PRINT April 1989


In Cézanne’s landscape we find very few illusory elements: this means that Cézanne’s landscape is concerned least of all with introducing us to the experiences of reality. It leaves us in our own existence without transferring my “I” to another moment in time, making it experience the reality of the picture at the given moment.
—Kasimir Malevich, “An Analysis of New and Imitative Art (Paul Cézanne)”

THE CONCEPT OF “NONOBJECTIVITY,” the word Kasimir Malevich used to discuss his paintings and the ideas surrounding his Suprematist art, involves a departure, a detachment, from previous modes of painting and representation. It also implies a new understanding of humanity’s (and the artist’s) situation in the world. In order to assign meaning to his work, Malevich felt, he had to define nonobjectivity in familiar terms. The advent of the new is valid only when its opposition to the old is understood. Thus it is informative to examine the artistic and intellectual context from which Malevich evolved, and one approach to this task involves looking at the scientific thought of the time, at language, and at the interaction and dialectic between the two. We must focus not on the term “nonobjectivity” itself but on the related concepts of subjectivity and temporality.

The 20th century has witnessed the expansion and extension of our understanding of the microcosmic (atomic) and macrocosmic worlds. But the distinctions that we make in our exploration and “conquest” (i.e., “observation”) of the microcosmos are not based on perceived distinctions in “real” nature, that is, in the macrocosmos. Our apprehension of nature’s various worlds is determined by the linguistic concepts that we believe enable us to describe them. In 1927, Werner Heisenberg pointed out the impossibility of applying conventional language to the understanding of the atom, or to phenomena observed in the specialized experiments of 20th-century physics.1 The limitations of language for such uses had become undeniable with the advent of quantum theory, which did not so much describe the new ideas as supply the necessary syntax to permit their articulation. At the 1926 conference of physicists in Como, Niels Bohr stated that the various possible languages required to articulate a single system are complementary, rather than interchangeable: “The wealth of reality . . . extends beyond all possible languages, beyond all logical structures. Each language [mathematics, physics, painting, poetry, etc.] can only express part of reality.”2 In the Suprematist paintings, Malevich reflects these concerns with language, and with its ability or inability to represent conceptions of reality. “Nothing in the objective world is as ‘secure and unshakable,’ as it appears to our conscious minds. . . . ” Malevich wrote in 1927. "Every ‘firmly established,’ familiar thing can be shifted about and brought under a new and, primarily, unfamiliar order.”3

It is in the art of Malevich from around 1915 that we discover, for the first time, this complex insight into the nature of our physical world finding an adequate response in a pictorial articulation: “That is why I call my theory of cognition objectless, i.e. it’s a way of looking at phenomena whereby my consciousness must renounce any cognition of the object and, the more so, make it objective for all or subjective for myself.” (Our italics.) But the concept of the objective, supposedly an absolute term, is inadequate when considered against the flexible interpretation of the subjective, and, by extension, the nonobjective. Malevich continues, “Consequently, things cannot exist absolutely objectively or subjectively.” (Our italics.)4 Thus he wrote concerning the nonobjectivity of Suprematism, which necessitated a total departure from representation, asserting subjective analysis of painting as the primary mode of interpretation. Representation, of course—by which we refer to any mode of painting characterized by the aspiration to re-present the empirically perceived exterior world, with varying degrees of mimesis—is the dominant Western esthetic tradition. By subverting representation, Malevich put the viewer in an ambiguous, precarious situation, searching for a new, unfamiliar visual and theoretical approach to painting that would yield meaning. Indeed, Malevich adhered to sophisticated abstraction until his death, in 1935. Suprematism. Female Figure, 1928–32, for example, usually interpreted as a return to representational painting, may demonstrate precisely the converse of that supposed regression. Seemingly familiar forms impact more upon the act of painting itself than upon illustration. For every representational attachment we may assign, a different, opposing one may be made.

