Adventures of the Black Square, Abstract Art and Society 1915–2015, at the Whitechapel Gallery, London
It was only a few months ago that Malevich’s monochromes were last in London, venerating his radical contribution to the end of pictorial painting and some proclaimed, to the end of art itself. Tate Modern’s Malevich, Revolutionary of Russian Art (16 July – 26 October 2014) was very much a historical survey; looking back at the long shadow Malevich’s Black Square – a headstone for representational painting – cast over the history of modern art. Adventures of the Black Square, Abstract Art and Society 1915–2015 at Whitechapel Gallery until 6 April clearly and alternatively positions the work’s reductive form (in this exhibition it is Malevich’s diminutive undated Black Quadrilateral that is featured) as the beginning of a new art starting in Russia and Northern Europe in the early twentieth century. The spread of geometric abstraction is then documented chronologically as it travels internationally throughout the next hundred years. Rather than Black Square being revered as merely a portrait of an idea, it is shown as the initiator of geometric works that connect with, reflect or challenge society. Adventures of the Black Square presents abstraction as not being estranged from social reality, that its concern with form, shape and colour throughout its history are intrinsically linked to politics and expressions of modern living.
The exhibition is vast and frenetic, featuring work by over 90 artists, presented under four different themes: Utopia, Architectonics, Communication and The Everyday. It feels very much like a show of two distinct halves. The first gallery is a comprehensive survey of geometric abstraction in the 60 years after Black Square was first seen in the Last Futurist Exhibition of Paintings 0.10 in 1915. One small but possibly pedantic gripe is that Malevich’s Black Quadrilateral opens the show with little historical context, with no direct reference to the influence of cubism or futurism; it’s as if the painting was conceived in an art historical vacuum. What immediately follows the now fragile looking Black Quadrilateral in the exhibition is a substantial selection of Suprematist works that radiate a sense of escape from the conventions of figuration and exude the possibility of revolution. Often suggesting a diagrammatic use of shape and form, the earliest pieces in the exhibition go the furthest in suggesting how geometric abstraction was used to ‘work out’ a visual language and the lived experience of a new world; El Lissitzky’s elegant portfolio of six lithographs 1o Kestnermappe Proun (1923) and Iakov Chernikov’s drawings of fantasy architectural structures (1929-33) are notable highlights for me, although there is a lot of excellent material in the initial room of the exhibition.The presentation of the work from the first three decades of the 20th century is especially dynamic, with a huge volume of work arranged with the energy of an explosion. This part of the exhibition has a distinct, political narrative that explores the inventiveness of ideas and radical thought. From that point on the exhibition demonstrates, somewhat less comprehensively, the journey of geometric abstraction through time and across continents, and how it has filtered from drawing, painting and sculpture into the wider world, in magazines, textile design, architecture and film. Latin America is well represented, the work of Hélio Oiticica, Lygia Clark and Lygia Pape demonstrating the neo-concrete adaptation of geometric shapes into organic three-dimensional objects to be manipulated by participants and to be experienced sensorially to counteract the urban alienation created by a modern society. British artists are scarcer, perhaps reinforcing Britain’s historical tendency to overlook work with a rational aesthetic. Jeffrey Steele’s dynamic Third Syntagmatic (“Tsunami”) (Sg VIII I) (1965) cuts a lonely figure as the only representative work of the Systems Group. There are some obvious omissions from British geometric abstraction: Bridget Riley, Mary and Kenneth Martin, Victor Pasmore, Marlow Moss to name but a few. Artists from the Middle East are represented only by the collages of Iranian Nazgol Ansarinia, surprising considering Islam’s long history of producing geometric work. Despite my personal criticism of what was missing from the exhibition, the first gallery does tell an ambitious and interesting story of the development of geometric abstraction and its alignment with a quest for social or political change. The first part of the room is outstanding in quality and breadth of material, the second half looser in narrative connections between counties and philosophies but still presents a strong grouping of work.
The second half of the exhibition, in two upstairs galleries at Whitechapel, abruptly shifts from a survey of historical significance into a pot pourri of geometry as borrowed language and at worst, pastiche. The selected work is distinctly different from the first gallery; made by individual contemporary artists (rather than groups with a shared interest or vision) who have used geometry as a surrogate for a subtext rather than visual matter in its own right. This does not necessarily mean that the work is bad or ineffectual, but I do question its place in the exhibition and the overall hypothesis of the curation. Gunilla Klingberg’s Spar Loop (2000) is a good example of geometry used as token, rather than as content. Spar Loop is a hypnotic animation of shifting geometric shapes and bold colour; while watching it becomes evident that the animated forms are made from the red, white and green logo of the convenience store ‘Spar’. It may present a connection between geometry and social comment, but I don’t think it is geometric abstraction, or in a meaningful dialogue with its history. In a similar vein, Keith Coventry’s 1995 Sceaux Gardens Estate (1995) is a parody of modernist formalities, an arrangement of cheerless yellow rectangles on a dirty white ground, its form directly borrowed from the plan of a London housing estate. There are links to architecture’s utopian ideal for social housing, but I find it difficult to see beyond the literal connotations of the painting. Using an abstract language is not the same as working in the traditions of abstraction.
Malevich’s radical monochrome is particularly well referenced in the later works, the ubiquitous Black Square appears literally in, among other works, Rosemarie Trockel’s knitted composition Cogito, ergo sum (1999) and in Angela de la Cruz’s Shrunk (2000). The latter is a deconstructed black monochrome painting, folded on the diagonal and slumped apologetically in the day-glo reflection of Peter Halley’s jazzy Auto Zone (1992). These works rely on the Black Square as idea, but in doing so surely miss the point by representing a direct homage, a gesture largely absent in the work in the first gallery. Adventures of the Black Square does a good job of showing how abstraction grew from a radical ideology that suggested a new democracy of art, but falls rather short of demonstrating how it is continuing to be developed today. Sadly, David Batchelor’s puerile October Colouring-In Book (2012-13) presents an almost convincing argument that it might not be.
Reflecting on Adventures of the Black Square has left me with some conclusions about the exhibition – overwhelmingly that the first half is very good, but the second half less so – and also a few unresolved thoughts. There have been several major recent exhibitions of geometric abstraction: Tate’s Malevich, Revolutionary of Russian Art, Mondrian and his Studios and the excellent Nasreen Mohamedi; Radical Geometry at Royal Academy of the Arts; and Gego. Line as Object at Henry Moore Institute, amongst others. Why is geometric abstraction suddenly popular in Britain; is it a trend based on aesthetic style that will pass, or a serious reinvestigation of a previously overlooked way of working? Are we looking back nostalgically to more radical times and/or hoping that art can still change the world? Is there a younger generation of artists using geometry that embody the same spirit of Modernism as can be seen in the first part of Adventures of the Black Square, or has that time ended, making way for a different perspective on geometric abstraction? 100 years after Malevich declared, ‘We Suprematists, throw open the way to you. Hurry! – for tomorrow you will not recognise us’, is it all over, or is there still more to come?
Adventures of the Black Square, Abstract Art and Society 1915–2015, is at the Whitechapel Gallery until 6th April 2015.