Russian artists around the time of World War II and shortly thereafter
were probably the most avant-garde artists in the world as well
as the most abstract.
They fell into two main camps, Suprematism and Constructivism.
Kazimir Malevich (1878-1935) was the foremost Suprematist and
the "Kazimir Malevich: Suprematism" exhibition at the
Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York is stunning. The show
opened earlier at the Deutsche Guggenheim Berlin and will travel
afterwards to the Menil Collection in Houston.
Malevich's finest "non-objective" works were mostly
executed during World War I, a decade or so after Vasily Kandinsky
had ignited the fires of abstraction with his wild and rapturous
geometric flourishes. In comparison with Kandinsky, Malevich may
appear to some as a cool, minimalist, conservative abstractionist.
Indeed, Kandinsky usually appears superheated and kaleidoscopic
while Malevich is boldly simple and severe. Malevich reportedly
was not a great fan of Kandinsky. Malevich's reductionist approach
to abstract painting is "minimalist," to say the least,
a good quarter of a century before Mark Rothko, Josef Albers,
Donald Judd, Ellsworth Kelly and the like. Moreover, Malevich's
work have a resonance and beauty that only Mark Rothko approached
and Rothko's works are softer and not as bold.
In a May 27, 2003 review of this exhibition in the Washington
Post, Blake Gopnik maintained that Malevich created "some
of the most gorgeous and important paintings ever," and added
that his abstract works are "overwhelmingly potent studies
in pure form" and "achieve a radical, electrifying balance
among shape, color and composition that's rarely been matched,
and never surpassed."
In his exhibition catalogue essay, Matthew Drutt, the curatorial
director of The Menil Collection in Houston, states that "Malevich
is unquestionably the most celebrated Russian artist of his generation,"
adding that "By the middle of the last century, both Western
and Soviet institutions had acquired more of his major works than
those of any of his colleagues, and during his brief lifetime
no fewer than five solo exhibitions were devoted to this work,
both at home and abroad." "With the single-mindedness
of a missionary or a prophet, Malevich spent nearly fifteen years
of his career espousing the aesthetic and moral superiority of
a system of abstract art he termed Suprematism. A complete departure
from any pictorial method theretofore recognized in art, Suprematism
was characterized by Malevich as 'that end and beginning where
sensations are uncovered, where are emerges `as such.'" In
a review of Malevich's paintings in the 1927 Great Berlin Art
Exhibition, Ernst Kallai remarked that "it is quite difficult
to imagine what further development in painting is possible beyond
what has been achieved." Mr. Drutt observed that "No
other Russian artist, not even Kandinsky, who had been celebrated
in Germany long before Malevich, had ever received such distinguished
After the 1927 Berlin exhibition, however, Malevich returned to
Russia, but within a few years his work began to fall out of favor:
Drutt cites the following denunciation in the official press:
"in spite of all the wonderful aspects of Malevich's creative
work, the foundation of his artistic activity to foreign to proletarian
culture. His entire work conveys the notion that he, as a bourgeois
artist, needs art not for serving society, but only for the sake
of form." In September, 1930, Malevich was jailed for practicing
"formalism" even though Malevich defending his work
as "having been carried out on behalf of the ideals of the
Soviet state." He was released that December but would die
in 1935 after a brief illness. His late works were figurative
in a Cubo-Futuristic style and in his last years he would backdate
some of his "Post-Impressionist landscapes and neo-Renaissance
portraits designed to create a logical progression of styles and
attitudes in his work," according to Mr. Drutt.
Some other contemporary critics castigated his work.
"Malevich's art outlived such pessimism and decades of government
repression," Mr. Drutt wrote, "as well as the artist's
own descent into self-doubt, which at the end of his career led
him to abandon abstraction for a kind of Italianate realism only
tenuously connected to his previous concerns. More than merely
survive, his art assumed a prominent position in the canon of
High Modernism, commanding a level of respect and influence in
the history of art reserved for precious few."
