Elizabeth Fisher • Curator of Exhibitions, Kettles Yard


The 20th century saw intense artistic experimentation with non-traditional materials within European and American avant-gardes, spawning numerous local and international movements and generated new artistic paradigms such as the objet trouve and the happening. From Constructivism to installation art, the expansion of media went hand in hand with a shift off the pedestal or wall into the immediate space of the viewer and the development of increasingly mobile artistic practices that swept aside distinctions between disciplines and replaced the autonomous art object with contingent relationships between people and the objects and spaces of art.

Moving closer to the world around it, art practice has steadily drawn mass-culture and the everyday into its realm in a real, material sense. At the same time, the role of verbal language in art has increasingly overshadowed its material effect. Conceptual art, which emerged in the 1960s, privileged language as the primary vehicle of ideas and their expression, with profound and lasting impact on the way we relate to the art object.

While the anti-illusionism of Minimalism is a common starting point for the work in this show, the artists take up divergent positions in relation to their art historical precursors, often revisiting specific artists or movements in their engagement with materials. Wade Guyton's paintings quote the formal devices of Barnett Newman and Frank Stella; Martin Boyce explores the formal syntax of Modernism through Jacobsen, Eames, Calder and Le Corbusier. Shirley Tse's explorations in plastic echo Naum Gabo's experiments with nylon and the first industrially produced materials. Karla Black has affinities with the post-minimalism of Eva Hesse, while the psychological also surfaces in Claire Barclay's work, filtering into traditional ways of working with materials that hark back to Arts & Crafts' idealism.

They also share an approach to material experience as a way of thinking and communicating that actively avoids or downplays language, often pointing to its inadequacy and essentially abstract nature. Their work is physically, visually and sometimes emotionally forceful. It uses its materiality to disrupt art historical narratives and establish connections across genres and times.

Material Intelligence reprises a historical model of intuitive aesthetic experience as a way of getting beyond the often closed loops of images and words to find new ways of engaging with our cultural context. In doing so, it chimes with the formal sensibility that runs through Kettle's Yard. As Ian Kiaer observes, despite its genteel domesticity and gentle aesthetic, the question that Kettle's Yard prompts us to ask is still radical: what is an art object and what does it do?

Outlined below, in roughly chronological order, are some of the key historical moments and artistic positions that have shaped the context in which artists engage with materials and material experience today.


Constructivists believed that art should reflect the modern world. They used the materials of everyday life to break down the hierarchies of how, by whom and with what art was made. Around 1914, Vladimir Tatlin began to make artworks where 'the material dictates the form', soon taking up the phrase "truth to materials", which had been a cornerstone of the Arts & Crafts movement across Europe and North America at the end of the 19th century. For Constructivists, "truth to materials" meant a treatment of industrial materials that made the processes of production transparent but also socially relevant.

In the 1920's, the Constructivists split. Constructivism in Russia moved closer to a Productivist ethos and became increasingly involved in design, advertising and state propaganda. In 1922, the brothers Naum Gabo and Antoine Pevsner left for Berlin and took their interpretation of Constructivism, in which the political was largely tempered by formal concerns, to the West. Gabo saw new materials as a means to explore spatial constructions untethered to the mass of traditional materials. Exploiting sheet metal and glass, plywood and plastics such as celluloid and Perspex, he was also one of the first artists to use power tools to cut and shape materials. Gabo's work combined a machine-age aesthetic and an interest in the material of space, informed by scientific discoveries such as x-ray photography, neutrons and electrons.


Dada was an informal movement that began in Switzerland during WWI. It was a response to the cultural and intellectual conformity that Dadaists believed were complicit with bourgeois capitalism and the 'logic' of war. Where art was concerned with traditional aesthetic values, Dada ignored aesthetics. If art was to appeal to sensibilities, Dada was intended to offend. For Dadaists, art was not an end in itself, it was an opportunity to engage with the world around them. They made music, poetry, collage, objects and performances that incorporated the mass-reproduced and distributed images, objects, sounds and symbols of popular culture without regard for formal conventions. It was in this context, in 1917, that Duchamp exhibited his first 'readymade': a standard urinal, signed and dated "R Mutt 1917," entitled "Fountain." The readymade was emblematic of Dada's assault on the conventions and accepted notions of art.

Truth to materials

During the 1930's, the phrase "truth to materials" dominated British sculpture, architecture and design. The sculptors Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth used the phrase to differentiate their practice of direct carving into materials such as stone or wood from mechanical techniques of working with these materials, and from modelling and casting. Drawing on the psychological strains of Surrealism, they allowed the stone or wood to guide and shape their semi-figurative abstractions. Theirs was a gentler version of Tatlin's 'material dictating form,' where traditional materials and the forms they gave rise to were assumed to be inherently expressive, in this case of both an intimate connection with nature and a belief that ideas could be embodied and expressed through pure form.

