PRINT January 1974

Malevich as a Counterrevolutionary (East and West)

WITH SEVERAL ARTISTIC IDEAS released by the October Revolution—art as a festival of proletarian culture, the artist as an engineer of a future society, the energizing of all media as weapons of consciousness in a class struggle—Kazimir Malevich, who enjoys high status in the archaeology of abstract painting, had no sympathy. Having seen them born at firsthand, he was touched, of course, by many such impulses. He did go so far as to produce a half-hearted poster in the service of the revolution. A Suprematist pitcher and cup were designed under his supervision. And there exist photographs of his plaster architectural models that he caused to have built in the ’20s. These, however, appear to be far more specifically studies of arranged geometrical solids rather than the faceless apartment blocks or skyscrapers they vaguely imply. In addition, Malevich joined the Federation of Leftist Artists after February, 1917, in solidarity against right-wing academics. Finally, he occupied various educational posts for a time under the Soviet state. But none of this speaks of much rapport with the Lenin government.

On the contrary, his history during the four years after October was fretted with controversies with enthusiasts of the Revolution—Tatlin, Chagall, and Rodchenko—and his once dominant Suprematism endured increasing defections. He passed on crucial elements of his style to his peers, who benefited from his reduced painterly syntax as well as his messianic attitude. Although the notion that he had stopped painting in the ’20s seems to have been exaggerated, he virtually retired from the scene as a producing easel artist just at the moment when advanced art (now given over to applied media), and communist ideology celebrated a breath-taking honeymoon. In 1927, on his only trip outside the Soviet Union, to Germany, he published his most influential theoretical tract, The Non-Objective World, as a Bauhaus book. In it, Malevich recounted more savagely than in any of his previous writings, his rigid defense of a position in abstract art established 15 years before. Its raised shrillness might seem almost directed at the Stalinist art bureaucracy, which was beginning to foreclose the options of many local avant-gardists. Though The Non-Objective World was an exiled theory, it was taken up avidly by utopian esthetics in the West. As for Malevich, he lived out his remaining eight years back in his homeland, a burnt-out case it seems, doing vapid portraits and charting in an ever more cryptic fashion for students, the sign language of prewar modernist art. No painter had been better placed to effect a synthesis between an esthetic and a political radicalism. Few artists from that vantage were less inclined or were more poorly equipped to carry it out.

Malevich’s first Suprematist prototype image was supposed to have been a large black square on a white ground, providing the backdrop for a 1913 opera called Victory Over The Sun. In passing, art histories list the poet Kruchenykh as librettist for this work, while Vladimir Markov’s Russian Futurism, a study of the poetic movement, casually mentions Malevich as decorator and costume designer. Poor Matyushin, the opera’s composer, does not seem to have caused even a ripple in musicology. This is perhaps understandable because the piece seems to have been a slapdash, piano-scored affair, performed after a two-day rehearsal by amateurs. Markov, however, reports something interesting about the occasion: there are “Futurist Strong Men who begin and conclude the opera by proclaiming the endlessness of futurist progress. The world will perish, but there will be no end for us . . . the Strong Men call the sun ‘a birth giver to passion’ and express the desire to hide it behind a dusty curtain . . . .” Later, the sun “is stabbed and captured.” By his own recognizance then, Malevich originated his nonobjective ideology in the context of Futurist power-mania (although actual Suprematist paintings came two years later). The sun, whose light allows the world to be represented, is seen also as a source of emotion that must be obliterated. We do not know whether his backdrop was intended to symbolize this murder. Still, if we read back from his later doctrine, we find Malevich associating the creation of form with nothingness. A “pure feeling”—starker than anyone had imagined—illuminated the terrain through which his intuition sailed. The future, wrote Kruchenykh, will be dominated only by those who can sustain themselves in thin air. Eulogy for a new technological race is typical of Futurism, but it was left to a Russian “Cubo-Futurist” to denounce along with objects, the sensations through which they were perceived. Everyone but the unafraid will fall away in that desert which resembles death more than it does life. Malevich was said to have kept his own coffin around for a long period during his later career—a coffin decorated with Suprematist symbols. In that light, it is rather sinister to hear him say, by no means in a spirit of rational usefulness: “Everything must assume Suprematist forms: textiles, wallpapers, vessels, furniture, road signs—everything must be executed according to the new forms of harmony.”

