What the Black Square did next

Theo van Doesburg, Colour design for ceiling and three walls, small ballroom, conversion of Café Aubette interior Strasbourg, 1926–7. Courtesy Galerie Gmurzynska AG. © the Artist. All rights reserved.

Curated by Iwona Blazwick, the Whitechapel Gallery’s latest exhibition “Adventures of the Black Square: Abstract Art and Society 1915-2015”, is a dense multi-disciplinary show that delineates how the aesthetic, political and social uses of geometry have been used by artists for the last century.

The proverbial “black square” is in reference to Black Quadrilateral: the famed painting by Kiev-born artist Kazimir Malevich, that was first shown in Russia in 1915. Balanced, non-descript and symmetrical, the work was supremely radical at the time of its conception precisely because of its non-representational content. This removal of composition and study of pure form is attributed as an early precursor in the turn towards geometric abstraction; the ‘ground zero’ in a long legacy of art production that preoccupied much of 20th century art and continues into today.

Malevich’s diminutive framed rectangle hangs in the exhibition’s entrance like a pristine artifact, launching the exhibition’s inquiry with Russian and European constructivist art. Works by Gustav Klutsis, Vladimir Tatlin, Aleksandr Rodchenko, and Sophie Taeuber-Arp show the hard-edged geometry that came to symbolize the egalitarian political agenda of the time. However, with 100 years and nearly 100 artists, Blazwick’s curatorial intent is diffuse. The exhibition illustrates a century of incarnations and interpretations of how form, line and color have mutated pan-globally in relation to shifting ideologies.

Kazimir Malevich Black and White. Suprematist Composition 1915. Moderna Museet, Stockholm Donation 2004 from Bengt and Jelena Jangfeldt
Kazimir Malevich Black and White. Suprematist Composition 1915. Moderna Museet, Stockholm Donation 2004 from Bengt and Jelena Jangfeldt

Black is a colour that embodies everything and nothing. It is the absence of all colour in light but also the presence of all color in pigment. Black can my mythologized as eternity, vastness and space, while also implicating erasure, eradication and death. Similarly, the square is a vessel for ideas; easily occupied with text, image or design. For this reason, the black square is a mutable symbol, and can be used as an artistic vehicle that teeters between a utopian utilitarian ideal and totalitarian censorship.

These complex possibilities are explicated as the exhibition works its way chronologically forward. Leaving Russia and re-emerging in Europe’s Bauhaus and Latin America’s neo-concretism, geometry becomes vivid and spatially minded with works by Lygia Pape and Hélio Oticica.  The context subsequently shifts up to America, Asia and back to Europe where increasingly contemporary issues such as censorship and war (Jenny Holzer), gender politics (Andrea Fraser), geo-political borders (Francis Alÿs) and cultural appropriation (Adrian Esparza) are given new context within the lens of form as a mechanism for control. 

Throughout “Adventures of the Black Square”, the forefront of progress for one generation becomes the subject of critic for the following. Consequently, one is left with works that book-end this very moment in time, dragging the formal visual negotiation vs. abstract conceptual inquiry into the present. And while the unanswerable question of how politics and art influence and affect change remains unanswered, the possibility for advancement seems to be refreshed. 

Text by Devon Caranicas 

Adventures of the Black Square is on show at the  Whitechapel Gallery from 15 January – 6 April 2015

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