In this new biweeky column, art historian Alison Gillmor looks beneath the surface of newsworthy art.
Located on the south wall of the old James Richardson International Airport, Eli Bornstein's Structurist Relief in Fifteen Parts consists of rectangular white panels broken up by metal cubes and vertical and horizontal lines enamelled in the three primary colours -- red, yellow and blue.
Bornstein's art may be abstract but it's not meant to be difficult. This 1962 sculptural relief stands as a clear, stripped-down summary of the basic building blocks of visual reality. Bornstein called his work Structurism because it explores how simple structures and industrial materials can combine to create a spatial presence.
Historical influences include a dash of Russian Constructivism along with a three-dimensional extension of the ideas of Dutch artist Piet Mondrian. Then there's Bornstein's own voracious interest in science, technology and nature and their connection to creativity. (The Milwaukee-born Bornstein was an influential teacher at the University of Saskatchewan at Saskatoon for four decades, as well as the editor of The Structurist, a long-running journal of art and ideas.)
Each panel has a lucid beauty of its own, but the 15 parts really need to work together as riffing variations on Bornstein's very basic theme. If the battle to save the current air terminal is lost, it's fortunate that Structurist Relief looks to be heading intact to the University of Manitoba.
Bornstein's sculptural work sits at a juncture of art and architecture, which makes perfect sense for the context of Struc turist Relief. Part of an ambitious public art program commissioned for the airport's 1964 opening, its pared-down purity suited the building, which was a sleek, elegant, light-filled exemplar of international modernism.
The "blow it up" brigade might think modernist architecture and mid-century abstraction aren't worth preserving. But when this artwork was first installed -- and before its surroundings got cluttered up with the visual noise of vending machines and payphones -- it must have seemed like the concentrated expression of a new modern mood.