In an essay often considered among Malevich’s most philosophical, “On the Subjective and Objective in Art or on Art in General,” 1922, the artist, using specific and at times banal examples, addresses ontology and its relation to artistic creation. From the beginning, he asserts that all functions and relationships in the universe are conditional: “If we do have to concern ourselves with the objective and the subjective, then we can do so only in reference to a conditional object/objectivism and subject/subjectivism.” (Nikolai Kulbin, a theorist contemporary with Malevich, remarked, “Painting is the spontaneous projection of conditional signs from the artist’s brain into the picture.”5) Cognition plays the fundamental role of mediating between perception and the indivisible world of nature. And cognition can only be relative: ”Whether a form of cognition is subjective or objective, it will still be relative. And if relativity is removed from this context, then nothing remains either of the subjective or the objective.” (Our italics.)6 Nature does have a mechanical order independent of cognition, but imposed upon this system is the realm of human consciousness, which may fluctuate as circumstances dictate. A constant dialectic ensues.

IN JUNE 1913, Alexei Kruchenykh published a book of poems entitled Explodity (Vzorval), with lithographs by Malevich. Most significant of these was Simultaneous Death of a Man in an Aeroplane and on the Railroad. This lengthy title appears prominently, as Malevich wrote it in reverse on the litho stone. The lithograph, imagery and words, relates to the discourse of the period concerning time and technology. That it depicts a death suggests the crucial importance Malevich assigns to the moment, the instant of time. The affinity to Futurism apparent in the subject matter offers an informative comparison with his approach to technology’s impact on humanity. But that affinity also reveals a connection to the idea of simultaneity, of how to approach the question of events occurring in time.

The depicted event in Death of a Man . . . is the moment of impact. Thus the composition is fractured, and has no central focus. The airplane, in the upper left, and the train and the railway track (with parallel telegraph poles and wires) construct a system of diagonals throughout the composition. Impact, implying both implosion and explosion, occurs along these lines of force. The viewpoints of observer and artist, and also of any character within the work (note the two identical schematic figures), remain undetermined, allowing the reader of the booklet to adopt only subjective points of view. Does a primacy among these multiple viewpoints emerge? Can distinctions be made between subjective analyses as opposed to observed forms? These dichotomies are manifested here in Malevich’s address of the ideas of simultaneity, the passage of time, and death.

Malevich’s formulation of simultaneity is, as we shall see, indebted to Albert Einstein’s, which reads, “Events which are simultaneous with reference to the [railroad] embankment are not simultaneous with respect to the train, and vice versa (relativity of simultaneity). Every reference-body (co-ordinate system) has its own particular time; unless we are told the reference-body to which the statement of time refers, there is no meaning in a statement of the time of an event.”7 In Newtonian physics, objects move mechanically, according to laws that allow no deviation: events occur at fixed points in time, and any observer, from any position, will he able to determine their sequence, which is a question of objective fact. Between any two events there is an absolute relationship in time. Einstein, however, demonstrated that the fundamental laws of Newtonian mechanics, and the concomitant notion of simultaneity, were inadequate and impossible to prove. For Einstein, temporality is relative, and unique for every observer. And here 20th-century theoretical physics informs questions of individual perception. Bohr, discussing quantum mechanics, points out a ”very close analogy with the situation as regards analysis and synthesis of experience. . . . As is well known, many of the difficulties in psychology originate in the different placing of the separation lines between object and subject in the analysis of various aspects of psychical experience.”8 The relationship between subjective comprehension of an event and objective data about it is problematic. A dialectic ensues between the two terms, one fundamentally opposed to the Ernst Mach brand of empiricism in the 19th century.

Malevich’s art focuses on subjectivity’s implications for the comprehension of time—of the instantaneous, the successive, the momentary. These concerns are significantly articulated in the work of Cézanne, a strong assimilated presence in Malevich’s art from 1908–11. Similarly, Malevich’s subsequent adoption of Cubist techniques was not derivative transcription but rather contained the incipient yet advanced basis from which to make departures. His ability rapidly to work through the dominant modes of European painting, only to supplant them with Suprematism, suggests that his grasp of the deep philosophical forces motivating those movements was sufficiently profound for the construction of a new philosophical and theoretical perspective.

