Malevich’s Transparency

Kazimir Malevich: Suprematism, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, 13 May ­ 14 September 2003

Kasimir Malewitsch: Suprematism, Deutsche Guggenheim, Berlin, 18 January – 27 April 2003

Malevich’s pieces of art exhibited this year at the Guggenheim Museum in Berlin and New York are labeled as “Suprematism.”

There are proper reasons for the title: all works exposed in this canonical collection are related to the doctrine formulated in 1915 (sketches already in 1913) and later developed by Malevich and his followers and disciples into one of the most powerful concepts and stimuli of contemporary art.

The canonical element of the exhibition consists in the plenitude of sources. For the first time we can see not only paintings and drawings from the big Russian museums and Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, but also hidden gems from post-Soviet provinces and showpieces from the Khardzhiev Collection.

Until the nineties, these pieces have been concealed in a private apartment in Moscow and later – partly unsuccessfully – smuggled to Holland.

But what does the simple title actually mean? Its austerity corresponds well with the bare beauty of geometric forms and their magic combinations.

It is as if we are to contemplate the innocent, original shape of the universal and absolute method of future art expression, as intended by the author in his tractates and proclamations, beginning with the brochure “Ot kubizma k suprematizmu. Novyi zhivopisnyi realizm” (“From cubism to suprematism. New Art Realism, 1915”), accompanying the “First Futurist Exhibition 0.10” (I take “Ot kubizma to Futurist Exhibition 0.10” as the full title of the brochure).

The title assumes that we could again today experience the primacy of non-objectivity, the energy and force of emptiness.

In reality, this goal seems to be as utopian as the idea of the radical and definitive antiquation of any representation and as the holistic project of a completely new art system.

Malevich’s utopianism is caused not only by the usual hermeneutical conditions. Malevich succeeded through innumerable artistic considerations ever since he started to modulate his own aesthetics and correspond them to his thoughts on art.

And now, all layers of response emerge as an inseparable component of any attempt to approach the work of the main “sorcerer” of 20th century art.

One could demur that a similar circumstance pertains to any influential personality, i.e. artistic work.

The multiple re-treatment of a relevant heritage inevitably invokes a kind of palimpsest reception.

The pure original doesn’t exist anymore: Van Gogh dissolves in puissant filters produced by Heidegger and Derrida, Leonardo glances out through Dalís pranks, etc.

This general rule of cultural superposition could be continually implemented. The question is not whether the banal principle of distanced, “historical” reception counts or does not, but to what extent and how – in detail – this norm touches the primordial artefact(s).

Let’s argue that Malevich, an eager extremist in his own work, was no less radical in his posthumous career.

We there run into a one more totalitarianism: after the tenet of non-objectivity, its legacy had come to power.

To undergo the exhibition titled “Suprematism” in New York, 2003, means, first, to confront two titans or to find oneself in a sphere of implicitly polemical co-operation of two imperia.

In the one space of the Guggenheim Museum, Suprematism co-exists with Mathew Barney’s Cremaster, which in fact entirely overruns the prestigious building.

With his fascinating, covertly iced vaselina, mythology becomes accompanied by five esoteric ornamental movies and one neo-cathedral of beauty and mystery.

Barney is the true king of new aesthetics. In this context, Malevich seems to play the role of a (pre-) historical appendix of today’svisual festivity.

Second, to go through the exhibition means to encounter a reference to almost everything and everyone within independent Russian art after Malevich.

It is not unusual to call overview exhibitions of 20th century Russian art “From Malevich to Kabakov”.

A more plausible option would be to call them “From Malevich to Kabakov: Malevich, Malevich, Malevich”.

The point is not that the successors are epigonic and the aim of this review should not be to accumulate the further examples of kinship.

But if we think about Malevich’s dynamism, it has to be considered that apart from his own formula on the dynamic energy of painting, he enacted himself as an activist of the other dynamism: that of Russian art after Malevich or that which can be traced through receptions, recreations, quotations, and rejections.

There are so many different Malevichs within the last few decades and there continues to be so much excitement and passion about him.

All of these indications and intentions are latent in the exhibition. It is undoubtedly a matter of perspective, but the visitor may perceive that these semantic accretions undeniably surpass the primal, quondam nucleus.

The Russian Israeli Mikhail Grobman, formerly a friend of the first sots-artists and conceptualists of the late 1960s (Sooster, Sobolev, Komar, Melamid, Kabakov, Bulatov, Pivovarov and others), wrote in the 1970s a significant manifesto about Malevich’s supremacy.

