Modular art is art created by joining together standardized units (module
Module or modular may refer to the concept of modularity. It may also refer to:-Computing and engineering:* Modular design, the engineering discipline of designing complex devices using separately designed sub-components...

s) to form larger, more complex compositions. In some works the units can be subsequently moved, removed and added to – that is, modulated – to create a new work of art, different from the original or ensuing configurations.


Historically, alterable objects of art have existed since the Renaissance
The Renaissance was a cultural movement that spanned roughly the 14th to the 17th century, beginning in Italy in the Late Middle Ages and later spreading to the rest of Europe. The term is also used more loosely to refer to the historical era, but since the changes of the Renaissance were not...

, for example, in the Triptych
A triptych , from tri-= "three" + ptysso= "to fold") is a work of art which is divided into three sections, or three carved panels which are hinged together and can be folded shut or displayed open. It is therefore a type of polyptych, the term for all multi-panel works...

 "The Garden of Earthly Delights
The Garden of Earthly Delights
The Garden of Earthly Delights is a triptych painted by the early Netherlandish master Hieronymus Bosch , housed in the Museo del Prado in Madrid since 1939. Dating from between 1490 and 1510, when Bosch was about 40 or 50 years old, it is his best-known and most ambitious work...

" by Hieronymus Bosch or in the so-called "alterable altarpiece
An altarpiece is a picture or relief representing a religious subject and suspended in a frame behind the altar of a church. The altarpiece is often made up of two or more separate panels created using a technique known as panel painting. It is then called a diptych, triptych or polyptych for two,...

s", such as the Isenheim Altarpiece
Isenheim Altarpiece
The Isenheim Altarpiece is an altarpiece painted by the German artist Matthias Grünewald in 1506-1515. It is on display at the Unterlinden Museum at Colmar, Alsace, now in France....

 by Matthias Grünewald
Matthias Grünewald
Matthias Grünewald or "Mathis" , "Gothart" or "Neithardt" , , was a German Renaissance painter of religious works, who ignored Renaissance classicism to continue the expressive and intense style of late medieval Central European art into the 16th century.Only ten paintings—several consisting...

, or Albrecht Dürer's
Albrecht Dürer
Albrecht Dürer was a German painter, printmaker, engraver, mathematician, and theorist from Nuremberg. His prints established his reputation across Europe when he was still in his twenties, and he has been conventionally regarded as the greatest artist of the Northern Renaissance ever since...

 Paumgartner Altarpiece, where changing motifs could be revised in accord with the changing themes of the ecclesiastical calendar.

Modular Art in the 20th Century

Beginning in the first half of the 20th century, a number of contemporary artists sought to incorporate kinetic techniques
Kinetic art
Kinetic art is art that contains moving parts or depends on motion for its effect. The moving parts are generally powered by wind, a motor or the observer. Kinetic art encompasses a wide variety of overlapping techniques and styles.-Kinetic sculpture:...

 into their work in an attempt to overcome what they saw as the predominantly static nature of art. Alexander Calder's
Alexander Calder
Alexander Calder was an American sculptor and artist most famous for inventing mobile sculptures. In addition to mobile and stable sculpture, Alexander Calder also created paintings, lithographs, toys, tapestry, jewelry and household objects.-Childhood:Alexander "Sandy" Calder was born in Lawnton,...

 mobiles are among the most widely-known demonstrations of physical dynamism in the visual arts, in which form has the potential to continually vary through perpetual motion, sometimes even without the agency of the human hand. Jean Tinguely's
Jean Tinguely
Jean Tinguely was a Swiss painter and sculptor. He is best known for his sculptural machines or kinetic art, in the Dada tradition; known officially as metamechanics...

 efforts to create a self-destructive art machine constitute perhaps the ultimate expression of art's mutability, in this case by taking the form of its total eradication. Victor Vasarely
Victor Vasarely
Victor Vasarely was a Hungarian French artist whose work is generally seen aligned with Op-art.His work entitled Zebra, created by Vasarely in the 1930s, is considered by some to be one of the earliest examples of Op-art...

 postulated in his Manifest Jaune in 1955 in Paris that works of art should feature the properties of being multiplicable and repeatable in series. More recently, the notion that visual art need not be conceived solely in terms of perpetually fixed objects is embodied in performance and installation art by virtue of their unfolding and temporary qualities.

