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Constructivism and chance

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Diet Sayler At Kettle's Yard, Cambridge, and the Lady Chapel, Ely Cathedral, until 30 April

Diet Sayler was born in Timisoara, Romania, in 1939. From 1956- 61 he studied both engineering and painting in Timisoara and, on graduation, worked for some time as a structural engineer. As he revealed in a public conversation at Kettle's Yard with its director, Michael Harrison, Sayler was inspired by the artistic tradition established by his Romanian forebears - Brancusi, Tristan Tsara, Ionescu - to take up painting as a means of securing individuality and freedom within a totalitarian state.

In the same conversation he declared his first influences to have been Matisse and Malevich. From that ground he has made an artistic and geographical journey to become one of the most significant constructive artists in Europe, working since 1973 in Nuremberg.

This major exhibition has toured from Ludwigshafen to Bucharest and Prague before its final installation at Kettle's Yard. There a sequence of works spanning his entire career since 1963 transform the galleries. The very earliest pieces, a group of monotypes from 1963-4, are almost expressionist with their dense textures and superimpositions of geometrical figures, but very quickly these are followed by a group of 'Arhythmic Compositions' in which the figures are more defined and sparsely disposed on their ground. In these lie the origins of his later works.

It was only after his move to Germany that Sayler began to experiment with colour, first with the primaries and later, when he decided that this limitation was purely the expression of an ideology, with more complex tonalities and relations. In all of his work Sayler explores the relationship between organisation and chance. The works are systematic in their conception, but he welcomes the uncertainty of the throw of the dice (literally in some cases), and the sensual response of his own eye during the process of painting.

A spectacular example of the process of mathematical chance is Five Line Triptych, 1976, in which the five lines of the title are traced, black on white, with graphical precision in three distinct configurations. The sensuality of the painted surface is best demonstrated in five recent pieces which are grouped in Kettle's Yard's tallest gallery. These, with titles such as Medici, Blue Body and Sienna, Brown Body, are large geometrical figures in acrylic on wood, which stand 5.5cm from the wall plane. Built up with a palette knife, their monochrome surfaces are animated by other coloured layers underneath.

The exhibition was installed by Sayler in what he calls an 'open system', so that the paintings work both with other paintings and the space which contains them. They deliberately sit lower on the walls than is usual to allow them to 'meet with the body as well as the eye'.

Outside the gallery, Sayler has made two site-specific pieces - Green Cross in the tiny church of St Peter next to Kettle's Yard and an installation in the luminous Lady Chapel at Ely Cathedral. The latter consists of a series of red geometrical figures inhabiting the niches of the chapel walls. The shapes are generally at the height of the face of a seated human, but their exact placement varies to echo the different heights of those who may have sat there in the six centuries of the chapel's existence. The levels were established by the throw of a dice. This apparently simple process sets up a rich counterpoint against the complex regularities of the late-Gothic space and its ever changing daylight.

The exhibition, which is sponsored by the Goethe Institute, is supplemented by a lavish 250 page catalogue - ridiculously cheapat £14.95.

Dean Hawkes is an architect and professor at the Welsh School of Architecture

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