Malevich, Revolutionary of Russian Art at Tate Modern starts predominantly as a show of painting, and there are many excellent examples of Malevich’s early vision and skill in the initial rooms of the exhibition. Works from the second decade of the twentieth century such as The Province and The Scyther demonstrate clearly his ongoing development of an original visual language. However, by the time we encounter the first of the two versions of Black Square in the show, the clarity of the exhibition’s focus has begun to falter. Sitting uncomfortably in the same dark room as a vociferous screening of the Futurist opera Victory over the Sun, whichis cited as having led to its conception, the 1923 version of Black Square is introduced in the exhibition notes as a work of ‘uncompromising power…one of the iconic paintings of the twentieth century’. Sadly, Tate presents little opportunity to see Black Square as a painting at all. The discussion of it as such is eclipsed – through its fixed positioning in the past – by the persistent contextualisation of Black Square as a radical idea and not much else.
The painting has some notable material features, with many of its physical qualities having shifted with age. During the years since its production the thick, velvet texture of the black paint has cracked to reveal the tired white ground beneath, erasing the stark contrast between the void of creation (the white background) and the material object (the dark square). Too often references to the physical act of painting in Malevich’s black abstraction are neglected, unlike discussions of subsequent black paintings by, for example, Motherwell, Reinhardt or Rothko. Black Square struggles to exist as a painting devoid of the context of its creation, a problem unfortunately reinforced by its presentation in the Tate show. By the time we see the 1929 Black Square in a compact re-staging of the The Last Exhibition of Futurist Painting 0.10 it has been reduced to little more than a pastiche of itself by Tate’s limiting approach to illustrating art history through experiential walkthroughs. When employing such a literalising strategy it is difficult to see Black Square as anything more than a focal point in conceptual art’s past, but its relevance today is less explicit. Perched high in the corner of Room 6 of the exhibition the painting now looks as inactive as a CCTV monitor with no signal. There are some great paintings in Malevich, Revolutionary of Russian Art but Black Square is not one of them. Like the aforementioned blank monitor Black Square now feels like little more than a canvas with the painting switched off.
Turning a corner into another room at the Hermitage I remember my immediate excitement at seeing Malevich’s final and smallest Black Square. I had always understood his work within the context of one of the most heroic episodes in early C20th art involving an epic struggle between progressive artists and an increasingly brutish and suppressive political regime. Here I found the Black Square to have an undeniable forceful and confrontational character but scrutinizing the surface for clues to its importance was pointless and only drew a blank.
Clearly this painting, or rather, our attitude to it, is the result of an accumulation and accretion of projected meanings, interpretations, histories, mis-readings and mythologizing over one hundred years. They constitute the narrative that binds this black pigment – the accumulation and accretion is the painting as much as its physical fabric. How can an artist set out to produce a work with these qualities and this aura?
Well, you can’t. Malevich set out to do something very different. I am inclined to think the mechanism that drove Malevich to develop new forms for painting was not so much a confrontation with the oppressive political masters of post-revolution and Stalinist Russia but rather a confrontation with religion and the language of religious painting. This places Malevich within a mainstream of European painters at work on this project since the Renaissance. His courage and ability was focused on the high-risk process of dismantling and removing the image in painting without losing everything. I would place Black Square at the point where much is removed and much still needs to be done to compensate for the ghastliness of the loss of image.
That the painting has now been conferred ‘iconic’ status is unfortunate since that is everything it set out not to be. We must take into account just how much of Malevich’s energy went into dismantling and unpicking the vernacular of the Byzantine icon painting. A better term to describe those perfectly poised and receptive black surfaces of the Black Square would be ‘artefact’.
Malevich’s Black Square was not the first abstract ‘monochrome’ painting but the time and place of its making ensured its position in the history of art. Formed out of an entanglement of cultural and political forces in the early years of the 20th Century Black Square is a reminder (if one is needed) that art is entirely bound up with its context. Context – for Malevich the stresses between geopolitical fault lines, huge economic disparities and the sense that technology would provide a better future (experiences not so remote today) – shapes the art that is made. Art is a product of its time.
Much has been said about the inexactness of the geometry in Malevich’s paintings, that they fail in their attempt at ‘pure form’ – as if handmadeness undoes ‘purity of form’ and dismantles what these works aspired to. But it is this ‘failure’ (if that is what it is) that is the most interesting thing of all. The not quite straight lines, the rough edges, the slightly course brushed marked surface, all perhaps imply spatial conventions still tethered to representation – foreground/background, in-front/behind, interior/exterior. Donald Judd wrote in 1974 that the ‘old abstract space’ of Malevich’s Suprematism failed to achieve ‘absolute purity of form’ – the tactile materiality and tangible qualities of one layer painted over another was too close to the conventions of cubism and was ‘not very spatial at all’.
The scattergun organization of forms in Suprematism is not the result of ‘necessary’ modular sequences or a set of ‘organising principles’ but rather a collection of arbitrary connections that tilt, fall, tip, merging and deforming. Their very precariousness (including the famous Black Square) brings these images closer to the unpredictable dimension of the tactile, tacky, sticky, cracked and crumbly humanness in painting. Even the rigorous reduction of colour does not reduce meaning but unlocks unruly fantasies of human consciousness.
“What else than a natural and mighty palimpsest is the human brain? Such a palimpsest is my brain; such a palimpsest, oh reader! is yours. Everlasting layers of ideas, images, and feelings, have fallen upon your brain softly as light. Each succession has seemed to bury all that went before. And yet, in reality, not one has been extinguished.” Thomas de Quincey, Confessions of an English Opium-Eater
The utopian project has failed but fragments of thought persist and filter through time, one layer upon another layer, images, ideas and feelings falling softly as light. The ambivalence of Black Square has naturally accumulated over the passage of time – gradually shifting meaning and intention – the paintings’ obliterating iconoclasm has been tempered (it has itself become an icon of modernism, and its very originality triggered the opposite – serial repetition) and its revolutionary assertiveness has been rendered impotent. Now the discussion is academic, focusing on its effect on the trajectory of the history of art. Some lament that such a work can never be made again – that no painting could harbour such weight of expectation. Now, it is hardly even ironic that the author’s place of birth – Ukraine (land of borders) is (still) in a great deal of turmoil, and it is unlikely that any new technology will make things any better at all.