Purity. The Modern world just couldn’t get enough of it. Which is surprising really, considering the many unpure twists and turns that Modernity and Modernism would take through the ensuing years. But there in the first two decades of the 20th Century one could read a lot of wild talk about “purity” in the manifestos of iconoclastic artists. Kazimir Malevich, especially, wanted purity, and he wanted it in a way no other artist had in a very long time. Like many young artists of his generation he had done the work – moving quickly through Cezanne, Cubism, Futurism, Blue Riders, and a half dozen of the other “isms” that were floating about the intellectual circles of the early avant-garde. Yet none of these kinds of painting ever seemed to be enough. So he got to work, began to limit his paintings to very specific geometrics, flat compositional structures and universal forms with very specific meanings and strict applications. He was desperate to evoke and encounter something extraordinary in his Art, something ineffable without the world getting in the way of his view, so to speak. It was only when he finally embraced “pure” abstraction, pure form, pure color, pure composition, that things fell into place for him.
The Modern world as Malevich saw it had become “obscured” by things. These things created too many contingencies, too much compromised imagery in the work of his colleagues. Malevich wanted a kind of direct optical language that would cut through the blur of lived experience and bring one straight to a meaningful encounter with purity. His work would be about something apart from one’s life, from the overwrought, overcrowded thingness in the world. For the first time in many centuries, painting would not be contingent on “lived experience.” Instead his work would be a painting of the mind, of thought and consciousness, of spirit, something that would not compromise one’s understanding of the ineffable. This painting was abstract, conceptual, logocentric, more directed through language and thought. In these “Supreme” paintings there is no visual time, no sequence or event, no viewpoint, no figure ground relationship, no dimension. One would simply encounter, all at once, always already, the immaculate.
“Under Suprematism I understand the primacy of pure feeling in creative art. To the Suprematist, the visual phenomena of the objective world are, in themselves, meaningless; the significant thing is feeling, as such, quite apart from the environment in which it is called forth.” Kazimir Malevich. “The Non-Objective World.”
Visual painting was under assault from the avant-garde in those early years. Painters, artists of all type, were turning against the long established precedent of visual primacy. Modernism opened the way for all kinds of dissent. In this regard Suprematist painting is the alternate critique of the French cult of visual sensate experience, what Duchamp called “retinal art.” But unlike the French Dadaists’ fascination with the use of irony, “bad painting,” and the absurd, this kind of abstract painting is deadly serious, set to very old themes, very old ideas of what Art might be and what it might accomplish. There would be no silly discussions of light or space, touch or feel. This kind of abstraction would appear before the viewer as a kind of universal language of form. In essence Malevich’s abstraction was a reclamation, a return to an Art of religious illumination. There is a sense of the sacred, of the sacramental text in this work, as if the painter, floating his geometries on the flat ground of pure conscious awareness, is somehow communing with and describing the word of God. In it’s way Suprematism, as Malevich intended it, was Medieval in its design, iconoclastic art disguised in contemporary abstraction. And without the slightest bit of irony, Kazimir saw himself as a Messiah of sorts, bringing a new religion of Art into the Modern world.
“Although the Russian avant-garde movement was heavily influenced by Western art— Paul Cézanne and Post-Impressionism, Futurism, and Cubism in particular— it was also much influenced by its own national traditions during this time. Religious art (church architecture, icons, frescoes) and traditional crafts (wood carving, ceramics, embroidery) enjoyed an unexpected revival in Russia in the early 1910s. Examples of religious and folk art were collected, studied, and exhibited alongside works of high art. The cosmic nature of Old Russian and folk art helped the masters of the avant-garde advance deeper into the realms of nonobjectivity, a process aided also by the religious beliefs typically held, in varying degrees, by the majority of Russian avant-garde artists.”
Petrova, Evgenia (2012-04-17). Malevich’s Suprematism and Religion (Kazimir Malevich: Suprematism). Guggenheim Museum.
Life and Art
Malevich and the other leaders of this push for “purity” were nearly all Russian. And in those early years of the 20th Century most of the Russian artists were being deeply affected by violent societal uprisings, disastrous political alliances, and the country’s economic ruin. The corrupt government’s decision in 1914 to enter the War would become the final act in Russia’s historic downfall. The country, cobbled together by jerry-rigged political factions, could no longer hold together under the strain of 20th century warfare. I shan’t go into the betrayals and horrors those poor people were facing, but it is understandable that Russia’s progressive artists, like their politically disenfranchised countrymen, would want something pure, would want to understand something larger and more promising than the “accumulation of things,” would want to see something other than the horrific images of their own suffering. And it turned out that Messiah’s of all kind saw this as an opportunity to change things, in fact, an opportunity to change everything.
“In this atmosphere of corruption, of monstrous half-truths, one clear note sounded day after day, the deepening chorus of the Bolsheviki, “All Power to the Soviets! All power to the direct representatives of millions on millions of common workers, soldiers, peasants. Land, bread, an end to the senseless war, an end to secret diplomacy, speculation, treachery…. The Revolution is in danger, and with it the cause of the people all over the world!”