While he is best known for
his paintings and aesthetic polemics, Malevich also was involved
with architecture and based on some models including in the exhibition
and the catalogue he clearly had a fine and powerful vision. The
small model above, for example, is an exceptionally fine and interesting
Malevich was given a retrospective exhibition in 1978 at the Musée
National d'Art Moderne in Paris and ten years later an even large
show was held at the State Russian Museum in St. Petersburg (then
Leningrad). Several key Malevich works were also included in the
1992 exhibition, "The Great Utopia: The Russian and Soviet
Avant-Garde," at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, but, Mr.
Drutt wrote in the catalogue for the current show, "as much
as these exhibitions were crucial to the interpretation of Malevich's
art, none of them benefited from the recent discovery of major
paintings and drawings as well as letters and other documentary
materials long thought lost or destroyed or else completely unknown,
most of which belonged to the legendary historian, collector,
and custodian of the Russian avant-garde Nikolai Khardzhiev. Little
known outside Russia until a decade ago, he was a trusted associate
of many of the artists, including Velimir Khlebnikov, Aleksei
Kruchenykh, Kluin, Lissitzky, Malevich, Vladimir Mayakovsky, and
Tatlin. When he succeeded in emigrating to the Netherlands in
1993, something he had been attempting for twenty years, he took
with him his collection of some 1,350 artworks of the Russian
avant-garde and countless letters and documents. Within this vast
repository were eight major paintings and hundreds of drawings,
sketches, notes and manuscripts by Malevich. These materials are
the raison d'être for the current exhibition."
While the Cubism of Picasso and Braque and Gris and Delaunay was
an extremely radical departure in painting, the Suprematism and
Constructivism of the Russian artists of the 1910s, 1920s and
1930s was just as radical in the abandonment of specific objects
or individuals and precursors to much of post-World War II abstraction.
Some Malevich works are
exceptional lyrically. "Suprematist Painting: Eight Red Rectangles,"
shown above, which is in the collection of the Stedelijk Museum
in Amsterdam, is pulsating with rhythm.
or so before he launched his "Suprematist" works, Malevich
produced what he called "Alogic" compositions that,
according to Mr. Drutt, "were experiments with visual form
intended to confound conventional picture making, inventing new
relations or associations derived from a `random' collision between
seemingly unrelated images and shapes.Alternately compacted and
open, the Alogic works, which combine images of `real'
elements such as animals, utensils, and musical instruments with
abstract shapes, are critical for understanding how Malevich would
end up inventing a new visual language that, while inherently
nonobjective in appearance, continued for many years to refer
to things in the real world. Thus, in a work like Suprematism:
Painterly Realism of a Football Player. Color Masses in the Fourth
Dimension, the direct descendant of Malevich's ideas about
the transrational, the composition is confusion if interpreted
as attempted to represent something real; instead, it has its
own inherent logic, one that is both self-referentially and remotely
tied to experiences in everyday life. Even the 'logic' of the
work's orientation is open to question: there is no one correct
direction in which to view the work. Assumptions of up, down,
or sideways are thrown into chaos, at least they were in Malevich's
lifetime, when he was fond of displaying works in various ways,
constantly redefining the way in which a given composition resolved
itself visually (hence the alternate orientations of a few works
reproduced in this essay."
In the catalogue,
"Suprematism (Supremus No. 50), shown above, is illustrated
both vertically and horizontally as Malevich was wont to alter
the orientation as proof of the strength of the composition.
shown above is one of Malevich's busier compositions but it resonates
"Dynamic Suprematism (Supremus No. 57)," shown above,
is a more balanced composition with a lighter and cooler palette
that is very effective.
No. 55 (Spherical Evolution of a Plane)" is a lovely and
very strong Malevich work involving curved forms.
Composition: White on White," is a classic example of Malevich's
bold abstraction and minimalism, decades before the Minimalist