Magazine article Artforum International

"Adventures of the Black Square: Abstract Art and Society 1915-2015"

Magazine article Artforum International

"Adventures of the Black Square: Abstract Art and Society 1915-2015"

Article excerpt

"Adventures of the Black Square: Abstract Art and Society 1915-2015"

WHITECHAPEL GALLERY, LONDON

Sarah K. Rich

"ADVENTURES OF THE BLACK SQUARE" begins with a rectangle: Kazimir Malevich's undated little quadrilateral from the Costakis Collection. The painting is small and squat, and its lateral format pulls it dangerously close to representational traditions of landscape, but the piece nevertheless encapsulates some of the most vital features of Malevich's earliest excursions into Suprematism. Multiple brushstrokes build the shape, as if to show that the artist arrived at the composition only as the result of minute, painstaking deliberations reminiscent of Cezanne. In spite of this meticulous building-up of paint, the form is bold, even ruthless in its domination of the composition's center. At the same time, and quite remarkably, the shape dares to be to be a bit jaunty. Slightly acute at its upper right corner, the black rectangle (like several of Malevich's Suprematist works) seems to veer into the frame like a superhero coming in for a landing. This is indeed a shape made for adventure.

It's not really a problem that "Adventures of the Black Square," at London's Whitechapel Gallery, does not, in fact, feature any of the four black square paintings that Kazimir Malevich produced between 1915 and 1930. And it might even come as a relief that the exhibition, which scans one hundred years of global art production for the range of Malevich's radical influence, presents few black squares in general. Recent exhibitions have already given viewers a chance to see versions of Malevich's magnum opus, most significant among them last year's excellent retrospective at London's Tate Modern, which returned the 1915 Black Square to its natural habitat by re-creating a portion of the "Last Futurist Exhibition 0.10." Back in 2011, Gagosian Gallery in New York scooped other centennial anniversary exhibitions by mounting "Malevich and the American Legacy," which armored the gallery walls with regiments of dark quadrilaterals by postwar American artists such as Mark Rothko, Ad Reinhardt, and Richard Serra.

Released from the job of recapitulating The Black Square 0.10, and unburdened by the task of cataloguing famous postwar iterations of The Black Square Version 2.0, curators Iwona Blazwick and Magnus af Petersen have expanded into other, less predictable territory. With a century of artwork by close to one hundred artists--many of them women, many coming from East Asia, Eastern Europe, Latin America, North Africa, and the Middle East--the exhibition explores connections between "abstract art and society," according to the show's subtitle.

In many respects, it is the and that carries the biggest load in that subtitle. Since the first iterations of modern abstract art, its relation to society has been a matter of urgent debate. The exhibition narrows the scope a few degrees by presenting artists who have mostly intended their work to engage the social. Preserving intentionality as an implicit criterion of selection, the show detours around Meyer Schapiro's famous (and admittedly hard to demonstrate) argument that even the antisocial desire for autonomy in much abstract art bears the imprint of modern social conditions (such as alienation). The curators narrow the focus further by emphasizing artistic practices that are primarily aligned with the liberatory or progressive. So with no Italian Futurism on display, for example, unknowing viewers might get the impression that hard lines and repeated forms always indicate left-wing politics. But beyond those latent exclusions, the exhibition accumulates a wide range of artistic practices and a deep bench of important artworks, all of which were chosen because they related to one or more of the exhibition's four cardinal categories: "Utopia," "Architectonics," "Communication," and "The Everyday." The resulting installation is at times chaotic, at others invigorating. …

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