“Black Square”

SINCE ITS INTRODUCTION to the public in 1915 at “The Last Futurist Exhibition ‘0.10’” in Petrograd (Saint Petersburg), Kazimir Malevich’s Black Square has intrigued and bewildered artists and critics searching for its meaning. Varvara Stepanova, Malevich’s fellow avant-gardist, conveyed the painting’s conceptual instability when in 1919 she concluded in her diary: “If we look at the square without mystical faith, as if it were a real earthy fact, then what is it?” This reluctance to accept Black Square on a strictly formal basis has endured. Indeed, any hope that the recent exhibition in Hamburg would finally clear Malevich’s famous canvas of all charges related to mysticism was dispelled by a press release in which curator Hubertus Gassner described Black Square as a “passage into another, spiritual world,” equating it with “the traditional conception of the icon as a visual representation of the next world in this world.”

“Black Square: Hommage à Malevich” featured more than one hundred works, roughly half by Malevich and his contemporaries—theoretical allies such as his students (including El Lissitzky) and Constructivist adversaries such as Aleksandr Rodchenko—and half by postwar Western artists influenced by or responding to Malevich’s painting. But by positioning Black Square as a new icon rather than as the “icon of the new art” (as Malevich called it), the show diluted the original ambitions of this controversial canvas, which directly concern the goals of early modernism. Black Square marked Malevich’s complete break from representation—a move the artist had begun plotting a year before, when he was still experimenting with Cubo-Futurism. In the 1914 Composition with Mona Lisa, on view at the Hamburger Kunsthalle, Malevich “partially eclipsed” this most celestial Renaissance icon by painting red crosses over La Gioconda’s face and neck; black and white rectangles above her head give her a further warning.

In this regard, the Hamburger Kunsthalle’s cube-shaped addition would seem to provide the perfect context for the exhibition—but the exterior effect was disrupted by the outdoor installation of Gregor Schneider’s large, black Cube Hamburg, 2007. This sculpture, intended to evoke the sacred Kaaba in Mecca, sounded a religious note before visitors had even made it inside the museum. The problem with applying Russian-style messianic rhetoric to Malevich’s painting, however, was evident in a small section of the exhibition devoted to the artist’s course after the revolution, when his work became increasingly ideological as he expanded his focus from painting to design and architecture, which he saw as the ultimate arena for Suprematism. Several reconstructions of Malevich’s architektons, three-dimensional plaster studies, were exhibited next to Rodchenko’s and Gustav Klutsis’s “spatial constructions” (also reconstructions), thus bringing to the fore without actually addressing the theo- retical and formal differences between the two major movements in the history of the Russian avant-garde, Suprematism and Constructivism. Distinctions among artistic strategies were similarly ignored in the next room, where one found a tiny, rare original architekton by Malevich competing in vain with large-scale pieces by Richard Serra, Sol LeWitt, Donald Judd, and Carl Andre—all predictably square in shape. Judd was fascinated with the ideal forms and primary color of Suprematism, but Serra, LeWitt, and Andre were more interested in the Constructivists’ laboratory of serial structures. Such historical schisms are certainly in need of reevaluation; the exhibition, however, simply chose to ignore them.

Another missed opportunity among Gassner’s tireless efforts to display Black Square as an easy target for perpetual appropriation involved the failure to properly introduce Malevich’s own reproduction of his painting. The artist made four Black Squares; it is a second version, circa 1923, that was included in the exhibition (although all references in the show were to the first). Juxtaposing the original with this later painting would have been an effective starting point, underscoring the artist’s view that “intellect is more important than eye” and crystallizing his conceptual relevance to Art & Language’s Secret Painting (Ghost), 1967/68, and Allan McCollum’s Collection of Thirty Plaster Surrogates, 1982/90, both in the show; these two pieces feature, of course, black rectangles, but their defiance of painting as a bearer of the sublime and the singular makes the link more than just a formal one. Surprisingly, the works here with the strongest connection to Malevich’s philosophy involved performance, such as Bruce Nauman’s Walking in an Exaggerated Manner Around the Perimeter of a Square, 1967/68. Nauman’s interaction with this eidetic shape resonates with Malevich’s efforts to implement it within everyday Soviet life.

One of the curator’s most baffling decisions was to not feature any postwar Russian art. Andrei Molodkin’s 2006 Black Square—an acrylic block filled with crude Chechen oil—could have been an appropriate inclusion, for it would have updated the viewer on the post-Soviet odyssey of this restless canvas: In the 1990s the fourth version of Black Square, circa 1930, was discovered, bought by a Russian billionaire, and donated to the Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg. Among other things, Molodkin’s work comments on the dangerous liaison that exists today between the culture and oil industries.

Such attention to Malevich’s canvas as a political signifier would have been welcome. As it was, the exhibition closed with Gerhard Merz’s Morte mi danno (Give Me Death), 1988, in which the title phrase appears above a black square, and a horrid installation by the Slovenian art collective IRWIN; entitled Corpse of Art, 2003, it is a macabre appropriation of a well-known photograph of Malevich lying in state in an architekton coffin designed by Nikolai Suetin, a framed Black Square leaning down from the wall above the body. With these final eschatological references, the curator insisted on keeping Black Square in the prison house of “mystical faith.”

Margarita Tupitsyn is the author of Malevich and Film (Yale University Press, 2002).