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Concrete Poetry

Concrete Poetry? Surprising association of words, isn’t it? Indeed, let’s be playful today! Set a little wave of poetry in motion…

Concrete Poetry is actually an artistic movement from the 1950’s based on a simple formula:

Form = Content / Content = Form.

Take a look at Ian Hamilton Finlay’s Acrobats.

Ian Hamilton Finlay, Acrobats, Getty Museum, Los Angeles

Observe how your mind looks for words and basically “plays” acrobat due to the spatial construct of the work! For Hamilton Finlay, “the mind will always try to make words out of letters – to create movement” (1966).

What about this tiny word arrangement currently on display at the Getty Museum, also by Scottish artist Ian Hamilton Finlay?

Ian Hamilton Finlay, happy apple – for the painter Juan Gris, Getty Museum, Los Angeles

Happy. Apple. But did you see Pip showing vertically, triggering association of thoughts and squaring / rounding the meaning you read with the visual you see?

That’s Concrete Poetry, where the design and graphic quality of a poem plays as much a part in the meaning as the words contained.

Mary Ellen Solt, Forsythia, Getty Museum, Los Angeles

I will let your brain play with a few more examples because it won’t be able to help it…Delightful and deceptively simple.

Ian Hamilton Finlay, Broken/HeartBroken, Getty Museum, Los Angeles

Ho/Horizon/On is my favourite… Ho Ho Ho, until No No No, the Horizon is blocked by the letters piling in!

Ian Hamilton Finlay, Ho/Horizon/On, Getty Museum, Los Angeles


Concrete Poetry emerged in the 1950’s but built upon prior influences such as Dada. In the midst of the atrocities of WWI, Dada was a key movement challenging the precepts of Western Art to create non-sensical art, where chance was preferred and aesthetics largely ignored.

Yet I find there are a lot more than meet the eye with Concrete Poetry as long as you’re open and don’t brush past quickly. so keep reading till the end…

It’s a bit like the work of Frederick Hammersley that I managed to catch on its last days at L.A. Louver.

Frederick Hammersley, Gee Whiz, L.A. Louver

Frederick Hammersley’ s use of blocked-out shapes and the angularity of the shards of colors of his organic paintings are attractive.

Yet what really got me looking – and thinking – were his series of computer generated drawings dating from 1969.

Frederick Hammersley, detail from Gee Whiz, L.A. Louver


Using letters and signs, he created tonal contrasts and movement using an admittedly inflexible medium.

Frederick Hammersley, Tea Talk, L.A. Louver

Frederick Hammersley, detail from Tea Talk, L.A. Louver

There is even Hammersley’ s version of Josef Albers’ Homage to the Square, echoing a theme dear to my heart that I wrote about here.

Frederick Hammersley, Thought Holder, L.A. Louver

The forms composed of individual signs and letters are the essential and concrete elements of the poetic drawings in this series. Beyond this, there is no meaning in those signs.

I loved those. Can you imagine how much work went into them?

The subtle visual alteration of a letter by a double strike with Hammersley, the addition of a small word for Ian Hamilton Finlay…all can have a big impact on meaning.

Ian Hamilton Finlay, Little Fields / Long Horizons, Getty Museum, Los Angeles

Witness Little Fields / Long Horizons where the word “for” changes the nature of “long” from adjective to verb and sets the poetry going.

Or Ian Hamilton Finlay’s take on Malevich’s Black Square.

“A textual enigma to Malevich’s painterly one”: lack, lock, block, black are words with meanings recreating the tension intertwined in Malevich’s famous painting.

Ian Hamilton Finlay’s work evolved with time, never losing its poetic character but definitely adding to how concrete it became.

Ian Hamilton Finlay, Picturesque, Little Sparta, Scotland

Tongue-in-cheek with Picturesque, his work took a more sculptural approach, particularly in his Little Sparta garden near Edinburgh in Scotland.

Also with Unda, part of the Stuart Collection on the UCSD Campus in San Diego.

Ian Hamilton Finlay, Unda, Stuart Collection, UC San Diego Campus

Unda means wave in Latin. A word whose meaning is pictorially close to the S-like scroll that keeps changing position on each of the five roughly cut blocks of Cotswolds limestone.

Ian Hamilton Finlay, Unda, Stuart Collection, UC San Diego Campus

This beautiful curve is also used by editors to signify “transpose these letters”, interchange them…Meaning the word Unda keeps rippling on the stones as you transpose its letters.

In your brain, in the carved letters in front of you and as you look up from the stones towards the ocean on the horizon.

Ian Hamilton Finlay, Unda, Stuart Collection, UC San Diego Campus

Concrete Poetry is all about a subtle change, a ripple effect enticing movement. It’s visual yet it also expands the horizon of our thoughts unexpectedly. If only we give it a little time, as you are right now.

Time. That entity that is slowly destroying another form of concrete poetry I was puzzled to come across at the Getty Museum.

Jane and Louise Wilson, Casemate H667, Getty Museum, Los Angeles

Four large scale black & white photographs by sisters Jane and Louise Wilson. Four concrete blokhaus (bunkers) left by the Nazis on the Western coasts of France.

Jane and Louise Wilson, Casemate SK667, Getty Museum, Los Angeles

I use to see blokhaus every summer I spent in Noirmoutier until I was about 10. Menacing by their size, concreteness and protruding rebars, I was always warned they were unstable, dangerous. The sea, with time, was going to make these monstrosities tip over, head first, off the dunes. Inexorably.

By then, will there be any WWII veterans left to tell the tale of what these blokhaus witnessed?

I thought these striking photographs captured another version of concrete poetry.

The war, the past, this is the “concrete” in our heads. But remember the little wave, the flicker of a movement, the power to “transpose”? It can set the “poetry” in our eyes…

Which one of these concrete poem did you enjoy most? Let me know in the Comment Box 🙂


Concrete Poetry is exhibited at the Getty Museum until July 30, 2017.

Sealander by Jane and Louise Wilson is at the Getty Museum until July 2, 2017.

Frederick Hammersley closes at L.A. Louver on June 24, 2017.

Concrete Poetry led to Concretism and Neo-Concretism, the latter being an artistic movement exemplified by Lygia Pape: A Multitude of Forms, on view at the Met Breuer until July 23, 2017 and covered in a previous blog post here.


© 2017 Ingrid Westlake

All pictures by Ingrid Westlake, unless otherwise stated.

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