New York

“The Russian Avant-Garde Book 1910–1934”

MoMA - The Museum of Modern Art

It is tremendously difficult to present a successful exhibition of artists’ books. Reading is a famously intimate activity, and the artist’s book is usually a visual object writ small, meant to be held and perused over time. Add to the task the elucidation of a historical context and a grand ideological design scheme, and the chances of making an uneven or illegible show increase dauntingly. How satisfying, then, to find this richly informative and superbly installed exhibition, which showcased a recently donated collection without sycophancy, explicated a detailed chronology without didacticism, and, crucially, presented books in vitrines without deadening their multi-foliate presence.

Organized by Deborah Wye, chief curator of prints and illustrated books, and Margit Rowell, former chief curator of drawings, the show comprised more than three hundred books, magazines, broadsides, and posters culled from the thousand-plus items in the Judith Rothschild Foundation collection, which was given to the museum this year. Works were grouped under three chronological and conceptual rubrics. The first, “A Slap in the Face of Public Taste 1910-24,” focused on the raucous, quasi-Dadaist productions of the Russian Futurists. The slap still stings, exhilaratingly. A Trap for Judges, 1910, and Tango with Cows: Ferro-Concrete Poems, 1914, two letterpress-on-wallpaper collaborations by the Gileia group, violently announce the arrival of something new; titles like Pomade, Half-Alive, and Transrational Boog suggest the graphic shock of the nonsense poetry and jagged, urgent drawings found within. Already the next decades’ heroes are emerging: Lissitzky, Goncharova, Malevich, Mayakovsky, Popova, Rodchenko, Stepanova, Tatlin. There are less familiar names too—Gileia leader David Burliuk; Aleksei Kruchenykh, who like Mayakovsky attended art school before becoming a poet. Also on view in an interesting subsection on Judaica were Lissitzsky’s Tale of a Goat, 1919, which tells a “House that Jack Built” story in Hebrew, and several letterpress books by and about Marc Chagall.

“Transform the World! 1916–33” investigated Suprematist and Constructivist typography and abstraction, artists’ contributions to revolutionary publications, and a selection of experimental children’s books. Malevich’s Suprematism: Thirty-four Drawings, 1920, and Lissitzky’s Of Two Squares: A Suprematist Tale in Six Constructions, 1922, hum with sharp-edged vigor; Mikhail Matiushin’s A Guide to Color: Rules of the Variability of Color Combinations, 1932, unfolds, scroll-like, a series of color studies worthy of Josef Albers. Vladimir Lebedev’s charming abecedarium teaches playful, idealistic citizenship. And the volumes of poetry designed by Lissitzky and Rodchenko—including the former’s seminal collaboration with Mayakovsky, For the Voice, 1923—are surely some of the most beautiful books ever made, with their cascading typographical compositions that seem to sing out from the page.

The Soviet state emerged hand in hand with film, and “Building Socialism 1924-34” showed agitprop celebrations of the workers’ paradise in lavish filmic spreads and photocollages. The journal CA (Contemporary Architecture), 1926-30, exalts Soviet modernity, while Lissitzky’s three-volume collection of photolithographs on the architecture of Russia, America, and France memorializes prewar internationalism. Rodchenko and Stepanova’s Ten Years of Soviet Uzbekistan, 1934, and the Life-like USSR in Construction, 1933-34, exemplify early socialist-realist montage, infused with the graphic verve of its practitioners’ Constructivist roots. The utopian tang still clings to these documents—who wouldn’t love a culture in which the All-Union Printing Trades Exhibition Guidebook, 1927, is a masterpiece designed by an internationally famous innovator (Lissitzky)? And fortunately, MoMA has absorbed a bit of this utilitarian grace—surprisingly convincing interactive screens allowed viewers to turn the pages of virtual books, while facsimile editions available for hands-on perusal were so good that visitors looked for them (in vain) in the gift shop. Tragic as some of their later histories were, these Russian visionaries did, graphically, transform the world. To quote a 1917 volume of poems by Kruchenykh: Learn, Artists!

Frances Richard