In early twentieth century Russia Kazimir Malevich was a pioneer of abstract art. He is associated with the style of severe geometric abstraction known as Suprematism, which lead to the development of Constructivism. Suprematism influenced the styles of artwork that followed throughout the twentieth century. His work was suppressed in Soviet Russia in the 1930s, and remained almost unknown during the following two decades. There was a renewed interest in his work in the West in the mid-1950s, evident in the paintings of Ad Reinhardt, and in developments such as Zero, Hard-edge painting and Minimalism. His work was most widely seen by Americans in his 1973 retrospective exhibition at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. One of the purposes behind this exhibition is to highlight Malevich's influence on American art in the later part of the century. To illustrate his influence the exhibition features works by modern and contemporary American artists including John Baldessari, Donald Judd, Ellsworth Kelly, Agnes Martin, Barnett Newman, Ad Reinhardt, Richard Serra, Frank Stella, and Cy Twombly. Although the varying art forms in the show were each created during different periods, they relate to each other through the artists' interest in non-objective styles using geometric forms derived from Malevich.
Gagosian Gallery features six rare and pivotal paintings by Malevich. In the first main exhibition room are four of Malevich's Suprematist paintings, three of which are from 1915, first exhibited in 1916. Suprematism, 18th Construction (1915) is a small (20 7/8" x 20 7/8") square painting that depicts a cluster of rectangles floating diagonally. The painting is striking, the largest black rectangular shape is narrower on its bottom right side than the top left side, giving it an animated quality, The rectangle looks like it is coming out of the painting, toward the viewer, as though the shapes in the white square plane pop out at you. His paintings do not represent real objects. Malevich's paintings attempt to get beyond the physical world; he is trying to reach beyond the third dimension with pure abstraction. Malevich's Suprematism is an art of pure form. Color and form are basic tools of art. He uses these tools in a way that glorifies them. Geometry is used as the universal language in an attempt to convey the supreme reality of existence. His passionate, what he called "pure sensation", paintings attempt to convey weightless vibrating textures in an infinite expanse.
The exhibition allows the space and time to get a close view of the paintings. Malevich's paintings in the exhibition use rectangles, triangles and other signs on a white infinite space to create magical dynamic motion. When looking closely at the works one sees the artist's hand in the canvas: pencil marks, smudges, and uneven paint. The nails along the side of the canvas fastening it to the wood frame bring to mind the force and perspiration that Malevich used to create his paintings. The small size of the paintings creates an intimate experience, versus some of the American works, which are overwhelming in size.
Further into the exhibition Malevich's Desk and Room from 1913 is featured. The painting reveals Malevich's earlier interest in Fauvist and Cubist art. The colors and forms are heavy and laborious in comparison to his later work. The dominant brown and gray paint colors are applied thickly. Many lines and angles create a complex composition. One white rectangle on the right side breathes a small amount of fresh air into the painting and hints at his later reliance on rectangles and white space. In 1913 Malevich painted Black Square on a White Ground, which seems to directly influence Ellsworth Kelly's Black Square and White Square from 1953, which are in the show. Black Square on a White Ground shows that during that time Malevich was learning to control and drastically change his painting style.
Malevich added a spiritual beauty to our sense of technology. His paintings appropriate circles and triangles from wheels and cones used to create the machines of the modern world. Malevich influenced the American artists in the exhibition, whether they were aware of his influence on them or not. Like Malevich, rather than representing something from the physical world, the American works in the show use flat geometric shapes and lines to create compositions, convey ideas, and express inner emotional worlds. Frank Stella's Luis Miguel Dominguin II (1960), from his aluminum paintings series, in which he does not use the traditional rectangular-shaped canvas, uses flat lines and creates geometric spaces. Stella was directly influenced by Jasper John's "target" paintings and the work of Barnett Newman, who is featured in the exhibition as well, however Malevich's influence can be detected. The symmetrical painting is reminiscent of a machine part, in this case a computer, or city streets due to the row of lines on a flat background. This likeness to a machine or city is further suggested by the use of metallic aluminum paint. The long straight vertical lines create an optical illusion when they each form right angles at certain points along a diagonal line then resume their original direction. Stella's use of non-representational lines and shapes create visual energy similar to the way Malevich uses his floating geometric shapes. Malevich paved the way for artists of the twentieth century to detach from the visible world. Malevich's paintings show a sense of the coming of an age of technology and a wanting to have a hand in shaping it.