New York

Laszlo Moholy-Nagy

Sonnabend Gallery Uptown

In an informative exhibition of 27 photographs by Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, the works are recent facsimiles made at the Hochschule für Fotographie in Munich from originals that date from 1922–39. They convincingly claim to be scrupulous copies, even to paper type and the nuances of exposure in printing. They also accurately follow the originals in the placement of the image on the sheet, so that the integrity of the edge is preserved, and no jazzy cropping intervenes.

The business of the edges of the image is vital. When an adequate formulation of modernism in photography is arrived at, a consideration of Moholy-Nagy’s work will have to enter into it. Most of the pictures are not openly beautiful, but they seem important and intelligent, as if the artist were denying us the easy pleasures that almost any halfway interesting decent photograph offers. These works appear dated, but in a worthwhile way. They are of interest for their time-bound style, and yet they have a character of earnest involvement. Like some of the material illustrated by Ozenfant in his Foundations of Modern Art, they have acquired a varnish of textbook familiarity, but still refuse to be taken for granted.

Space is a main concern. There seems to be an attempt to get down to something that might be identifiable as an essentially photographic space. Getting there might involve working with depth of field in a way analogous to the involvement of tactile and coloristic cues in painting, but this is just a guess. Moholy-Nagy likes to use a white ground, and to the extent that it reads as a positive—even coloristic—thing, it presents itself as the white light of Newton and optics rather than the white pigment of Goethe and painting. This tends to substitute for an intuitive approach one that is more scientific, and, consequently, more artistic in a different, more Bauhaus-oriented way.

The photographs can be classified in several ways, but one of the most usefuldistinctions is between those which consist of one continuous image and those which are inventions that fuse initially disparate images into an original totality. In some of the more invented works, the initial motifs are fragmentary and figural, combined in a collagelike way, with abstract, ruled lines connecting them occasionally. To meet such circumstances, Moholy-Nagy seems to like the sense of truncation that results when one fragmentary photographic image is subsumed into another whole one. Then one gets not only a head or an object, but also a certain amount of surrounding space of some attendant or supplementary kind, discretely different from the space of the new format, like the fragmentary subject in a slice of aspic.

The Fotogramms, made by direct exposure of the paper without a camera about 1925, are “abstract” even when they are portraits. They are quite like Man Ray’s Rayographs except that here the source motifs melt into a painterly and indistinct flux. A uniform-image photograph from 1926, Canal Opening, is similar in style, despite its narrative content, and suggests Smithson in its sympathetic interest in the first water flow penetrating the virgin, man-made waterway. Canal Opening also bears a stylistic resemblance to Ansel Adams, which has to a certain extent to be thought away so as to get at the direct intuitive punch of the original work. This is not the only case where the subject matter and its handling suffer from what may well be Moholy-Nagy’s own influence on later photographers. It is even more seriously true of Honeycomb, 1939, which takes on an accidental (but not altogether undeserved) World’s-Fair, bourgeois-materialist, modernistic up-to-date-ness. After all, Moholy-Nagy designed the film sets for The Shape of Things to Come.

Like other Constructivists, Moholy-Nagy had a penchant for kitty-cornered compositions. Everything gets rotated in order to play on the surface and stimulate the design. This taste avoided orthogonality, as if the consequent reverberation of the framing edge in all interior rectilinear relations was considered too conventional and antiquated. Of course, that is just what now gives the same approach away stylistically, just as our own predispositions will be equally transparent in another 50 years. It is easy to dismiss Constructivist composition as academic, contrived, and anticipatable. Actually, there was more subtlety than that. Even the downward view, like an architectural plan, in View from the Radio Tower, Berlin, 1928, is much more than a snappy piece of graphic design, and rewards close reading.

One of the very best photographs was also one of the least obviously “abstract,” Switzerland, from 1925. This is a comparatively “straight” view up along the outside wall of a building. It readily becomes an exercise in pattern, but only partly because of the intrinsic architectural pattern of windows on the wall itself, and only partly thanks to an analogy between that wall and the picture plane. Switzerland simply will not be passed off as a clever German calendar “art” photo of how simple-mindedly and reassuringly rectilinear the world can be made to look. Instead it uses the grid pattern as a starting point for an investigation in space. The main concern is the upward angle of approach (the spatial equivalent of oblique cornering in the plane) and the way this wedge of space thus opened up is like the rotation from the orthogonal on the surface. Thus the rotated window grid is only a setup for a beautiful accommodation to the warping back of the building from the plane as we look up. It is interesting that the artistic virtues of Switzerland may actually go against the grain of Moholy-Nagy’s more self-consciously nonobjective investigations.

Joseph Masheck