It is characteristic of liberal art history that it sees the Suprematist road sign as a “search for rest that is Godhead” (Simon Pugh), and not at all as a pointer to an ominous destination. For that matter, who, among the historians, has said that Suprematism is a very unpleasant word in itself? Malevich was eminently anticommunist in his preachments against reason, his denial of the effectiveness or even worth of political action based on rational considerations. But he was much more in line with a Marxist eschatology when he predicted the withering away of a materialist world of bounded conditions. Both these contrasting aspects of the artist want to be recognized.

The retreat from appearances in art, of course, can have many positive goals. In Mondrian’s work there was posited an ideal, gridded structure of space; in Delaunay’s, a glorification of colored light; in Kandinsky’s, a heightened expressivity. But what seen is to have motivated malevich was a deprivation of sense-data. He would have content be about his reductions rather more than allowing it to be seen through them. This reversal of means and ends is fundamental to an understanding of his position. He could argue it affirmatively as a prerequisite to the liberation of the individual and his passions from an existence of contingent and false stimuli. If burdensome feeling is tied to illusive appearance, then Malevich, outstripping even Plato, would ban illusions from the world. Would that desire would go with them too, for desire’s biological purpose is procreative and social, therefore restricting. Still, it was not Platonic Idea that concerned Malevich, but the absence of Ideas—an absence that seemed to him an abyss, and Suprematism, its semaphore.

In discussing antecedents for this theory, liberal historians have connected it, as well they may, with Jacob Boehme who “images” spirit as a nothingness free and good because it is inexpressible and incomparable. Nor have the influential 1907 theses of Worringer escaped them. For it would have been attractive to an artist like Malevich to have read about an abstraction that was inorganic, self-estranging, life-denying (if fear-ridden), accepting all these conditions in an effort to transcend the world, by being as radically unlike the world as possible. Without doubt, the pedigree for such attitudes can be extended impressively. But let us relocate Malevich in the crucible of Futurist poetry, and see that he took a decisive step by conjuring its antiart impulses as a form of passive aggression. As an alibi for its radical exclusions, the positive elements in his stand are inconsistent, unconvincing, and psychologically negligible. For the use to which he put his contempt for a material base yielded distinct advantages: it freed him from making any rational distinctions or implying moral values. The least the liberal historians could have done was to accord Malevich more respect by being a little disturbed by his doctrine. Naturally, artists are not required to be philosophers or moralists. But when they wish to be better understood by words, they make their ideas freshly accountable, no matter how poetic or metaphorical they may be. The objective historical method does not necessarily endorse Malevich’s program. It only neutralizes him to the status of a cultural datum. It fails to respond to the way he mystified an attack against consciousness, and thereby hinders itself in any vital appraisal of his contribution. It is amazing how this historical literature keeps saying the same thing for years, and makes the flow of his derivations and influences a totally bloodless process.

One might have expected Western formalist criticism to have accommodated itself better to Malevich. Again, though, its record hardly bears this out. The inaccessibility of his works only partially explains the indifference with which he has been greeted in circles that worship Matisse as the great exemplar of their tradition. Nor has the effect of Malevich upon Lissitsky, Moholy-Nagy, and Kandinsky really altered this state of affairs. For they were seen here, ethnocentrically, as part of an Eastern wing of modern art that did not, for the most part, affect developments as they led into the New York School.

The most serious difficulty that earlier formalism had with Malevich, however, was that his work deflects physical analysis just as much as’ such analysis was turned away by. the Readymades of Duchamp. Descriptive analysis would appear misapplied and portentous if subjected to the visual language of these two artists. We do not imagine this was solely because of low optical stimulus. On the contrary, the curious objects presented were glaringly visible when viewed in an art context. Rather, the problem consisted in an extraordinary nihilism that separated raw stimulus from appropriate response. The imaginative—one might almost say, the religious—cost necessary for reestablishing the commodity value of the new artifact was heightened extravagantly. It might be speculated that modern sensibility footed such a bill because, among other things, it had a bad conscience about the grossness of the capitalist market. The idea that Dadaism and much more recently, Suprematism, test the object-oriented face of a maniacally empirical economic system is one, I think, that can be usefully explored.

