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Adventures of the Black Square: Abstract Art and Society 1915 – 2015, at the Whitechapel Gallery, 15 Jan to 6 April 2015
Comments by Alan Fowler
The impact of this large, ambitious exhibition is undermined by its muddled objectives, and by what it omits as much as by what it includes. The curators have tried to conflate the cultural legacy of Malevich’s Black Square and the relationship between abstract art and society within an attempted account of 100 years of geometric abstraction. This had led to inadequate accounts of each theme, the omission of many important artists, and the inclusion of some works which appear to have little relevance to the curators’ stated objectives.
An immediate issue for the exhibition is its definition of geometric abstraction
– described in the opening catalogue statement by Iwona Blazwick (the Whitechapel
Director) as abstraction “characterised by pure forms based on mathematically defined
systems and monochromatic and non-
It is also highly questionable to attempt a rigid distinction between art which has a connection with society and that which does not. No art exists in a vacuum, and all art reflects to varying degrees the societal environment in which it is produced, even if such a connection is implicit rather than overt. The result of these contradictions and confusions, both in definitions and selection criteria, is the muddled and inadequate account of geometric abstraction offered by this exhibition.
In any event, to treat geometric abstraction as the principal legacy of the Black Square is surely far too limiting. This iconic Malevich painting is generally taken as symbolic of an “out with the old, in with the new” approach which opened the door to a much wider range of artistic practice than geometric abstraction. The primary significance of the Black Square is its blackness (or blankness), not its geometricity as a square. Minimalism and conceptualism, for example, can both be argued as being legitimised by it. The exhibition makes some acknowledgment of this point through the inclusion of a handful of primarily conceptual artists and some minimalists. Two examples are a minimalist floor work by Carl André and a tiny conceptualist 0.9 cm wooden cube by Clido Miereles. But the link between some of these works and geometric abstraction is tenuous in the extreme.
An adequate account of the relationship between formalist geometric abstraction and
society at large would require far more extensive political and sociological treatment
than that which is offered here. Admittedly, there is a section of the exhibition
described as architectonic, and the catalogue makes a brief reference to the concept
of a synthesis of painting, sculpture, architecture and design in the interests of
a better society, as promoted by De Stijl, the Bauhaus and Groupe Espace. But the
The large showing of magazine covers – there are over 70 of these exhibits – provides
a display of constructivist and related publications, mainly from the pre-
But it is the curators’ selection of artists and exhibits which results in a massively
inadequate account of geometric abstraction in any or all of its forms. Only eight
of the 103 artists in the exhibition are in the outstanding and comprehensive collections
of nearly 300 geometric abstractionists in Zurich’s Haus Konstruktiv and Würzburg’s
Museum im Kulturspeicher – resulting in huge gaps in the Whitechapel’s exhibition.
To take just three of many examples: how can any reasonable account exclude Georges
Vantongerloo – co-
The British involvement has been treated just as poorly. The 1950s Constructionists
have been excluded, even though Victor Pasmore and Kenneth and Mary Martin would
certainly pass the Whitechapel criterion of connection with society, through their
involvement with architects and public sculpture -
Just one work by Jeffrey Steele from the Systems Group artists is included, but nothing by the group’s other members such as Peter Lowe and Gillian Wise, or by Anthony Hill of the Constructionists, all of whom have continued to work in this mode into the 2000s. The few British works that are in the exhibition include a video of Beijing by Sarah Morris (where’s the geometric abstraction in that?) and an irrelevant film still of a soundtrack by Liz Rhodes.
In their treatment of relevant British abstraction, and of the subject of the exhibition as a whole, the curators seem to have been more interested in the byways of geometric abstraction than in its main highway. And the fact that there are some good things here – particularly of the early Russian works – does not compensate for the disappointment caused by the muddled and inadequate treatment of a theme for which there are ample sources of wonderful material and which, frustratingly, the curators have left largely untapped.
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