Soviet Hero of Abstract Art Malevich Retrospective Gives US Its First Major Look at This Avant-Garde Pioneer. ART

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HIS paintings languished along with his reputation in the cobwebbed basements of Soviet museums for nearly 60 years.

But Kazimir Malevich's work has finally surfaced in an impressive American retrospective that throws fresh, bright light on this leader of the Russian avant-garde, who perhaps minted abstract art; the argument over that question is likely to be intensified by this show.

"Kazimir Malevich, 1878-1935," billed as the largest and most comprehensive retrospective ever of his art, was organized jointly by the National Gallery of Art here in Washington (where it's on exhibit until Nov. 4), by the soon-to-open Armand Hammer Museum of Art and Cultural Center in Los Angeles (Nov. 25-Jan. 13, 1991), and by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York (Feb. 7-Mar 24, 1991).

Dr. Hammer is credited with the "initiative" that made the exhibition and its United States tour possible. It is a stunner of a show, which ranges from Malevich's early, gauzy Impressionist paintings on through his kaleidoscope of symbolism, Cubism, figurative art, and the startling "Suprematist" paintings that marked his breakthrough into abstraction.

"There is no question about this artist's significance," says National Gallery Director J. Carter Brown, who calls Malevich "a hero of abstract art." "...This man was a revolutionary. He was an innovator and a visionary, and he expresses, in a way, a kind of yearning for freedom - an excitement about innovation, about pushing back the frontiers, about trying risks, about taking an aesthetic to its logical conclusion.

Although the vivid colors and ideas in Malevich's work reach out and hug the viewer like a Russian bear, this is no easy show. It is the visual equivalent of Rubik's Cube. You pore over the vivid imagery, and then you scramble to understand it.

Malevich's signature artistic and philosophic style, known as Suprematism, is discussed at length in the accompanying catalog, and the consulting curator for the show, Angelica Rudenstine, discussed it at the press opening.

Suprematism is "an extraordinarily difficult conception," she said "...There are art historians struggling with this material in Russian, German, English, and other languages and finding it impenetrable." She went on to to explain that, with Suprematism, Malevich "developed a language that had absolutely no reference to anything recognizable outside the picture frame. It was a total abstraction, a total non-objectivity.

He did this, added Ms. Rudenstine, "in order to bring a higher intensity of spirituality into his work."

After a period of delving into Cubism and Futurism, Malevich "all of a sudden buried himself in his studio for several months, and in December of 1915 he exploded upon the world" with a groundbreaking show called "0.10. The Last Futurist Exhibition." This show caused "an immense shock among the most avant-garde of his colleagues, with an exhibition of 35 totally abstract works," Rudenstine continued. "Nobody had ever done this; I mean, he was undoubtedly the first. …