Le Lac d’Annecy, 1896, is a mature work by Cézanne that may suffice as representative of the paintings in Russia with which Malevich would have been familiar. In the composition of this canvas Cézanne both relies on and subverts the conventions of classical (i.e., 17th-century) landscape painting. For example, on the left and apparently in the foreground is a tree trunk, cast in shadow except for a highlight, that functions to lead the eye into the picture space, operating like conventional repoussoir elements. But the upper branches of the tree are not clearly situated. Their leaves fill the gap between what are assumed to be background mountains, and at various points the brushstrokes signifying highlights on the mountains are amalgamated into those signifying leaves, producing an inseparable surface structure. Thus the leaves function as a medium to distort the conventional foreground/background situation of traditional perspectival landscape painting. The ambiguity of the internal space is augmented because the distribution of light is consistent, but not uniform, throughout the painting, instead of subtly graded to assist recession. There is no differentiation in size or consistency of brushwork; all elements, regardless of their implied location, receive equal attention. This buildup of brushwork (particularly clear in Le Jardin des Lauves, ca. 1906, which reveals how Cézanne approached his subject matter and conceived of his compositions) illustrates the way Cézanne aspired to translate observed visual information onto canvas: “To read nature is to see it, as if through a veil, in terms of an interpretation in patches of color following one another according to a law of harmony. . . . Painting is classifying one’s sensations of color.”9 In Cézanne’s painting each of the brushstrokes, laid down one after the other, may be equated with a moment of observation before the motif. No brushstroke can be committed to canvas unless it corresponds to an observed ”instant." As this process continues, an eventual harmony emerges out of these parallel temporal sequences. Considered in the context of temporality, these systems, the visual and the painterly, emerge as strictly linear; the order is cast from inception to conclusion, progressing sequentially.

From the 1860s on Cézanne sought not only to break the bounds of tradition but to create art that stood apart from the esthetics and philosophy of his time. Yet though he anticipated the radical artistic advances of the 20th century, he could not participate in them, because the theoretical constructs underlying his art were modifications of the 19th-century and classical esthetic and perceptual ideas that molded him. Cézanne never jeopardized the implication of three-dimensionality—he dwelt on the dialectic of its acceptance and denial. Le Lac d’Annecy’s extreme spatial compression, for example, is mitigated by the use of Renaissance perspective to render buildings. He certainly never abandoned representation itself: the composition is dependent upon the choice of specific and calculated locations in the countryside. The inference of the framing is that this composition existed in nature at a given time. And the subject “dictated” to the viewer by the order and structure of the brushwork is precisely linked to a temporal sequence. Creation commenced at the initial moment of observation, was complete at the final moment of painting, and each interceding component of time was manifest and accounted for. Thus both Cézanne and the viewer are ineluctably indebted to the Newtonian laws as they impinge upon perception. Regarding space and time, Cézanne concluded, but did not supersede, the tradition against which he so struggled.

BY 1905, EINSTEIN WAS able to set forth the special theory of relativity, as a consequence of Max Planck’s researches in quantum mechanics and of H.A. Lorentz’s discoveries concerning the propagation of light. These and other developments permanently and immediately altered humanity’s conception of itself and its universe. In a chapter of Relativity: The Special and General Theory entitled “On the Idea of Time in Physics,” Einstein proves unequivocally that the classical, Newtonian notion of simultaneity is not only inadequate but impossible. Reality is neither a supposition nor a hypothesis, but a stipulation that “I can make of my own freewill in order to arrive at a definition of simultaneity,”, as Einstein concluded from the physical nature of light. In The Meaning of Relativity, he writes:

The conception of something happening was always that of a four-dimensional continuum; but the recognition of this was obscured by the absolute character of the pre-relativity time. Upon giving up the hypothesis of the absolute character of time, particularly that of simultaneity, the four-dimensionality of the time-space concept was immediately recognized. It is neither the point in space, nor the instant in time, at which something happens that has physical reality, but only the event itself. [Our italics.] There is no absolute . . . relation in space, and no absolute relation in time between two events. . . . there is no objective rational division of the four-dimensional continuum into a three-dimensional space and a one-dimensional time continuum.11

