Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum
I must create a system or be
enslav’d by another man’s.
Kazimir Malevich’s achievement remains enigmatic even ninety years after he drew four lines on a two and a half foot square canvas and filled in the resulting area with black paint. That work, along with thirty-seven other paintings and many additional drawings now hangs at the Guggenheim Museum. It hasn’t been seen in the West for three quarters of a century, spending a good part of that time in the State Tretiakov Museum. Some think it looks terrible. It certainly looks funky, but at least it hasn’t been re-painted, over-cleaned, or faked by either the artist or museum professionals. (Do those paintings I remember from the Stedelijk retrospective in 1988 look a whole lot cleaner?) The painting has a big history. Most of Malevich’s paintings have at least one old painting underneath. Part of the pleasure of looking at the work is pairing up the ghost painting with a drawing or exhibition photo. The “Black Quadrilateral” of 1913-1915 may be covering a very different picture. It has dense areas, and thinner, crackled areas. The dense areas resemble the composition of the drawing “Suprematist Composition” of 1915-1916. The story goes that after Malevich painted the painting he couldn’t eat or sleep for a week. There is a similar story that when he was young he watched a house being given a coat of green paint, and was completely amazed at the transformation the simple addition of a color could cause. In such moments sometimes artists are born. Mystics, rarely.
In 1913, Malevich joined the poets Velimir Khlebnikov and Alexi Kruchonyck in the creation of the theater work “Victory Over the Sun,” which was to be performed at the “Evening of the Speech Creators.” The piece was written in the behind-the-mind language of “ZAUM,” invented, or discovered, by the two poets. Malevich’s contribution was more conservative: some cubo-futurist stage settings and costumes for the actors. In the performance, language dissolved into utterances, and rotating spotlights fractured the scenery under the night sky. Cubist method was joined to “relativity” and a new form brought to life. The intensity of this collaboration may have led Malevich into more experimental areas of painting: the realization of his own “painterly unconscious,” the iconic “Black Square.” If so, we can accept his date of 1913, rather than the revised 1915, given to the work. Such a moment for a painter is important. The greater problem, however, is what comes next?
Malevich gave his “moment” a name: Suprematism. Khlebnikov calculated the surface area of the “Black Quadrilateral,” and declared it to be exactly the surface area of the painter’s red blood corpuscles. Working for some time in complete seclusion, Malevich brained through the various compositions and arrangements of his innovation, staking out as much territory as possible in a short period of time. The work received its premier at the Dobachinsky “Art Bureau on the Field of Mars,” the sitting room of her small house in St. Petersburg. Malevich provided a “philosophy” and a manifesto, as Ivan Puni (a fellow painter) had sabotaged the exhibition catalogue. Suprematism was greeted with enthusiasm. It represented the first decisive break with Western painting tradition, a new form for a new revolutionary society. You could “tag” a tractor, a train, or an entire village with the brightly colored yet stately semi-geometric forms. In 1917, Malevich was chosen Deputy Director of the Art Section by the Moscow Soldier’s Council, and instituted a program of Free Studios and training in art.
Two years later, with Moscow in the grip of famine, Malevich accepted a teaching position at the Vitebsk Art School in a small town in the west. He was popular, and allowed his students to impose Suprematist programs throughout the school. His motives were simply the result of enthusiasm: he had recently completed a study that purported to analyze the art of previous centuries through a system of stenographic shorthand, the “additional,” “economic” element. Reaction came as soon as the resentful faculty could take advantage of circumstances. Denied materials and provisions when famine and effects of civil war appeared in the region, Malevich and his new group, Unovis, relocated to Petrograd where he took a job as director of the Museum of Artistic Culture.
The ongoing popularity of realistic painting resides in part in the fact that most of us prefer to look at paintings that don’t require us to think about other paintings. We like to suspend our awareness of medium and technique, and concentrate on the story, the details, the characters, like we do when we go to the movies. When the work is clumsily executed, or executed with extreme skill, when we are made aware of the medium, we focus on the artist’s ability or lack of it, and the materials the artist has chosen to work with. In short, we view the work the way we view an “abstract” painting or sculpture. For reasons not entirely clear we regard skill in representation as a first condition of the visual arts. The figurative painters in Russia in the 1920s, ignored, scorned, and resentful of the privileged position of abstraction, formed the group Akhrr, the Association of Artists of Revolutionary Russia, and gathered support in the general population. They started a campaign against the abstract artists aimed at removing them from the few teaching positions available. Deviation from Marxist orthodoxy was sure to bring about at least an institutional review of an accused faculty member, and it was a simple matter for the Akhrr to accuse the Suprematists of being “holy crackpots,” “mad monks,” and of running a monastery behind the closed doors of a state institution to create an inquiry. Malevich was “protected,” but his comrades were not. The director of education, Anatoly Lunacharsky, was an old friend, a poet, and an advocate of artistic pluralism, and Lenin himself was a grudging admirer of the “mysteries” of artistic creation. Malevich was also, though most Western exhibitions play it down, a real revolutionary who maintained his friendship with active leaders of the 1905 revolution, though they were outside the circle of artists. In spite of this, it was clear that, however distasteful, he was going to have to write.
Suprematism had been weakened by an ongoing power struggle with Tatlin and the Constructivists, as well as the effort to educate the public to accept and understand abstraction. Constructivism claimed to derive its primary meaning from material structure, in agreement with strict Marxist method. The weakness of Suprematist philosophy was its lack of ability to address the accusation that it substituted mystifying abstractions for material “facts” and subverted historical clarity. Consequently, rather than attack the realist artists for mystifying abstraction (substituting “object matter” for subject matter, as Meyer Shapiro would put it), Malevich attempted a universal philosophy. The terms in which Suprematism “worked” were based in feeling, in the behind-the-mind realm of Zaum. Suprematism lacked tactical flexibility and the immediate recognition of material method that would quickly counter accusations that it was mysterious and obscure. As philosophy it was doomed. Like everyone who has had to play the game-in-Hell of proving orthodoxy while, as historian Jiri Padrta points out, “their construct is simultaneously being constantly shaken … and the author himself is at stake,” Malevich could not win. Nor, on the other hand, did he lose. Instead of being sent to Siberia to dig canals to nowhere and have his photo taken by Rodchenko, he was given a small studio in which to pursue the “budetlian” figure paintings and his Arkitectons. He died of cancer in 1935, aged fifty-seven. In 1919 Khlebnokov had declared him “The Head of the Universe” saying: “a single one of his lines provides an immediate lightning-like connection between a red corpuscle and Earth, a second precipitates helium, a third shatters upon the unbending heavens and discovers the satellites of Jupiter.”
The Guggenheim exhibit shows us the paintings, drawings, and architectural models of the Suprematist phase of Malevich’s career. Some works, such as the “aerial” or “flying” Suprematism, the artist himself rejected. Few were ever in their active historical life given such a careful hanging. I personally would like to see a full wall of the works, tilting forward on their hanging wires, to appreciate the visual shifts as the eye negotiates the skewed perspectives. One does see that the stretched canvases are rarely truly squared. All is “ish.” The time called for radical work, and the work is radically non-object in a way we have not seen since, and probably will not again. For those who know Malevich’s work well, old friends and comrades are here. For those to whom it is new, this is a beautifully installed exhibit, filled with a “feeling of non-objectivity,” and well worth the visit.