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

By Gayford, Martin | The Spectator, January 17, 2015 | Go to article overview

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


Gayford, Martin, The Spectator


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

Whitechapel Gallery, until 6 April

Almost a decade ago, David Cameron informed Tony Blair, unkindly but accurately, 'You were the future once.' A visitor to the Whitechapel Gallery's exhibition, Adventures of the Black Square , might mutter the same words in front of the first exhibits.

It is now a century since Kazimir Malevich painted the starkest abstractions in the history of art: one simple geometric shape painted on a background of another colour. It was not, one might have thought, an idea with much mileage. Yet those early geometric abstractions had the compressed power of revolutionary manifestos.

For good or ill, there has followed 100 years of modernist, post-modernist, and now post-post-modernist geometry in art. This is the theme of the exhibition. It is the Whitechapel's misfortune that this follows hard on a comprehensive Malevich blockbuster at Tate Modern last year and also a fine survey of Latin American abstraction at the RA.

Nonetheless, Adventures of the Black Square has an intriguing tale to tell. Essentially, Malevich's masterpiece stood for the future, because it depicted nothing in particular. It was an icon -- not in the loose, contemporary sense but in a precise, art-historical one. It was derived from the religious images of the eastern Church in its head-on clarity. Of course, it represented no holy figure or political doctrine. It was simply geometry. But that in itself was a kind of message, suggesting order, reason, harmony.

Away with the clutter of the past! That was the appeal, and also the big mistake that one sees being made in architectural schemes by Malevich and others, such as 'Architechton' (1924) by his associate, Ilya Chashnik. The error was that the nice clean rectangular forms in the drawing clearly came before much thought as to how human beings were going to live inside them.

This was, notoriously, the problem with the multitudinous modernist buildings that sprouted all over the globe in the later 20th century. Many of them turned rapidly into sink estates and desolation, and then -- in some cases -- were recolonised by exactly the sort of people who thought them up in the first place. That is, architects, designers and the type of modernist aesthete who might like to live with a piece of woven geometric art on the wall, such Anni Albers's rectilinear grey, black and yellow 'Hanging' (1926).

In other words, in a century, we've been through several cycles: a love affair, on the part of some at least, with revolutionary modernism; disillusion with the dystopias that resulted; a renewed interest in it as a style with its own charms. …

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