"for the idea to be fully and freely projected into stone, wood or any plastic substance, a complete sensibility to material - an understanding of its inherent quality and character - is required. There must be a perfect unity between the idea, the substance and the dimension" Barbara Hepworth ("Sculpture," Circle, 1937, p.113)

Modernity and Modernism

The new materials and technologies of the machine age, such as sheet metals, plastics, hardboard and plywood, enabled the mass-production of industrial and consumer products on an unprecedented scale. Quickly embraced by Modernist architects and designers, they were used to transform the material environment and give physical form to a utopian vision of cultural and social order. Louis Sullivan's phrase 'form (ever) follows function' became the battle-cry of Modernist architects around the world. But the 1930's to 50's were a tumultuous time and in the face of events in Europe, from WWII to the iron curtain descending, Modernism lost its ideological impetus. It became an aesthetic inextricably linked to industrial capitalism, mass culture and technological innovation.


Post-war artistic movements across the West continued to exploit industrial and unconventional materials, often in reaction against their immediate artistic forebears. Minimalism was a forthright rejection of the heroic, transcendental rhetoric of abstract expressionism; its main proponents included Robert Morris, Carl Andre, Donald Judd, Frank Stella and Dan Flavin. Minimalism was characterized by a formal language that drew on Constructivism, but its terms of engagement, particularly in emphasizing the role of the viewer in completing the work of art, were indebted to Duchamp and the readymade. Minimalist artists deployed standard units of off-the-shelf, mass-manufactured, self-coloured construction materials in work that was resolutely literal and anti-illusionistic. They explored a perceptual experience of objects and the relationship between figure and ground (traditionally understood in pictorial, perspectival terms) that drew on Gestalt psychology.

"Materials vary greatly and are simply materials - formica, aluminum(sic), cold-rolled steel, Plexiglas, red and common grass, and so forth. They are specific. If they are used directly, they are more specific. Also, they are usually aggressive. There is an objectivity to the obdurate identity of a material. Also, of course, the qualities of materials - hard mass, soft mass, thickness of 1/32, 1/16, 1/8 inch, pliability, slickness, translucency, dullness - have unobjective uses. The vinyl of Oldenburg's soft objects looks the same as ever, slick, flaccid and a little disagreeable, and is objective, but it is pliable and can be sewn and stuffed with air and kapok and hung or set down, sagging or collapsing. Most of the new materials are not as accessible as oil on coanvas and are hard to relate to one another. They aren't obviously art. The form of a work and its materials are closely related." Donald Judd, "Specific Objects" in Donald Judd: Complete Writings 1959-1975 (Halifax: The Press of the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, in association with New York University Press, 1975), pp. 181-89.

Neo-Dada: anti-aesthetics, environments and events

Duchamp's presence in New York in the late 1950's was a contributing factor in the resurgence of interest in Dadaist strategies and anti-formalism amongst a younger generation of artists, including Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns. Their work is also affiliated with the beginnings of Pop Art in the US. Like Dada, Pop Art reflected the experience of living within popular culture, exploiting the visual language of product design and advertising, alongside mechanical techniques for rendering and reproducing images. In works such as Andy Warhol's Campbell's Soup Cans (1962), Pop Art replaced Dada's anarchism with a detached affirmation of the artifacts of mass culture. Johns and Rauschenberg made collages and assemblages that combined found objects and images from popular culture, marrying ephemeral materials with topical events from everyday life to test the boundary between the commonplace object and the work of art. Rauschenberg was instrumental in establishing the idea that a work of art can exist for any length of time, in any material, anywhere, for any purpose and in any location it chooses, from the museum to the rubbish bin.

Another key figure was Allan Kaprow. In 1958, Kaprow wrote a 'call to arms' in his essay "On the Legacy of Jackson Pollock", setting out the terrain in which artists were to negotiate Pollock's 'destruction' of painting and the pictorial conventions of art-making. His essay recalled the manifestos of earlier artists: to move art into the sphere of daily life, dissolve all hierarchies and value systems, reject the divisions between media and declare everything the material of art while drawing all realms of perception into the aesthetic sphere.

"...(Pollock) left us at the point where we must become preoccupied with and even dazzled by the space and objects of our everyday life, either our bodies, clothes, rooms, or, if need be, the vastness of Forty-second Street. Not satisfied with the suggestion through paint of our other senses, we shall utilize the specific substances of sight, sounds, movements, people, odors, touch. Objects of every sort are materials for the new art: paint, chairs, food, electric and neon lights, smoke, water, old socks, a dog, movies, a thousand other things that will be discovered by the present generation of artists. Not only will these bold creators show us, as if for the first time, the world we have always had about us but ignored, but they will disclose entirely unheard-of happenings and events, found in garbage cans, police files, hotel lobbies; seen in store windows and on the odor of crushed strawberries, a letter from a friend, a billboard selling Drano..." Allan Kaprow ("The Legacy of Jackson Pollock," Art News, October 1958)

Kaprow's happenings, among many artistic movements coming out of the 1960's (such as Pop Art and Fluxus), began to engage with our blossoming relationship to objects as commodities. In his 'happenings', and later 'environments' or 'activities' that took place in, and made use of, the environments and events of ordinary life, Kaprow used old tyres, giant blocks of ice, cleaning products and foodstuffs. His work blurred the boundaries between life and art, artist and audience, and influenced performance and installation art practices, including that of Paul McCarthy. The psychosexual content of McCarthy's work has strong parallels in Viennese Actionism but comes out of an entirely different context. McCarthy worked with Kaprow and takes American kids' tv culture as the starting point for his transgressive performances and installations involving paint, kitchen table foodstuffs such as mayonnaise, ketchup and chocolate and bodily fluids.

