Eye on Malevich: An Epoch Revisited

Rethinking Malevich, CUNY Graduate Center, New York, February, 2004

In February of 2004, the New York based Malevich Society organized a two-day conference Rethinking Malevich, in celebration of the 125th anniversary of the birth of the Russian artist Kazimir Malevich.

The Elebash Recital Hall of the CUNY Graduate Center located in New York’s glamorous intersection of Fifth Avenue and 34th Street housed the event.

Two years ago members of the Malevich family established “The Malevich Society”, a private non-profit organization, with the mission to advance knowledge about the pioneer of modern art, Kazimir Malevich, and his work.

By encouraging research, writing, and other activities relating to the history of Malevich and his artistic legacy, the Society aims to increase the understanding and recognition of his contributions to the history of Modernism.

The conference started on a tragic day. The morning media broadcasted shocking news from Russia about the new terrorist explosion in Moscow.

The bomb destroyed two cars of a commuter metro train and took the lives of fifty innocent people. Ninety-five more victims were treated in hospitals. Russian President Putin declared no mercy to terrorists.

The President of “The Malevich Society,” Charlotte Douglas, opened the conference by expressing her condolences to the guests from Moscow.

Later on, Professor Douglas addressed the audience by introducing the Society and its mission and by welcoming new research and publications.

She described the event as the “most ambitious project of the Malevich Society yet”. She also reflected on the role of America’s impulse in Malevich’s ideas and stated that “Malevich would be pleased to see us here on Fifth Avenue across from the Empire State Building” talking about him.

Dr. Douglas completed her introduction by declaring– “Welcome to New York, Mr. Malevich!”

I arrived half an hour prior to the beginning of the Conference, and was subjected to questions concerning my status as a member of the press.

After being approved, I corresponded briefly with colleagues awaiting the event. Speakers and conference guests gathered from across the United States, Europe, Russia, and New Zealand.

Dr. Pamela Kachurin, a conference speaker from the Davis Center at Harvard University, reasonably doubted the proposed concept of “rethinking” Malevich.

However her splendid paper delivered on the second day of the conference, as well as the majority of papers reflecting the ongoing research in the western and eastern hemispheres, provided vital evidence in support of the suggested hypothesis.

The first speaker was Prof. John Bowlt from the University of Southern California Los Angeles, the director of The Institute of Modern Russian Culture and one of the most renowned specialists in the field.(Earlier he also supported my research on Russian art in Western museums with a valuable advice. See my review in ARTMargins: Anna Sokolina. Database on Russian Art, 1860-1940. 20 December 2003. It was a remarkable inspiration for me to meet him and Prof. Nicoletta Misler in person at the conference.)

In his paper “Kazimir Malevich and Fedor Rerberg,” Dr. Bowlt gracefully and unexpectedly for many, embraced the idea of Rerberg’s strong influence and legacy in Malevich’s works.

The display of a Rerberg original painting from the collection of New York collector Alex Rabinovich complemented the talk. This display was a magnificent illustration to the antithesis of Malevich’s and Rerberg’s key statements.(Rerberg professionally viewed himself as “Slave To Nature”, – and Art as a pretty picture with no social concerns involved, as Dr. Bowlt depicted in the aftermath discussion. – Malevich however spelled the role of his teacher as “Slave Of Nature”.)

This presentation focused on the relationship between the artistic theory and practice of Fedor Rerberg (1865 -1938) and Malevich’s early development as a painter.

The paper examined three main topics: how Malevich learned about perspective, anatomy and composition at Rerberg’s private art school in Moscow; how Rerberg’s analyses of paint informed Malevich’s appreciation of the qualities of paint; how Rerberg encouraged Malevich to exhibit with the Moscow Association of Artists, and the resulting reinforcement of Malevich’s awareness of Symbolism and Impressionism.

The second planned speaker Irina Vakar from the State Tretiakov Gallery was not present at the conference for the reason that she was not allowed to come to the U. S. due to her ‘troubles’ with the American Embassy in Moscow.

Dr. Douglas ironically addressed the issue and presented the paper “Kazimir Malevich and Ortega y Gasset” on the New Art to the audience.

In her paper, Irina Vakar argues(Here and further, the content of papers is revealed based on conference abstracts displayed on the Malevich Society’ s website.) that the writings of Kazimir Malevich come close to the explanation of the “new art” that Jose Ortega y Gasset gives in his treatise “The Dehumanization of Art”.

He concludes that the new art is not a movement, but a special kind of art, distinct from figurative art.