Einstein disposed with the notion of time as constant, replacing that essential with c (the speed of light) in order to formulate a theory that calculated the properties of particles moving through space over distance in time. Developing the theory so that it could be applied to multiple complex systems of coordinates, he also devised a means of calculating phenomena occurring in higher dimensions (i.e., higher than three). The significance of this was reciprocal: with.the advent of the “imaginary” in higher dimensions, our conception of events occurring in three dimensions was radically altered. And as well as exposing flaws in the Newtonian notion of simultaneity, Einstein made related discoveries about temporality: if a clock in motion, for example, records time at a slower rate than one at rest, as Einstein concluded, then time is flexible, rather than constant, as was previously believed. The conceptual formulations that Einstein was able to produce ultimately concerned the structure not only of matter but of the macrocosmos. Expanding the realms of mathematical and physical thought, he made possible an expansion of human conception of the universe:

The development of non-Euclidean geometry led to the recognition of the fact, that we can cast doubt on the infiniteness of our space without coming into conflict with the laws of thought or with experience. . . . As a result of this discussion, a most interesting question arises for astronomers and physicists, and that is whether the universe in which we live is infinite, or whether it is finite in the manner of the spherical universe. Our experience is far from being sufficient to enable us to answer this question. But the general theory of relativity permits of our answering it with a moderate degree of certainty.12

As the special theory of relativity gained acceptance, subjectivity necessarily became a dictating issue. The insight that interrelationships are not empirical but subject to and dependent upon circumstance is reflected clearly in much of the art produced in the first decades of this century. This period’s fundamental reevaluations and reexaminations of the structure of reality, though perhaps abstruse to the layman, both then and today, were integral to the development of modern society in general, making an enormous impact on the new Weltanschauung. As the linguist Roman Jakobson wrote, "Those of us who were concerned with language learned to apply the principle of relativity in linguistic operations; we were consistently drawn in this direction by the spectacular development of modern physics and by the pictorial theory and practice of cubism, where everything ‘is based on relationship’ and interaction between parts and wholes, between color and shape, between the representation and the represented.”13 The passage reveals the effect of Einstein’s theories upon a generation of writers and artists working in Russia in the first decades of the 20th century.

Jakobson was an intimate of both Malevich and his early collaborator the poet Velimir Khlebnikov, whose writing brings an advanced comprehension and assimilation of the new sense of temporality into verse, just as Malevich’s art does into painting. In “Dialogue on Time in Language and Literature,” Jakobson remarks that in “narrative, especially poetic, time can be unilinear as well as multilinear, direct as well as reversed, continuous as well as discontinuous; it can even be a combination of rectilinearity and circularity.”14 Khlebnikov’s work embodies all the facets of this characterization of temporality. Writing about the evolution and transformation of language, Jakobson also discusses the elements of fortuitousness and interconnectedness, factors of considerable importance in a rapidly changing world that constantly afforded new criteria of universality. And these elements are clearly embodied in Khlebnikov’s ”K," 1915, a long prose poem:

K introduced him to the scientist from the year 2222. . . .
Another time I visited Akbar and Asoka. On the way back we got very tired.
We tried to stay clear of trains and kept hearing the drone of Sikorsky airplanes. We were hiding from both of them, and learned how to sleep and keep moving. Our heads were asleep, but our feet kept moving; they were an independent unit. I met this one artist and asked him if he was going to war. “I’m already at war,” he answered, “only it’s a war to conquer time, not space. I crouch in my trench and grab scraps of time from the past. It’s a rough assignment, just as bad as you’d have in a battle for space.” He always painted people with only one eye. 15

Khlebnikov’s writing derives its power from both the sounds of words and their meanings; semantic value becomes a by-product of syntax. In accordance with relativity, he imposes a subjective view on history. Malevich follows Einstein’s method in a different way—by articulating subjectivity through the definition and stipulation of physical laws that he arrives at himself.