Industrial Design and Architecture

Modularity is a general systems concept, typically defined as a continuum describing the degree to which a system’s components may be separated and recombined. It refers to both the tightness of coupling between components, and the degree to which the “rules” of the system architecture enable the...

 enters the modern artistic repertory largely through the disciplines of industrial design and architecture. Belgian architect Louis Herman De Koninck
Louis Herman De Koninck
Louis Herman De Koninck was a Belgian architect and designer.One of the leading Belgian architect of the 20th century, De Koninck developed an original form of modernism and constructivism architecture...

 led a team of countrymen in creating one of the first modular product systems in their Cubex kitchen series of 1932. The series consisted of standardized and industrially produced components that could be combined and arrayed in limitless combinations to accommodate almost any size kitchen. New York designer Gilbert Rohde
Gilbert Rohde
Gilbert Rohde , whose career as a furniture and industrial designer helped to define American modernism during its first phase from the late 1920s to World War II, is best known today for inaugurating modern design at Herman Miller Inc...

 crafted several lines of modular casework for the Herman Miller Corporation
Herman Miller (office equipment)
Herman Miller, Inc., based in Zeeland, Michigan, is a major American manufacturer of office furniture and equipment, as well as furniture for the home. It is notable as one of the first companies to produce modern furniture and, under the guidance of Design Director George Nelson, is likely the...

 in the 1930s and 40s; like De Koninck, Rohde standardized the units in dimensions, materials and configurations to facilitate mass production and interchangeability. His Executive Office Group (EOG) line, launched in 1942, was a similarly ground-breaking systems approach to office furniture. Just a year before Eero Saarinen
Eero Saarinen
Eero Saarinen was a Finnish American architect and industrial designer of the 20th century famous for varying his style according to the demands of the project: simple, sweeping, arching structural curves or machine-like rationalism.-Biography:Eero Saarinen shared the same birthday as his father,...

 and Charles Eames had jointly produced a suite of modular domestic furniture for the Red Lion Company, a result of a competition held by the Museum of Modern Art in New York. In 1950 Herman Miller brought out the EAS Storage Unit series by Charles and Ray Eames, a very successful modular shelving and wall unit system that remains in production today.

The module enjoys a long history in the realm of architecture. In antiquity architects utilized the module primarily as a unit of measurement guiding the proportions of plan and elevation. The Roman author and architect Vitruvius deployed the modular method in his descriptions of the classical orders and the composition of buildings in his treatise Ten Books on Architecture, the only complete text on architecture to survive from antiquity. Architects of the Renaissance perpetuated the Vitruvian system in their resurrection of the classical orders, a tradition which continues to the present day. Among modern architects, the module is frequently employed as a design and planning tool.

Modular Constructivism

Architecture and modular sculpture intersected starting in the 1950s in the work of Norman Carlberg
Norman Carlberg
Norman Carlberg is an American sculptor and printmaker. He is noted as an exemplar of the modular constructivist style....

, Erwin Hauer
Erwin Hauer
Erwin Hauer is an Austrian-born American sculptor who studied first at Vienna's Academy of Applied Arts and later under Josef Albers at Yale. Hauer was an early proponent of Modular Constructivism and an associate of Norman Carlberg...

 and Malcolm Leland. All three received commissions to design perforated architectural screens built out of repetitive modular motives cast in concrete. Non-structural, the screens were used on building exteriors to divide space, filter light and create visual interest. Their work has come to be described as Modular Constructivism
Modular constructivism
Modular constructivism is a style of sculpture that emerged in the 1950s and 1960s and was associated especially with Erwin Hauer and Norman Carlberg...

, reflecting both its compositional methodology and its architectural context. Each created stand-alone modular-themed sculptures into the 1960s and after as well.