The struggle between the proletariat and the middle class, between the Soviets and the Government, which had begun in the first March days, was about to culminate. Having at one bound leaped from the Middle Ages into the twentieth century, Russia showed the startled world two systems of Revolution-the political and the social – in mortal combat.” John Reed. 10 Days That Changed the World.
Nothing is clean. Shortcuts are taken. Hypocrisies are rampant. Betrayals are inevitable. Deception becomes the norm. Revolution is never pure, never clear in the real world, and good intentions turn out to be nothing but false promises. The come-ons of politicians and organizers can never work without compromise in a world of things, and so, what might have been, what was thought to be the best thing, is nearly always made unreal, always sullied by the workings of the world. Purity might look to anyone lost in the mess of this Revolution, any revolution for that matter, like peace, like comfort, like hope. And maybe Abstraction, pure Abstraction would be a way to define a kind of spirituality, a nostalgic gloss of purity amidst violent political, social and cultural upheaval. There is nothing new in this idea, nothing new about yearning for a golden age, a clear conscience, a pure consciousness that sees and understands beyond the “accumulation of things.” Malevich saw himself and his art as a revelation, saw his Suprematism as a way to a express what was missing – a clear-headed, perfectly realized emotive experience. And he held tight to these beliefs throughout his career.
Of course Kazimir’s interpretation of messianic artistic purity through abstraction would never hold in the new secular Soviet state. Artists, especially theoretical artists, tend to think not in terms of worldly reality, but in terms of otherworldly Art. Michelangelo’s hyper-erotic Catholicism, Delacroix’s theatrical populist revolution, Goya’s bald-faced renditions of cruelty, Picasso’s terrible Guernica; where in the world other than Art can such sharply revolutionary ideals, such visceral political challenges and critiques, actually exist and survive? Artists have always paid the price for these visual challenges in some way. Many Suprematists in the new Soviet Union found that their prospects for employment in the State run universities were quickly thinning. So, they became Constructivists, and aligned themselves with the aims of the collective making “pure” abstraction socially “useful.” Malevich, however, continued to stand by his theories about abstraction and purity. And he too paid a severe price for his obstinacy as his career prospects began to thin in the labyrinthine bureaucracy of institutional Soviet Communism. By the mid 20’s both he and his art were on the state’s shit list, and his once stellar career dried up. Under the Stalinist government he wound up in prison and faced a horrible choice. He found he had to compromise his beliefs in a compromised world. His radical avant-garde legacy, however, lived on in the West, especially in Berlin and Munich, where he was considered a true pioneer and originator of Modernism. Ironically, the most radical of the early Modernists, the artist most concerned with providing and resurrecting an artistic spiritual realm for Art and painting in this new era, a true revolutionary, had fallen out with the Revolution’s new “Modern” state.
Old and New
In 1915 Malevich showed a “retrospective” of his work entitled the “Last Futurist Exhibition 0.10” in the city of Petrograd. I’ll come clean about this “non-objective” work straight off. Though I think these are marvelous paintings and historically significant, this work is not a favorite of mine. But that’s not entirely true either. Let’s say I’m not a big fan of certain aspects of the “non-objective” works on view in the photo. I do not connect with the floating forms in the flat landscape space, a trope of abstract painting that I think still plagues most of my painting colleagues to this very day. However, there are three paintings in the exhibition that helped to set the course for later Modernism and Postmodernism in ways that Malevich could never have seen. Those paintings are the most abstract and straightforward; the cross, the square and the stripe (or rectangle if you prefer.) All of the other paintings retain a figure ground relationship, geometric figures tumbling artfully across a flat ground. They are lively and decorative, but they do not have the presence or heft that I seek when looking at paintings.
In the three works I’ve just distinguished Malevich destroys the space of painting, and in doing so, begins to change our relationship to the surface and support of the painting. This was the most radical assault upon the precedent of Western painting by any of the early Modernists. What begins to happen in the Square, Cross and Stripe is that the painting is no longer a painting of a thing, but has indeed become a thing in itself. The form, the shape of the form fills the space of the painting. The paintings become painted objects instead of paintings of objects in painted space. By objectifying the thing, the painting of pure form itself, our relationship to Painting is newly changed – both the Renaissance “window” and the Naturalistic “mirror” become redundant. Malevich’s distrust and distaste for the “accumulation of things” in paintings IS the opportunity to make the painting itself into a thing-in-the-world, in essence a being, a sublime thing. A painting as a thing is as real as a chair, a desk, a pipe, while retaining its symbolic, Platonic meaning as a painting. It doesn’t create a visual world, but is instead, in the world. It is a fetish object, something to be contemplated, and quite possibly worshipped, rather than seen.
