The Suprematist: Malevich Abstracts At the Guggenheim

The career of the Russian painter Kazimir Malevich (1878-1935), whose Suprematist abstractions are the principal subject of a stunning exhibition at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, reads at times like a fever chart of early 20th-century aspirations, ideologies and broken dreams. By temperament and conviction, Malevich was a visionary in search of the Absolute, which, in quick succession, he believed he had discovered in Christianity, Russian folk art, theosophy, Impressionism, Bolshevism, Futurism, Cubism, geometry and the Fourth Dimension-all of which led to the creation of his Suprematism. For Malevich, Suprematism was always something more than a pictorial style: It was at once an aesthetic, a religion, a politics and a metaphysics.

Yet, if some of Malevich’s ambitions and beliefs now strike us as symptoms of a rampant megalomania, they nonetheless served to inspire hismostradical pictorial achievement: Suprematist abstraction. And it was this achievement, which invested pure geometric form with a visual dynamism that no other attempt at early abstraction could match, that set the pace for the amazing accomplishments of the entire Russian avant-garde in the years just before and after the 1917 revolution.

The exhibition that Matthew Drutt has organizedatthe Guggenheim doesn’t attempt to give us either a comprehensive retrospective of Malevich’s artistic development or a detailed account of its influence on his Russian contemporaries. It concentrates instead on the period beginning in 1913, when, at the age of 35, Malevich designed the décors for a bizarre modernist opera called Victory Over the Sun . In the many pencil-on-paper studies for these décors, we are given an extensive look at the prehistory of Suprematist abstraction as it painstakingly disencumbered itself of the referential complexities of French Cubism and Italian Futurism to achieve a purity of form that refused to acknowledge the reality of anything beyond its own existence.

In the headlong course of that radical endeavor, Malevich nonetheless made an interesting detour for the purpose of re-examining the resources of Cubist collage. The key work in this brief phase of his development is his Composition with Mona Lisa (1914), which, in addition to demonstrating his mastery of the Cubist aesthetic, made a leap into the realm of Dadaist impudence even before Dadaism itself came to be codified. His defacement of the Mona Lisa preceded Marcel Duchamp’s more famous scrawled mustache by several years. Moreover, both the materials and compositional strategies of Malevich’s 1914 collages anticipate much that was later to be admired in Kurt Schwitters’ Merz collages. All of which gives rise to a daunting thought: That if not for his mystical belief in the reality of an unearthly Absolute,Malevich might have created a Russian version of the Dada movement.

By 1915, however, Malevich was firmly committed to the kind of radical reductivism we now associate with the classic abstraction of Suprematism. From the Black Square of 1915 to the Suprematist Composition: White on White (1918), the sheer range and variety of both composition and color in these Suprematist paintings is amazing. Probably because his most audacious paintings tend to be limited to a black-and-white palette, we tend not to think of Malevich as a colorist, but this exhibition certainly changes that perception. In this respect, too, the current show certainly enlarges our understanding of Malevich’s accomplishment.

But this exhibition is also, alas, a vivid reminder of how far the Guggenheim has strayed under its current administration from its original institutional mission. The Guggenheim was founded, after all, as a museum devoted to the history of abstract art, and while there were many legitimate reasons for the museum to move beyond that original mandate over the course of its history, its current condition of intellectual and financial disarray has rendered it incapable of mounting a major exhibition of abstract painting with the requisite respect for the spirit in which the art was created. What could be worse than surrounding the Malevich exhibition with the noise and detritus of the Matthew Barney circus that now fills the principal space at the museum? Coming and going, visitors to the Malevich show have to put up with this noise pollution and the rubbishy props that represent a negation of everything Malevich stood for in his art.

This exhibition and its capacious catalog come to us from the Menil Collection in Houston, where Matthew Drutt is the chief curator. We owe the Menil Collection and Mr. Drutt a debt of gratitude for producing this fine exhibition, which will be shown in Houston between Oct. 3 and Jan. 11, 2004.

Meanwhile, Kazimir Malevich: Suprematism remains on view at the Guggenheim Museum, 1071 Fifth Avenue at 89th Street, through Sept. 7.