In any event, Malevich is discovered to be just as “literary” in formalist terms as Duchamp, and from their point of view he must be credited with inserting a dysfunctional factor in abstract art at its very onset. Duchamp enacted his antimaterialism through brilliant paradox—assimilating a humble manufactured object, a bottlerack, into art. Malevich made thoroughly uncertain the interpretative options in a material vehicle that was intended to be nothing but art. Neither of them could be called lyrical or despairing in their approach because such modes are emotionalistic and, consequently, speak too much of personal impulse and individual taste. “Aestheticism,” declared Malevich, “is the garbage of intuitive feeling.”

In the vehement historical context, to have enthused over machinery would have introduced a more or less politically repressive note into art, as we well see in Italian Futurism. With countless others, both Duchamp and Malevich had a common enemy in positivist logic, vulgarly incarnated by the industrial order. But they were hardly stainless in their critique of bourgeois progress. They would emasculate the ideals of militant productivity by disconnecting values from all plausible goals, damaging, then, the ethical bases of art and leading to the plunge in their own studio output. Conditions in Czarist Russia may very likely have fomented the rage of Malevich’s generation. He could rely upon, without being relatively familiar with, a great antique backlog of Platonic and Oriental thought or Russian literature to bolster his rhetoric of escape. But none of this in itself makes his gesture a modern one. Although he was capable of saying in 1918, “The social revolution which has smashed the chains of capitalist slavery, has not yet smashed the old tables of aesthetic values,” he had no use for the revolution beyond using it as something with which to club salon art. No, Malevich’s originality consisted in taking into nonobjectivity a mode of utmost cultural importance just then surfacing in and for the West, the abstract painting, and superimposing upon it his Eastern and negative mysticism. He saw as humanist illusion all the life-enhancing claims made for that painting in Europe. From his perspective, too, Duchamp came to similar judgments, embodied in a mechanistic parody. It led him to playful fantasies sometimes very reminiscent of Victory Over The Sun: “Establish a society in which the individual has to pay for the air he breathes (air meters; imprisonment and rarified air, in case of non-payment simple asphyxiation if necessary (cut off the air).” We do these artists a real disservice, and underrate the bitterness of their protest, if we overlook their barbarism.


When examining the writings of Kazimir Severinovich, one is struck by the scarcity of references to his works. They are outstanding essays of their kind because they rarely summon up any image of what he did, much less argue the form language he used, or explain the relatedness of forms. It’s true he does point out that “The black square on the white field was the first form in which non-objective feeling came to be expressed. The square = feeling, the white field = the void beyond this feeling.” But he very rightly does not follow up this crude thesis, not only because it can’t ac count for the symbolic load suggested, but because such symbolism is too psychologically oriented, and Malevich’s goals strive to transcend psychology. Moreover, he must exert effort to deemphasize the fact that his spiritualistic theory exists as apologia for a species of physical objects whose appearance must, of necessity, be circumscribed.

Nevertheless, Malevich is concerned with a symbolism to which his words and art allude, for it is not their individual meanings that count, but their ability to prepare us for perception without objects—as if this, in turn, were an ultimate symbol of true consciousness. His ideas on that score fall into two categories: a standard prewar defense of abstraction which helped set in motion the most hard-core clichés of formalism; and more hermetic strategies in the prose, reflecting a final mystery of which he, almost alone for the moment, has the key. As an example of the first, I cite: “Colour and texture in painting are ends in themselves. They are the essence of painting, but this essence has always been destroyed by the subject.” Characteristic of the second is: “I have transformed myself in the zero of form . . . .” It’s possible we are not on the firmest ground when making distinctions between these two kinds of statements. “Be they artists or lovers of art, mystics or mathematicians, those who achieve ecstasy are those who have freed themselves from the arrogance of humanity. He who would feel the significance of art must make himself humble before it.” This happens to be the remark, not of a Slavic artist, but of a Bloomsbury art critic, Clive Bell, in 1913. Compared to this, Malevich can sound downright pragmatic when he writes: “People always demand that art be comprehensible, but they never demand of themselves that they adapt their mind to comprehension.” When pursued chronologically through his career, however, Malevich’s teachings begin to crumble in the mind as would chalk in the mouth if one chewed it—there is no longer anything socially digestible in them at all. Man “forgets that form is a condition and that in reality form does not exist. How, then, can he reveal stimulus when stimulus is not a form, and has no limits?” Or, elsewhere, “What we call reality is infinity without weight, measure, time or space, absolute or relative, never traced in a form. It can be neither conceived nor comprehended, and at the same time there exists this eternal ‘nothing’” (1920).

