Supreme Show

Imagine Russia during the early years of the 20th century. In the dark, gilded interiors of its onion-domed Orthodox churches, the air is heavy with incense. Clusters of candles give off faint light as devout babushkas venerate golden icons, repetitively crossing themselves and bending to the ground in an ecstasy of worship. In St. Petersburg, the tsar and tsarina live in a gilded, kitschy, Fabergé-egg world, and they're psychologically dependent on an erratic, mad monk they believe has the ability to stop the hemophilic hemorrhages of their adored son. Vast legions of the abjectly poor offer stark contrast to the Romanovs. In the cities, unrest ferments, and intellectuals, artists, idealists and Machiavellians plot an egalitarian, modern society with new ideas, new government, new religion and new art to change -- and save -- the world.

Kazimir Malevich's Black Square was born from the cultural and intellectual schizophrenia of this environment, a stark and adamant work that heralded new ideas in art and society. He would later term his system and philosophy of art-making suprematism, both to indicate the supremacy of this purely abstract art and his secular quest for the spiritual "supreme." His 1915 Black Square and 89 other paintings, drawings and objects created from 1913 to 1931 are part of the Menil Collection's "Kazimir Malevich: Suprematism," curated by Matthew Drutt. The exhibition brings together a stellar collection of works, some never before shown in the West, as well as recently rediscovered pieces.

Malevich was born in 1878 near Kiev in Ukraine, a region steeped in folk and religious culture. But the artist was also in tune with contemporary movements in modern art; his early works were strongly influenced by impressionism, and as his avant-garde sensibilities evolved, they reflected the artistic sensibilities of the time. Some of his works have a cubist feeling and futurist, anarchistic overtones. There are also shades of dadaism in a 1914 work, Composition with Mona Lisa, in which he defaced Mona four years before Duchamp's 1919 L.H.O.O.Q. Instead of Duchamp's whimsical moustache and risqué, humorous title, Malevich painted adamant red x's over her face and chest.

Malevich, who is frequently characterized as "messianic," ultimately found himself in creating geometric forms that referred to nothing in the visual world but themselves. For the artist, they functioned in the same spiritual sense as Russian Orthodox icons, but they were secular images of belief and devotion dedicated to something greater than the self. In one exhibition, he hung his Black Square high in the corner of the room, the location traditionally reserved for icons. His was a new icon for a new society. Depending on which scholarship you buy into, the black square is intended to represent God or the ultimate aesthetic equivalent. Likening himself to Christ in his mission, Malevich espoused suprematism to other artists and to his student followers.

The artist wrote dense essays explaining his philosophy. Suprematism tied into the Russian revolutionary zeitgeist, which aimed to remake the world through the application of manifestos and agendas -- all of it smacking of an almost religious zealotry. As one of the exhibition catalog's essays reveals, "He dreamed of a global Suprematist environment in which everything would be subordinated to the Suprematist canon: 'All things, our entire world, must be arrayed in Suprematist forms: i.e., fabrics, wallpaper, pots, plates, furniture, shop signs; in short, everything must have Suprematist designs as a new form of harmony.'"

The early years of the Russian revolution were a time of tremendous optimism and idealism for many. The Bolsheviks didn't want to create just a new government, they wanted to create a new way of life, upsetting old orders and replacing them with the new and improved. Artists made work in the service of the people, creating temporary sculptures and murals in the streets and agitprop posters. The collective was emphasized over the individual, and where art once had been used to the selfish ends of the elite, now it would be for the good of the people.

The political tide would keep turning, embracing and then ultimately rejecting the avant-garde. In 1932, socialist realism would become the official art of Russia. In 1930, Malevich would be arrested, interrogated over several months and accused of bourgeois formalism. He spent his remaining years making increasingly representational images, trying unsuccessfully to square the politically mandated change with his own ideas. He was diagnosed with cancer around 1933, and his requests to travel abroad for treatment were denied. In the clichéd fate of the misunderstood and oppressed artist, he died, destitute, in 1935.

Today, revolutionary zeal in politics and art is quaint and passé. Russia is a kleptocracy led by a former KGB officer. Not unlike prerevolutionary Russia, there are the few extremely rich, the masses of the extremely poor and very few in between. Idealism in art and politics, in Russia and just about anyplace else, is extinct.

All of the sound and fury of the suprematist goals of Malevich et al., as well as the broader aims of other early Russian movements, has faded into the realm of historical scholarship, and we're left with the works themselves. The context in which they were created is long dead, as are the artists, many of whom perished under Stalin.

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.

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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Kelly Klaasmeyer
Contact: Kelly Klaasmeyer