Modularity in the Fine Arts

Robert Rauschenberg
Robert Rauschenberg
Robert Rauschenberg was an American artist who came to prominence in the 1950s transition from Abstract Expressionism to Pop Art. Rauschenberg is well-known for his "Combines" of the 1950s, in which non-traditional materials and objects were employed in innovative combinations...

's "White Painting" of 1951; consisting of just four equal white squares, with its geometry of interlocking forms, is among the earliest statements of modularity as an autonomous subject of art. Rauschenberg explored this theme that same year in a three- and seven-panel format; the linear array of rectangular panels in these versions suggests their potentially infinite replication. The cool abstraction of these canvases presages the emergence of modularity as a full-fledged topic of Minimalist art in the 1960s. Tony Smith
Tony Smith (sculptor)
Tony Smith was an American sculptor, visual artist, architectural designer, and a noted theorist on art. He is often cited as a pioneering figure in American Minimalist sculpture.-Education:...

, Sol LeWitt
Sol LeWitt
Solomon "Sol" LeWitt was an American artist linked to various movements, including Conceptual art and Minimalism....

, Dan Flavin
Dan Flavin
Dan Flavin was an American minimalist artist famous for creating sculptural objects and installations from commercially available fluorescent light fixtures.-Early life and career:...

 and Donald Judd
Donald Judd
Donald Clarence Judd was an American artist associated with minimalism . In his work, Judd sought autonomy and clarity for the constructed object and the space created by it, ultimately achieving a rigorously democratic presentation without compositional hierarchy...

 are among this school's most prolific exponents during the period. In particular, the work of Smith is key to understanding the transformation of modularity from a compositional and production tool into a broadly investigated artistic theme in its own right.

Smith began his career as an architectural designer. To further his education he apprenticed himself on some projects by Frank Lloyd Wright
Frank Lloyd Wright
Frank Lloyd Wright was an American architect, interior designer, writer and educator, who designed more than 1,000 structures and completed 500 works. Wright believed in designing structures which were in harmony with humanity and its environment, a philosophy he called organic architecture...

 for a couple of years starting in 1938. From Wright he learned to utilize modular systems in generating architectural designs in two-dimensional plans as well as in three-dimensional applications, such as the development of building sections and interior built-ins. As an architect, Wright himself was part of a centuries-old continuum stretching back through Vitruvius
Marcus Vitruvius Pollio was a Roman writer, architect and engineer, active in the 1st century BC. He is best known as the author of the multi-volume work De Architectura ....

 to Greco-Roman antiquity in which the module was utilized to proportion built and sculpted form. In the case of Wright, the interest in modular design also may have derived from his familiarity with modular practice in traditional Japanese architecture
A is a type of mat used as a flooring material in traditional Japanese-style rooms. Traditionally made of rice straw to form the core , with a covering of woven soft rush straw, tatami are made in standard sizes, with the length exactly twice the width...


Wright's Hanna House of 1937 is a clear example of the master's facility with modern modular design in multiple dimensions. Its striking angled forms are built up from the individual hexagonal modules that define the floor plan and various vertical elements. Wright's use of the hexagon here is by no means an arbitrary aesthetic choice, but an example of how he rooted his architecture in nature by drawing from its forms and principles – the interlocking hexagonal cells of the bee's honeycomb being nature's most perfect representation of modular design. Not surprisingly, this project is sometimes referred to as the "Honeycomb House".

Smith would employ the hexagon and other elemental geometries in his own architectural practice and again in the sculpture he began to fabricate in the early 1960s. Freed from the programmatic and extensive structural requirements of his architectural work, Smith's sculptures are three-dimensional extrusions of modular form with no ostensible pragmatic purpose beyond aesthetic contemplation.