He executes his strokes freely in scientific space, and he knows that number serves the human mind in the same way that charcoal serves the artist’s hand, or clay and chalk the hand of the sculptor. Working with number as his charcoal, he unites all previous human knowledge in his art. A single one of his lines provides an immediate lightninglike connection between a red corpuscle and Earth, a second precipitates into helium, a third shatters upon the unbending heavens and discovers the satellites of Jupiter. Velocity is infused with a new speed, the speed of thought.
—Velimir Khlebnikov, “The Head of the Universe. Time and Space,” 1919

In a work of art not a single sentence can be in itself a simple“reflection” of the author’s personal feelings. It is always construction and play.
—Boris Eichenbaum, “How Gogol’s ‘Overcoat’ Is Made”

“Kazimir Malevich 1878–1935,” an exhibition currently at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, not only provides the opportunity to reevaluate the radical Suprematist art Malevich created from 1915 on, but permits clear insight into the early work, from 1903 to 1914, and, most important, into the period after 1927, following his trip to Berlin. Combining selections from the Stedelijk, which maintains the largest collection of Malevich’s art in the West, with works from three Russian museums possessing similarly large holdings, the exhibition is the first to present a really comprehensive, cohesive vision of Malevich’s art. The catalogue reflects this international effort, containing essays by prominent scholars from both Russia and the West.16

One of the more important works in the exhibition, An Englishman in Moscow, 1914, demonstrates well both Malevich’s adoption of Cubist methods of painting and his manipulation of them. The planar composition, vernacular objects, and textual elements recall Paris equivalents. But the scale of the objects depicted—a man in a top hat (large), a church (small), a saber (large), and so on—fluctuates, destroying a logical sense of space, which both Analytic and Synthetic Cubism always retained. The work refers to different cultures (Russia, England, and, in its Cubistic style, France), implying the exchanges made possible by recent modes of rapid travel and the manipulation to which memory is subject. Any narrative the viewer may formulate is dictated by his or her subjective experience. The denial of conventional order and logic is also reflected in the various-sized letters distributed throughout the composition. The words encourage a type of poetic reading analogous to that of Khlebnikov’s writings, yet also suggest the exhaustion of conventional forms of communication; to convey new meaning, the painting argues, a new syntax is required.

A Handbag Is Snatched on the Tramway, ca. 1913–14 (not in the present exhibition), a small charcoal-on-paper work, shows how Malevich proposes an alternate, non-object-oriented system of communication. The piece contains no image but only the words of its title, or letters arranged into those words—the signs in a system. Yet this is not simply a handwritten note. The auditory qualities of the words again refer to the experiments with poetry of the time, and visually, the articulation and appearance of the letters are charged by their context: a frame is drawn around them, and outside and above the frame appears a black dot. These elements enforce and solidify a dialectic between visual and verbal cognition of the work. Removed from objects, representation becomes contingent upon the viewer, who may use no knowledge to aid interpretation except that which is generated from the artwork itself. Though visually distant from Suprematism, A Handbag Is Snatched on the Tramway anticipates that art in its freedom from the conventions and constraints of the esthetic past.

One of the more complex Suprematist compositions from the Russian Museum in Leningrad, „Suprematism (Supremus No. 58 with Yellow and Black), 1916, will suffice to elucidate the theoretical ideas discussed in this essay. A vertical painting measuring 79 1/2 by 70 1/2 centimeters, it is suffused with shades of beige. The dominant element is a gray half crescent supporting an accumulation of geometrical shapes—rectangles, trapezoids, and squares. All of these are articulated in related earth tones, utilizing no primary color. The viewer’s first tendency when approaching this work is to regard the arrangement of forms as objects in space, and to attempt to unravel their positions in relation to each other. Malevich, however, intended an alternate interpretation.

