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Arthur C. Danto Supreme being in Russia. (Suprematist art movement in 1915 Russia) - The Nation, April 8, 1991 v252 n13 p452(5)

1913.- In February, Malevich tells Matiushin that the only meaningful direction for painting is that of Cubo-Futurism. - -- Joop M. Joosten, Chronology " in Kazimir Malevich: 1878-1935

When the winds of aesthetic doctrine blow across the medium of artistic production, the surface is formed into waves, or movements. Groups of artists, often unacquainted with one another, begin making works that appear to belong to a single defining impulse. These, rather than the lives of individual artists, are the basic units of art history, though too little is understood of what one might term the undular mechanics of such surface perturbations to pretend that we know very much about what causes the swells, the crests, the breakers and the foam tides--or for that matter what accounts for the attenuation of movements when they at last subside. All that we know is that we have grown accustomed to view the history of art in terms of the sweep of such movements, of which there must, in the past century and a half, have been hundreds and hundreds. An author I once met, whose project is the history of manifestoes, told me she had collected upward of 500 of these, each presumably defining the ideological spume of a distinct movement, however fleeting. And there must have been any number of others that swept unmanifestoed across the present and into the archives, borne witness to by scraps of colored cardboard intended to convey in nonverbal terms the new aesthetic and its transformative implications for human consciousness.

"If there were no wind, there would be no waves " the treatises say, which must then meak, since there are no movements to speak of in the art world today, that (improbable as it sounds) that world has run out of wind, since the rate of artistic production continues undiminished. Of course, the claim of surface calm may be disputed. The art world is never without its volatilities. But the bulk of contemporary effervescence has less to do with artistic movement as such than with what we might think of as the artistic wings of political and social movements possessing their own drives and urgencies. The current debates over quality, for example, given prominence in an important essay by Michael Brenson in The New York Times last November, or over censorship, or even over pluralism, are but translations into aesthetic terms of larger and more important controversies having to do with claims and counterclaims on rights, liberties, privileges, justice and the like. Now, it is true that artistic movements have almost always been associated with political and spiritual agendas and visions of new social orders. The PreRaphaelites, for example, imagined an entire revision of industrial society together with their imperatives of visual truth. Minimalism, perhaps the last of the great modern movements, was internally related to a critique of social institutions and was never merely the vehicle of some particularly austere doctrine of form. But in all these cases--Surrealism and Futurism are two further examples--it was art itself that was believed to be the fulcrum of the revolution. By contrast, I should think, relatively few feminists would see in art as such the chief agency for resolving the injustices of gender. Rather, the injustices of the larger world would be present, predictably, in the institutions of the art world, and their rectification there would be but the political agenda for that particular front, among many. My sense is that the faith in art as a primary means and agency of spiritual transformation has almost totally vanished, and that this explains the vanishing of art movements as such. Art today is pretty much just art. The winds that stirred the waters into waves were those of higher promises and almost religious assurance.

This was certainly true of the movement in the Russian avant-garde of around 1915 that entered--and remade--art history under the name of Suprematism. Its founder and chief exponent, Kazimir Malevich, was perfectly clear that his was not simply the latest and perhaps the final style of advanced painting but, as the very meaning of the term "supreme" implies, that the ultimate of art had been attained through Suprematism, beyond which, accordingly, nothing could be imagined that was art. Something beyond art, however, and higher than art--for which what we might call "suprematizing" was the way and the means--could be imagined. "My new painting does not belong solely to the earth," Malevich wrote in his characteristic prophetic idiom. "The earth has been abandoned like a house, it has been decimated. Indeed, man feels a great yearning for space, an impulse to break free from the globe of the earth.' " To enter a Suprematist painting, accordingly, would not be like entering a Renaissance painting whose spaces were those of the earth: filled with people and trees and houses and mountains. It was, rather, to enter a stratosphere of the spirit, beyond the cognitive limits that define earthbound existence. Inevitably, given the most advanced technology available to him for metaphorical extravagance, Malevich thought of his activity in the idiom of aviation. "I have torn through the blue lampshade of color limitations, and have come out into the white; follow me, comrade aviators sail into the chasm-1 have set up the semaphores of Suprematism."

Suprematism was, in Malevich's vision, a system of artistic practice-"a hard, cold system, unsmilingly set in motion by philosophical thought." Its artistic form was a kind of nonobjective painting in which, typically, simplified colored forms were deployed against a neutral white background. But the prepositional "against" is somewhat misleading. What Malevich intended is that these forms--triangles, slightly irregular bars, squares or circles--should be perceived as floating in a kind of cosmic space, emblems of having broken free of the earth, metaphors for a form of spiritual flotation. I take it that they were meant as more than abstract illustrations of a spiritual condition, however. They were meant to be liberating for the viewer, who was, through them, to find a way into those very spaces, to float, in effect, among other forms. So it was, beyond a system of artistic practice, to be understood as a system of spiritual exercises. I am uncertain whether Malevich used "suprematize" as a verb, but if it can be one, then suprematizing takes up where art has attained its limits. To suprematize is to exist in a higher dimension of spiritual fulfillment than earthly life allows.

