My thoughts on the exhibition, currently showing at the Whitechapel Gallery until the 6th April 2015.
“But what does it mean?” someone whispers, standing in front of El Lissitzky’s suprematist composition ‘Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge’ (1920). I suspect that the question was a literal rather than philosophical one, referring to the works Russian text (perhaps I’m being kind), but regardless it is a question levelled at abstract art on a regular basis. Especially geometric abstraction, the particular strain that the Whitechapel Gallery’s ‘Adventures of the Black Square’ has chosen to spotlight.
Ironically the red wedge and white circle are elements of the least perplexing artwork on show at the exhibition. In the context of the communist revolution it is clear that despite its simplicity, geometric abstraction was being used to convey messages in a radical way, a way that the literal representation of traditional art could never achieve. The overall thrust of the exhibition, linking abstract art with society, keeps the underlying messages at the forefront of the viewers mind. Yes, geometric abstraction is an aesthetic, but that is just the start of the larger adventure.
Taking Kazimir Malevitch’s 1915 painting of a black square on a white canvas as its genesis moment, the exhibition follows the ripples in the pond over the next century. It is an admirable and gripping endeavour that crosses continents and disciplines in an attempt to define a global phenomenon and connect it with overall society. But this is at the expense of any abstraction that has its roots in representation; there is no place for the likes of Matisse or Klee. Malevitch’s pure abstraction, in absolute black and white, is taken as the radical moment in the narrative of 20th century modernism. Finally free from the shackles of convention, art could be revolutionary, utopian, modern and political; it could capture the spirit of the age and attempt to forge an egalitarian future.
Sandwiched between the atrocities of both World Wars, the avant-garde movements on show here, such as Suprematism, Constructivism, De Stijl and the Bauhaus, with their manifestos, writings, interdisciplinary approaches and faction mentalities, make total sense. At a complex time, when art could have descended into total chaos, geometric abstraction represented a worldview that was revolutionary yet harmonious. It found logic and reason in the purity of shapes while jettisoning the baggage of the past. The street photography in the exhibition proves that abstraction unlocked a new way of looking at the world. Onwards comrades to a brighter future, albeit one with sharper corners (no organic shapes or biomorphism here).
Invariably in the political realm unwavering ideologies had also developed, reaching their inevitable clash in World War II. This was damaging for the various Modernist movements; causing them to be literally uprooted from Europe while smashing their utopian idealism. Follow the exhibition upstairs towards the contemporary art world and you will often find the link to the black square less obvious. Here abstraction can be deployed critically against modernist architectural utopianism in Keith Conventry’s 1995 ‘Sceaux Gardens Estate’, while a painting by Jenny Holzer uses geometric black shapes to make a statement on censorship. Hannah Starkey’s photographs of corporate offices pose the question – can a literal photograph be considered abstract just because it captures abstract emotions? Perhaps, but geometric abstractions they are not, and they aren’t the only works upstairs that feel far removed from the idea of abstraction, while alternatively others seem like abstractions for purely visual reasons. The underlying message is less clear.
It could be said that it was abstraction as an appealing aesthetic which resonated with 20th century society at large, rather than the subtexts of individual works or the ideas of the many different manifestos. The exhibition doesn’t seem to share this hypothesis, for instance there is no time for Op Art, or the fashions that it inspired. Abstraction in the wake of World War II became mainstream in commercial fields such as textiles, interior design and graphics, providing more positive and modern vibes in the everyday lives of normal people. This aspect of post-war geometric abstraction is absent from the exhibition, which only features a smattering of commercial work. There are Bauhaus textiles by Anni Albers and Sophie Taeuber-Arp, a Theo van Doesburg mosaic design for a Strasbourg café and a huge selection of magazines designed alongside the avant-garde movements they reported.
These magazines are blurb-less in their glass vitrines, and feel like side notes to the rest of the exhibition. This is a shame as the cross-discipline approach, usually including graphic design, was so key in the development of geometric abstraction itself. The lines between art and graphic design were blurred. Josef Albers is one such multi-disciplinarian and his golden ‘Homage to the Square: Post Autumn’ (1963) was the painting that affected me most in the whole exhibition. He embraced squares as meaningless vehicles to explore the impact and interactions of pure colour. The result in this case is undeniably beautiful and unlike the majority of the exhibition, it explores how the viewer sees rather than how they think.
In New York there is currently an exhibition featuring one of Albers’ only commercial design projects. ‘Albers in Command’ showcases various album artworks he designed from 1959 onwards. They are exactly the type of geometric work that is missing in Whitechapel, abstraction in commercial graphic design that seeks to represent the essence of a product. It may be abstraction as an agent of capitalism, but it is no less joyous for it and in some ways it creates criteria by which success can me measured. Albers succeeds in using abstraction to represent the mood of the music while also making it visually appealing.
In the modern commercially focused graphic design world abstraction is being used more than ever in attempts to give visual form to conceptual brand properties. Meanwhile, since the onset of the internet, meaningless stock abstract graphics often become the no effort default space filler. It’s no wonder the highbrow, pure and striking abstraction of the early avant-garde still resonates so strongly with a modern audience.