Significantly, Smith himself did not manually fabricate the final version of his sculptures. Instead, he outsourced their production to skilled ironworkers in foundries and industrial facilities, who worked off his drawings and models to manufacture the designs. In part this reflects Smith's training as an architect, who customarily designs and documents but does not construct his art. It further reinforces the idea of modular art as a generative system
Generative art
Generative art refers to art that has been generated, composed, or constructed in an algorithmic manner through the use of systems defined by computer software algorithms, or similar mathematical or mechanical or randomised autonomous processes....

 in which the arrangement of pre-determined formal units – rather than wholesale imaginative invention – defines the creative act. Finally, it is consistent with the notion implicit in modularity that the supply of modules in a modular system must be infinite, that is, that they be industrially rather than artisinally produced, for the system to be realized. (Bees in a honeycomb are essentially operating as an industrial enterprise insofar as the production of cells is without end.)

The work of Smith and the Minimalist school constitute the most far-ranging exploration of modularity in art before the millennium. However, neither it nor the explorations of movable and alterable art in the preceding centuries synthesized the two central features of modular art. Mobiles and other kinetic pieces were not modular, and the modular work of the mid-century Minimalist artists was, with a few exceptions, not changeable.

Modular Art Theory in the 21st Century

Co-creativity in Modular Art

A school of thought coming out of the United States emphasizes modular art's alignment with the post-industrial character of 21st century culture and its contrast with traditional notions of art. Core characteristics of post-industrialism, as largely defined by the theorist Daniel Bell
Daniel Bell
Daniel Bell was an American sociologist, writer, editor, and professor emeritus at Harvard University, best known for his seminal contributions to the study of post-industrialism...

 in his 1973 book The Coming of Post-Industrial Society, include the emergence of a service economy in place of a manufacturing one; the social and economic pre-eminence of the creative, professional and technical classes; the central place of theoretical knowledge as a font of innovation; the strong influence of technology on daily life; and high levels of urbanization.

Modular art appears to synchronize perfectly with several of these criteria. For example, its manual changeability opens up the possibility of co-creative art, in which the collector or user collaborates with the originating modular artist to jointly determine the appearance of the work of art. This presupposes the existence of creative people capable of and interested in serving such a role – a demographic evolution that was already underway in Bell's time and that has since been studied in works like Richard Florida's Rise of the Creative Class (2002).

Co-creation is a form of market or business strategy that emphasizes the generation and ongoing realization of mutual firm-customer value. It views markets as forums for firms and active customers to share, combine and renew each other's resources and capabilities to create value through new forms...

 is closely associated with mass customization
Mass customization
Mass customization, in marketing, manufacturing, call centres and management, is the use of flexible computer-aided manufacturing systems to produce custom output...

, a production model that combines the opportunity for individual personalization with mass production. Modular art and mass customization share a commonality in their synthesis of two opposing qualities. On the one hand, as previously stated the very concept of modularity implies a limitless supply of identical modules such as only industrial production can provide; on the other hand, the ability of the individual to re-arrange these modules in the work of art based on aesthetic criteria re-injects a subjective and purely human dimension into the creative act.

Mass customization is itself only made possible with the advent of computers and a type of software known as a configurator. A configurator is a software tool used by the buyer to configure a product from the options made available by the vendor. Applied to the purpose of composing a work of modular art onscreen, it can greatly facilitate the design of a modular assembly by allowing the user to study multiple design options more quickly and in far greater depth than by using analog methods. Once the design is established a computer file is then sent over the air to a manufacturing facility where robotically controlled equipment produces the object according to its specifications. Not only does this computer-aided-manufacturing (CAM) allow for the customization of mass produced objects, it also enables a much higher level of precision and fit – qualities critical for modules to be physically joined together. Bell's identification of technology as a central axis of post-industrial life is underscored in the intertwining of the digital with the physical realization of modular art.

The De- and Re-constructive Approach in Europe

In Europe, where the 1960s Minimalist school of modular art was often seen as a principally American phenomenon, the discussion of modularity often focuses on its changeability. For example, the mutability of art is a core principle of Arte Povera
Arte Povera
Arte Povera is a modern art movement. The term was introduced in Italy during the period of upheaval at the end of the 1960s, when artists were taking a radical stance. Artists began attacking the values of established institutions of government, industry, and culture, and even questioning whether...