Before such a “nothing,” whatever it is, how can characteristic terms of self-praise—pure action, new realism, the additional element, to the infinite—quite remain the arcane slogans they appear to be? They appear to exist, rather, as his pointers to an accomplishment of the second decade of 20th-century art just as Cubism and Futurism represent the perfect classicism (!) of the first. Now, however, all this functions in his cosmogony as but a preliminary to the “nothing” consciousness of the third. Earlier, art had been seen as an aspiration toward movement, not the depiction, but somehow, the emblem of it. But by 1923, Malevich writes: “There is no existence either within or outside me: nothing can change anything, since nothing exists that could change itself or be changed.” Reading such an appalling statement, we forget that he once meant to cleanse us of impure perception. Asceticism has become impasse. Malevich now posed for himself the problem of making as legible and didactic as possible, an unfeasible contact with visual art. In the exhibition accompanied by the above pronouncement, he showed two absolutely blank paintings on the wall way up almost out of sight under the ceiling. The statement itself comes from a manifesto called The Suprematist Mirror.


For the first time we are allowed to see a retrospective, at the Guggenheim Museum, of Malevich’s works in depth. They come to us mostly from the important collection at Amsterdam’s Stedelijk Museum, supplemented by works located here, and presented with the Stedelijk’s catalogue of its 1970 Malevich show compiled by Troels Andersen. The spectacle may well permit us to assess Suprematism as a nonforthcoming phenomenon in its own right, but as significantly, it also reveals what painterly energies and cultural influences were transformed by and snuffed out in it.

To be brief, Malevich, in 1910 at age 32, was just concluding his role as a Russian Fauve, soon to be replaced by his activity as a “Cubo-Futurist” icon painter. Here are pictures that look as oxymoronic as a Volkswagen with a Rolls Royce grille. Large gouaches with moujik subjects, regurgitating Matissean color in gloppy, scraggly strokes, comprise his first stage as an independent vanguardist. They have all the charm of paint-smeared sacks of potatoes. But they are of interest because style and subject are not assimilated in them, or more precisely, they are in a kind of drunken war with each other.

So, too, was the Russian intelligentsia extremely ambivalent about Western modernism, then mostly in neoprimitive rage. Malevich and his friends (he was one of the few major artists among them who had not been to Europe), disdained the sentimental realism of the Russian populist painters, the “Wanderers” and their like of the last century, who had gone back to the “people” for motifs and audience. Though emulating Western shock tactics at second hand, the city-concentrated Russian innovators thought they had every right not to think themselves provincial. But they were latching on to modernism at that moment when it was discovering the folk, the tribal and ritualized, in a score of different cultures. In Moscow, then, the problem for advanced artists was the same as at Munich, Dresden, and Paris: how to integrate pictorially the imagery of pagan beliefs or naive traditions as a means of creating an impetus of revitalized form. There were examples of children’s art and peasant woodcuts included in both the “Blaue Reiter” and Moscow “Jack of Diamonds” shows of 1912. Of course, within these polycultural explorations, these attempts to root out the signlike origins of visual art in pre- or nonindustrial environments, inhered powerful opportunities of nationalistic reassertion. In the Target exhibition of 1913, featuring Malevich and the Rayonnists, there were also exposed Indian, Chinese, Persian miniatures, and Russian icons, all of which were clearly meant to foster an Eastern identity among painters whose style was thoroughly indebted to the West. “Hail beautiful Orient!” declaimed Larionov that year, “We are against the West, vulgarizing our Oriental forms, and rendering everything valueless.” In Russian poetry, as one learns, this accent was hardly new. Shortly before the 20th century, Vladimir Soloviev asked whether the Russia of the future would conquer the West with the sword or the cross, and by 1918, in his poem “Scythians,” Alexander Blok wrote: “Is it our fault that all your [the West’s] bones/Rattle in our heavy tender paws?” No educated Russian under the Czar needed to be told how shabbily his country had been treated by the Western democracies; nor would a Soviet have been less suspicious of a West that, it was seriously thought, might betray the young revolution.

