The curatorial and editorial project for systems, non-objective and reductive artists working in the UK

Website: Chestnuts Design

Adventures of the Black Square: Abstract Art and Society 1915 – 2015, at the Whitechapel Gallery, 15 Jan to 6 April 2015

Review by Laurence Noga

Adventures of the Black Square’ presents an international synthesis of painting, sculpture, film and photography, comprising rationalist, structural and constructivist approaches, and assesses the social and utilitarian principles expressed by the Russian avant-garde artists Malevich, Kruchenykh and Rodchenko, who attempted to change the world through their heuristic vision. The curation, by Iwona Blazwick and Magnus af Petersens, creates a sensation of that time; wherever we look, we feel an overwhelming sense of super-modernity.

The show is presented in four chronological sections: first, a Utopian aesthetic, which is innovative and politically charged; second, an architectonic rhetoric of order, looking specifically at construction and systems; third, communication, with a deep fascination with abstraction as a vehicle for change; and finally, the everyday, which unpacks and reassesses the notion of abstract art and its infiltration into all aspects of visual culture.  

The jam-packed atmosphere short-circuits some historical context in favour of the spatial arrangement. The idea of the Malevich ‘black quadrilateral’ explodes throughout the exhibition through the power of the geometric magazine page, displayed here: Blok, published in Warsaw, and Zivot in Prague. Using this medium, Aleksandr Rodchenko and László Moholy-Nagy generated an emphatic global transformation towards an abstract language.The sense of syncopation is dynamic and neo-plastic, and also, in Mondrian’s world, suave and branded; a vision of the future in which all humankind might live in perfect synchronization.  

Max Bill’s shimmering Simultaneous construction of two systems (1945-51, oil on canvas, 145 x 201cm) picks up on this level of speed and synchronicity. This is a potent and extraordinary painting that evades resolution. The white ground is key to its success, allowing a sense of clean, compositional control. The exact grey vectors shift from left to right, and right to left. They amplify a coded sequence of light red squares (cells) that seem to resonate with a future that cannot be anticipated.  

The Brazilian neo-concrete artist Waldemar Cordeiro was a painter, landscape designer, electronic artist and theorist, and this breadth of knowledge is evident in Untitled (1958). This is a hypnotic and intriguing painting, which reminds me of the work of Natalie Dower, with her spiralling sense of mechanics. It absorbs light through its subtle use of opacity, which allows the deep red under-colour to oscillate beneath the formal construction, while the interplay between the tonally red, scumbled triangles and the hovering blue diamonds activates a synaesthetic reaction, with associations of the virtual.

Next, I encounter Josef Albers’ powerful gestalt, which commands that colour be released from shape – this work resonates with a sense of complete intoxication. Albers wanted his work to be utterly neutral, yet the reach of Homage to the Square (the series he began in 1950) seems to penetrate a relationship between the past and the present. The brain conflicts with what the eyes are physically seeing. The mathematically-determined format resonates like the bright spectra of a planetary nebula; the effects of the adjacent colour change the visual relationship with the inner square of Indian yellow.  

Max Bill, Simultaneous construction of two systems 1945-51, oil on canvas, 145 x 201cm

Hungarian artist Dora Maurer’s Seven Rotations creates a perplexing sequential progression in flux (distorting the square). We see a systematized recording of its miniaturization - the viewer is pulled into a vortex as each previous photograph is re-photographed, rotated, and re-presented.  

Mathematical principles and a machine aesthetic further sharpen the juxtapositions within the space. Jeffrey Steele’s Third Syntagmatic (an ancient Greek military term) is phenomenologically insistent in its sense of arrangement, or taxonomy. The arrangement /composition has its own syntax, which allows us to unpack the concrete from the abstract. This is perhaps best demonstrated by Lygia Pape, who simply cuts out specific spaces (i.e. squares) from the corner of her forms and places them on the front of the work, making them concretized, and completely mesmerizing.

Henri Bergson says: “to perceive means to immobilise. . .  we seize, in the act of perception, something which outruns perception itself”. Walk across Carl Andre, and we are aware that this is ‘suprematist-compatible’; softly constructed, not specifically a place at all but an in-between space. This work sits directly opposite Dan Flavin’s light-work, hypnotically facing its audience, beckoning them into an expansion and dilation of space. But also shifting the ‘black square’ across the pond.

The top-floor galleries are more manipulative, concerned with mobility, duration, and the virtual. The formalism has a Utopian undercurrent, and the sensory experience orchestrates our visual reading.  For example, the conceptual work of the Romanian artist, Zvi Goldstein, refers to a design for loudspeakers by the Russian constructivist artist Gustav Klutcis. Goldstein’s early work, using photography, film and audio, was developed in the 1980s through large-scale sculptures and installations. The objectification in the paintings and speakers seems to operate through a ‘discourse of power’ (Michel Foucault), echoing dominant power structures in society.  

Unresolved political tensions, and an interactive approach, are important in the work of Amalia Pica: Material for Intersections 2 (2013).  Pica uses performers to manipulate and transport translucent coloured acrylic forms in a site-specific space. This physical re-distribution of shapes was created in direct response to the military junta in Argentina during the 1970s, which forbade the use of Venn diagrams, considering them potentially subversive. What specifically interests Pica is the notion of distance between sender and receiver; she considers what we are likely to misunderstand or mis-remember. This work memorializes the original performance and acts like a strange, coded semaphore.

Dora Maurer Seven Rotations, silver gelatin print 1979

Peter Halley seized on a new operating practice in the ’80s, which grew out of his diversity of approach, using vacuum-formed plastic, screenprint and lithography. His passion for ’50s comics activated his ideas concerning colour process, cyan, magenta, yellow and black inks.  Halley used his Apple Macintosh to work out his 1992 landscape Auto Zone. The first thing the viewer notices about this large work (244 x 238cm) is the very deep stretcher which accentuates the object: the canvas that wraps around the side of the work is clean. The central deep red square floats within the rectangle, pushing against and into the acid Day-glo colours and rippled surfaces, illuminating the circuit.

A performative dialogue in the upstairs galleries inevitably pulls us into its perceived effects, as in the work of Karthik Pandian.The perception of daily labour in this haunting play on time is disconcerting and imposing. It presents viewers with a puzzle, making them decipher the symbolic content, and wonder at the allegory unfolding in front of them, as the red rectangle appears at intervals in a multi-disciplinary aesthetic.

Overall, this exhibition is all-encompassing. It allows you to get lost in corners, stay with a work for a long time, see it close up. It recognizes our adoption of the machine - and that we are comfortable with ourselves in that capacity - but also addresses the boundaries of the hand-made. We should ask ourselves the question: Does it function as a model of the perceptual paradox, or does it elicit a human interaction from the chaotic associative potential between objects and the politics of globalization?  

Laurence Noga

Peter Halley, Auto Zone, 1992, acrylic, Day-glo acrylic and Roll-a-tex on canvas, 96” x 97”

Adventures of the Black Square, Gallery 8, photo courtesy of Whitechapel Gallery

©Copyright Patrick Morrissey and Clive Hancock  All rights reserved.