New York

Kasimir Malevich, Painterly Realism of a Football Player— Color Masses in the 4th Dimension, 1915, oil on canvas, 27 1/2 x 17 3/8".

Kasimir Malevich, Painterly Realism of a Football Player— Color Masses in the 4th Dimension, 1915, oil on canvas, 27 1/2 x 17 3/8".

“Malevich and the American Legacy”

Kasimir Malevich, Painterly Realism of a Football Player— Color Masses in the 4th Dimension, 1915, oil on canvas, 27 1/2 x 17 3/8".

This dazzling exhibition contrasted six Kasimir Malevich paintings with the work of twenty-five putative American legatees. Malevich carried the day, while the “legacy” side of things—distinguished efforts to be sure—struck me as a roster of usual suspects. Had we—you and I—been asked to come up with the names of the pertinent American artists working in the train of an imagined Malevich, doubtless there would have been many overlaps on the wish list. Donald Judd, Barnett Newman, Ad Reinhardt, Robert Ryman, Richard Serra, Frank Stella, Agnes Martin all seem right, though one could ask, Why not Jo Baer, Barbara Kruger, Tony Smith, or even Scott Burton? to pull names at random from the deep hat of ready alternatives.

The answer—perhaps—lies in our long ignorance of the Suprematist project (the intentions of which have been largely reconstructed these past forty years) even as we were already deeply in love with one of its overriding masterworks, Suprematist Composition: White on White, 1918, a painting that entered the Museum of Modern Art in 1935. As ardent youths we easily confounded Malevich’s paradigmatic lessons about pure art feeling (as emblematic of a brave Socialist future) with a broad tokenism that Yve-Alain Bois, in a penetrating catalogue essay, calls “pseudomorphism,” alerting us to works that, while fairly shouting “Malevich,” bear scant relation to the mystical empiricism of the Suprematist project. Hence, one feels that Cy Twombly, Brice Marden, John Baldessari, Mark Grotjahn, Steven Parrino, Ed Ruscha, and Banks Violette, among many others, have been press-ganged into an ambiguous service that explains some of the unease generated by the exhibition’s broad contemporary embrace. Though these artists may seem traumatized by the radicalism of White on White, they are hardly drawn to the harsh lessons to be gathered from Malevich’s unyielding Suprematist program.

Arguably, the most striking example of these pseudomorphisms is to be found in the Twombly drawings. Upon one of them, for example, the artist has inscribed the name Malevich (as, in the past, he has written, to cite but one poet, the name Virgil), in an evocative, symbolic, and poetic gesture. And Twombly’s delicately rendered black square on another drawing is a tokenist aide-mémoire reminding us of this touchstone of modernism. But nostalgic referentiality of whatever time and place is, at heart, opposed to Suprematist intention.

Similarly, Marden’s sensible Minimalism—however abstract and structural the classical architectural model behind his paintings—resonated ambiguously in this context, as did a group of Ed Ruscha’s effaced and smudged paintings; these intriguing works suggested something soft-edged, near “Rothkovian,” an appeal to an emotionalism rarely seen in Ruscha’s mischievous plays of word and language. John Baldessari’s superposition of a white square partially obliterating a “noir” film frame simply provided a quixotic reading of Malevich’s ur-emblem. In short, a campaign button with a square upon it, pinned to an artist’s lapel, is no guarantee of Suprematist bona fides.

In 1935, Malevich died of cancer, and thus was spared the worst of that wretched decade’s show trials, to say nothing of the apocalyptic horrors of the Eastern Front or the gulag fate met by Russian modernists of every stamp. At the time, seventy Malevich works were adrift in Germany, having been shipped there for the famous “Grosse Berliner Kunstausstellung (Great Berlin Art Exhibition) of 1927; they finally ended up in the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam. A fifteen-year ownership battle was resolved in 2008, when five Malevich paintings were returned to his heirs. Four of the five are still in their possession, with the fifth, the miraculous Painterly Realism of a Football Player–Color Masses in the 4th Dimension, 1915, recently acquired by the Art Institute of Chicago (“thrilling news,” as Mr. Gagosian brace-snappingly puts it in his prefacing remarks to an extraordinary catalogue). The superb painting is perhaps second only (by a jot) to Suprematist Composition: Airplane Flying, of the same year, on loan from the Museum of Modern Art (and, like White on White, housed there since 1935). Magdalena Dabrowski, first among equals of the distinguished critics and artists who contributed to the catalogue, retraces the circuit of these works from “0.10,” the so-called “Last Futurist Exhibition of Paintings,” held in Saint Petersburg in 1915, to the present, breathtaking occasion.

Robert Pincus-Witten