Malevich and The American Legacy at Gagosian Gallery

Kazimir Malevich, Painterly Realism of a Football Player–Color Masses in the 4th Dimension (1915), oil on canvas, 27-1/2 x 17-3/8″; courtesy Gagosian Gallery

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The history of Modernism is inconceivable without the art of Kazimir Malevich (1878-1935), but was it necessarily enriched by it? Malevich’s role in establishing abstraction as a viable form of artistic expression is indisputable. His goal was to create pictures that embodied “the end and beginning where sensations are uncovered, where art emerges ‘as such.’” This pursuit led to radically distilled images, most famously in White on White (1935), wherein a veering rectangle is virtually indistinguishable from the surrounding space. It was within austere arrangements of geometry that humankind, Malevich felt, would transcend the material world and achieve “the supremacy of pure feeling.”

Malevich and The American Legacy, an exhibition at the uptown branch of Gagosian Gallery, is centered on six canvases by the self-described “zero of form.” Organized in collaboration with the artist’s heirs and with significant museum loans, American Legacy sets out to explore “aesthetic, conceptual, and spiritual correspondences” between the pioneering Russian abstractionist and a raft of American artists, among them, Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman, Ellsworth Kelly, Frank Stella, Ed Ruscha, Brice Marden and Agnes Martin.

Donald Judd wrote that “the paintings Malevich began painting in 1915 are the first instances of form and color”—which means, I’m guessing, that we should consider them the first examples of pure abstraction in Western painting. (Form and color have, after all, been around since our ancestors daubed fauna on the cave wall.) The centerpiece of American Legacy is Malevich’s Painterly Realism of a Football Player—Color Masses in the 4th Dimension (1915). Given the title allusion, how pure could Malevich’s art be?

Never mind: The Gagosian show cruises on straight lines, grids and squares—lots of squares. They can be seen bopping through Robert Ryman’s surprisingly tensile series of paintings on aluminum, Richard Serra’s Brutalist prop sculpture and John Baldessari’s Violent Space Series: Two Stars Making a Point but Blocked by a Plane (for Malevich) (1976), a typically laconic iteration of Dadaist montage. In and amongst an impressively appointed array of machine-tooled artworks, Cy Twombly’s scribbled homage to “Malevitch” [sic] comes as a relief.

Malevich’s Suprematism (as the style came to be known) was fueled in equal parts by Cubism, Christian iconography and, not least, the advent of the Communist state. The lesson Americans gleaned from Malevich—the Americans featured at Gagosian, anyway—is that tying puritanical form to aesthetic absolutism all but guarantees high-flown, worry-free decoration.

Suprematism, in other words, made the world safe for Minimalism, Conceptualism and any other art too refined to stimulate interest. As such, The American Legacy is an exhibition of blue-chip dead ends. It traces, with exquisite resolve and deadening certainty, the route from revolutionary foment to the academy of the marketplace.

© 2011 Mario Naves

Originally published in the March 22, 2011 edition of City Arts.


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