Ortega formulates the difference between the two arts as a “law of optics”. Malevich’s description in the brochure “On New Systems in Art” is textually close.

Vakar implies that both theoreticians are similar in their explanation of the emergence of the new artistic phenomenon.

Ortega explains its appearance by an evolution within art. Malevich’s position is not as unambiguous; he disputes the mixture of art and “non-art”.

They are furthest apart in their evaluations of the elite character of the new art, and prognoses of its future.

Ortega sees it as an art for the few. Malevich takes a democratic position, endeavors to propagate avant-garde art, and predicts its recognition by the public.

The next speaker Elena Basner, a now independent scholar from St. Petersburg, presented an outline of her comparative analysis on “The Early Work of Malevich and Kandinsky.”

She approached the names of Kazimir Malevich and Wassily Kandinsky as representing two extremes in the world of the Russian avant-garde by arguing that they personify two diverse and incompatible trends on different routes to non-objectivity within the avant-garde movement – the rational and the intuitive.

Basner juxtaposed Malevich who created a “cold, solid and unsmiling” system with Kandinsky who confessed that he was “unable” to invent forms, and that to see purely rational forms was “painful” for him.

Both artists possessed awakening spiritual power in Russian art. Basner emphasized Kandinsky’s artistic evolution as the most consecutive – from Neo-Impressionism, Pointillism, and Art Nouveau, through increasing expressiveness, gradually moving toward pure abstraction.

Alternatively, referring to Malevich’s analysis on his own artistic evolution, Basner notes that in his attempt to draw a straight line between his styles, he excluded a series of paintings relating to his Art Nouveau and Expressionist periods.

Dr. Basner concluded that reconstructing professional biographies allowed her to compare Malevich’s early authenticated canvases to those painted by Kandinsky at approximately the same time; to reveal their essential similarities in stylistic development. These parallels demonstrate general laws of artistic evolution in the work of the two masters, independent of their different concepts and methods.

Natalia Avtonomova, Head of the Department of Private Collections at the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts in Moscow, gave an insight into her research on “Malevich and Kandinsky: The Choices after Non-Objectivity.”

She emphasized the role of Malevich and Kandinsky as pioneers of twentieth-century art and outlined the impact of epoch when both artists independently approached the border line between two worlds: the figurative and the non-objective.

Avtonomova addressed Kandinsky’s “Compositions” and Malevich’s “Black Square” as the prototypes of “new universe.”

Dr. Avtonomova disputed the subsequent development of these two “inventors” of objectless art(Dr. Avtonomova highlighted the fact that both geniuses consciously avoided direct contacts with each other.) and the choices they made.

In her addressing the dilemma whether they stay within the limits of figurative space, or if they attempt to assimilate the laws of the “new world” to apprehend its possibilities, Dr. Avtonomova attempted to compare and contrast the non-objective evolution of the two masters of the avant-garde.

Tatiana Goriacheva, the next speaker who represented The State Tretiakov Gallery, Moscow, in her paper “Suprematism and Constructivism: The Intersection of Parallels” approached the heated polemic of the 1920’s between the followers of Suprematism and the adherents of Constructivism, which resulted in the complete separation of these two vital artistic trends.

Goriacheva implied that the differences between the followers of Suprematism and the followers of Constructivism were to great extent matters of theory, rather than practice.

Her presentation considered the guidelines in the theories of Suprematism and Constructivism, the history of their polemics, and also discussed the relationship between Malevich and Dutch artists.
Dr. Goriacheva examined Malevich’s Suprematist theory of utility, which signifies the functionality of pure form and is independent of practical considerations; then juxtaposed to the Constructivists’ notion of utility as social expediency.

She argued that the ideological divergence became a stumbling block between the two trends, that the philosophical differences in the two theories shifted gradually towards emphasizing class consciousness in the Constructivists doctrine and the “generalized humanistic” orientation of Suprematism.

Linda Boersma, a scholar from University of Utrecht, Netherlands, focused on the topic “Malevich and ‘The Style.’”

She confirmed that despite the fact that Kazimir Malevich and Theo van Doesburg, initiator of the Dutch movement De Stijl, never met and up until 1919, they had never seen illustrations of each other’s work; independently they had come to similar artistic conclusions.

Dr. Boesma narrated the first reference in 1922 De Stijl magazine, where modern developments in Russian art were discussed and Malevich was honored as a leading figure.

She simultaneously referred to Malevich’s appreciation of Mondrian’s and Van Doesburg’s work, and outlined “strong indications of a like-minded striving”(According to Van Doesburg.), between Suprematism and The Style.

