Malevich at the Met

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A retrospective of the Russian-born artist Kazimir Malevich is currently on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The show, which runs through January 13, 2013, features more than 70 works produced between 1915 and 1934.

Titled “Malevich: Suprematist Composition,” the exhibition is organized by the Guggenheim Museum’s Chief Curator, Kerry Brougher, who also served as an advisor to the current show.

It is true that Malevich has become somewhat of a household name over the past few years thanks to popular shows such as “The Black Square: The Artist’s Favorite Shape” (2009) and “Kazimir Malevich: The Last Futurist” (2011), both of which were held at London’s Tate Modern. Still, far too many people are under the impression that Malevich was just some crazy artist who painted squares.*

To be sure, those squares have come to represent so much more than their original meaning. But were it not for his Suprematist compositions and his work as an educator, we might think of him only as “a painter of square pictures.”**

The current exhibition features more than 70 paintings and sculptures dating from 1915 through 1934—a period that

Kazimir Malevich is best known for his Black Square, the first work of pure abstraction in painting. But he was also a prolific painter and printmaker, creating thousands of works between the two World Wars. Many of these were made on his own initiative, but some were commissioned by the Soviet government or Communist Party.

The most famous example of this second category is Malevich’s contribution to the Red Corner of the former Moscow Hotel, a “temple to the new world” designed by El Lissitzky and built in 1926-27. Black Square (1915), installed in 1927, and another work from the same year, Beheading of Saint John the Baptist (1915), are now on view in “Kazimir Malevich: Suprematism and Other Works,” at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art until January 19.

“Many people think that Malevich devoted himself exclusively to Suprematist compositions,” said curator Mia Czarniawska in her introduction to a catalog published for the exhibition. “In fact, he returned again and again to figurative subjects.”

While Suprematism is generally considered one of the earliest examples of abstraction in 20th-century art, it has its roots in realism. Paintings such

A new exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York offers a comprehensive overview of the artist’s career, including his most famous paintings and works previously unseen in the United States.

“Malevich: The Origins of Suprematism” (through May 11) traces the development of Malevich’s abstract art from his earliest experiments to his final masterpieces.

Kazimir Malevich’s painterly practice is arguably the most important in the history of modern art. His Suprematist compositions are some of the most recognizable and iconic images of the 20 th century, and their influence on artists from Malevich’s contemporaries to Pop artists of the 1960s cannot be overstated. As such, a retrospective of his work is an extraordinary opportunity to examine how his ideas changed over time, as well as how his practice evolved with the rapidly changing sociopolitical landscape in Russia throughout the 20 th century.

Artists of all kinds have often turned to “readymades” as a way of addressing their desire to create, while also acknowledging that their intentions can no longer be realized solely by their own hands. Malevich was no stranger to this notion of art making through appropriation, having painted on newspaper and made collages out of wallpaper and other readymade materials. But it was not until his first solo exhibition in 1915 at Der Blaue Reiter in Munich, Germany that he fully embraced abstraction and created a series of Suprematist compositions using these materials. For Malevich, this was an opportunity to reflect upon his own role in society as an artist while also commenting on the artistic processes and traditions which he claimed were less relevant to

In the first half of the twentieth century, modern art was a series of quests. Artists sought new forms and new materials, as well as new ways to express themselves.

Kazimir Malevich followed each quest with almost religious fervor. In 1912, he turned his back on traditional painting to explore the work of avant-garde Russian Cubists. He believed these artists had created the perfect form of art—one that would be equally appreciated by men and women, producers and consumers, workers and bosses.

It was of little matter to Malevich that their paintings were often difficult to understand. His faith was so great that he once said he could look at a single yellow brushstroke by the Cubist artist Kazimir Severinovich Malevich and recognize its brilliance.

In 1913, while gluing pieces of colored cloth onto a white background, Malevich had a revelation: why not create an artwork in which there was no color? Or better yet, an artwork in which everything else was black but one thing shone forth in bright white?

Malevich’s works would become more esoteric after that—his paintings looking like pyramids or cryptic messages from an alien culture. But it all started with a simple idea: If you want to change art, change the

“All right,” Lichtenstein said, “I’ll do it.” And he did. He spent the next six months working on a series of paintings based directly on Malevich’s 1915 Black Square on White Surface.

For all its simplicity, the Black Square is one of the most mysterious and influential works of art ever made. Never before or since has a painter so radically changed the course of art by so simply refusing to include any of the things that had long been taken for granted: not color, not realistic representation, not even three-dimensionality.

When Malevich painted it in 1915, he was thirty-five years old and had been an artist for more than fifteen years. Like many Russian artists of his generation, he was obsessed with questions about how to paint a picture that would express his vision of the essential truth about the world. Like many, too, he had come to believe that this truth was best expressed through abstraction—that is, by eliminating from his pictures all signs that they were representations of anything in particular.

The question then became one of deciding what to leave out: what was essential? For Malevich the answer was simple: everything else. If all you leave inside a picture is pure color and surface, then every picture looks like

In the last years of his life, Malevich found himself in a position to create what he called Suprematist compositions for the largest possible audience. He was in demand as a teacher and his students were instructed to spread his ideas around. The goal was to create a “new Soviet man”: an active, optimistic participant in the construction of a new society.

Malevich’s fame and popularity (he was called “the prophet of suprematism”) gave him the opportunity to exhibit his work in galleries across Europe and North America. His first major exhibition after the Russian Revolution took place at the Galerie Der Sturm in Berlin in 1922. It included paintings, drawings, and reliefs that demonstrated his mastery of abstraction and a variety of styles: geometric abstraction, realism, primitivism, cubism, futurism, cubo-futurism, assemblage. The variety reflected Malevich’s desire to put forth a clear message about the supremacy of pure art over all other forms. It also allowed him to make more money by catering to popular tastes.

The show attracted large crowds and critical attention from European avant-garde artists—including Duchamp—who admired Malevich’s bold new style.

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