Visual Arts

‘Adventures of the Black Square: Abstract Art and Society 1915–2015’ at the Whitechapel Gallery, reviewed by Julia Secklehner


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Kazimir Malevich: 'Black Q'

Kazimir Malevich: ‘Black Quadrilateral’, 1915

Though it may not seem much more than a black square on a white background, Malevich’s Black Quadrilateral signifies a game-changing step towards pure abstraction in the art of the early twentieth century. ‘Adventures of the Black Square’ explores the legacy of Malevich’s experiments with an abundance of works that range from traditional fine art objects like paintings and sculpture to design and video installations produced throughout the last century.

The first thing encountered in the exhibition is, of course, the Black Quadrilateral itself – a surprisingly small painting in which the artist found ‘a boundless arena of freedom’ in simple geometric plains. The remaining works on display have adopted his concern for form and merged it with more tangible aspects of life, structured here into four areas of impact: Utopia, Architectonics, Communication, and The Everyday.

 Aleksandr Rodchenko, Radio Station Tower, 1929

Aleksandr Rodchenko, Radio Station Tower, 1929

Among an array of paintings by constructivists like Lybov Popova we find selected photographs of the Shukhov Tower in Moscow, including compositions by forerunners of the avant-garde like Aleksandr Rodchenko and Lászlo Moholy-Nagy. Though it’s hard to decipher from the labels who took which photograph, collectively the images illustrate the interplay between the new architecture of Soviet Russia and the possibilities of a new vision through photography. The resulting works are a wonderful blend of landscape, architecture and the human figure, emphasised by strong geometric structures, which link the images to Malevich and the constructivist-socialist currents pervading Russia at the time. Another gem to be found in the first room, the biggest of three, is the display of magazines like Ma and Blast that disseminated these new artistic currents to an audience across the globe – and hint at the spilling over of socialist thought into the West after the Russian Revolution in 1917. In so doing, they also provide a visual link between the many cultural centres included in the show, reaching from Moscow to Berlin to Buenos Aires in the first room alone.

Another aspect of the exhibition that works very well is that pieces by canonical artists, like Malevich himself, El Lissitzky or Piet Mondrian, are on display next to those by lesser known names – Dmitri Prigov and Běla Kovařová are only two examples here. This creates a balanced view across time and artistic currents and, in a way, also reflects the socialist worldviews of many of the artists represented. As such, the exhibition is densely hung and structured, and it’s nigh impossible to give due attention to every single piece with such an extensive amount on offer. However, simply because the show contains so much variety, it is easy to gain a good overall impression of the impact Malevich’s legacy had – and continues to have – on the wider artistic community. Moving from room to room, we also notice how the gradual globalisation of art is emphasized –  which on the one hand is nice, highlighting as it does a transgression of national and social boundaries through a variety of media.

black square featured image

Dóra Maurer: ‘Seven Rotations 1-6’

On the other hand, I can’t help but think that if the show is meant to illustrate how abstract art connects with society and politics through time and at a global, it’s also necessary to give some idea of their socio-political contexts – certainly, Dóra Maurer’s photo series Seven Rotations 1-6 from late 1970s Kádár Hungary was produced against a very different backdrop from Zvi Goldstein’s installation Elements C-14, created in Israel in the early 1980s. This is wishful thinking perhaps, though it does makes you wonder whether a slightly narrower time frame (or geographical one) could have made the show more comprehensible. As it is, the further we move towards the present, the further the works seem removed from the Black Quadrilateral, which illustrates how influences are constantly diluted within new contexts, and paired afresh.

Probably the best word to describe the show overall is ‘ambitious’. It features more than a hundred artists over a whole century of cultural development and social and political ruptures across the globe. By and large, this is fascinating and exciting. Yet, at times it’s a bit overwhelming to be confronted with such a vast and diverse collection of artworks. The exhibition is more than recommended – but be prepared for a sensory overload and a nagging feeling that you should return another two, three times to pay due attention to everything that’s on offer.


‘Adventures of the Black Square: Abstract Art and Society 1915–2015’ runs at the Whitechapel Gallery till 6th April 2015.


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