Adventures of the Black Square. It is a brilliant title for an exhibition about twentieth century abstract geometric art. The black square is Kazimir Malevich’s Black Quadrilateral, first displayed in 1915 in the 0.10 The Last Futurist Exhibition in St Petersburg; its adventures, the artistic reworking of that seminal concept through the following century. ‘One of the greatest legacies of the black square’, writes Iwona Balzwick, curator of the exhibition at London’s Whitechapel Gallery, ‘was that it landed like a spark in a hundred different places and different political situations and seemed to spread like fire’. Balzwick’s exhibition promised to be one of the must-see shows of the year. The pity is that it never quite lives up to the promise of the title or the ambition of the project.
As an exhibition, Adventures of the Black Square is both illuminating and frustrating. Illuminating because much of the work on show, especially in the first half of the exhibition, is quite dazzling, at times intoxicating; frustrating because the various pieces seem to have been thrown together at random, with little context or narrative, and the second half of the exhibition, in particular, is a formless, confused muddle.
As you enter the exhibition, you first come face to face with Malevich’s Quadrilateral. It is a quadrilateral, not a square. It is tiny, fragile, the black fading to gray, the white grubby and cracked, the concept by now so clichéd. And yet, somehow, it still thrills.
The first room contain the classics: Malevich, El Lisstizky, Popova, Mondrian, Rodchenko, Tatlin. It is exhilarating to witness the uncompromising imagination of artists attempting to break from the old conventions of figurative painting and to build the world anew.
The real gems of this show, however, lie beyond; not the well-known Russian greats but the lesser-known artists and photographers from non-European countries. The spark did indeed land in a hundred different places and different political situations. We see that spark in figures such as Indian artist Nasreen Mohamedi whose taut, intricate abstract drawings draws both on Russian constructivism and the geometry of Islamic art, or Brazilian photographer Gaspar Gasparian who draws upon Rodchenko, but takes much further the deconstruction of the image, or Hélio Oiticica, another Brazilian, and his explorations of space and colour. The photography, in particular, is quite striking.
‘Any production, any work of art is social, has a political significance’. So claimed the French conceptual artist Daniel Buren. Blazwick uses that quote to illuminate the aims of the exhibition. Abstraction, she wants to show, is not just about colour and form; it is also about changing the world, about shaping architecture, design, publishing, film; shaping even politics through transforming our notions of utopia. ‘The manifestation of geometric abstraction’, Blazwick writes in the catalogue,
has nearly always been linked to the utopian impulse. For artists of the early twentieth century, abstraction was the promontory onto the horizon of progress. Its very blankness represented the exhilarating void of the unknown and a springboard for the imagining of new tomorrows. Geometric abstraction – as painting, photograph or object – became linked to the proposal of new models of social organization… Abstraction became an aesthetic analogue for dissolving social and political hierarchies.
It is here, though, in its understanding of the relationship between the aesthetic and the social, that the exhibition is, perhaps, at its most disappointing, and its ambition most unfulfilled.
From its historical origins in revolutionary Russia there has always been a tension within geometric abstract art between the artist’s desire to use the abstract form to transcend the grubby reality of this world and the desire to fashion art into a tool of social transformation. Malevich wrote that he ‘took refuge in the form of the square’ to ‘free art from the deadweight of the real world’. For artists like Vladimir Tatlin, Alexander Rodchenko, or El Lissitzky, on the other hand, art was nothing if not socially engaged. ‘To accept or not to accept the October Revolution, that wasn’t a question for me’, wrote the Soviet constructivist Tatlin. ‘In an organic fashion I joined active, creative, social and pedagogical life.’ Tatlin viewed his never-built ‘monument to the Third International’ as a democratic challenge to authoritarian power, the attempt ‘to create a new art for a new world’. Tatlin’s monument, as the critic Viktor Shklovsky put it, ‘is made of iron, glass and revolution’.
But as the reality of the Soviet Union became apparent, and as dreams of political utopia faded over time, so the very meaning of artistic abstraction changed. From the 1970s on, postmodernism challenged the utopian visions of the early modernists, whose ‘undertakings have proved themselves to be sort of nonsense experiments’, in the words of German philosopher Jürgen Habermas. Postmodernist artists, Blazwick observes,
critiqued the modernist faith in technological advancement as a destructive mastery of the natural world and the presage to mass consumerism; and exposed its unitary and universalist ethos as a denial of the heterogeneity of cultures and voices.
As a result, today ‘The state of abstraction is increasingly used to describe a dystopian present, a post-industrial, post-mechanical and de-humanized digital age.’
In her essays in the catalogue, Blazwick recognizes the tension between the artistic and the political, between the spiritual and the social, and of the historical shifts that have taken place. Yet little of this filters into the exhibition itself. Adventures of the Black Square wants to show how abstract art was reflected in social and political life without truly considering the problems this posed for both art and society. How does one stop art becoming propaganda? What happens when social change comes to be seen in aesthetic terms? What becomes of artistic creativity when dreams of political utopia fade? The importance of such questions are hinted at in Blazwick’s essays. but barely touched upon in the exhibition. As a result, the attempt to show the concrete, social expression of artistic abstraction itself becomes something quite desiccated and abstract.
The second part of the exhibition, which explores the more recent decades is a frenetic, shapeless mess. Partly this is a reflection of the art. But it is also a manifestation of the lack of proper curation and guidance. Some of the greatest exponents of abstract geometric art over the past few decades – from Frank Stella to Bridget Riley – are missing, possibly because of an overly-literal view of what constitutes ‘social impact’. What is shown is largely tired and second rate.
And, yet, despite all this, the exhibition is worth visiting, especially for the first part. Even shorn of context and narrative, the black square and all that it became on its adventure, has an electric, hypnotic power.
Here are some of my favourite moments from the black square’s adventures. All these artists are in the exhibition (though not all these works are exhibited at Whitechapel).
Geralado de Barros