Carl Sydow and Andrew Beck are two artists whose practices have both been shaped by the ongoing influence of mid-twentieth-century modernist thought and methodology. In the case of Carl Sydow, this lineage was directly transferred; he was in London during the 1960s, where he encountered a generation of young sculptors who drew inspiration from the works of older modernist abstractionists such as Anthony Caro. Andrew Beck’s engagement with this material is at several removes; as a product of New Zealand’s art school system, he would have been exposed to modernist practice and ideas as part of a broader education on the historical underpinnings of contemporary art. As a result, his work engages with the subject in a more complex and detached fashion, paying homage to minimalists such as Serra, Stella and Morris, who in their own era questioned the precepts of modernist image-making through their hyper-reductive practice.
Presented together, intriguing parallels and resonances emerge between these two bodies of work. Sydow’s geometric abstractions are very much a part of late modernist discourse, using line and flat areas of colour to compartmentalise the picture plane. They also reflect similar concerns to those of Op Art, drawing on the same Constructivist genealogy. Beck’s photograms, although they share similar compositional elements, deploy a radically different methodology; by using the techniques and materials of photography, Beck’s work problematises the geometric purity of the modernist project, bringing to bear uncomfortable questions about corporeality and tangibility, and the mediating role played by light and optics.
Sydow’s sculptural works, for which he is best remembered, are highly accomplished assemblages, using what were, at the time, cutting edge materials such as Perspex and aluminium. However, they also speak the vernacular of 1960s suburbia, incorporating elements such as garden trellis, corrugated iron or, as in the case of the Meander works, lengths of hosepipe. Allegedly, elements of the 1972 work Triplex II were later repurposed to build a chicken coop, while a particularly memorable series of photographs of the Floorpiece series were taken on Sydow’s back lawn. Anecdotes and images such as these remind us that art that is international in outlook can remain grounded in the local, the tangible and the everyday; although it remains a challenging task, even in our era of informational oversaturation, the best artists are able to rise to the challenge and bridge these gaps.
Beck, too, has worked extensively in sculpture and installation; both he and Sydow produced site-specific works. For Beck, the photogram is where the physicality of his materials—sheets of glass, baths of water, and light sources themselves—become incorporeal, beginning to dissolve into the hazy indeterminacy and inaccessible spaces of the abstract. Sydow’s works remain grounded in an earnest engagement with the physical world, flirting with materiality as they strive for modernist or minimalist outcomes.
Speaking to one another across the decades, Sydow and Beck share both commonalities and differences. This intriguing conversation, played out in the mediating substrate of an exhibition, has some unexpected outcomes. Beck’s austere abstract photograms and Sydow’s joyously colourful letrafilm drawings speak a shared language; both are examples of New Zealand art’s capacity to be outward-looking, to observe and learn from international developments while retaining an antipodean perspective.