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Adventures of the Black Square @ Whitechapel Gallery

PostPosted: Wed Jan 28, 2015 12:37 pm
by CAP
Adventures of the Black Square: Abstract Art and Society 1915 – 2015

If you haven’t seen much hard-edge geometric abstraction lately, this might be welcome, if you have, it probably won’t be. There are so many regrettable omissions here you quickly feel ripped off. But this is not strictly a painting show, despite the title, it’s a big survey show (100 works by 100 artists) supposedly tracing utopian ideals implicit in painting’s turn to full abstraction throughout the 20th century and the flow onto applied design. So we end up with stuff like a Liam Gillick and an Andrea Zittel, Gabriel Orozco and Tobias Rehberger, somehow. I found it unconvincing as a thesis, disappointing as a sample or selection and something of a missed opportunity. Abstraction in painting is definitely worth revisiting but curator Iwona Blazwick clearly had another agenda.

Coupling it with wider social developments in South America, Africa, Asia and the Middle East as well as an historical perspective is frankly taking on too much for one show. It just comes across as thin and scrappy. In any case, we’re not so much talking about projection from Kazimir Malevich’s Black Square (1915) as combination and convergence with the kind of functionalism and fundamentalism in the applied arts and architecture that arises with the publication of Adolf Loos’ Ornament and Crime (1913). The utopian qualities Old Blazzo and her Suprematist Team-assist assign Malevich are already flowing, elsewhere. They feed as much into Bauhaus aesthetics as developments in painting and Russia. Actually, the starting point of Black Square here is curious (100th anniversary apart), and presumably reflects the influence expatriate Russian wealth now exerts on the gears of London’s cultural life. Notice all those recent books on Malevich? Market forces mate. The real origins of abstraction – and the ideals that drive them – arise some years earlier in Paris and Munich, but we don’t really go there (to say, Kupka, Macdonald-Wright, Balla or Kandinsky) although there is recognition for Mondrian. Subsequent developments in the 40s and 50s are similarly excluded as an expressive or subjective divergence, at odds with a more objective idealism. But this seriously distorts the trajectory of abstraction and its ideals, and while the omissions undoubtedly make way for more global inclusions, it’s pretty much selling out art history for politics; a common curatorial vice.

The problem is that some tidy division between the expressive and stated; subjective and objective; drastically diminishes the idealism that guides pictorial abstraction. Black Square is most assuredly darkly expressive, its heavy, broken facture, an emphatic deposit that exceeds mere colour for shape. The matter matters. The work was worked. This is just as true of Mondrian. And from the first, the purity of geometric and chromatic scheme or design is always relative to instrument and materials. The paintings are not just diagrams; they are worksheets. To ignore, for example Barnett Newman, Mark Rothko or Ad Reinhardt’s contributions to these matters is to gravely impoverish the very ideals of a ‘straight line’ or ‘uniform’ colour to shape and of course, scale. If you’re not getting it there, you haven’t got it in earlier. The course of geometric abstraction is largely concerned with establishing evident schemes for just such relations.

It’s no good talking about social ideals for the fine arts if you don’t understand the fundamental issues and how these slowly develop – whether straight lines and 90˚ intersections are enough and when, whether others preserve and extend the scheme, in what circumstances. The ideals change accordingly. It cannot remain a matter of mere utilitarian efficiency or equality. There are other freedoms to be registered. There is no point trying to separate ideal from emotion, hard-edge geometry from other versions without seriously confining the adventures to be had, following Black Square. The show completely lost focus for me on this vital issue. But then, I’m a painter.


Re: Adventures of the Black Square @ Whitechapel Gallery

PostPosted: Tue Mar 17, 2015 12:23 am
by CAP
Another excellent review of the show on Saturation Point by Alan Fowler. 8-)
Dr. Fowler, an expert on British Constructivism (a 50s movement) takes Blazzo to task for yet more sloppy research. :P