A century has passed since Kazimir Malevich’s Black Quadrilateral was unveiled in Russia and the painting forms the starting point of the Whitechapel Gallery’s Adventures of the Black Square, which examines the influence the painting has had on abstract art in the years that have followed.
Malevich developed his artistic style to the point of pure abstraction using geometric shapes in his work to express ideas and sensations. The Black Quadrilateral and the 39 paintings that premiered with it were the first paintings that were not depictions of something else, constituting one of art’s first steps outside of a physical reality. “I am trying desperately,” Malevich wrote, “to free art from the dead weight of the real world.”
The artists featured certainly took Malevich’s aspiration to heart and those present do not only represent nations one would immediately associate with abstract art, but are from countries ranging from Argentina, to Israel and Iran.
The exhibition, which meanders over two floors, begins in Russia with images of the Shukhov Radio Tower, the winding conical steel structure that was saved from demolition just last year. Placed next to these images is a depiction of a megaphone, something of a motif throughout the exhibition. Design for Loundspeaker No. 5 by Gustav Klutis, is a Constructivist take on what was then a brand new means of mass communication and is in itself an attempt to use bright colour and brash form to communicate with people in a manner that transcends language and social rank. The megaphone theme is picked up later by Zvi Goldstein, an artist from Romania, who reminds the viewer that megaphones can be used to both rally people to social revolution and to suppress them with propaganda, something that can equally be said of art.
Malevich’s immediate influence can be seen more readily in Lyubov Popova’s Painterly Architectonic. Created just a year after Malevich’s Quadrilateral, shape is used to represent the encroaching modernity that was taking hold in the early years of the twentieth century, with the square being used to represent skyscrapers and cars.
The notion is progressed with the conjoining of abstract art and architecture seen in the selection of Proun lithographs created by El Lissitzky, which he created to represent “the interchange station between painting and architecture.” Proun is an abbreviation for the Russian ‘Project for the affirmation of the new’ and was formulated to encourage the creation of a new society in the wake of the Russian Revolution. The lithographs are otherworldly to look at, but there are practical considerations at their core.
Theo van Doesburg’s ‘Colour design for ceiling and three walls, small ballroom, conversion of Cafe Aubette interior, Strasbourg’ continues the consideration of how geometric abstraction was developed into a three dimensional form to slot within our built environment. Van Doesburg was a Dutch poet, painter and architect, who worked on the redevelopment of the Aubette building in Strasbourg into a cafe, restaurant, ballroom and cinema complex. Doesburg was a perfectionist and took control of all aspects of the project right down to the style of the ashtrays in the ballroom. Underlying his complex designs was a new aesthetic he termed Elementarism, a school of thought that reduced art to its fundamentals of form, colour and line with only vertical or horizontal lines being used and only paint being applied in primary colours, something that is visible in the carefully positioned rectangles, squares and colours found in van Doesburg’s plan for the Cafe Aubette. “The point is to situate man within a painting, rather than in front of it”, van Doesburg said. “Man does not live in the construction but in the atmosphere generated by the surfaces.”
Squares and geometric shapes, like the blocks of sound found in a Beethoven symphony, are, when collated together, always the building blocks of a greater whole and as the exhibition progresses towards the present day, the theme continues. In Peter Halley’s Auto Zone, one of a series of cell paintings he created, the artist uses colourful squares, intersecting and eye-catching, to depict a prison as a prime example of modern thinking and, in a broader sense, the ability of modern society to manage space, people and activity through surveillance.
The theme of space management is also confronted in Keith Coventry’s Sceaux Gardens Estate from 1995. Coventry’s Estate Series manages to create a language from the layout of London housing estates, the footprints of tower blocks replaced by colourful oblongs. The image exposes the dystopian nature of modern cities and in doing so creates an image that is in itself dystopian, a diagram beyond understanding, but something that has to be accepted and lived in nonetheless.
The exhibition concludes in the near present with Spirit Above All by Zhao Yao from 2012, the abstraction, the squares of dark colour still evident, a century after Malevich put paint to canvas on his own black square.
“Shouldn’t it give us pause,” Malevich said, “that the oldest works of art are as impressive today in their beauty and spontaneity as they were many thousands of years ago?” This enthralling exhibition proves that spontaneity and simplicity in art is long lasting, and that out of a fundamentally abstract form can come a very physical rendering of our everyday life.
Adventures of the Black Square continues at the Whitechapel Gallery until 6 April 2015. All photographs courtesy of the Whitechapel Gallery.