Clearly the gray form is a non-Euclidean one, creating the structure on which are arrayed shapes derived from Euclidean geometry. This proposed reversal of the primacy between classical shapes (here to be equated with Newtonian mechanics) and nonclassical shapes (associated with quantum mechanics and theoretical physics) illustrates a newly recognized concept, that of the dependency of classical upon nonclassical geometry. This juxtaposition proves that non-Euclidean geometry is as much of a conceptualization by human beings confronted with the infinitely expanding universe as Euclidean laws were idealistically proposed stipulations—inventions—by ancient Greek geometrists. The Euclidean forms are manipulated so as to constitute the basis for a new vocabulary of visual signs. And this suggests the importance of Malevich’s endeavor, not only for painting but also for the articulation and comprehension of knowledge in general. Khlebnikov, in his essay “To the Painters of the Universe,” 1919, demands that conventionally derived forms must generate the basis from which a universal language is constructed: "The mute geometric signs will make peace with the multitude of all different languages. . . . To create geometric signs as the fundamental units of knowledge is the task of the artist of color.”17

Suprematism (Supremus No. 58 . . .) may be considered in similar terms as zaum—trans-sense—language, a contemporary exploration in writing and lyric poetry developed by Khlebnikov, Kruchenykh, and Vladimir Mayakovsky. Both the painting and the poetry may be characterized by the arbitrariness of their internal syntax. Where syntax, in traditional art and writing, is carefully ordered to produce a particular semantic meaning, the observer of a Malevich painting or reader of a zaum poem must individually interpret the fortuitous forms, necessitating a conclusion that is personal and perhaps meaningful to him or her alone. With Malevich, we see the inception of randomness in painting. Color becomes the composition’s single unifying element. It is the distribution of black, ocher, and beige throughout the composition that sets up coherence: a pulsating disparity is bound together by subtle tonal modulation. The order of the picture is produced not by the kind of esthetic or formal laws that governed the work of Cézanne, but rather by pure color.

Perhaps the most radical aspect of this and other Suprematist compositions is its uncompliant articulation of the various dimensions, and the concept, of space itself. An interpretation that approaches this issue in terms relating to three-dimensional, illusionistic space must be excluded: the work exists in two, and all meaning must arise from the tactile picture surface and from the interconnecting two-dimensional forms. The only implication of space is in the ground that separates and intercedes between these forms. Malevich formulated this explicitly in a well-known statement: “I have transformed myself into the zero of form.”

Form rather than space emerges as the essential, only carrier of meaning. But this is not to imply that Malevich shows the reductive “formalist” concerns so powerfully and redundantly proposed by Clement Greenberg and his followers. Rather, form, the structural shaping and coloristic delineation of space, proposes open-ended questions. In Suprematism (Supremus No. 58 . . . ), the gray crescent is an ingenious demonstration of the concept of infinity. Its shape is determined by the outlines of two acute exponential curves. The radius of each curve progressively and rapidly diminishes, the interior curve compressing acutely. The point of their intersection signifies maximum compression, delineating the infinite. This reading suggests the meaning of a dialectical response that Malevich’s paintings demand: neither subjective nor objective can exist without the other.

This exegesis of form is evident from Malevich’s verbal explanation: “The new art of Suprematism, which has produced new forms and form relationships by giving external expression to pictorial feeling, will become a new architecture: it will transfer these forms from the surface of canvas to space.” (Our italics)18 In Suprematist paintings all notions of space, form, color, and composition function autonomously as reasons for engagement, solidified only by the artist’s articulation. The complexity of Malevich’s idea concerning interpretation not linked to convention—i.e., interpretation dependent upon the subjective—required repeated rephrasing. In an attempt to arrive at explicitness, Malevich reveals his command of advanced theoretical concepts through intelligible expression: ”But a tree remains a tree even when an owl builds a nest in a hollow of it.19