From our vantage point in the 21st Century we must look at a further interesting point about this kind of “icon” making. This kind of painting, as a thing, is easily picked up by the camera AS a thing-in-the-world. Now I know this will sound a bit obtuse to many of my painting friends, but the lens captures/photographs actual things in the world better than it does painted images on surfaces. The space of painting on the surface of the painting has absolutely no reality, no heft when captured by the lens. We say it all the time when looking at photos of paintings, almost as an apology – “It looks much different in reality.” (Seeing a Mondrian in person for the first time was quite a shock. I had no idea how hand made the thing actually was.) It’s the way light falls on an object, the way the thing itself encompasses place, the way the lens reproduces that physical reality and existence of space and time while glossing over surfaces. Take a look at the photograph of Malevich’s 1915 exhibition – which paintings stand out, which paintings really assert their presence as things on a wall? Are they the paintings with the bits and pieces floating across a surface or are they the paintings that read like objects, actual things? The lens decides for us, making those paintings, the Stripe, Cross and Square, into objects on the wall; enigmatic, present, thick and real. The other paintings present their decorative nature, their shallow Modern landscape spaces while emphasizing the obviousness of Art. What the lens is doing when it captures the physical nature of all those rectangles on the wall is revealing their absolute irreducible thingness, incorporating them into the reality of the captured world. This concentration of lens vision, optics, on the reality of the painting itself, what a painting could be, how it could act in a replicated reality, would challenge and eventually overturn the visual legacy of the School of Paris – even more than irony or Abstraction itself. All painting, the entire legacy of painting, was being reformed to be made and seen through the lens. (There will be more on this later.)
In our Postmodern period it would be the Americans that would hone Malevich’s reductive object-oriented legacy in response to Greenberg’s latter day AbEx Modernism. For the most part the spiritual and emotive theoretics of Malevich’s work were put aside in favor of the absolutist nature of the geometric object itself. American Industry redefined his message of purity – pure form honed through the “purity” of the manufacturing processes. In this sense “un-made” perfection could be accessed using the hard-edge conceptual promise of Malevich’s Black Square. It is an architectural beauty, the beauty of the inhuman reproduction, the machined concept, the promise of Modernist Capitalism. Our post-industrial culture is, after all, about the endless production and appearance of fetishized clean objects like iPhones, flat screen televisions, Tesla automobiles and Armani suits. For the Americans Malevich’s sense of abstract purity was found in an object’s clarity of form and the context in which that form was seen. Whether one had an emotional connection or found purity in it was not really of any concern. Instead the artist would provide the idealized form, the mechanized process, the clear Platonic ideal. The Black Square, all those years before, had opened the way for this kind of conceptual approach to Abstraction, and in so doing, redefined the reality of the meaning of an art object for the following generations. We can see this idea at work especially in the work of Barnett Newman, Jasper Johns, Ellsworth Kelly, Frank Stella, Donald Judd, Carl Andre and the many, many other Postmodern abstractionists that followed.
“The square is not a subconscious fo￼rm. It is the creation of intuitive reason. The face of the new art. The square is a living, regal infant. The first step of pure creation in art. Before it there were naive distortions and copies of nature.”
Now I leave this part of Untethered with one last question. How is it that this Black Square came to symbolize emotion and purity for Malevich? I’m still confounded by this idea. The Black Square is emphatic, analytical, its existence in that sense is pure. But for me it’s a cold empty form, an obvious object. Maybe coldness, blackness, blankness ARE the emotions that Malevich was talking about, symbolic of the confrontation with and acceptance of eternity. I really don’t know. When he painted this Square the Modern world was spinning out of control – technology had outstripped our understanding of what it could actually do, what that technology actually could mean in human terms. An inevitable clash between the past and the future was about to unfold on an unprecedented global scale, and in the face of that understanding Malevich presents us with this pure reduction of vision, a symbol for the Devine. He even had the damned thing shown at his funeral as a last statement about his life. I’ve tried to get to some deeper understanding about this painting in his writings, but still I’m left without any true clarity. Along with his messianic speechifying about purity, he also talked a great deal about emotion, our emotional connection to his geometries. But the problem is he never actually tells us which fucking emotion he is trying to reach, or even if he’s trying to reach all of our emotions, concentrating them into this one tight spot, this one square, black thing. We’re very much left to our own devices in the face of this painting. Malevich called it the “zero of form,” and it is indeed just that – it reveals absolutely nothing while exposing itself emphatically, directly. Donald Judd would later equate this conceptual “zero” to the inevitable thingness of painting itself – surface and side – all paintings are simply rectangles, squares on walls. For me this kind of massively reductive visual nihilism directed at the history of painting leaves out so much, takes all the fucking fun out of painting itself, and quite frankly, depresses me no end. But still I’m drawn to the inevitable presence of this Square black thing and the direct confrontation it evokes in the face of an elusive, evocative idea, with my own mis-understanding and mis-reading of our 21st Century lens-based vision, and the continuing iron-fisted legacy of Modernism and Modernity.