It is, I think, exceedingly difficult for a viewer of today to see these often gaily colored showers of form, distributed like confetti across white canvases, pleasing to the eye and to the sense of design, as being dense with the kinds of meanings and means to the states of awakened spirituality that Malevich expected them to be. In part, of course, this is because, however startling nonobjective painting must have appeared in 1915 when Malevich was showing Suprematist works, a long history of abstraction stands between us and those exhibitions. And this history inevitably mutes their energy, and diffuses it, as we view them through the subsequent evolution of abstraction as an artistic commonplace. And in a way, we see them as well as merely examples of a style of design to which they in fact gave rise. The Oxford Dictionary of Art closes its entry on Suprematism by saying that although his direct followers in Russia were of minor account, Malevich had great influence on the development of art and design in the West." Nietzsche once wrote, "I listened for an echo, and heard only applause." Malevich might similarly have lamented, "I looked for fellow aviators and saw designers instead!' A man who gives the grandiose name of Suprematism to his work, who defines his life as one of suprematizing, who felt he had broken through boundaries that had imprisoned human consciousness and who had embarked upon a new exploration of an unimagined space, would hardly be consoled by the assurance that his designs were stunning. In fact, they are so successful as designs that they stand in the way of being perceived as the Suprematisms they were supposed to be.

Because Suprematisms are almost always handsome and bright, they suffer the sort of dilemma a particularly beautiful man or woman must who really wants to be taken seriously as a thinker. It is as though anyone that beautiful must be frivolous and content to be but ornamental. Books on modern art will frequently display something by Malevich on their covers, not alone because his designs exemplify the sort of work to be discussed within but because they are such wonderful embellishments. And often they are discussed as merely that. Consider, for example, the classic study by Alfred H. Barr Jr., Cubism and Abstract Art, reissued a few years ago as a paperback by Harvard University Press. The cover illustration is identified as "Suprematist Composition: Red Square and Black Square." The title could not be more descriptive: A black square is placed squarely in the upper left quadrant of a white rectangle, higher than it is wide, while beneath it, and set at an angle, is a somewhat smaller red square. Barr's text was a pioneering one, as was the exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, of which he was the director, and for which the text served as catalogue. Barr was indeed among the first to purchase Malevich in any quantity, and he deserves all sorts of credit.

Still, it is instructive to read how his text treats the work. A study in equivalents:' Barr writes: "the red square, smaller but more intense in color and more active on its diagonal axis, holds its own against the black square which is larger but negative in color and static in position." This is formalist criticism in its pure state: A work of art is treated in the terms we learn to use in classes in design, if we are artists, or in art appreciation, if we are viewers. It is as if Malevich had brought off a particularly fine solution to a problem of color, shape and placement, viz., "Given two squares of different sizes and colors, compose them in such a way that the smaller holds its own against the larger." It would be difficult to explain the subtitle of the work against this reduced way of describing it: "Color Masses in the Fourth Dimension." The "fourth dimension" was a kind of promised land for geometrical cranks in the early years of this century, but without reference to it as a dimension, the work collapses into merely felicitous design. Barr's is really an almost classic docent's minilecture. But because the way of looking at abstract art--at any art--that it embodies has become the official way of looking at and thinking about art, it is hardly matter for wonder that we are blind, or numb, to what justified Malevich's art in his own eyes.

A Suprematism of 1920 brightens the jacket of Roger Lipsey's An Art of Our Own: The Spiritual in Twentieth Century Art, which Lipsey describes in the body of the text in terms that would have been acceptable to Barr:

A great black triangle, bisecting three

freely aligned orange-red bars, floats in

quiet equilibrium above an orange-red

form, not quite a regular square. There

is nothing more, apart from the blank

sheet of paper that reads as undifferentiated

space. Design, one might say--a

happy juxtaposition of form and color

that creates visual drama by floating'

a heavy form in a spacious environment.

The slight wobble of the beams

contrasts nicely with the axial alignment

of triangle and square and accentuates

the floating sensation. And one

is done; one has seen the work and is

ready to move on.