The correlation between the subjective and the objective is exemplified by Malevich’s treatment of scale in Suprematism. This was initially and most prominently dealt with in Cow and Violin, 1913, an oil-on-wood composition measuring ca. 49 by 26 centimeters. Representation here is brilliantly subverted, as illusionistic space and its concomitant notion of scale have been disposed with. On a proto-Suprematist (not Cubistic) composition are superimposed paradigmatic signs of a violin and a cow. On the reverse of the wood panel Malevich has inscribed, “Alogical juxtaposition of the two forms—‘violin and cow’ (note Malevich’s quotation marks)—as an element in the struggle against logic, natural order, and philistine meaning and prejudice. K. Malevich 1911." Not only are the cow and violin iconographically oriented as symbols, their individual significance is also broken down. The meaning of a notion, as many theoreticians have asserted, is not tied merely to the notion itself, but is constituted through the context of the notion, through the interconnectedness of surrounding notions. An alogical contrast between notions—or images—destroys or at least disturbs association with the original meaning that each element previously possessed. In the Malevich painting, the violin, its body signified by the actual wood of the panel itself, is posited centrally in the picture plane, without a defined scale. In fact, the superimposition of a proportionally unrelated object, the cow, both implies and destroys a representational attachment oriented to the scale of the objects in space. The unlikely juxtaposition of cow and violin, accentuated by the disproportion of scale, subverts the traditional perspectival representation of objects in space—the major aspiration of mimetic painting since the Renaissance. And in the wood of the violin, Malevich literalized trompe l’oeil, the technique of a final attempt to expand narrative, concluding traditional representational painting. With Cow and Violin, illusionism fluctuates in the tenuous realm of Suprematism, which excludes internal spatial effects. This radical disposal of notions inherent to traditional painting is reflected by the bold juxtaposition of two rectangular forms in the most intense noncolors of the composition, black and white. The positing of these formal entities is not simple, as it is brought through an intermediate phase with various brushstrokes of gray.

The paintings following 1927 supply the exhibition’s final and most sophisticated statement on pure painting in the tradition of Suprematism. Red House, 1932, is an exploration of painterly structure, emphasizing the contrast between brushwork, color, and form. Though the central element can be read as a house, it also must be regarded as a combination of geometric shapes—a red oblong surmounted by a black trapezoid. A representational interpretation is entirely subjective. The same applies to the work’s color—comprehensible in representational terms (sky, fields, a roadway, and so on), it is yet sufficiently artificed that its correlates in reality are ambiguous. The textured brushwork further subordinates the significance of the forms, for it supplies the primary means by which this picture is to be read. Directional strokes—defining the lower horizontal bands and the central vertical form—are opposed to alternate, fused and discrete strokes, interjected by fluid bands, in the upper half. This painterly statement illustrates the various actions of the brush, exemplifying them in nondescriptive color, eluding precise definitions of form.

In theoretical terms, one can observe a parallel progression in the development of Einstein and Malevich. Einstein’s radical discoveries were not breakthroughs in a physical sense, but must be characterized in purely conceptual terms; the mathematics required to prove the special theory of relativity existed in either f9t h-century or classical laws (Euclidean geometry, James Clark Maxwell, Lorentz, Henri Poincaré). Similarly, Malevich’s Suprematist solution was arrived at only after working through Cézanne, Cubism, and Italian and Russian Futurism. Like Einstein’s, his contributions emerge most strongly in theoretical terms.

Malevich’s art evidences the painterly manifestation and interpretation of the, most advanced theoretical, conceptual, and mathematical issues of his time. When approaching his art analytically, one must always consider the paintings before the theorizing, as interpretation degenerates into rhetoric unless it is grounded in the reality of the art object. This distinction is of paramount importance not merely methodologically but also philosophically, for it raises the issue of reality itself. Parallel realities—of the world and of art, of art and its interpretation—are always contingent upon one another. This essay has attempted to mediate the distance between perception and advanced cognition—a task Malevich himself set out to explore.

Rainer Crone is associate professor of art history at Columbia University, New York, and vice director of the Kunsthalle Düsseldorf.

David Moos is a graduate student at Columbia University. The authors are currently preparing a monograph on Malevich, to be published in the fall of 1990.



