In 1915 in Petrograd, the recently renamed St Petersburg, Kazimir Malevich unveiled one of art’s most adaptable and enduring motifs. In a show ponderously entitled “The Last Futurist Exhibition of Painting 0,10” he displayed a painting of a plain black square on an empty white background. The picture, hung high in a corner of the gallery – the place usually occupied in Russian homes by an icon – was designed to announce a birth and a death. The birth was that of his new movement, suprematism (from supremus), and the death was nothing less than that of the history of painting.
Into that black void would disappear, he hoped, the bourgeois values of art. “I’m happy that my square’s face can’t be compared to any master or period,” he wrote. “I didn’t obey the fathers and I’m not like them.” Malevich saw his new style as part of the wider Soviet project and his black square as presaging the utopian future: jump through it, he said, and “the free white sea, infinity, lies before you”. There the detritus of traditional art, all those “bits of nature, madonnas and shameless nudes”, would be replaced by “pure painting composition”. His empty square in fact held a lot of aspirations, political, spiritual and artistic.
The afterlife of Malevich’s innovation is the subject of an inventive exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery in London, “Adventures of the Black Square: Abstract Art and Society 1915-2015”. It traces the many reincarnations of Malevich’s original and tracks the way both its form and its meaning have been adapted over the succeeding century by artists as varied as Piet Mondrian and Carl Andre, Aleksandr Rodchenko and Dan Flavin. According to Malevich, “painting died, like the old regime, because it was an organic part of it”, but what the exhibition proves most forcibly is how spectacularly wrong he was. Ironically, his Black Quadrilateral, an attempt to break from the art of the past, has become a historical artefact in its own right, the founding image of a new tradition and a point of reference for legions of later artists. Geometric abstraction has real-world uses.
The curators have divided this exploration of Malevich’s square under four themes – Utopia, Architectonics, Communications and the Everyday – which between them show how his picture was repurposed for everything from construction and graphic art to industrial and textile design. Its range, too, became global: from Russia it quickly spread, first to Europe through the Bauhaus and then, aided by innumerable magazines and printed manifestos (also on show), to South America, which adopted abstraction as a way of breaking from the colonial past.
The journey was, among other things, one of disappointment, too. For the early Soviets geometrical shapes were inherently democratic and the ideal basis from which to fashion a new architecture. Yet later generations saw them as impersonal and the optimism turned to pessimism. A wonderfully skilful black-and-white drawing by Iakov Chernikhov of 1925 shows a fantasy building composed entirely of blocks and grids – a noble edifice fit for the workers. Seventy years later Keith Coventry’s seemingly abstract painting of ten yellow rectangles floating in space is in fact the ground plan for the Sceaux Gardens Estate in Camberwell, south London, an example of just how un-utopian many modernist social housing schemes were.
A similarly dispiriting trajectory can be observed in the way Malevich’s immaculately simple Black and White: Suprematist Composition of 1915 was reused in 1999 by Rosemarie Trockel, switching the black and white and woven in wool with the words “Cogito, ergo sum” stitched in. Malevich’s clarion call has become yet another plaything for clever-clever postmodern artists to mess around with.
As the century progressed, Malevich’s square lost not just its ideology but its original colour, the black being replaced by the full spectrum. That makes this exhibition a surprisingly joyous one visually, filled with invention and bright shades, from Josef Albers’s 1963 Homage to the Square in four tints of yellow to equally vivid geometrical riffs by Peter Halley and Andrea Büttner. While many of the later painterly derivations can trace their inspiration back to 1915 the curators see echoes everywhere and not all are convincing – Hannah Starkey’s 2006 photographs of office foyers and Sarah Morris’s 2008 video of Beijing show a geometrical precision that has nothing to do with Malevich’s model.
Even if the second half of the Whitechapel exhibition, dealing with the mid-1960s onwards, lacks the rigour of the first part, which deals with the early years when the square hadn’t yet been tugged into more whimsical shapes, this is a fascinating and worthwhile examination of an artistic phenomenon. It proves there was and is nothing square about the square.
Runs until 6 April. whitechapelgallery.org