Nordic Concrete Art from the Erling Neby Collection
My first impression of Scandinavian House’s current exhibit, “Cutting Edges: Nordic Concrete Art from the Erling Neby Collection,” was its similarity to Matisse’s cutouts, with their sense of shape, colors, kineticism, and joy. But I was to learn that concrete art actually originates from a very different and specific point of view.
Concrete does not refer to the ubiquitous substance underneath our urban feet. In 1929, the Dutch artists Piet Mondrian and Theo van Doesburg dubbed the term “concrete art” to differentiate from abstract works. According to the exhibit brochure, it is also known as “geometric abstraction, constructivism and neo-plasticism,” and “was intended to emphasize the fact that forms and colors were already concrete realities.”
All the pieces in this exhibit are garnered from collector Erling Neby, a Norwegian who began acquiring different forms of concrete art in the 1970s. Much of his collection is comprised of Scandinavian artists, but it is not limited to their work. Many prized pieces from his collection have been shown at stellar institutions, including Paris’ Centre Pompidou and New York City’s Whitney Museum. The prestigious American Scandinavian Foundation/Scandinavia House in New York and KODE Art Museums and Composer Homes in Bergen were the organizers of the current exhibit.
The curator for the exhibit is Norwegian Karin Hellandsjø, director emeritus of the Henie Onstad Art Center in Bærum outside of Oslo. It spans work created over seven decades and includes artists from Norway, Denmark, Sweden, Finland, and Iceland, working in a variety of mediums.
I especially like the way Hellandsjø creates dialogue between certain pieces by their placement. For example, in the Hartvig and Olette Gundersen Gallery, two wonderful pieces by Finnish artist Lars G. Nordström are placed diagonally from each other. Both speak to each other internally and by their proximity, like two colorful and animated girlfriends, bodies overlapping, chatting over a cup of coffee. “Composition” (1954) has interlacing half-hearts, rectangles, and squares in bursts of yellow, black, white, and gray, creating a playful symphony. The larger, jade, black, and white, “Tautology” 1968 uses circles and rectangles that merge and melt into each other in a wonderful eye-catching assortment of patterns.
Norwegian Aase Texmon Rygh’s three bronze works—Volta (1975), a twisted U; Möbius (1989), a twisted O; and Möbius dobel (1993), two Os—are shown together. I love the juxtaposition of these solid pieces made from such a stern-looking metal, malleable in their present state, seen twisted in a delicate manner.
Another metal sculpture, XRAB, is more tenuous, slender and slight, and so precariously balanced—almost zigzag—that it makes one ponder its ability to remain upright. It was created by Olle Bærtling in 1972 and is comprised of painted steel. In contrast, Robert Jacobsen’s No. 252 of painted iron is complex and beautiful in its collision of shapes, which form an asymmetrical, yet balanced whole.
I especially liked the last gallery for its intimate feel that allows the art to surround you. Here three large pieces cover one wall each, arranged as shown above. With its lovely, composition of black and white triangles, “Rotasjon” (1940), created by Herman Hebler, sits across from “Interlace, No. 2” (1970) by Kristin Nordhøy in the same color scheme. The later image does not do the actual painting justice with its ability to make a flat surface move before your eyes. But Paul Brand’s “Magic Square” (1986-87) is the peanut butter in this tasty, eye-popping sandwich, soothing the eye with its blocks of cobalt, black, gray and navy overlays.
The fourth wall includes two pieces. The first, “Untitled” (1961), a paper relief by Lars Englund, is most interesting in its use of material. There is only one shape used: linear rectangles, all in a rich shade of cream. The artist has created lights, darks, and mediums by varying the amount of paper layers utilized.
The last piece, “Maleri” (1954-55) by Birger Carlstedt, intrigued me for its unusual choice of colors: olive, eggplant, orchid, chocolate, amber, terra cotta, black, and celery, infused with a strong dose of light teal in the background. The curvature of the shapes reminds one of birds in flight or dancers arms in port de bras: a delightful and unique display.
If you’d like to see an exhibit filled with joyous color, whimsical twists, and more visual illusions than a magician, I suggest you head to Scandinavia House in New York City—it may even be worth a special trip to NYC. The exhibit will be on display through Feb. 15, 2020.
For more information, visit www.scandinaviahouse.org/events/cutting-edges.
This article originally appeared in the November 15, 2019, issue of The Norwegian American.