1. See Werner Heisenberg, “Sprache und Wirklichkeit in der Modernen Physik,” Physik und Philosophie, Frankfurt: Ullstein, 1959, pp. 139–56.
2. Niels Bohr, quoted in Ilya Prigogine and Isabelle Stengers, +Dialog mit der Natur+, Munich: Piper, 1981, pp. 237–38. Trans. Rainer Crone.
3. Kasimir Malevich, The Non-Objective World, trans. Howard Dearstyne, Chicago: Paul Theobald and Company, 1959, p. 84.
4. Malevich, “On the Subjective in Art or on Art in General,” in Kasimir Malewitsch: zum 100, Geburtstag, exhibition catalogue, Cologne: Galerie Gmurzynska, 1978, p. 30.
5. Nikolai Kulbin, “Free Art as the Basis of life: Harmony and Dissonance (On Life, Death, etc.),” in John Bowlt, ed., Russian Art of the Avant-Garde: Theory and Criticism 1902–1934, New York: Viking Press, 1976, p. 12.
6. Malevich, “On the Subjective in Art,” p. 34.
7. Albert Einstein, Relatively: The Special and General Theory, trans. Robert V. Lawson, 1920, reprint ed. New York: Harts-Late House. 1947, p. 32.
8. Bohr, quoted in Paul Arthur Schilpp, ed., Albert Einstein: Philosopher-Scientist, Evanston, III.: Library of Living Philosophers, 1949, p. 224.
9. Quoted in Emile Bernard, Souvenirs sur Paul Cézanne, Paris: La Renovation Esthetique, 1921, p. 65. Trans. Rainer Crone.
10. Einstein, p. 28.
11. Einstein, The Meaning of Relativity, Princeton!: at the University Press. 1955, pp. 30–31.
12. Einstein, Relativity, pp. 128, 133–34.
13. Roman Jakobson, Phonological Studies, Selected Writings, vol. I, The Hague and Paris: Mouton, 1971, p. 632. Linda Henderson’s The Fourth Dimension and Non-Euclidean Geometry in Modern Art (Princeton: at the University Press, 1983) consistently interprets Malevich’s and Velimir Khlebnikov’s work in spiritual terms. Henderson relies heavily on the Russian mystic P. D. Ouspensky’s writings on the fourth dimension and spiritual transcendence, and almost entirely rules out an interpretation involving developments in physics. Her approach is limited and often evasive, advancing little conclusive evidence for Malevich’s interest in ”a new and higher reality.“ She writes, ”Ouspensky had prophesied that the primary impression to be felt upon first glimpsing the new reality would be one of ‘utter and never-ending illogicality.’ . . . he had created a new system of logic, Tertium Organum, based on just such seeming contradictions . . . fits purpose was] to shake men out of their faulty perception of the world and to prepare them for the future by breaking the chains of “three-dimensional logic” (p. 271). To propose such an ideology as the key to unlock the “mysteries” of Suprematism and Russian Futurism suggests scholarly oversight. See also Henderson’s discussion of An Englishman in Moscow in “The Merging of Time and Space: The ‘Fourth Dimension’ in Russia from Ouspensky to Malevich,” Soviet Union—Union Soviétique, vol. 5 part 2, Tempe: Arizona State University, 1978, pp. 183–84, and Crone’s “Malevich and Khlebnikov: Suprematism Reinterpreted,” Artforum XVII no. 4, December 1978, pp. 38–47.
14. Jakobson, Verbal Art, Verbal Sign, Verbal Time, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1985, p. 22.
15. Velimir Khlebnikov, “K,” The King of Time, ed. Charlotte Douglas, trans. Paul Schmidt, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1985, p. 88.
16. Kazimir Malevich 1878–1935, exhibition catalogue, Amsterdam: Stedelijk Museum, 1989. Two essays are outstanding: Linda S. Boersma’s “On Art, Art Analysis and Art Education: The Theoretical Charts of Kazimir Malevich” and Evgeny Kovtun’s “Kazimir Malevich: His Creative Path.”
17. See Khlebnikov, The King of Tune, p. 147. In this translation the essay is titled ”To the Artists of the World," and the passage reads somewhat differently from our presentation of it, which is derived from the German edition of Khlebnikov’s collected works, Werke, Prosa, Schriften, Briefe, vol. 2, Reinbek: Rowohlt, 1972, pp. 311–12, 314. Trans. Rainer Crone.
18. Malevich, The Non-Objective World, p. 100.
19. Ibid.