We might remember this background when looking at Malevich’s production of 1910–15. It helps to understand that the linearity of the 1910 gouaches stems as much from Byzantium as Matisse, though in either case mismated with ragged color patching. And it explains the more intensive welding together of influences in 1912 agricultural subjects like Taking In The Rye, 1912. How startling for our eyes to see metallic, Leger-like cylinders used to schematize the stubby forms of laboring peasants. Add to this .a piercing spectrum of winey viridians, scarlets, oranges, and ultramarines—a palette lacking only gold to recall Greek orthodoxy—and one no longer knows whether the aura emitted by these paintings is more borrowed or indigenous. Amid a clutter of stereometric fragments, these figures appear more stiff and brutal in their archaic attitudes, and therefore more empathetically affected by their work, than in earlier peasant iconography. Just as strongly does the artist underline them as machined figments of an industrialized vision. They radiate a fantastic authority, oddly enough because the rural and ethnic elements with which they deal have been streamlined. The step Malevich had taken in updating Russian subject matter was, as a result, antiexotic, comparable, say, to the jump represented in Stravinsky’s music by the differences between Le Sacre and Les Noces (1914–17). The impassive repeated forms, the strident colors, now hammered out with percussive effect, mingle to obliterate the romance of a peacock East once so attractive to Western taste. Yet they contrive to seem hyper-Russian in presence.

Using what almost seems a finely tuned advanced radar scan of Paris in 1912, Malevich sketched in a very reputable Cubism, abreast not only with what Leger was doing to it (his most recent work was seen that year in Russia), but of Braque’s and Picasso’s synthetic resolutions as well. At first he persists in treating genre scenes—the carrying of buckets in the village, carpenters, reapers, etc. But after two years, following his European leads, the titles do less to sustain the identity of the actual motifs, and when it is a question of still lifes (this major Cubist theme not being congenial), the work comes out fairly routine. The Scissor-Grinder, the nearest he got to Futurism per se, besides being a marvelous analysis of treadled and rotary motion, with sharp, staggered tangents, anticipates practically by its very theme, the cutting and snipping involved in laying out his subsequent collages. If the Russian themes are dismembered, they are also embroidered far more heterogeneously than with the simpler groupings that occupied him earlier. An Englishman in Moscow, 1914, shows a top hatted gentleman hemmed in by a cavalry saber, a spoon, ladder, fish, onion-dome church, and candle, the lot covered by Cyrillic lettering. Andersen translates one portion of it as “eclipse of the sun,” a quite intriguing message for a fantasy travel poster alluding to memory images of upper and lower, older and modern strata in Russian society. That the stylized icons float in jumbled scale rather than weight themselves down to the ground is as visually significant as the “alogic” (Malevich) with which they are mixed is conceptually important. A year before, the artist had referred to this alogic as “the collusion of two forms . . . [which] illustrates the moment of struggle between logic, the natural law, bourgeois sense and prejudice.”

“Struggle” was an appropriate word to describe a society conscious of imminent war. When it came, some Russian artists welcomed it because they thought it would offer a setback to the Czar. While it also cut them off from Europe, the Russian painters maintained their innovative thrust when the avant-garde was shut down, and in many places (excepting Holland), dissipated through the West. With monster enthusiasm, the Russians had stockpiled enough formal ideas to tide them a couple of years before the absence of Western stimuli ceased providing a foil for their nativism. Tatlin’s “nonsense” realism and Malevich’s “alogic” were labels used to bracket their confusing, irrational experience. These artists could still generate more volatile scandals among conservative bourgeois than their brethren previously on the other side of the continent. But their condition grew more homeless, ironically at their point of origin. Continuance depended on nothing less than the supplanting of an old myth by a new one.

