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Adventures of the Black Square

at the Whitechapel Gallery


By Anna Leung

Suprematism will liberate all those engaged in creative activity and make the world into a true model of perfection. This is the model we await from Kasimir Malevich. After the Old Testament came the New. After the New the Communist. After the Communist there follows finally the testament of Suprematism.


El Lissitsky, Suprematism in World Construction, 1920

This is an ambitious exhibition covering a whole century of art practices influenced by geometric abstraction. Its manifest aim is to demonstrate not only its history from a formal perspective in terms of styles, or conversely the rejection of style per se, which is how we have been encouraged to view abstraction, but in particular to examine the impact of Malevich’s Black Square within the context of our social and political histories. Indeed, however formally abstract a work of art may seem it remains embedded within and reflective of a wider political context. Abstraction’s turning its back on mimesis and the external world is essentially a political stance and comes at a seminal moment in art history when the minds of many artists were concentrated on the art/life problem and on how to minimise the distinction between the two. The fact, moreover, that this is not a history of the Black Square but its ‘adventures’ gives the curators more latitude in their choice of artists and explains why many of the foremost representatives of geometric abstraction, artists such as Yves Klein, Ad Reinhardt, Barnett Newman, Robert Ryman and Ellsworth Kelly do not feature in this overview. Arguably some of these artists have a greater affiliation to another Russian abstract artist, Kandinsky who was the main source of inspiration for the Abstract Expressionist painters in 1950’s America.


Taking us from 1915 in pre-revolutionary Russia through to a comprehensive global overview of the visual arts in 2015 gives rise to many questions: what difference does it make, for instance, if the values associated with modernism that hinge on geometric abstraction have foundered as a post-modernist approach would suggest, and is it possible to rehabilitate its initial revolutionary fervour? Is it possible, or, for that matter desirable, for an avant-garde movement to retain its utopian moment?  What is left of the work of art once its expressive function has been rejected? And what does it mean to have an impersonal art work that rejects the viewer’s self-recognition? The Whitechapel does history very well, tracing the various manifestations of geometric abstraction that inherited Malevich’s liberationist legacy, including his rivals Tatlin and Rodchenko with their Constructivist and Productivist movements, into the thirties with the Bauhaus, de Stijl, Mondrian and Max Bill, followed by its resurfacing in the sixties and seventies with an emphasis on visual communications and ‘systems theory’ that contributed to Andre’s Lead Square (to be walked on) and Dan Flavin’s Homage to Tatlin. The theme gets somewhat lost, or rather dissipated, on the upper floor that deals on one hand with the hope and optimism vested in Concretism and Neo Concretism in South America, but on the other succumbs to a post-modernist critique of modernism’s utopian fallibility - but perhaps that is the point. As a result this is an uneven exhibition, its two halves giving the viewer a very different experience. The thematic divisions into Utopia, Architectonics, Communications and The Everyday go some way to repair this imbalance by demonstrating how geometric abstraction has contributed to the making of modern culture not only in the West but world-wide, as does the inclusion of the constructivist sculpture of lesser known figures such as Strzeminski and his wife Katarzyna Kobro. And whereas, despite the fact that the display on the ground floor is governed by a historical and theoretical agenda, the paintings of Mondrian and Albers steal the show, upstairs the social component seems to overshadow individual art works that tend to critique the legacies and failures of modernism, e.g. Francis Alys’s Panama Canal Zone 2008, Holzer’s agit-prop Top Secret 2010 and David Batchelor’s Monochrome Archive 1997-2015.

Malevich’s Black Square is the hero of this exhibition but our first encounter with it might well seem disappointing; a small black quadrilateral, it singularly fails to impress were it not for the mythology it embodies as an icon of modernity. The surface of the rectangle is cracked and the white background yellowing. The fact that this sort of abstraction frustrates the viewer’s attempt to read something into it was of cardinal importance to Malevich who wanted his paintings to be as removed as possible from the natural world that surrounds us and in which we have our being. As he says: ‘This was no "empty square" which I had exhibited but rather the feeling of non-objectivity.’ It was for him an example of pure creation, not reached through a gradual process of ‘abstraction from’ as in Mondrian, who retains a formalist link with the natural world, but a reduction of everything to nothing. It came into being not as a result of working from a motif but rather as a recognition of his ultimate aim to create non-objective painting, recognition that was catalysed by his collaboration on a futurist opera, Victory over the Sun, for the St Petersburg Union of Youth in 1913. He came up with the motif of a window-like aperture when working on the backdrop. Bisected in the second act it is likely that by the last act, which represents the ultimate victory over the sun, the whole aperture would have been darkened and the Black Square come into being. It may have taken him time to realise the magnitude of this move into pure abstraction but by the time he exhibited his Suprematist paintings at the 0.10 exhibition two years later, he was convinced that he had conquered new territory, declared that he had transformed himself into ‘the zero of form,’ and dated all three versions of the Square according to when the idea had first manifested itself in 1913. What followed was not exactly the death of painting – this was left to Tatlin and Rodchenko who turned increasingly towards Constructivist and Productivist art – but a gradual addition of non-objective paintings based on increasingly complex compositions made up of slightly irregular geometric shapes freely floating in space that, as ‘the white space of infinity’, still retains a transcendental quality. For Malevich, when finally corralled into utilitarian projects during the Stalinist period, these systems based Suprematist pictures were to become foundational in the making of a new culture - as we can see in his utopian architectural designs. The Black Square, though, remained on a par with a religious icon as an emptying out of all representation poised between being and becoming that was to have a tremendous influence on the future of art.


