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Strength in simplicity

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Naum Gabo, Georges Vantongerloo, Friedrich Vordemberge-Gildewart: Works on Paper At Annely Juda Fine Art, 23 Dering Street, London W1until 15 December 2001

Why - it has been asked of proponents of the more outlandish forms of installation art - go to such inordinate lengths, employ such diverse means and materials when, with a scrap of paper and a pencil, the world can be at your feet? This is an exhibition of just such scraps of paper. Many are no more than a few inches square, and on at least one of them an attempt seems to have been made to rub out the pencil marks. The concerns of each work are purely formal or impersonal. I suppose this all places them at the furthest remove from Tracey Emin's Bed.How much power, in fact, do they wield?

All three artists were members of the group Abstraction-CrÚation, founded in Paris in the early 1930s to promote the cause of abstract art in a city endemically hostile to it. Vordemberge-Gildewart (born in Germany, 1899) and Vantongerloo (born in Belgium, 1886) had been linked to the De Stijl group in Holland, and Gabo (born in Russia, 1890) had with his brother Antoine Pevsner been responsible for developing the theory of Constructivist art while exiled in Norway during the First World War.

Vantongerloo, who lived until 1965, became something of a cult figure to British post-war 'Constructionist' artists such as Anthony Hill and Gillian Wise. It is moving to see the whole first room of this two-room exhibition (white, top-lit) devoted to his diminutive works - mostly on a white ground. In the De Stijl tradition, it has spiritual impact.

After Mondrian himself, it was probably Vantongerloo who spoke most effectively the neo-plasticist language of horizontal and vertical, but unlike Mondrian, he made use of green, orange, and other non-canonical colours, and the lines defining the coloured rectangles are light and thin. There is a sense of movement, on the whole absent from Mondrian's work.

In 1937 Vantongerloo allowed curves into his compositions, and from then on adopted an even lighter and sketchier style. Many of the abstract artists of this period subscribed in various ways to the belief in a calculable art, linked to contemporary science, and Vantongerloo habitually gave his works mathematical titles such as Composition y= -x2 + 3x + 10, whose true meaning is obscure. He was not prolific and the 36 works on view represent a significant part of his total output.

The urge to 'free-up' took a rather different form with Vordemberge-Gildewart, who also gave his work titles such as Composition No 154 but whose art has a more diffracted Suprematist feel, and who never restricted himself to the horizontal-vertical language of neo-plasticism. In the 1940s he turned to collage using rough scraps of paper, sometimes with decorative patterns. The results, though not without charm, do not carry the authority of his best 'regular' work. Many of the pieces exhibited here are no more than jottings, but mostly sufficient to convey an idea, which is the source of power in art.

Like Vordemberge-Gildewart, Gabo had had technical training (and in fact submitted entries to architectural competitions such as that for the Palace of the Soviets in 1930).

His work reflected a feeling for sensual curvature from the start, and he had no need for a dramatic break from the orthogonal. If there was such a break, it was - under the influence of Malevich - from constructed figuration to pure abstraction (though according to Herbert Read he would never accept the classification as 'abstract').

Some of Gabo's sketches for sculpture, such as the two Studies for Carvings (1931), have an enticing, soft, kneaded quality, but one of the most impressive is simply called Sketch (1924-26) and comprises no more than two lozenges overlapping, with two dots.

The power of a simple idea conveyed with pencil on a scrap of paper is as clear as can be.

James Dunnett is an architect in London

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