin Buchloh - There still seems to be an emphasis on what I would call an abstract universalist model of creativity that must have something to do – and I don’t know, in fact, how one would properly contextualize it – that’s typical of the 1950s and runs way into the 1960s, this kind of fetishization of human creativity as the supreme value of all, when the model of alienation on the collective level is never inserted into the discussion. It is never a question of addressing the conditions of alienated labor but only of how can we liberate universal creativity. Everybody is creative; everybody is a poet. The line that leads right up to Joseph Beuys, in many ways, in the early 1960s. When, in fact, what one confronts increasingly with the rise of accelerated consumer culture in the 1950s, the rise of the society of the spectacle, is the total elimination if not prohibition of every single state of creativity, of every single moment of free time, which is transformed into industrialized leisure. And commodity production serves leisure consumption. What is happening parallel to your vision of a new space of totally emancipated ludic creativity is, in fact, the construction of a society of total control that operates within the deepest recesses of human desire and human leisure and free-time activities. So that seems to be the historical paradox within which one should see your work. Is that acceptable?
Constant - Yes, but it’s not enough to say that everybody is an artist. I have said this long before Beuys, and other people have even before me, the surrealist movement, for instance. What is important is to figure out how this creativity, this sleeping creativity (”chaqu’un est un createur qui sommeille”) can be woken up. That is not only by artistic or cultural means, but also by social means, by the means of the production of his life, so that means a social turnover, a revolution.
Benjamin Buchloh - I can’t think of a better note on which to end our conversation.
Constant - I’m astonished that the hour has already passed. I just wanted to say, because we talked yesterday about Die gläserne Kette and the architecture in Germany, about Bruno Taut and Finsterlin the statement they made was: ”Seien wir mit Bewusstsein imaginäre Architekten, denn wir wissen dass nur eine Umwälzung uns zum Werk führen kann.”
Benjamin Buchloh - Can I translate it?
Constant - Yes ...
Benjamin Buchloh - Let us be consciously imaginary architects, since we know very well that only social transformation and radical political transformation can create the basis for actual work.
Constant - Yes, for revolution.
Benjamin Buchloh - It’s the nineties. It’s hard to pronounce that word. [Laughter.]
*Benjamin Buchloh is professor at the Columbia University.
Transcribed from The Activist Drawing, Retracing Situationist Architectures from Constant’s New Babylon to Beyond, edited by Catherine de Zegher and Mark Wigley, The Drawing Center - NY, The MIT Press, 2001Published with the author’s permission.