It might have been useful to have covered the polarisation of attitudes and in-fighting in the Russian avant-garde but then that is not exactly the exhibition’s remit. But by the 1920’s a definitive split had emerged between Rodchenko, the materialist and Malevich, the mystic that culminated in Rodchenko’s painting Black on Black, a riposte to Malevich’s series White on White and which this time did vociferously pronounce the death of easel painting as bourgeois formalism. Despite this ideological collision, what these avant-garde movements had in common that would subsequently characterise a shared legacy that reached the West, was a denunciation of taste, style and personal or subjective expression. ‘Down with Art. Long live technical science.’ This was the slogan of the Productivist Manifesto written by Rodchenko and his wife Stephanova which explains the turn to photography as the exemplar of the visual arts but a mode of photography already imbued with avant-garde defamiliarisation.

It was through El Lissitzky that Malevich’s ideas were disseminated, as he travelled through Europe as the Soviet cultural ambassador, and possibly spy, using his ideas as a base for his own ‘Prouns’ or ‘project for the affirmation of the new’ which represented a bridge between architecture and painting. Like Malevich’s ‘architectonic planets’ they provided models for real buildings but suffered the fate of most Russian avant-garde architecture, notably Tatlin’s Tower, having to wait decades due to lack of funds before inspiring future architects to effect a transformation from design to concrete reality. Driven by the need to spread the ideas of the revolution and serve the people, El Lissitzky is best known for his graphic and poster work that makes use of abstraction to reach the non-literate proletariat masses. Abstraction became a universal language, e.g. the use of the red triangle as a symbol of cultural and military force in his Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge! Photography and photomontage became the chosen means of communication, with the work of Rodchenko and Klutsis creating symbols of progress as Russia plunged into the antinomies of modernization.


Abstraction then was a parallel development with modernity and uppermost in artists’ minds was an attempt not only to create art works that answered the new urban and industrial conditions of society but effectively to transform the social ills they brought in their wake. Abstraction was not an art for art’s sake retreat from life but an attempt to become integrated with it. Mondrian, for instance, was convinced that his de Stijl paintings, based on a reductive, relational logic restricted to the orthogonal positioning of verticals and horizontals and the use of the primary colours plus black, white and grey, would usher in a new era of egalitarian socialism. At some future moment in time Art would be so integrated into everyday existence that its autonomous existence would be unnecessary. Art’s mission to eliminate the tragic in human life would have been subsumed within a functionalist or utilitarian aesthetic. Logically this spelled out the death of easel painting and this is the ghost that haunts this exhibition and Malevich’s Black Square. Van Doesburg shared this belief while arguing against the exclusion of diagonals and the colour green. Such theoretical skirmishing was, as we have seen, typical of infighting among abstractionists. As Briony Fer points out ‘abstraction demonstrated that its most basic impulse was not to unify but to divide and multiply.’ Its survival is based on its global multifaceted existence and this partly explains why the upstairs display seems to have lost the plot.

The collapsing of distinctions between art, architecture and design continued to constitute one of modernism’s main agendas, but by the end of the WW2 change was afoot; with the threat of Communism’s winning over Europe, geometric abstraction was stripped of its political ideas and reduced it to its formalist qualities in order to be made palatable to the non-communist West. However, this impulse to reunite art and life was repeatedly rehearsed in the latter part of the twentieth century with Pop art, performance and installation art increasingly characterising the global reach of art into the twenty-first century, e.g. Melanie Smith’s collaboration with Ortega, The Aztec Stadium in 2010. It was through Max Bill, a former Bauhaus student, that many of the ideas fundamental to modernism had been exported in the fifties to South America where geometric abstraction took hold under the rubric of Concretism. Precisely because it seemed to have nothing to say, abstraction was able to flourish in countries such as Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay despite the authoritarianism of their respective repressive regimes, e.g. Cordeiro and de Zuviria. Attempts were made to integrate European ideas with indigenous Latin American cultures, but by the 1960’s many artists were turning to Neo-Concretist conceptual art practices that adopted a more organic, phenomenological approach while still nurturing utopian aspirations and political engagement, e.g. Lygia Clark and Oiticica.


