The Whitechapel Gallery, London presents ‘Adventures of the Black Square: Abstract Art and Society 1915 – 2015’ a major new exhibition tracing a century of Abstract art from 1915 to the present day. The exhibition includes over 100 works by 100 modern masters and contemporary artists including Carl Andre, David Batchelor, Dan Flavin, Andrea Fraser, Piet Mondrian, Gabriel Orozco, Hélio Oiticica, Aleksandr Rodchenko, Sophie Taeuber-Arp, Rosemarie Trockel, Theo Van Doesburg and Andrea Zittel, taking over six exhibition spaces across the gallery.
Whitechapel’s monumental exhibition is curated by Iwona Blazwick OBE, Director, and Magnus af Petersens, creating a show that is truly international in its scope, and documents the rise of Constructivist art from its revolutionary beginnings amongst the avant-garde in Russia and Europe, the show traces the evolution of geometric abstraction from continents across the globe including Asia, the US and Latin America.
The exhibition is arranged chronologically, and divided into four key themes: ‘Communication’, ‘Architectonics’, ‘Utopia’, and ‘The Everyday’. Adventures of the Black square makes a resounding point about the history of abstract art; and it is a very strong argument: that abstraction has more at its heart than form and shape, it has, in fact, always been connected to human concerns since its inception, as it has influenced, and reacted to modern societies and its politics throughout its existence.
The Russian artist Kazimir Malevich greets viewers as they enter the Whitechapel Gallery, with a version his Black Quadrilateral – exhibited at The Last Futurist Exhibition of Paintings in 1915, with that, Malevich’s paintings, (as the viewer learned in Tate Modern’s show last year), hailed an end to representation, and ushered in an abstract form he called Suprematism. It was the ground zero of a new form of expression free of representation, or the temporal aspects of art, and the Whitechapel’s extensive exhibition journeys from year zero to one hundred – from 1915 to 2015.
The exhibitions takes the viewer on a journey through the rigours of abstraction’s repetitive units and it is soon obvious that this particular art practice is capable of expressing political and social freedoms, principles of idealism, totalitarianism, technology, and the aesthetics of industrialisation, and architecture.
In tandem with the main exhibition, the Whitechapel Has also organised a programme of complementary projects designed to work in tandem with its exhibits and focus on many of its core ideas. A highlight of which is Daniel Buren’s East London restaging of his now-classic Seven Ballets in Manhattan of 1975, the ballet revolved around a group of dancers reclaiming the radical and social ambitions of abstraction, by taking to the streets carrying placards of the artist’s striped paintings.
But let us return to the expansive selection of abstraction literally at hand; as it is also a journey from that Russian suprematism to Bauhaus and Brazilian neo-concretism, from minimalism to post-minimalism – the human presence and the universal need to acquire the abstract as expression is all encompassing, the theme of social and political optimism is ever-present. Because of their universality, geometric shapes were deemed inherently democratic.
But perhaps not always optimistic, Malevich’s Black Square was, after all, created at the same time as hundreds of thousands marched out of their trenches into the world’s first mass killing machine, and there is something chillingly unavoidable about the work once placed in that context – one hundred years ago.
But after the Second World War, the journey takes the viewer not to Pollock and the Abstract Expressionists in New York, but to artists in newly prosperous parts of Latin America that had latched onto abstraction, where artists broke with the figurative tradition imposed on their everyday practice by the European Catholic regime. In Brazil, Helio Oiticica, Lygia Clark and fellow members of the “Neoconcretist” created geometric sculptures. The nature of Abstract art had split, existing in two different incarnations: the freestyle of Miró that was inherited by the Abstract Expressionist’s and the mathematical purity that began with Malevich.
The journey from Malevich’s opening is a little tangential, but does help repair the disconnect between this particular art practice and a sense of subjective human experience perceived by the majority of viewers – that radical geometry is indeed all about the world, and has been employed for a hundred years to express deep-seated social and political freedoms, one can understand its power all the more when reminded of the fact that the Soviet authorities turned against the abstract avantgarde, and Stalin outlawed it in favour of Social Realism, while the Nazis closed Bauhaus down in 1933 in favour of its own model based on classical Greek and Roman art, both in fear of Abstraction’s ability to transcend totalitarian thought, conversely through mathematical precision .
‘Adventures of the Black Square: Abstract Art and Society 1915 to 2015’ – Whitechapel Gallery, London – until 6 April 2015
Words: Paul Black Photo: courtesy of P A Black © Artlyst 2015 all rights reserved