Arts and Books

Art review: The abstract revolution inspired by Orthodox icons

A woman studies Malevich's revolutionary Black Square (Steve Parsons/PA Wire)

Adventures of the Black Square: Abstract Art and Society 1915
Whitechapel Gallery, London, until April 6

The first version of Kazimir Malevich’s Black Square caused a sensation when it was released into an unprepared, war-torn world in 1915. After initially developing a Cubo-Futurist style, the Russian avant-garde pioneer ditched representation completely with his roughly rendered black square on a white background. The painting was exhibited in the manner of an icon from the Eastern Orthodox tradition, and the work itself took inspiration from the formal discipline and immediacy of those images. Yet what Malevich came up with couldn’t have been more different. His black square was nothing more or less than the sum of its parts, an empty space free from both the political upheaval of the time and the history of art.

Last year Malevich was the subject of a well-received retrospective at Tate Modern. In what is surely a case of expedient programming, the Whitechapel Gallery’s new show, Adventures of the Black Square: Abstract Art and Society 1915, aims to take advantage of this rekindling of interest in Malevich’s oeuvre, using his most famous painting as the starting point for a survey of the various kinds of geometric abstract art that followed in its brushstrokes.

These “adventures” begin with one of the smaller versions of the titular painting. Here the Black Square seems an unassuming – some might say unremarkable – creation. But knowing the context in which it was created, and then experiencing the dizzying array of more than 100 artworks that have been selected to follow it, makes clear just how influential the painting was and continues to be.
The exhibition is split into different themes and also runs chronologically, taking in along the way many movements, trends and -isms (Malevich’s own Suprematism, Russian Constructivism and Concrete Art, to name just a few). There are plenty of paintings, but also video installations, photography and sculpture.

There is some fine work here, in much of which the link to Malevich is unmistakable. The power of Piet Mondrian’s formal precision is not diminished by over-familiarity, while Josef Albers’s Homage to the Square is a blazing, invigorating painting. In one of the most recent pieces, Jenny Holzer puts a modern political spin on the Black Square with her rendering of a large “top secret” letter that is totally redacted.

Another recent piece, a film by Melanie Smith, presents us with a group of people in Mexico’s Aztec Stadium holding up placards to produce large images. These live mosaics express the humanity, chaos and imperfection that often goes into creating even the most geometrically structured of artworks.
Elsewhere, Indian artist Nasreen Mohamedi’s line drawings in pencil and ink are wondrous for their intricacy and David Batchelor has great fun in pricking arty pretentiousness with his October Colouring-In Book.

But despite these high points, I found that working my way through Adventures of the Black Square felt increasingly like a struggle. It’s an unapologetically challenging show – one of the themes is “Architectonics” – and if you don’t have at least a working knowledge of the history and development of abstract art, you might find the volume of works and information chucked your way overwhelming. Beyond the initial premise, and the obvious echoes of Malevich in many of the artworks, it’s hard to get a handle on the story the curator is trying to tell or the argument that is being made.

The upper gallery, in particular, is overcrowded and varying in quality. But the lack of a clear narrative and the head-spinning array of art might just be the point. Malevich opened up the possibilities of what art can be and plenty followed his lead.

The amount you enjoy Adventures of the Black Square will, of course, depend on how you feel about abstract art of this kind. I tend to like a bit of Expressionism to go with my abstraction. And, to be honest, it’s representational art that usually truly grabs my attention.

Much on display here left me cold – art based on geometry and mathematics often does that to me. Perhaps that makes me a square. Maybe Malevich, who returned to figurative painting in the latter part of his career, would appreciate the irony.

This article first appeared in the Catholic Herald magazine (23/1/15)