Unframe Malevich!: Ineffability and Sublimity in Suprematism

Article excerpt

The Blank

Malevich is on a roll, and everything suggests that the resurging interest in his work has just reached its high point. It began in Russia, where over the past decade the art historians caught up with their own past with commendable quickness and rigor: the publication of Kazimir Malevich's complete writings in five volumes under the editorship of Aleksandra Shatskikh is certainly a groundbreaking achievement, and Yevgenia Petrova's work on Malevich's legacy in the stacks of the Russian Museum in Leningrad is no less significant.1 In France, the publication of Andrei Nakov's catalogue raisonné of Malevich was followed by the major exhibition staged at the Musée d'art moderne de la Ville de Paris.2 At the same time in Lisbon and Madrid there was an attempt to approach the master of Suprematism from a different angle with an exhibition dedicated to Malevich and cinema.3 In 2003-04, Malevich rolled westward as the exhibition Kazimir Malevich: Suprematism moved from the Deutsche Guggenheim in Berlin to New York on the way to the Menu Collection in Houston, Texas.4 Unfortunately, outside of Russia the renewal of interest in Malevich's visual work has not been accompanied by a comparable reconsideration of his theories (the notable exception is the Iberian show). As a result, Suprematism, one of the most decisive attacks on convention in the history of modern painting, is receiving conventional museum presentations. However, a turn to its original theoretical premises reveals Suprematism's resilience to aesthetization.

Malevich painted Block Square in 1915. He immediately presented this work as a breakthrough and a milestone in his artistic career as well as in the history of art in general. It seems to have had the power of a revelation. In what now looks like a masterly stroke of avant-garde self-mystification, he reported that he could not sleep, eat, or drink for an entire week after he finished the painting. Over the following twenty years, he repeated the Black Square three times in the same technique (oil on canvas), and then whenever and wherever he could: in his lithographed books, on the buttons his Vitebsk students carried on their lapels and sleeves, and appended to his signature. In 1918, he painted White on White. Another milestone; another breakthrough-from polychrome to monochrome-white Suprematism. If Black Square was a revelation, then White Square was the ultimate act of painting-and the herald of its end. His first solo exhibition, which opened in March 1920 in Moscow, was a Suprematist tour de force; one room after another was covered with nonobjective paintings, and, according to numerous witness accounts, the last room contained empty canvases.5 It was part of a much broader renunciation of painting, which in itself served as a declaration of the end of art. Then, in a sudden return to easel painting, between 1927 and 1928, he produced a series of "post-Impressionist" works, which he backdated to the period between 1910 and 1916, thus forging a development parallel to Suprematism.6 To this series belongs the painting Female Figure, which features the outline of a woman reduced to basic geometrical forms. Atypically for this series, most recognizable for the faceless human shapes in open fields, painted in bright colors, the figure in this painting is dark and almost monochromatic: head, torso, and feet are painted in black, and skirt in dark green. On closer inspection, two additional, much smaller figures in similarly frontal posture seem to be painted in white on the white field that surrounds the black-and-green skirted figure.

Black Square and Female Figure mark the beginning and the end of the exhibition Kazimir Malevich: Suprematism. They are prefaced by a selection of Malevich's pre-Black Square works and appended by another post-Suprematist figure. The centerpiece of Suprematism, White on White, is missing from the show. This lack points to two significant aspects of Malevich's work. …