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Supreme Show

Works from a bygone era stand the test of time

But Malevich's works have weathered the times, retaining their power as images and objects separate from their maker's grander agendas. Walking into the exhibition, you're confronted with artfully hung icons of suprematism. Malevich's 1915 Black Square is here, on loan from Moscow's Tretiakov Gallery. It retains a self-possessed presence, a complacent obstinacy, even though it's cracked both by age and the impatience of its maker, who zealously layered paint too quickly for each coat to dry. Faint reds and blues (of a previous work?) peek through the cracks. The white ground is thickly painted with short, agitated strokes rather than long, smooth ones. The white seems to surround the black square, while the square simultaneously seems to obliterate the white ground.

Plane in Rotation, Called Black Circle (1915) hangs to the right. In Malevich's vision, the square has spun around, becoming the blur of a circle. Opposite it hangs Elongated Plane (1915), a black horizontal band of paint that is ever-so-slightly skewed. There's also Black Cross (1915), a neatly painted but slightly wonky human abstraction of the Russian Orthodox cross. It feels more dynamic than static. The cultural, spiritual and religious connotations of the cross have been constrained and purified into a hard-edged geometric form that almost, but not quite, convinces you of its neutrality.

In the larger-scale and bolder works Malevich created in 1917, planes arc and dissolve. In Dissolution of a Plane, a rectangle of red moves across the surface of the canvas, its edge dissipating like the smoke trail of a rocket. In Suprematism No. 55 (Spheric Evolution of a Plane), a dramatic swath of black curves across the canvas.

Malevich's Black Cross is a neatly painted, 
wonky abstraction of the Russian Orthodox cross.
Courtesy of the Menil Collection
Malevich's Black Cross is a neatly painted, wonky abstraction of the Russian Orthodox cross.

Elsewhere in the exhibition, the dynamically colored suprematist forms hover and skitter next to each other like magnets alternately repelling and attracting. Each component retains its own identity, but they all come together to compose the image. The paintings' pure, rich colors are shared by Russian folk arts and the palettes of icon painters.

Malevich created what is arguably the first truly abstract painting. A determined visionary, he was a man of his times. His missionary zeal is in a way unabated, as his art reaches into the future, continuing to influence new generations.

Also at the Menil

Two other exhibitions curated from the permanent collection bookend the Malevich show. "Tabletki: Russian Icons from the Menil Collection" (through January 25) presents a rich selection of works. It provides a historical and cultural as well as visual background for Malevich. The stylizations and geometry of the icon painters' forms look like a glimpse into Malevich's visual subconscious. At the other end of the historical spectrum is "In Pursuit of the Absolute" (through February 29). With paintings from artists such as Ad Reinhart, Frank Stella and Robert Ryman, the show gathers together works from the Menil Collection that share and continue Malevich's quest for nonobjective, pure form.

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