She noted however, that in a later text accompanied by photographs of Suprematist tableware, Van Doesburg discounted Suprematism as being nothing else but a decorative style.

Boersma elaborated upon this radical change and El Lissitzky’s impact on this sudden reverse.

Prof. Myroslava Mudrak from Ohio State University offered a splendid analysis of the theme “Malevich and His Ukrainian Contemporaries” and linked Kazimir Malevich to his Ukrainian background and the way it hypothetically influenced his development.

She referred to his first teacher Mykola Pymonenko, who explored Impressionism in the refracted light of Ukrainian village settings and to the work of Cubo-Futurist Oleksander Bohomazov, whose pedagogic theories filtered into Malevich’s teaching at the Kiev Institute of Art.

She also referred to Malevich’s fellow teacher, Mykhailo Boichuk, whose revival of statuesque Byzantine figuration in the depiction of peasants during the years of collectivization resonated in the last period of Malevich’s art.

Also, Ukrainian decorative arts with their imagery, pristine white fields and primary colors, often referenced as the sole inspiration for Malevich’s paintings, gave way in Dr. Mudrak’s paper to a closer analysis of the Ukrainian context.

The final speaker of the day, Adrian Barr, arrived from Massey University in Wellington, New Zealand.

In his presentation “From ‘Vozbuzhdenie’ to ‘Oschushchenie’: Theoretical Shifts, Nova Generatsiya, and the Late Paintings” Barr addressed the series of articles Malevich wrote for the Ukrainian journal Nova Generatsiya, and analyzed Malevich’s term ‘oshchushchenie’, which he used to describe the effects of the non-objective universe on human beings.

Barr considered the term ‘oshchushchenie’ as a representational shift in his theorizing on the non-objective.

Barr speculated that the crucial character of the idea of ‘oshchushchenie’ in Malevich’s writings for Nova Generatsiya was concurrent to his late ‘metaphysical’ paintings, and posited a new fluidity between the non-objective and the objective world.

Barr suggested that cogent connections could be drawn between the dissolution of the rigid divide between object and essence and the late Malevich’s paintings, which affected an analogous transcendence of these boundaries.

The next conference day started with an Introduction by Christina Lodder, Vice-President of “The Malevich Society,” who addressed the mission of the Society, the funded planned publications, and invited the audience to explore the grants of the Society.

She depicted the Conference as “the most ambitious undertaking of the Society”, and highly evaluated the previous paper presentations.

The first presenter Dr. Pamela Kachurin, from Davis Center at Harvard University, approached “Malevich as Soviet Bureaucrat: Ginkhuk and the Survival of the Avant-Garde 1923-1926.”

Kachurin offered a unique analysis of his capacity as Director of the State Institute of Artistic Culture, to foster experimental artistic activity and innovative theoretical work during a period of restriction and the targeted marginalization of the avant-garde by the Soviet government.

Indeed, the fact that GINKhUK survived as an independent art institution for two and half years is a testament to Malevich’s political savvy and bureaucratic skill.

Pamela Kachurin focused on how Malevich deflected the harsh criticisms and threats directed at GINKhUK by constantly adapting its program to coincide with the shifting cultural policies as iterated by the Soviet cultural apparatus.

Kachurin’s splendid examination of Malevich in the capacity of bureaucrat illuminated the complex relations between individual artists and cultural organizations during the period of consolidation of Soviet power.

As always, the most controversial conference speaker undoubtedly proved to be Konstantin Akinsha, an independent scholar from Washington, D.C.

His presentation “The Funeral of the Revolution” concerned the role of funerals in the Russian avant-garde and was generously illustrated with a series of unique film documentaries and a PowerPoint presentation.

With a splendid devotion, Dr. Akinsha examined the funerals of Malevich and Mayakovsky as “curatorial projects,” and the connection between them and the funeral of Lenin.

Akinsha analyzed the planning of Lenin’s death as one that made a great impression on radical artists who actively promoted the “iconization” of the leader, and referred to the Malevich’s article on Lenin’s funeral: where the transformation of Lenin’s image into a new icon was disputed.

Subsequently, Prof. Akinsha examined the spectacle of Mayakovsky’s funeral and depicted it as an event that not only coincided with the crisis of the avant-garde and the disintegration of Constructivism, but became its logical result.

He provided the audience with dramatic visual images illustrating the attempt of the comrades of the “iron artist” to transform his funeral into a counterattack on the conservatives.