He came upon an erroneous observation about Malevich’s affiliation with constructivism and built a whole litany on this inaccuracy entitled “über das Geistige in der Kunst” (About the Spiritual in the Art, the title of Kandinsky´s proclamation from 1912).

Grobman´s thesis propagates the link between Malevich´s doctrine and the spiritual status of biblical prophets.

In disagreement with the constructivist idea of technlogy, a new thing and a measure for future, Malevich asks for God, pure ethereal thought, and the immeasurable.

Grobman even defines suprematism as an artistic Judaism – concerning, perchance, the nexus to the eternal, mystical, and divine.

Grobman´s proclamation Bibleiskoe stroenie kvadrata (Biblical Construction of the Square) seems to be symptomatic for sundry statements about Malevich in written word or in the practice of painting, because it refers to various positions before, as well as after Grobman.

This action of affirmation begins through Malevich´s devotees from the group Supremus (Udal´tsova, Kliun, Sudeikin a.o., established in 1916/1917) and continues after WWII, especially through the works of the Lianozovo group (Vladimir Nemukhin, Lydia Masterkova, partially Olga Potapova).

Their hermetic paintings explored possibilities of non-objective denotation, influenced by old Russian art and expressionism. Nonexistence, universe, and infinity were the keystones of this trend.

The shape of the heroic occultism of the founders of the Russian underground (Nemuchin, together with Oskar Rabin, who organized the legendary open-air Buldozer exhibition, that was violently destroyed by the Soviet establishment) can be foreseen in every one of Malevich’s suprematistic compositions.

Eduard Steinberg would be a typical – and a creative – projection of Malevich´s legacy into the real future; not the utopian one from the visions of the avant-guardists.

As a member of the Sretensky boulevard commune of unofficial artists, Steinberg, a late post-suprematist, views an artist as the intermediator between this world and the “other“ world and geometry as the display of cosmic harmony.

At the same time, the critical course of interpretation is not less evident in Malevich´s utopian oils and drawings, architectural models, and dishware.

It is reminiscent of Kabakov´s private pronouncement written in the rhetoric of a private memoir V budushchee voz´mut ne vsekh (Not everybody will be taken into the future).

Within this memoir, the founder of Russian conceptualism compares the dark atmosphere of the Soviet hall of residence (Russian internat), the threatened ones and the chosen ones among the residents, to the oppressive feeling of the exclussiveness within Malevich´s aesthetics.

After the existential fear of modernism, the energy of irony and derision predominated. For Leonid Sokov, Malevich´s famous Tea-kettle is no more than one of many ridiculous fetishes of self-contented modernism.

He puts a miniature of of the work among dozens of other prominent pieces of contemporary art history on a multi-level carousel and lets it just rotate.

The connection between abstract art and very concrete business is explored by Alexander Kosolapov in his version of Malevich, where he uses the name of the artist in place of another word known from the red-white cigarette packet and from advertisements of Marlboro.

Money and Malevich became an impulse for Alexander Brener who also transcribes the spirituality of suprematism into a “dialogue”: a performance in the Stedelijk Museum, where he sprayed the sign of a dollar over an original Malevich suprematist composition.

Which piece was it? – One certainly asked this question at the Guggenheim Museum this summer.

Commerce and crime belong to very relevant topics of this sublime exposition. The exhibition was the first time visitors could see the full content of suprematism, but the price for this completeness was high.

Nikolai Khardzhiev, a private Soviet collector and archivist, was an object of much contempt in this connection.

The current suprematist show bears traces of misappropriation, duperies, denunciations, tricks of belligerent gallery owners, and even traces of blood and a suspected murder.

At every painting you see millions, tens of millions of dollars. It is an exhibition about capital in art, about art as capital.

It has become cliché to note that everything connected to Malevich has turned into a symbolic and real capital. Everything connected to Malevich is valued.

A theatre in Kiev called the Black Square, as well as a political thriller from 1992, tells the story from the period after the death of Brezhnev.

The new version of infinity related to the Black Square is presented through the internet project of Alexander Gagin.

Lexa Software Company published a black square, consisting of more than a hundred thousand links: it is a conglomeration of “official” (!) Russian web-domains.

The mystical emptiness of Malevich´s Square evolves into an extreme, pseudo-functional – perfectly absurd – fullness.

All of this tension between emptiness and fullness appears at and in-between the immortal paintings.

Today their non-objectivity lies in their invisibility. All you can see is something else. Is this what Malevich meant through his formulation (about the Black Square) as “the icon of the future”?