But Lipsey, one of the rare writers sensitive to the spiritualist impulses in much of early modern art, impulses occluded by the radical formalism of recent decades, does not move on. He pauses, contemplates, and bit by bit there registers upon him what he speaks of as "some magic more difficult to define than the visual order of the work." He cites a striking phrase of Malevich: "We must prepare ourselves by prayer to embrace the sky." And he begins to feel Suprematism, surely as Malevich would have wished him to, as something that embodies another order of reality in the way an icon does when one believes the saint to be, as Byzantine theorists insisted, mystically present in his or her images. Icons and Suprematisms express the same order of immanence, and if indeed there is a passion for formal purity, this is but a transformed and deflected passion for purity of a different order altogether. When the early modernists spoke of the fourth dimension, they did so as if it were a plane orthogonal to earthly reality, onto which we might enter as transfigured beings. The question is not whether we want to share these beliefs but whether we can understand the art without knowing how the art was driven by those beliefs.

It is very much, in Suprematism but not only there, as if the pursuit of non-objectivity were the secular counterpart to the mystic's effort to slip the finite world and enter into oneness with the one. Malevich expresses himself exactly in these terms:

In the year 1913 in my desperate struggle

to free art from the ballast of the objective

world I fled to the form of the

Square and exhibited a picture which

was nothing more or less than a black

square upon a white background. The

critics moaned and with them the public:

"Everything we loved is lost: We are

in a desert. . . . Before us stands a

black square on a white ground."

Black Square certainly did achieve the status of a kind of icon in the minds of Malevich's sympathizers, and in a photograph of "The Last Futurist Exhibition" of 1915, we can see it displayed, hanging not flat against the wall but at an angle across the meeting of two walls, up near the ceiling, in the position, according to scholars, that the chief icon in a traditional household would occupy. In another photograph, of Malevich laid out in state just after his death, the Black Square is shown hanging just above the artist, not flat against the wall, like the other painting with which he is surrounded, but leaning over him, as if in solicitude. Malevich was cremated in a Suprematist coffin, and his grave is marked with a white cube on which is a black square. His last paintings, not in any obvious

Suprematist works but strange and unsettlingly traditional portraits, bear the Black Square as signature. It is clear that whatever the Black Square may have meant in the shuttle of influences, to Malevich and to those close enough to him to think about his life and death and art, the image was bound up with meanings of the most profound spiritual nature. Needless to say, not everyone was prepared to see it in such terms. There are always deflationist critics, one of whom put it down as "the greatest by far among the fairground tricks of instant culture." But for Malevich, the Black Square was "depicted with the greatest expressiveness and according to the laws of art."

The original Black Square is not to be seen in the magnificent exhibition of Malevich's work organized by Angelica Rudenstine, which was scheduled to be on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art until March 24. It is evidently too fragile for travel, but there are two bold Black Squares done at later times, one of them the same dimensions as it. There is as well a Red Square from 1915, and the supreme Suprematism, the notorious and intoxicating White Square on White of 1918, which is among the defining works of the Museum of Modern Art. Each of the squares is somewhat subversive of what one might think of as conduct appropriate to the order of squares. Black Square, for example, is fiendishly unparallel to the geometrically correct square upon which it floats. Red Square is rather vehemently skewed, as if it had not yet attained squarehood, or had just escaped the confines of equiangularity. And the White Square virtually dances on one of its corners in the abstract whiteness of the containing White Square. Each has some distinct meaning and personality, and the sequence from black through red to white obviously connotes some complex itinerary. We have the evidence of his death however, for the thesis that it was the Black Square that retained the greatest meaning for Malevich until the end.

The exhibition seems a little anthology of the successive movements of modernism, through the medium of this single strong artistic personality. Malevich was an Impressionist, a Post-Impressionist, he passed through a phase of Art Nouveau, and he put on and discarded the stylistic vestments of Expressionism, Cubism, Futurism, Cubo-Futurism. Perhaps indeed these reflect his "desperate struggle to free art from the ballast of the galleries devoted to Suprematism, one has the sense that now this fiercely eclectic artist has become an abstractionist--until one realizes that here he is not responding to movements from abroad but has found his own. These works have a kind of exultation and triumph that communicate as joy. It is somewhat more difficult to know how to respond to the Post-Suprematist period in Malevich's life, with its stylized and often faceless peasants, which are succeeded by the altogether mystifying portraits in a Renaissance manner. The show concludes with a self-portrait in which the artist shows himself, to my eyes at least, as Christopher Columbus. He is wearing a biretta of Suprematist red, and his hand is cupped beneath an invisible globe. If this indeed is the interpretation of the work, nothing could have been a more fitting image for this great explorer of the deepest spaces-the artistic Admiral of the Ocean Sea.

COPYRIGHT 1991 The Nation Company L.P.