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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-representational surfaces”. Blazwick then refers to this as “formalist art” which she distinguishes from abstraction from nature (or bio-morphic abstraction) and gestural abstract expressionism. But later in the same opening statement she claims that the exhibition is “a testament to the protean nature of geometric abstraction” – which would appear to recognise a wide range of styles – but then states that “examples of formalist, lyrical and spiritual geometric abstraction are not represented here” – leaving in the exhibition only abstract artists “whose intention is to connect with or reflect society”.  Given that, as Blazwick says,  the essential visual feature of geometric abstraction is its formalist geometricity, this exclusion of the formalist approach seems nonsensical.

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 mish-mash of images and objects purportedly illustrating these themes is simply confusing. What, for example, is a small curvilinear wooden sculpture by the Lebanese artist Salouar Raouda Choucair doing here?  Another section of the exhibition, described as ‘Communication’, includes a number of photographs of buildings which would seem more relevant to the architectonic section , while a 1936 photo of Kiev Station by the Soviet photographer Arkady Shaikhet does not seem to relate to any aspect of the exhibition. It certainly has nothing to do with geometric abstraction, bearing in mind that Shaikhet was commissioned by the Stalinist state to document its achievements within the cultural and anti-constructivist framework of Soviet Realism.

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-war period, although with some later journals. These are, however, examples more of modernist graphic design than of geometric abstraction. And there are significant omissions, such as the journal ‘Structure’, which from 1958 to 1964 provided a significant forum for discussion about concepts and developments in constructivist abstraction, and the contemporary German journal, KunstKonkret.

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-founder of both De Stijl and Abstraction-Creation?  Where is there any recognition of the involvement of French artists such as Jean Hélion,  Auguste Herbin and Jean  Gorin?  And in the American scene, why has Ad Reinhardt been ignored?

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 - such as Pasmore’s work in Peterlee New Town. The omission of the Martins is unwittingly highlighted in the catalogue in its brief biography of the contemporary Dubai conceptualist, Hassan Sharif, which notes that when studying in London he “was influenced by Tam Giles, Kenneth and Mary Martin and British Constructivism”. So in the exhibition we see two not particularly interesting collages by Sharif, which are only marginally geometric, but nothing by the mainstream constructivist British artists by whom he was influenced. To make things worse, in a longer catalogue piece about Sharif, Pauline Kolczynska writes that the work of the British Constructionists led to the creation of the Systems Group, for which she makes the inaccurate claim that it “was spearheaded by Michael Kidner, Malcolm Steele, Jean Spencer, Peter Lowe and Jeffrey Steele”.  In fact, Kidner took no part in the founding of the group, and was far from being its most active member. Jeffery Steele and Malcolm Hughes were the founding members, with support from David Saunders and Jean Spencer, and there was no-one with the name Malcolm Steele. Poor scholarship of this kind, like the omission, in Blazwick’s historical account, of any reference to the founding, by Theo van Doesburg, of the International Faction of Constructivists in 1922, does not inspire confidence in the quality of the research underpinning the exhibition.

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.

Alan Fowler

February 2015

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