Can Abstract Art Still Be Radical?

Theo van Doesburg, "Color design for ceiling and three walls, small ballroom, conversion of Café Aubette interior Strasbourg" (1926–7) Courtesy: Galerie Gmurzynska AG.

Is abstract art, especially the geometric kind, radical anymore? This is the big question that vibrates through the Whitechapel Gallery’s rich and jam-packed history show, which starts with Kazimir Malevich’s Black Quadrilateral, painted around 1915, staring at you as you enter like an empty eye socket. But it’s more than just the wild legacy of Malevich’s explosively novel black square that is charted here. Blocks, arcs, grids, circles, triangles ─ Adventures of the Black Square gives us an enthusiastic, pile-it-high history of non-representational hard-edged art, as it burns its way through a century and across continents, from its birth in the white-hot crucible of European and Soviet aesthetic and social revolution. And yet it’s an energy that seems to have largely dissipated in our current moment, a hundred years later, no matter how much Adventures tries to pitch it otherwise.

Much is made by the show of how art geometric quickly came to represent utopian ideals of social progress, and this is certainly clear in the truly dizzying, super-compressed first gallery, which takes us from the graphic and photographic experiments of the Russian constructivists, and into the European experiments of Mondrian’s Neo-plasticism and Bauhaus pioneer Josef Albers. You get the very real sense that geometric abstraction, for all the strident manifestos, inspired artists in the way that it offered a symbol for liberation, for not settling for what the present had to offer. And it’s breath-taking just how old it all is, how much was accomplished in such a short space of time. Lyubov Popova’s 1916 Painterly Architectonic seems tense with the infinite possibilities it can only start to suggest; Theo Van Doesburg’s Colour design for ceiling and three walls (1926-7), for a café in Strasbourg, reminds us that the movement for abstraction wasn’t just utopian pipe-dreams, but a vision for remaking every aspect of social, urban life. A fantastic section of display cases devoted to historical publications shows just how the enthusiasm for non-objective art spread, through Europe, to North America and particularly to Brazil.

The show’s big curatorial gambit is to trace the ‘adventure’ of geometric abstraction as if it were a baton being handed on, or a meme, hopping from one historical moment, one group of artists, one geographical locality, to another, like an artistic family tree.

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