Kazimir Malevich at The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum

Kazimir Malevich, Suprematism (1915), oil on canvas, 34-1/2″ x 28-3/8″; courtesy The State Russian Museum

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The incongruity put forth by the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in its recent overlapping of exhibitions devoted to Kazimir Malevich (1878-1935), the pioneering Russian abstractionist, and Matthew Barney, a pioneer in the public misuse of vaseline, has been much remarked upon. The incongruity was so great that one would have to to have undergone a staggering feat of self-restraint not to comment upon it. Here, after all, are two figures who exemplify the disparity between Modernism and Post-Modernism, high art and popular culture, the Guggenheim as we have come to know it and what used to be called the Museum for Nonobjective Art. One is tempted to peg the museum’s current incarnation as the New! Improved! Guggenheim because such terminology underscores how thoroughly the institution has co-opted the methodologies of commerce.

Such an approach may be fitting when applied to Barney, whose theatrical sensationalism puts him more in the company of art-inflected pop stars like R.E.M. and Bjork (with whom Barney is having a child). For Malevich, a painter who strove with the utmost seriousness to formulate the New Gospel in Art, it won’t do at all. The work of each man is radically unlike; their differences unbridgeable. Entering the Guggenheim, one expected to undergo a personality crisis in order to accommodate the fact that both men were being honored under the same roof.

Happily, I was spared any potential injury to my psyche. Due to divine guidance–in the guise of my misplacing the summer edition of The Gallery Guide–I unknowingly visited Kazimir Malevich: Suprematism immediately after the closing of the Barney show, in fact during its de-installation. A certain satisfaction was provided by watching the exhibition crew pack up Barney’s multi-media spectacle in order to hang paintings by Kandinsky and Miro for a summer show culled from the museum’s collection. It’s good to see priorities put right, if only temporarily. Still, that didn’t stay lingering apprehensions about the Malevich show. Our museums haven’t been attentive to the particularities of abstraction in recent years, preferring to present them as an adjunct of anything other than painting itself. Would the Guggenheim present the seminal Russian artist straight? Or would it feel the urge to “interpret” Malevich, subjecting his art to an overriding theoretical narrative?

My apprehensions were unfounded. Kazimir Malevich: Suprematism, as organized by Matthew Drutt, Chief Curator of the Menil Collection, is about as perfect an exhibition as one could hope for. Sensitively paced, scholarly yet not pedantic and respectful of the work, it illuminates the development and crystallization of Suprematism, an art that was to be (in Malevich’s words) “the end and beginning where sensations are uncovered, where art emerges ‘as such.’” Any student of art will recognize such high-flown rhetoric as typical of early twentieth-century Modernism, when revolution, artistic and otherwise, seemed to be the sole oxygen available for an artist of consequence to inhale.

That Malevich’s art is forever bound up with the Russian Revolution is as unfair as it is just. As with many other significant Russian artists of the time–to list only of a few: Kandinsky, Rodchenko, Gabo, and Popova–Malevich supported the new revolutionary culture and, for a time, received support from it. How the Russian avant-garde would eventually be quashed by a government that would come to hold it in the deepest suspicion is an oft-told tale, though no less important or tragic because of it. Malevich himself was expelled from a job teaching at the State Institute for the History of Art, as well as briefly jailed in 1930 for practicing “bourgeois” art.

The fate of the Russian avant-garde is not told explicitly at the Guggenheim. Nor do we get a sense of Malevich’s early development as an artist, though we are given a sampling of the Cubist-inspired pieces that are a precursor to full-fledged Suprematism. What we have is an exhibition that gently, but markedly, removes the paintings from the tumult of history. Given Malevich’s wish to create an art of “eternal rest” wherein “everything that we loved and all from which we lived, becomes invisible,” this approach is entirely appropriate. Kazimir Malevich: Suprematism isn’t unlike entering one of the paintings–dizzying and hypnotic, it’s a place in which gravity has been suspended. As installed at the Guggenheim, the show has a quickening, almost airless lucidity, putting in to high relief his crowning achievement. That it is in the museum’s tower galleries, apart from the main rotunda, only reinforces a sense of remove. One imagines Malevich beaming from on high at the result.