Fluxus was close in spirit to Dada, and undercut the seriousness with which modern art was regarded, but it also embraced wider social and communitarian aspirations that reflect its intermedia and interdisciplinary nature. Fluxus artworks often took the form of 'Fluxus boxes' of random found and hand-made objects, or 'event scores,' both of which operated much as a musical score, available to be played and interpreted by anyone but still acknowledging the work's relationship to the composer.

Arte Povera and Actionism

In the late 1960's, European movements such as Arte Povera and Viennese Actionism held reactionary positions in relation both to the hegemony of Modernism and American Minimalism, and to more local socio-political climates. Viennese Actionism was a violent, visceral rejection of the pictorial conventions of European modernism and consumer society that came out of a culture of Freudian psychoanalysis. In their efforts to overcome the illusionism of the easel picture, Güenter Brus, Otto Müehl and Hermann Nitsch arrived at performative works intended to enable a perception of reality as unadulterated as possible. With their painting and 'material actions' with food and bodily substances, they opposed the state and prevailing social order of the 1960's and 70's.

"Material action is painting represented in action, self therapy made visible. Using foodstuffs, it works like a psychosis produced by mixing objects, human bodies and material. Everything is planned. Anything can be used and works as material." Otto Müehl, Material Action Manifesto / Materiakaktion, Manifesto (1964) in Peter Weibel and Valie Export, eds., wien:bildkompendium wiener aktionismus und film (Frankfurt: Kohlkunstverlag, 1970)

In Italy, Arte Povera positioned art within the space of political activism, rejected conventional relationships with audiences, and reinvested objects with the functions of memory and history, in an effort to revive the revolutionary potential of outdated objects, materials and modes of production. Artists such as Giovanni Anselmo brought materials and temporalities together to gracefully demonstrate this dialectical view of sculptural production. In Torsione (1968), a solid steel rod is held against a wall by the tensed spring of tightly twisted fabric, whose sinuous curves and folds evoke a Baroque sensuality.

Arte Povera encompassed the contradictions between modernism and anti-modernism that characterised the Italian avant-garde, and set the artisanal in perpetual juxtaposition with advanced forms of technology such as the computer and neon. Artists such as Jannis Kounellis and Mario Merz continually interrelated and critiqued the use of technology and the readymade within artistic practice. The notion of Arte Povera was premised on a model of pre-linguistic experience - non-discursive, non-technological, non-scientific - and non-phenomenological artistic conventions.


There were some affinities between Arte Povera and American Post-minimalism. The term Post-minimalism brings together contradictory responses to the crisis of medium that Minimalism made explicit. Conceptual artists sought to dematerialise the art object while Process artists rematerialised it with a vengeance. Process art highlighted the ritualistic and performative aspects of art-making, and used insubstantial and ephemeral materials such as latex, beeswax, ice, steam, foam as well as materials in an 'untransformed' state, such as molten lead and poured paint. Richard Serra, Robert Morris, Lynda Benglis and Eva Hesse forced the body into a phenomenological (and in Hesse's case, also psychological) confrontation with an object or a field to undo the purity and stability of form in compositions that were determined by their material characteristics. From Serra's thrown lead to Robert Morris' cut felt, artists exploited the physical presence of material and natural laws to make works that continued minimalism's interrogation of illusionism.

Installation art

Installation art emerged in the 1970's as a term used to describe artworks that took on entire rooms; environments to be entered and experienced with all our senses, such as those of Helio Oiticica or Bruce Nauman. Richard Wilson's 20:50, made with used sump oil and steel, characterized the excessive use of materials and grand scale of installations that enveloped the viewer in the 1980s. Exploiting the sensory immediacy and immersive nature of installation art, artists in the 1990s created simulacra of real life in art contexts, from the psychologically disturbing spaces of Mike Nelson and Gregor Schneider to Rikrit Tiravanija's full-scale reconstruction of his own apartment.

Installation art encompasses an expansive set of conditions and ranges widely in terms of materials, scale and the role of the viewer. It continues to provide a framework for the artistic practices of a diverse group of contemporary artists, including several of the artists in this show. The work in Material Intelligence shares the ability of installation art to make us more critically aware of the environments in which we find ourselves.