Suprematism, issuing definitely in 1915, was the most convincing strategy for dealing with this homelessness, by quite baldly acknowledging it, turning it into a “supreme” virtue. In his polemical attacks against critics (he had no sympathizers in the press), Malevich began to linger on images of falling, spoke of chasms and deserts, or of being airborne. We can only guess as to what generating impulses led to the sudden, restrictive remapping of his art, the isolation of its rectangles, and the dogmas of nonobjectivity. We gather that these did not emerge through “x-raying” modern styles, as he was later to perform much more conservatively in the schoolroom. Nor did he dissolve or “sweat out” objects in a new thickened, turbulent atmosphere or space. The best way of describing the origin of the Suprematist vocabulary is to note the method whereby Malevich unhinged and extrapolated certain color blocks from his 1914 Cubism, or from even earlier compositions, straightened out the trapezoids of a peasant’s tunic, and sent them askew on a bleached ground. Relinquishing structure and situation, his art tumbled into an unprecedented limbo. Socially, he was giving up an older middle-class patronage in premature anticipation of a revolutionary sponsorship. Symbolically and iconographically, he was engaged in a demolition campaign. Psychologically, he was able to turn the familiar process of abstraction inside out by externalizing it as a principle of vision, rather than keep it as field to compare and cue invented and observed motifs. Unfortunately, this aviator of the timeless was not to achieve a powerful art, however forthright his drastic reforms.

The smallish Suprematist canvases look willed, without being structured, and this lends them an odd quaintness we associate with naive pilot versions of an enterprise realized more successfully in later development. Possibly this may be because the nonobjective mode is so contemporary with us that we can spot experimentally unrefined usages within it far more readily than in representational styles that have also become history and whose “datedness” we forget because it is not an issue. But then, part of the mythology to which Suprematism contributes is the nursery idea of systematic or even progressive evolution in art. Malevich himself had no system, only a sense of the family resemblance of sometimes overlapped rectangles, squares, crosses, pluses, and bands—red, green, black, and purple—that.he might arrange along fairly inhibited diagonals. He plays with their contrasts and juggles their weights in random fashion—as if indulging a vocabulary that might occasionally organize into a sentence. Only when the forms, instead of sliding alongside or angling each other, cohere into a cross or dim down, white on white, as around 1920, can we speak of a mood, imagine a symbol. But who is to judge how it is articulated, or with what it is correlated? “Puzzling,” writes Joost Baljeu, quite taken in, “is the work ’the feeling of a mystic will: unwelcome when compared to the work ’the feeling of a mystic wave from outer space.’ Both works show a cross. This confronts us with the question to what is ‘unwelcome’ alluding?”

Despite the propaganda purposes to which Suprematist syntax had been bent briefly under the Soviets, the strangeness of its behavior without motive in Malevich is a crucial fact. Comparably misleading are those few of his designs that more conventionally anchor forms or stabilize vectors on the surface. For their effect is alien to and completely disavowed by Malevich’s writing. It is unimaginable why an esthetic yearning for infinity, still less an antitechnological attitude, should be embodied by a square, or how primary colors invoke “nothingness.” The problem of relating the artist’s theory to his work vexes because they are so largely disproportionate to each other. But that is the phenomenon of Malevich. From early on, his hamfisted nihilistic rhapsodies overwhelmed any hope they would be materialized recognizably in paint. “It seems,” he sorrowed, “that one cannot attain with a brush what can be attained with a pen.” Evidently he might be read as calling for understatement and a real delicacy of perception, attuned to minute gradients of form. On the contrary, Malevich had all the painterly subtlety and philosophical grace of a Caliban. His Suprematist art is clangorous in the spirit of his previous work, but, so is his theory.

