Are we so blasé about the role played by big money in the art world that the sale of an easel-size abstract painting by Kazimir Malevich for $17 million can be regarded as a routine news story? Apparently.
Malevich’s Suprematist Composition , believed to have been painted circa 1919 to 1920, fetched that remarkable sum in a much-hyped sale at Phillips Auctioneers on May 11. The sale marked the opening salvo in Phillips’ current campaign to establish itself as a viable rival of Sotheby’s and Christie’s. Yet, the next day, The New York Times relegated its coverage of this event to page 10 of the Metro section, and the story by Carol Vogel didn’t even get around to mentioning the $17 million until the 10th paragraph. And this from a reporter who has been salivating over every record sale at Sotheby’s and Christie’s as long as anyone can now remember!
Make no mistake: The fate of all these auction houses is a matter of indifference to me. Their role in the art world is, after all, that of a parasite, which in my dictionary is defined as “any organism that grows, feeds and is sheltered on or in a different organism while contributing nothing to the survival of its host.” That both Sotheby’s and Christie’s are currently in trouble with the federal government for alleged price-fixing and other abuses doesn’t surprise me. Neither does it cause me grief. I feel about all this the way Henry Kissinger is said to have felt about the Iran-Iraq war: that it is a pity that both sides can’t lose. Whatever happens to Sotheby’s and Christie’s-and indeed, whether Phillips succeeds in establishing itself as a major contender-the outcome is unlikely to contribute anything positive to either the aesthetic standards or the ethical practices of the current art scene.
Phillips clearly had a lot riding on this Malevich. They published a handsome hardcover catalogue, running to some 54 glossy pages, replete with essays, chronology, bibliography, provenance and documentary photographs, entirely devoted to this one picture by an artist who is not exactly a household name. An artist, moreover, who hadn’t cut off his ear or died in an auto crash or been known to have lived a scandalous sex life or otherwise had much to offer in the way of media melodrama. Malevich died in his own bed in 1935, at the height of the Soviet terror, which was itself something of a feat given that he was of bourgeois origin and a renowned representative of the kind of avant-garde art that Stalin had outlawed. Still, he died a ruined man-an artist who had been compelled to repudiate his own artistic ideals for the sake of the revolution to which he had devoted much of his adult life.
Surely, the last thing he could ever have envisioned was that in another century his Suprematist art, compounded of Western European aesthetics, Russian mysticism and Communist ideology, would be used to promote the fortunes of an international capitalist enterprise.
There was, of course, the redeeming tale of Malevich’s descendants, who were able to reclaim ownership of this Suprematist Composition after the collapse of the Soviet Union and to whom the Museum of Modern Art, where the painting had reposed for many years, surrendered it without fuss. This lent an element of post-Cold War romance and moral vindication-a spin the picture needed for a big-stakes sale in New York. It was a nice touch, too, that Phillips set up temporary headquarters for the sale directly across the street from MoMA. Yet, Malevich’s own story tended to get a little lost in the process.
Who, then, was Kazimir Malevich? This hero of Russian modernism was actually of Polish-Ukrainian origin, and it may truly be said of him that of all the pioneer creators of abstract art in the 20th century, none was more extreme in his artistic ambition, none more alienated from the world that produced him, and none, in the end, more thoroughly compromised by the circumstances that marked the demise of all his hard-won accomplishments.
It is not a historical rarity in the modern age for artists to entertain megalomaniac illusions about the importance of their work and its power to transform the world in which they live, yet even by the standards of his age and milieu, Malevich stands out as a special case. For in the final analysis, this charismatic artist, mystic and revolutionary set himself up as a rival to no less an adversary than God, and with a demonic confidence in the occult power of the avant-garde movement, which he founded in 1915 and gave the name Suprematism, he entertained the delusion that he might finally triumph over death itself. Compared to Malevich, Mondrian was a pietist, and Kandinsky, an artist-intellectual of modest ambition.
The era in which Malevich came of age as an artist in Russia was one of the most extraordinary in the annals of the modern avant-garde-an era in which talent abounded, innovation was the watchword, and audacity the measure of all accomplishment. It was also, of course, a period of political tumult in which the rudiments of a bourgeois democratic system were attempting to take root in a society bounded by a failing autocracy and the dream of a total revolutionary upheaval. Here, too, theosophy and other schools of mystical thought flourished among artists, writers and intellectuals, and produced in the figure of Peter Demianovich Uspensky the mystical philosopher whose own variation on occult doctrine would be crucial to the development of Malevich’s-and Suprematism’s-art and theory.
All theosophical doctrine embraces as a fundamental tenet an unquestioning belief in immortality and reincarnation. It was Uspensky’s distinction that he carried this belief to a further extreme, propounding the notion that there was a “fourth dimension” to existence that allowed the spiritually elect to overcome the bondage of death in the material world and enter the timeless universe of the spiritual life. This mystical doctrine was outlined in two books, The Fourth Dimension (1909) and Tertium Organum (1911), writings that enjoyed an enormous vogue in Russian artistic circles at the very moment Malevich was making his way, as an artist, through the succession of styles-from Impressionism to Art Nouveau to neo-Primitivism and Cubo-Futurism-that led him to the frontiers of abstraction.
It was another special feature of Uspensky’s philosophy that it specified that “a cube, a sphere, a pyramid, a cone, a cylinder, may be projections or cross-sections of four-dimensional bodies unknown to us.” In Uspensky’s mystical cosmology, geometric form was thus believed to signify the victory of the spirit over death. It was with this metaphysical warrant that Malevich, in 1915, created the art of Suprematism, a mode of pure abstraction based on the use of the square, the cube and the cross-forms on which he conferred first a religious and then a political significance.
Under the pressure of political events-World War I and the Bolshevik Revolution-the mystical basis of Malevich’s abstraction was supplanted by an ideology of utopian collectivism, a development that would eventually lead Malevich, without any apparent sense of contradiction, to compare Lenin, the apostle of dialectical materialism, to Christ, and propose a cube, “the symbol of eternity,” as an appropriate monument to Lenin’s immortality. He seems to have really believed that Suprematism was somehow a coefficient of Leninism. In the end, however, Malevich survived by capitulating to the imperatives of Soviet-style dialectical materialism, which, under Stalin, required that he abandon abstraction in favor of some approximation of Socialist Realism. Whatever his private reservations may have been, he could no longer run the risk of being seen to be a “bourgeois formalist,” a punishable offense.
There is a well-known dictum by the French poet Charles Péguy that goes: “Tout commence en mystique et finit en politique.” (Everything begins in mysticism and ends in politics.) But as the example of Malevich’s Suprematist Composition so vividly reminds us, this dictum must now be revised to something like: Everything begins in mysticism, gets sidetracked into politics, and ends up as big business, at least in the art world. This is less elegant than Péguy, but a lot closer to the realities of the year 2000.