New York

László Moholy-Nagy, Untitled, 1936–46, Fujicolor crystal archive print, 9 × 13 1/2". © Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn.

László Moholy-Nagy, Untitled, 1936–46, Fujicolor crystal archive print, 9 × 13 1/2". © Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn.

László Moholy-Nagy

Andrea Rosen Gallery

László Moholy-Nagy, Untitled, 1936–46, Fujicolor crystal archive print, 9 × 13 1/2". © Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn.

Curated by the artist Erik Wysocan, “László Moholy-Nagy: Production/Reproduction” at Andrea Rosen Gallery purported to revisit Moholy-Nagy’s art and thought in the years after the failed socialist revolution in Hungary. In Wysocan’s estimation, Moholy-Nagy’s 1922 eponymous essay “Produktion-Reproduktion” is nothing less than a “politicized theory of aesthetics invested with materialism.” To prove this thesis, Wysocan gathered a miscellany of posthumous prints, original multiples, apocryphal reconstructions, real fakes, and photosensitive rocks—all more or less loosely associated with the once and future Bauhaus master. The exhibition was not a work of scholarship so much as an eccentric historical fiction.

Most incongruous was a large specimen of silver bromide, the chemical base for nearly all twentieth-century photography. Moholy-Nagy charted a teleology from pigment to light and praised photography for its capacity to overcome or at least sublimate materiality. Nothing could be further from the artist’s conception of photography than a darkened rock. If this is an “aesthetics invested with materialism,” it’s not Moholy-Nagy’s.

Things got even more bizarre at the center of the gallery, occupied by a reconstruction of a bench first installed in the Landesmusem Hannover in Germany as part of its 1920s modernization by the now-legendary curator Alexander Dorner. Wysocan claims it as “the only known piece of furniture by Moholy” and reads an ominous swastika into its interlocked forms. Wysocan here relies on dubious scholarship—the bench was almost certainly not designed by Moholy-Nagy. Nazism would infiltrate Dorner’s modernist galleries instead through the repossession of artworks deemed “degenerate” and the insertion of an actual swastika into El Lissitzky’s famed Abstract Cabinet (on a poster for Arthur Moeller van den Bruck’s book Das Dritte Reich). Dorner’s museum eventually hosted the unfortunate conjuncture of modernism, National Socialism, and design—just not Moholy-Nagy’s.

Real swastikas were in evidence in a series of fakes. A shallow shelf displayed a vintage Leica camera and three Soviet knockoffs. Moholy-Nagy aimed to push his German-made Leica beyond the mere reproduction of reality and toward the production of new formal relationships. Wysocan scavenged eBay for Soviet reproductions of the cameras, known as FEDs—the name derives from the initials of Felix E. Dzerzhinsky, the first director of the Cheka, a predecessor of the KGB—which have recently been modified to look like vintage Leicas. Among the most egregious fakes was a FED made out like a Nazi-era Leica, swastika and all. If there is a politics of reproductions here, again, it’s not Moholy-Nagy’s.

Wysocan forces Moholy-Nagy into the mold of his Soviet counterparts: Lissitzky and, above all, Aleksandr Rodchenko in their most propagandistic modes. But if Moholy-Nagy’s was a “politicized theory of aesthetics,” it was most certainly not in the Soviet mold. Rather than practice politics directly, Moholy-Nagy aimed to expand the human sensorium through the exploration of media technologies. This softer form of politics invited the scorn of certain of his Soviet and Western Communist colleagues. But it resonated with figures such as Walter Benjamin, who anchored his “Little History of Photography” in Moholy-Nagy’s (uncredited) dictum: “‘The illiteracy of the future,’ someone has said, ‘will be ignorance not of reading or writing, but of photography.’” Moholy-Nagy’s education in visual literacy was in ample evidence in the undisputed highlights of the exhibition: five abstract photographs made between 1936 and 1946. Here Moholy-Nagy writes in light (“photo-graphs”) with the assurance of an established expert and the vitality of a perennial novice. Shot on Kodachrome film as slide transparencies—examples of which were on display on a light box accompanied by a loupe—these photographs were never printed properly in Moholy-Nagy’s lifetime. The technology was not yet ripe. (Moholy-Nagy dubbed this infelicity a “technological detour.”) These abstract photographs—luminous calligraphies set in blue expanses and neon signs jiggled into explosive fireworks—synthesize light, color, and movement in new formal relationships and toward the sensorial expansion he sought. By the 1940s, the images may have registered as belated New Vision; today, they contain the satisfying spark of the untimely. The photographs languished until Moholy-Nagy’s estate and Andrea Rosen Gallery had them printed between 2002 and 2004 by a young master printer. It is not only fitting but telling that this “master printer” turned out to be Liz Deschenes, now much better known as a leading photo-based artist—that is, as a producer, rather than a reproducer, of art. If artists today must reinvent Moholy-Nagy, better to do so via Deschenes’s quivering between production and reproduction than via Wysocan’s simplistic and ill-fitting politics.

Noam M. Elcott