Concrete to Generative: “Real Space” Explorations in South America

Virginia Valenzuela explores generative art's roots in South American concrete art.
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Lidy Prati, Vibración al infinito, 1953. Courtesy of the artist

Concrete to Generative: “Real Space” Explorations in South America

Early digital generative art is defined by space: the way lines and shapes take up space, the way artworks exist in a space between order and chaos. This extends to the physical space required to house giant computers and pieces of paper laid out on tables and floors, waiting for the programmer's algorithm to take form.

It is easy to assume that this distinct aesthetic was first brought to life by artists like Frieder Nake and A. Michael Noll, some of the earliest to experiment with digital machines. Yet, their principles of simplicity and singularity were already present in the concrete art movement that began in 1930s Europe and was further shaped by artists in South America in the 1940s, 1950s and beyond.

From Real to Abstract, From Abstract to Concrete

At the end of the 19th century, artists around the world began to rethink what they could render on the canvas. They moved away from portraiture and still life, attempting instead to convey emotions in the abstract. By the 1930s, a new generation of artists emerged that began interrogating concepts of beauty, subjectivity and space.

If early modern artists were interested in moving from the real to the abstract, then this new generation of modern art makers was interested in how they might merge the abstract with the concrete.

The art scene of the 1920s had been dominated by expressionism, surrealism, Jazz Moderne (art deco) and Dada. These artists were informed by a rich and diverse culture of abstract practices that varied from the softer, freeform styles of Salvador Dalí or Edvard Munch, to more strict, geometry-based styles like Pablo Picasso’s cubism period. In general, these styles were colorful, emotional and detailed. Most importantly, they questioned the way space could function within an art piece. Because their art no longer needed to represent a literal reality, it could veer into symbols and metaphors: skies with iridescent swirling movements, melting clocks, organic forms reduced to random shapes with only a whisper of the familiar.

Theo van Doesburg, Composition VIII (The Cow), 1918. Public Domain

The Dutch artist Theo van Doesburg had been an impressionist painter whose work was heavily influenced by Vincent van Gogh. Like many during WWI, his prior worldview was shattered by the tragedy; he began seeing art as having the potential to transcend the beautiful and attain the spiritual. For this to be accomplished, one had to look away from everyday life for inspiration and to fully embrace inner life. The most logical means of conveying the concept of inner life, according to van Doesburg, was to pursue the form of pure abstraction.

In 1930, van Doesburg coined the term “concrete art” in his journal Art Concret. Within those pages he advocated for simplicity in painting, stressing that “nothing is more concrete, more real, than a line, a color, a plane.”

The philosophy behind concrete art was to strip away the layers of paint, the texture of brushstrokes, the variance of color and other technical complexities; instead, it endeavored for simplicity.

Together with artists like Piet Mondrian, van Doesburg fine tuned his interest in the concrete with its pared down aesthetics.

Concrete Art in Argentina and Brazil

While van Doesburg advocated for concrete art throughout Europe, the concrete was beginning to blossom across the Atlantic thanks in large part to Joaquín Torres-García. The Uruguayan Torres-García worked with Mondrian and is considered a key founder of South American Constructivism. Beginning in 1930s Argentina and Uruguay, artists were engrossed with the pursuit of a universal concept of beauty, one that rejected romance and metaphor. Instead, it relied on mathematical and scientific truths. Two distinct groups would emerge by the mid '40s: Asociación Arte Concreto-Invención (AACI) and Madí. Both, according to Jorge Glusberg, were inspired by the same magazine, Arturo. (Editor's note: Read more in our Generative Art Timeline.)

Lidy Prati, Homenaje a Max Bill o Guatemala, 1956. Courtesy of the artist

The first group, AACI, was a pioneering art collective founded in Argentina in 1945 and led by artists Juan Melé, Tomás Maldonado, Lidy Prati, Raúl Lozza and the poet Edgar Bayley. It utilized abstract shapes, forms and colors to create representations of elements from both the real and abstract worlds. Through their works, these artists sought to develop a new visual language that could communicate ideas and concepts in a non-representational format. TheInventionist Manifesto” published in 1946 expressed the idea that scientific aesthetics would replace the ancient speculative and idealist aesthetics. “Considerations around Beauty are no longer relevant. The metaphysics of Beauty have withered away. Now we have the physics of beauty” (author’s trans. of Amor 2016, 53). By adopting a more scientific method and by utilizing chance procedures, a new chapter of objective, rule-based art was formed.