Such sentiments seem far removed from Halley’s paintings of cells and circuits. In his adoption of geometric abstraction Halley looks back to the pioneers of modernism but in a manner of appropriation rather than homage. Said to be influenced by Foucault’s critique of society, his use of Day-Glo colours and decorator’s textured surfaces reflects ironically on what he refers to as the emotional blankness characteristic of a technologically dominated world. However, this admission of defeat and disillusion hardly redeems his post-modernist take on the utopian objectives of the modernist avant-garde. Likewise Keith Coventry’s 1995 piece Sceaux Gardens Estate, while revealing its historicist credentials, syphons off the original utopian aura that may have once graced these modernist flats leaving only the sad ghost of an idea and little of visual interest besides.  

Daniel Buren is regarded as one of our foremost conceptual artists. From 1967 he has worked in situ affixing his signature striped material to environments or institutions of his choice. Over the years his stripes, which are meant to become integrated with existing advertisements or graffiti, have been pasted on to all manner of billboards and hoardings in this way combining his sign for art with signs or images having nothing to do with art. Featuring as part of the exhibition, his striped banners are located in different sites in London as a restaging of his 1975 piece Seven Ballets in Manhattan. In this way art has become a reframing of contingency since whether we see the work or not becomes serendipitous, i.e. art a bit more like life.


Undoubtedly Malevich’s Black Square casts a longish shadow onto the figurative and non-figurative art of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, but in some instances this familial connection seems somewhat strained or ill-judged and demonstrates the danger of judging a work on a purely visual level. But if the work on the upper floor seems less impressive, it is salutary to remind ourselves that Paul Valery complained about the dearth of good art in the first decade of the twentieth century when Braque and Picasso, Matisse and the Fauves, not to mention Malevich and Kandinsky were about to shock the art world, and we are left with the paradoxical proposition that it’s the negative aspect of Malevich’s Black Square that makes it so receptive to future ideas and, despite the weight of history militating against this conclusion, safeguards the notion of art’s autonomy.


© Anna Leung, February 2015

Anna Leung is a London-based artist and educator now semi-reitred from teaching at Birkbeck College but taking pccasional information groups to current art exhibitions.


Adventures of the Black Square:

Abstract Art and Society 1915–2015

was on view at the Whitechapel Gallery, London from 

15 January - 6 April 2015.

All images courtesy of the Whitechapel Gallery

From top, left to right:


Kazimir Malevich

Black Quadrilateral c. 1915 Greek State Museum of Contemporary Art - Costakis Collection, Thessaloniki.


Aleksandr Rodchenko

Radio Station Tower 1929
Gelatin silver print 22.4 x 14.2

Jack Kirkland Collection
© Rodchenko & Stepanova Archive, DACS, RAO, 2014.


Dan Flavin

Monument’ for V. Tatlin 1966–9
Fluorescent tubes and metal 305.4 × 58.4 × 8.9 cm

© 2014 Stephen Flavin / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York Courtesy Tate Collection: Purchased 1971.


El Lissitzky

1o Kestnermappe Proun [Proun. 1st Kestner Portfolio] Published 1923
Portfolio of 6 lithographs (two with collage), cover & title page 60 × 40 cm, sheet 6: 44 × 60 cm

Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh © the Artist.


Kazimir Malevich

Black and White. Suprematist Composition 1915
Oil on canvas

Moderna Museet, Stockholm
Donation 2004 from Bengt and Jelena Jangfeldt.


Piet Mondrian

Composition with Yellow, Blue and Red 1937–42
Oil paint on canvas
72.7 × 69.2 cm

© DACS, London/VAGA, New York 2014 Courtesy Tate Collection: Purchased 1964.


Sophie Taeuber-Arp

Untitled (Composition with Squares, Circle, Rectangles, Triangles) 1918.


Peter Halley

Auto Zone 1992
Acrylic Day-Glo and Roll-a-Tex on canvas
244 × 238 × 10 cm
© Peter Halley Courtesy Collezione Maramotti, Reggio Emilia.


Gabriel Orozco

Light Signs #1 (Korea) 1995
Synthetic polymer plastic sheet and light box 100 × 100 × 19.7 cm
Courtesy Marian Goodman Gallery, New York © the Artist.

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