Adventures of the Black Square

Whitechapel Gallery, London, until 6 April 2015


This is a hugely enjoyable exhibition that aims to counteract the perception that non-representational art was a passing feature of early twentieth-century European culture. It shows the widespread influence and practice of non-representationalism as an artistic language throughout the twentieth century and gradually across the world.

The focus is specifically on geometrical abstraction, so there is no place for the non-representational work of the Dadaists, Surrealists or Abstract Expressionists; nor even, surprisingly, for Kandinsky, although plenty of other Bauhaus artists are featured.

The starting point is Malevich’s Black Square (1915), a dramatic statement of intent in pre-revolutionary Russia; a tabula rasa, prefiguring the new society that the forces of the Left were intent on introducing. All history, tradition and any other kind of privilege was to be swept away, leaving free space for a new art, constructed on the principles of human rationality. In a parallel development in Holland in 1917 Mondrian and the De Stijl group decided that the only solution to the horrors of the First World War was to begin again on rational principles, with art and architecture using only the basics of veritical and horizontal lines, black and white, and the primary colours.

The exhibition captures well the sheer excitement of the project. Creating new art forms for a new society unleashes waves of excited creativity and huge confidence in humanity. There are the richly coloured compositions of Popova, and the delightfully elegant arrangements by El Lissitzky, whose finely drawn shapes intersect in imagined space, enlivened by dramatic colour.

There are plenty of examples of how Constructivism influenced architectural design. At the Bauhaus it was sometimes difficult to tell whether an abstract arrangement was a painting derived from architecture, or was in fact a design from which an architectural plan would develop. Meanwhile, in Russia Iakov Chernikov was producing beautiful, imaginative dream buildings that seem at times like a Kandinsky in three dimensions.

As artists came from across the world to study in Paris, London or the Bauhaus, they took back the ambitions and aesthetics to their own countries. In the 1940s Saloua Raouda Choucair was the first abstract painter in the Arab world, before turning to abstract sculpture. Meanwhile, influenced by Fernard Léger, the Neo-Concrete art movement in Rio de Janeiro sprang up at the end of the 1950s.

Indian artist Nasreen Mohamedi, recently featured in a solo exhibition at Tate Liverpool, studied at Central St Martin’s in London (1954-7), before returning to India in the 1970s. There she produced abstract drawings in pen-and-ink or graphite, influenced by both Suprematism and Islamic pattern-making, and with all the wonderful delicacy of El Lissitzky.

Facundo de Zuviria was making photographs of Buenos Aires in the 1980s and 1990s that clearly built on the work of Rodchenko in 1920s Russia. Contemporary Chinese artist Liu Wei is represented by a richly beautiful painting Purple air, reflecting on China’s new urban environment.

For some artists, abstraction seems to be pattern making, whose meaning is little more the object itself – supremely so, one feels, with the metal tiles of Carl Andre. However, as modernism developed, abstract art started to reference its own history. Keith Coventry’s painting Sceaux Gardens Estate (1995) uses abstract forms to reflect on the dystopian realities of postwar modernist urban planning.

In the very different environment of Soviet Russia, various avant-garde artists’ use of abstraction was in itself a symbol of resistance, as it drew attention to the work of Malevich and other Suprematists, suppressed under Stalin and replaced by the banalities of Socialist Realism. The authorities in turn understood the message, and did their best to suppress the movement.

Some works in this exhibition seem to stretch the definition of non-representationalism, such as Jenny Holzer’s use of black slabs to emulate redacted political documents. Francis Alÿs’ video, showing him minutely repainting with a small brush the yellow lines on a roadway dividing North and South America (oh, for those heroic days before risk assessment) was more an act of conceptualism.

But overall, this is a very entertaining exhibition, with helpful curatorial guidance, and plenty to think about and enjoy.

[This review was first published in Third Way magazine, March 2015]

© 2015