But at some point, attempting to create three-dimensional artworks on a two-dimensional surface seemed too restrictive. The group began working with new mediums like sculpture, architecture and customized canvases made in irregular shapes. Thus, concrete art moved out of flat space and into real space.

Real space in art is the depiction of an environment or scene as it exists in a three-dimensional way. In painting, this can mean the use of perspective and scale to create a sense of depth, or making use of shadows and light to create a realistic representation of space.

In concrete art, this approach was taken further by using abstract shapes and forms to represent elements in the environment. The concrete art that originated in Argentina reached out of the two-dimensional canvas and utilized physical materials such as concrete, stone, tiles and other media to create an artistic experience.

Kosice, for example, focused on creating sculpture with color and light, while Arden Quin embraced the idea of assemblage as a means to explore space. Maldonado was interested in questioning traditional artistic form and sought to create work that emphasized the materiality of art.

Gyula Kosice, Televisor hidraulizado 1, 2023. Courtesy of the artist

Around this same time, the second group emerged: Madí, founded in 1945 by Uruguayan painter Carmelo Arden Quin, Rhod Rothfuss and the painter and poet Gyula Kosice. They aimed to create an entirely new art form that would free abstract painting from its traditional two-dimensional limitations. They sought to create a visual language which incorporated real space and depth as part of its composition, allowing for experimentation and movement within the artwork. Above all, Madí sought to express visual concepts in an abstract manner without relying on symbols or figuration. They viewed three-dimensional works such as sculptures and installations as a more poetic form of communication than two-dimensional paintings.

Concrete art’s commitment to anti-idealism highlighted a sort of revolutionary spirit that used geometry as its primary language. By discarding everything that had been accepted by traditional painting and sculpture, the artistic style was meant to represent a liberation from the past, as well as a plan for a kind of accessible art that would embody a free and progressive society. 

But by the 1950s, Concrete art had grown into something more strict and uncompromising, and in 1959, the poet Ferreira Gullar broke away from the movement. He felt that the mechanical nature of Concrete art rendered it sterile and unemotional, reduced to formulas and systems that lacked a human touch. Thus, a new group called Neoconcretismo (Neo-Concretism) was established in Rio de Janeiro, and a manifesto came forward that same year. For Gullar, the connection between the viewer and the art object had to come first.

Ivan Serpa, Op-Erotica, 1971. Courtesy of the artist

Both movements in Argentina and Brazil created works based on rigorous geometric principles with impersonal, quasi-industrial surfaces in which the artist’s hand was almost invisible. Unlike their Argentine predecessors, the artists in Brazil generally welcomed optical illusion in their work. They also incorporated elements of Gestalt theory and perceptual psychology, ideas that had been introduced by art critic Mário Pedrosa.

From Concrete to Generative

1959 proved to be an instrumental year in the history of Argentine art. It was that year that Eduardo Mac Entyre and Miguel Ángel Vidal met and began creating generative paintings, sometimes with the use of computer-generated images as a reference, but not always. Mac Entyre had been a student of concrete art and was interested in creating more complex artworks that utilized hundreds of lines to produce a sense of force and energy. He and Vidal returned to the two-dimensional plane but aimed to create movement and vibration. In some ways, they subverted geometrical abstraction by giving it order and intention rather than leaning into randomness.

Miguel Angel Vidal, Focos de luz (Lightbulbs), 1969. Courtesy of the artist and Retroavangarda

Concrete art was perhaps one of the longest-running art movements of modern times. Spanning over 40 years, dozens of artists emerged that constantly challenged the ways we make, think about and present art. It was a time of exploration that laid the foundations for generations of artists in Latin America, and indeed, throughout the world.

That these concepts, which seem so native to the computer, were in many ways already in motion before computers became accessible, proves once again that technology evolves with humankind just as much as humankind evolves with technology.


Virginia (Vinny) Valenzuela is a poet, fiction writer and journalist who is Head of Comms & Curator at Mint Gold Dust.