Further, Prof. Akinsha emphasized Malevich’s funeral as the last manifestation of eccentrism. He interpreted it as the last farewell of the avant-garde, the true burial of the artistic revolution.

Dr. Akinsha’s talk was a final presentation in the line towards the analysis of the artist’s work during his lifetime, and the starting point in the series of presentations devoted to the research of integration or rejection of Malevich’s ideas after his death.

In the talk “False Positives: Malevich, MoMA and Minimalism,” James Lawrence from The University of Texas at Austin, reevaluated the relationship between Kazimir Malevich’s Suprematism and 1960’s Minimalism as one of creative misunderstandings.

Lawrence argued that superficial formal similarities are notwithstanding, and their aesthetic values and criteria are misaligned.

Lawrence blamed Minimalism for articulating its core ideas in relation to an incomplete versionof Malevich, by referring to the Museum of Modern Art’s 1936 exhibition “Cubism and Abstract Art,” where Malevich and his works were taken out of the context and were misunderstood within mid-century modernist teleology.

His paper identified an impasse between Malevich’s philosophical utopianism and the American tradition of philosophical pragmatism.

Lawrence insisted on the role of explanation in the causes of MoMA’s misreading for articulating the difficulties in integrating the historical aesthetic codes into contemporary judgments.

Éva Forgács, the noted scholar from Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, addressed the beginnings of the dilemma “Malevich and Western Modernism.”

She stressed the appreciation of Malevich in the 1920s in Western Europe, but referred to the ‘respectful consensus’ on his work among the international constructivists.(“As obsolete as Futurism” – according to Alfred Kemeny.)

Forgács emphasized that affirmation coherent with El Lissitzky’s presentation of Malevich in the West as a giant “forefather” and an “archaic” figure: in his writings Lissitzky indicated his own modernity in contrast to his outdated master.

Dr. Forgács drew a remarkable parallel between Lissitzky’s interpretation of Malevich and Theo van Doesburg’s interpretation of Piet Mondrian, both younger artists intending to constitute a pattern of an ‘old’ and a ‘young’ avant-garde.

Dr. Irina Karasik, a renowned curator and scholar from State Russian Museum in St. Petersburg, presented the most ironically engaging materials.

Her paper “Extending Malevich: Malevich as a Subject in Russian Art after WWII” introduced the scene of contemporary Russian art by emphasizing its postmodern focus on reflectiveness, self-knowledge, and concentration on its own standards and heroes.

Karasik depicted Malevich as one of those heroic figures and sarcastically revealed the connection with Malevich, as having achieved, not on the level of traditional legacy, but on the formalistic level of a “symbol.”

She exposed Suprematism, Malevich, and the ‘Black Square’ as occasions for numerous interpretations, and acknowledged that Malevich is continually being appropriated, extended, substituted, and manipulated.

Dr. Karasik concluded with the comments on contemporary Russian art being to a large extent “not an art ‘after’ Malevich, but an art ‘about’ him” and illustrated her presentation with a unique slide show of contemporary art works.

Alexandra Shatskikh, an independent scholar from Moscow, a distinguished specialist and an author of numerous publications devoted to Malevich was the last conference presenter.

Her talk, “Features of Kazimir Malevich’s Literary Legacy: a Summary,” started with the concluding statement of her research.

Shatskikh stressed the idea that her review of Malevich’s publications in many languages revealed that in the twenty-first century, due to Malevich’s way of thinking, the mega-text created by the artist during his lifetime has come down to readers practically without loss. Do not hesitate, check this site

She noted that Malevich reiterated his precepts many times, and from an artist, who wrote texts to supplement his art, Malevich evolved into an original thinker and theoretician.

Dr. Shatskikh enthusiastically outlined the task for contemporary scholars to clarify Malevich’s place in philosophy, intellectual thought, and literature.

Vital discussions followed all conference presentations, and the final one remarkably touched upon Malevich’s knowledge of Russian language(Malevich’s first languages were Polish and Ukrainian.) and his unconventional alliterations.

Dr. Shatskikh replied by optimistically reporting on the great impact the infinite energy in Malevich’s writings has had upon her life.

Shatskikh also commented on her perception of others’ writings as being
dry and flat after her readings in Malevich. With profound confidence, she noted that after 1919, no one edited the master’s writings.

The concluding reception was held in the lobby of Elebash Recital Hall. I was delighted to have an engaging discussion of this stimulating event with our local colleagues, with the distinguished speakers from Russia, with the cultural editor of Russian Monitor Boris Fedoff, and with the shining stars of contemporary art Vitaly Komar and Lev Nusberg.