In itself, this precious brutality was very difficult to transmit outside Russia, and when The Non-Objective World was translated in German, many of its passages that damned linkages between art and politics were suppressed. That is, as an artistic pioneer, he would be assimilated back into Western culture by Bauhaus leftists only through a censure of his counterrevolutionary esthetics. The authentic art of the revolution that had gone into theater and film surely left a deep, mark in Europe. But Malevich’s negative charge exerted its own chilly fascination, however it was indirectly filtered or only vaguely appreciated. The writer K. A. Jelenski sums it up very well in a literary correlation:

Squares, triangles, rays, obelisks, pyramids—what can be more suitable as decorations for a world redeemed at last, for the Kingdom of God on Earth, from which God is indeed absent but not his laws. This was felt by all writers who projected Communism—or contemporary collectivism—into a future both Utopian and nightmarish. The novels of Huxley, Zamyatin and Orwell develop against a background of cold and geometrical abstraction.

We are back again, if we wish, at Victory Over The Sun. Lenin once fondly imagined from his reading of the Renaissance Utopian Campanella’s City Of The Sun, that the art of the revolution would be a glorious blazoning of frescoes on public walls. Under Stalin’s totalitarian dominion, that art, contrary to everything that Malevich and his enemies expected, or Western intellectuals fantasized, turned into Social Realism, a statist mythology tailored grossly to petit bourgeois prejudice.


At the moment, the American art world is in a peculiar position vis-à-vis Malevich. A Duchamp resurgence, Conceptual art, has displaced formalist abstraction, and claimed Malevich, though a painter, as one among its own. Meanwhile he obviously researched many of the tactics—centered imagery, diminished color field, etc.—employed in recent abstract painting. Artists today may recognize many stylistic anticipations of their work in his effort. But psychologically, there is something far more prickly involved, as I have tried to say, in accepting him as a spiritual ancestor. Of this tension, Troels Andersen, the foremost Malevich expert, was not likely to have been aware even if he had amended his catalogue of 1970. It republishes Malevich essays that he first issued in Danish more completely, and then came out in English shortly after the Dutch show. It gives us an entry type, year-by-year biography that does not tell us the names of the artist’s three wives. It furnishes dates, dimensions, and provenance of works, but fails to explicate their subjects. In this first full-dress presentation of Malevich in America, we are badly shortchanged by the limitations, not of a critic or scholar, but rather, a narrow-minded research clerk. Often there is a confusion of preliminary or secondary with primary information. The kind of temperament Malevich had, and why he was absorbed by life-denying obsessions: the importance of the contacts he had with poets and of his controversies with artists—what was really at stake in them; the basis for his iconography; the germane factors in his Russian cultural and historical background; an analysis of his doctrines compared with those of abstractionist theory in general; his career as a figure painter: none of these are looked into. Such commentary as exists enlightens far less than it should because it is too close to Malevich in tone, too credulous therefore, and opaque. Astonishingly, it is as if nothing had happened since his death to require a rethinking of his assumptions, with more perfect knowledge of what they meant, or to juxtapose our experience with them.

Historically, the show at the Guggenheim, if one of the most important, is only the latest of a string of 39 exhibitions of Russian art, or Western art in Russian hands, that have been mounted with great difficulty in the West. It is sufficient to recall “Russian Avant-Garde” (Hutton Galleries), “Art In Revolution”at TheNew York Cultural Center, and the big shipment of early European modernism from Russian museums to Washington and Knoedler’s last spring. They tally a flow of cultural goods surely welcome as esthetic benefits. We oughtn’t to forget, though, that they are also pawns in the context of government policy. In the current atmosphere of pseudo-detente, the White House and the Kremlin hesitantly employ cultural exchange as a conspicuous channel for opening barriers. But something is going wrong with this detente. Instead of promoting increasing levels of democratization in Russia or socialism in the United States (Andrei Sakharov’s dream), both superpowers continue to repress their internal critics, Russia unrelentingly. It seems that some international accord between conservative nations does not lessen their domestic rigidity. Meanwhile, schooled long ago by people like Clive Bell who tell it to free itself from the arrogance of its humanity, a part of our bourgeoisie has a very lively taste for avant-garde art indeed. It looks forward to a display of one of the most intrinsically anticommunist Russian artists who is considered far too dangerously modern to honor at home. Malevich might have savored this confusion if he had any irony. But then, having irony, he would not have been Malevich.

Max Kozloff