If imagining an artist as forbidding as this one occupying a perch in heaven seems a bit much, well, it is. Yet Malevich wasn’t averse to entertaining rich, even spurious, ideas, nor did he resist succumbing to them. The impulse to create a Utopian order, a world in which history and the individual are rendered obsolete by a purifying “logic,” resulted in the most horrendous human disasters of the twentieth century. In the realm of art, such beliefs are considerably less dangerous. They can provide impetus for great art; they are more likely to engender eccentricity. At this date in the early twenty-first century, it is easy (and not a little smug) to look upon Malevich’s pseudo-religious longings with a certain condescension. His aspiration to bring forth a “totally new, transnational precept” will strike many as naive and paradoxical, when not delusional. That Malevich’s secular, if decidedly mystical, art was grounded in the compositional prerequisites of Russian (i.e., Christian) iconography is an irony of both art and history. There’s no doubting that the paintings gain power from such irony. But how much, in the end, is that worth?

Or, to put it another way, how good was Malevich as a painter? It may seem unfair to criticize the art on the basis of Malevich’s beliefs. Piet Mondrian, after all, took inspiration from Madame Blavatsky and her spiritualist hokum. On the evidence of the paintings, however, there can be no doubting that once Mondrian put brush to canvas, theosophy took a backseat to art. The same can’t be said of Malevich. He wasn’t an abstract painter so much as an abstract symbolist–a distinction that is less fine than one might initially think. Form, in Malevich’s paintings, is invariably put in the service of otherworldly pursuits. Tension, rhythm, and weight are implied rather than actual, illustrated instead of given body. This isn’t to say the paintings are without pictorial intelligence. The early experiments in Cubism display flair and humor. When it comes to mocking tradition, I prefer hands down Malevich’s droll Composition with Mona Lisa (1914), with its crossed out, pasted-on reproduction of da Vinci’s masterpiece, to Duchamp’s L.H.O.O.Q. (1919).

Yet even in that work, there is lacking a fundamental acknowledgment of form and, in particular, space. Fans of Suprematism applaud Malevich’s “spaciness.” The free-floating character of the paintings–their unmooredness, if you will–does have a woozy appeal. Yet this space is never given amplitude or import. For Malevich, the white ground of the canvas is a given, merely a backdrop upon which shapes are situated rather than a continuum wherein objects exist. Couple this with an obliviousness to the perimeters of the canvas and you have pictures that are, for all their bumper car collisions of geometry, slack and vague.

Suprematism (Supremus #50) (1915) obscures its lack of spatial fullness by a multiplicity of directional markers. In the kaleidoscopic Suprematist Painting (1916), we see little forms, big forms, straight lines, pinks, greens, and oranges meandering about with no place to go. There’s no pressure brought to bear on the compositions. Events take place in Malevich’s paintings by happenstance. When Malevich’s forms do have a purpose–as in proto-Minimalist pictures like Black Square and Four Squares (both 1915)–they do so only as markers of spiritual yearning. Without the extra-aesthetic baggage, Malevich’s paintings, particularly the barest of them, aren’t much of anything.

A variety of impulses can inform a work of art, yet if it doesn’t sustain itself through the prerequisites of form, it fails. This is what distinguishes a great painter like Mondrian from a significant figure like Malevich: the ability to endow form with a thriving independence. Broadway Boogie Woogie (1942-1943), because it is so thoroughly realized within the means of its own construction, is as brilliantly alive now as it was when Mondrian last put his brush to it; its vitality won’t diminish. Black Square, in contrast, doesn’t look old because its surface is cracking. It looks old because Malevich failed to endow his geometries with autonomy and spark. Malevich’s canvas hasn’t withstood well the clarifying light of history. It’s as dated as an Art Deco chaise or a Model T, without benefit of the former’s charm or the latter’s utility.

As laudable as Kazimir Malevich: Suprematism is as an example of curatorial know-how, I can’t help but wish that the same amount of care went in to a different show–one devoted to, say, the paintings of Bart van der Leck, a colleague of Mondrian’s in de Stijl, or those of Ilya Bolotowsky, an American practitioner of Neo-Plasticism. Over the summer, I became enamored of three Bolotowsky canvases featured in a group show at ACA Galleries in Chelsea. None of them was in the least bit epochal. But each was better as painting than anything Malevich ever committed to canvas. Surely that’s worthy of note–and celebration.

© 2003 Mario Naves

Originally published in the Summer 2003 edition of The New Criterion.

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