, a contemporaneous movement that emerged in Italy which holds that works of art "should not be seen as fixed entities", but as objects of change and movement to "include time and space in a new manner. At stake is the issue of transferring the phenomenology of human experience" into the arts.

More recently, the artist Leda Luss Luyken
Leda Luss Luyken
Leda Luss Luyken, née Valata, , Greece, is a Greek | American conceptual artist who lives and works in Germany.- Biography :...

 has produced modular paintings, composed of movable painted panels set in steel frames. Luss Luyken has dubbed her work "ModulArt". In her work, changing the configuration of a modular painting constitutes a form of motion, offering the spectator alternative views and alternative interpretations, and thus aligning the work more closely than a static object to the dynamism of physical human experience. Art historian and theorist Denys Zacharopoulos
Denys Zacharopoulos
Denys Zacharopoulos is an art historian and theorist. He works as Professor for Art history, author and curator, amongst others at the 48th Biennale in Venice and documenta IX in Kassel .- Biography :...

 called this "a new way of motion in painting". The concept of modular art allows the user to de-compose and to re-compose a work of art that is already completed by re-arranging its parts, thus providing numerous possibilities for ever newer pictures not yet imagined. The original painting can be re-contextualized ad libitum and ad infinitum.

Visual Artists

Working in the 1950-60s in Manchester (UK), American artist Mitzi Cunliffe
Mitzi Cunliffe
Mitzi Solomon Cunliffe was an American sculptor. She was most famous for designing the golden trophy in the shape of a theatrical mask that would go on to represent the British Academy of Film and Television Arts and be presented as the BAFTA award...

 developed sculptures consisting of multiple blocks about twelve inches square which she put together in a variety of combinations to give a sculptured effect on a large scale. She referred to them as modular sculptures. The University of Manchester and the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology (UMIST) acquired some of these works, although there are no references to them in published accounts of her work.

Sculptor and ceramicist Malcolm Leland designed in 1954 a similar modular sculpture system based on a single 23-inch tall module that could be stacked vertically by means of a centering pin; the module has a generally biomorphic, curvilinear outline that yields an undulating silhouette when multiple modules are placed on top of each other. The technique of stacking repetitive elements in the round recalls Brancusi's "Endless Column" of 1938.

Starting in the 1970s, Leland's contemporary Norman Carlberg produced groups of square framed prints which he placed together on a wall in a tight grid, each print conceived as an independent module. The viewer is then invited to rotate or reposition them to generate new composite images. The abstract quality of the prints enhanced the creative possibilities of their re-orientation insofar as they are non-directional and geometrically inter-related.

Greek-born conceptual artist Leda Luss Luyken
Leda Luss Luyken
Leda Luss Luyken, née Valata, , Greece, is a Greek | American conceptual artist who lives and works in Germany.- Biography :...

, who was initially trained as an architect, has been exploring modularity
Modularity is a general systems concept, typically defined as a continuum describing the degree to which a system’s components may be separated and recombined. It refers to both the tightness of coupling between components, and the degree to which the “rules” of the system architecture enable the...

 in the medium of painting since the 1990s. In her work standardized canvas panels are mounted as modules onto a steel frame within which they can be moved and rotated.

In the U.S. Moshé Elimelech creates what he has called "Cubic Constructions". These are multiple groupings of approximately three-inch cubes set inside pockets in a framed shadow box. On each cube he applies paint in fields of bright color and abstract pattern with precise, controlled brush strokes. Like Carlsberg, Elimelech then invites the viewer to reposition any or all of the cubes to display one of their six sides, each of which is painted in a different pattern. Exhibiting since the 1980s, Elimelech shows primarily in California galleries, and has work represented in several museum design stores as well.

Another portfolio of interactive modular art comes out of Studio for A.R.T. and Architecture, a New York-based firm headed by Donald Rattner. Rattner has designed modular art in the media of wall sculpture, rotational paintings, tapestries, artist's wallpapers and artist's books. To bring his work and those of other "modulartists" to the marketplace, Rattner founded A.R.T. (art-rethought), an art storefront focused on co-creative and modular work. In his writings Rattner has emphasized the post-industrial aspect of the most recent trends in modular art, coining the term "New Industrialism" to denote mass customization, production on demand, open innovation, co-creative design, tele-fabrication, robotics and other computer-driven technologies that are re-defining how things are made in the global marketplace.


Modularity in music can be seen as bringing two key elements of musical composition and film into the world of painting: variation
Variation (music)
In music, variation is a formal technique where material is repeated in an altered form. The changes may involve harmony, melody, counterpoint, rhythm, timbre, orchestration or any combination of these.-Variation form:...

 of a theme and movement of and within a picture. For this very reason the contemporary composer Minas Borboudakis has dedicated the third part of his trilogy ROAI III for piano and electronics to the modular methodology.

Italian composer and arts theoretician Stefano Vagnini
Stefano Vagnini
Stefano Vagnini is an Italian musician, composer, poet and Modular Art theorist who lives and works in Italy and in the United States.-Biography:Stefano Vagnini was born in Fano, Italy....

 has developed a theory of open-source composition
Open source
The term open source describes practices in production and development that promote access to the end product's source materials. Some consider open source a philosophy, others consider it a pragmatic methodology...

 based on modular aggregation. The concept of a musical work of art being something closed, limited and immobile disappears in favor of a process of numerous aggregations that allow a composition to become infinite in principle. Several such compositions were performed in Europe, South America, Asia and in North America and discussed through conferences in Europe. The approach is being academically discussed at the University of West Georgia
University of West Georgia
The University of West Georgia is a comprehensive doctoral-granting university in Carrollton, Georgia, approximately 45 miles west of Atlanta, Georgia. The University is built on 645 acres including a recent land gift of 246 acres from the city of Carrollton in 2003...

 and the Carrollton Cultural Arts Centre in the USA. Writer, painter, and art theorist Gian Ruggero Manzoni described the modularity of Vagnini's compositions as “circular like the existence, his works are not finished, but merely stimulus for new voices”.

Related Art Movements

  • Generative Art
    Generative art
    Generative art refers to art that has been generated, composed, or constructed in an algorithmic manner through the use of systems defined by computer software algorithms, or similar mathematical or mechanical or randomised autonomous processes....

  • Minimalism
    Minimalism describes movements in various forms of art and design, especially visual art and music, where the work is set out to expose the essence, essentials or identity of a subject through eliminating all non-essential forms, features or concepts...

  • Serial Art
    Serial art
    Serial art is an art movement in which uniform elements or objects were assembled in accordance with strict modular principles. The composition of serial art is a systematic process....

  • Systems Art
    Systems art
    Systems art is art influenced by cybernetics, and systems theory, which reflects on natural systems, social systems and social signs of the art world itself....

  • Conceptual Art
    Conceptual art
    Conceptual art is art in which the concept or idea involved in the work take precedence over traditional aesthetic and material concerns. Many of the works, sometimes called installations, of the artist Sol LeWitt may be constructed by anyone simply by following a set of written instructions...

Films about Modular Art

  • Panta rei, Leda Luss-Luyken's ModulArt, by Dagmar Scheibert & Reinhard Eisener, 3'30" film, 15', Berlin, 2005.
  • ModulArt, by Roman Angelos Luyken, 2', London, 2008.
  • Leda Luss Luyken: ModulArt, TV Feature by Peider Defilla for BRα - ARD TV, Munich, 15', 2011.

Literature about Modular Art

  • Leda Luss Luyken :ModulArt, ed. by Georg von Kap-herr, with contributions by Prof. Paul Schilfgaarde and Dr. Joachim Kaske, English and German, 112 p, Bobingen, 2008.
  • The Modular Method in Music, by Stefano Vagnini, English and Italian, 161 pp, Rome: Falcon Valley Music, 2002.
The source of this article is wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.  The text of this article is licensed under the GFDL.