Abstract Critical

The Black Square

Written by Dan Coombs, Robert Linsley, Robin Greenwood

Kazimir Malevich, Black Square, 1929, © State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow

Kazimir Malevich, Black Square, 1929, © State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow

Black Square represents an audacious attempt to push painting beyond the heightened plasticity of cubism, into the realm of pure fact. In it, painting and what it describes become the same thing. The picture is absolute – it no longer represents, it simply is. Material presence overrides illusion, and it appears we are in the space of the literal; but one ambiguity remains. The square is wonky and imperfect – its sides don’t quite run parallel to the sides of the canvas. I think there are two reasons for this. Firstly, in all of Malevich’s suprematist paintings the edges of the shapes never run parallel in a neat clean way. This awkwardness and misalignment seems to activate the whole field of the painting. In Black Square, the misaligned edges activate the white border as a whole field, so it becomes a positive. Malevich’s paintings, whilst made of simple elements, are extremely complex in their internal relationships. Black Square is no exception, in the impossibility of separating the square  from its ground. The second reason is that the Black Square is still in a state of becoming, yet to be perfected. There’s something  tantalising about a wonky square. Its imperfection establishes a human dimension to what would otherwise be a cold, abstract ideal.

Dan Coombs

 

Malevich is usually understood as having accomplished the first and most consequential reduction of painting, with the Black Square representing what might be called an essence of disappearance—pure painting utterly devoid of particulars. Yet the most interesting responses to this work stress its materiality, and at least one of the four existing versions, the earliest, is heavily and very evidently cracked. It also seems to be not perfectly geometrical and maybe not exactly centred, and so very much hand made. So this picture, at the beginning of the history of modern abstract art, sets out one of the important dialectics of the form, namely the simultaneous reduction to empty material and infinite concept. Some might say that factuality and spirtuality are in a productive tension, but I think there are more interesting and less normalizing ways to think about the religious origins of abstraction. Malevich may have claimed that “God is not cast down,” but with the Black Square He is certainly cast out of painting, the separation between material and spirit is so definitive and so clear. There is a meaning floating around the work somewhere, like a balloon, attached by history and circumstances and the artist’s own words, but the piece itself is a poor paltry material thing, and anyone who can stand in front of it and pick up spiritual vibes must have an art history book running through their heads, the painting does nothing to encourage it. This is why Malevich’s best successors are not metaphyscially inclined painters of black pictures, such as Reinhardt and Rothko, but less obvious ones like Judd or Fontana, who also maintain a sharp distinction between meaning and matter, and necessarily find the most value in matter. There is no point trying to recoup the spiritual in art, because in a universe from which God has been eliminated the most progressive art will be the kind that doesn’t summon up any dreams of meaning. And so the handmadeness of Malevich’s Black Square, though it may seem a charming remnant of the naive beginnings of abstraction, is also very progressive, because it is ordinary. Geometric perfection or absolute flatness is too idealistic, and stresses the concept, something better off lost. Hand-made but not subjective or expressive, that is still the right way for abstraction.

Robert Linsley

 

Malevich’s show at Tate Modern starts really well. He was a naturally talented artist, and the first room of the show is a delight. The second room is even better. The large early gouaches that date from around 1910 – “Landscape”; The Province”; “The Bather” – are excellent; and “On the Boulevard” is a masterpiece that has the measure of most of the Matisse show (I checked, walking from the Malevich straight into the Matisse). As good from 30ft as it is from 3ft, this is a bold, brave and original work. Malevich, of course, in the early 1900’s, had the freshness and innovation of the great Shchukin and Morozov collections for stimulation, and made the most of them; but this “Boulevard” painting he makes his very own.

After that, it’s all downhill. The direness of the experiments in Russian Futurism is equalled by the nuttiness of the philosophy and embarrassing naffness of the theatrics he got involved in. And so we come quickly to the “Black Square”, a painting of absolutely no inherent qualities which nevertheless sends some commentators into paroxysms of praise. According to Tate, “the simplicity of the composition is matched by its enigmatic complexity as an artistic gesture”. Mmm… I would say that it is a work almost entirely (99.9 %?) dependent upon cultural context for its (spurious) meaning and importance, compared to, say, a good Constable, which is perhaps 95% inherent quality, 5% context – or less.

“Black Square” is a regrettable artistic gesture without content, a piece of conceptual art second only to Duchamp’s urinal in terms of the damage inflicted upon the direction and health of painting and sculpture. Malevich himself never recovered from this self-inflicted wound. What came after was further a disappointment, for us and for him; endless variations on a theme of architectonic rectangles on a white background, few instances of which amount to anything more than the rather mean sum of their parts. In the end came utter disarray, mentally, physically, artistically.

Robin Greenwood

 

Malevich is on at Tate Modern until the 26th of October. We will review the show on abstract critical next week, as well as posting more individual responses to the Black Square.

 

  1. Robert Verrill said…

    Robert Linsley’s otherwise thoughtful and perceptive article ends on a strange note. How can anything that is visibly handmade not contain an element of expression and subjectivity, particularly abstract art. And why would the artist not want their work to contain those elements. Isn’t that what makes all art reachable by other human beings?

  2. Robin Greenwood said…

    So… Today’s the day, mark it well, that John Bunker risks life, limb and his artistic career by visiting the Malevich. What’s to become of him? Will he discover in “The Black Square” salvation or nemesis? Will he find in it a perfect summation of dumb-ass minimal banality, or, after much intense and determined scrutiny, will he find those extremely complex – though damnably hard to spot – internal relationships that have so damnably been insinuated? Well, and if he finds them, will he damn-well point them out to us?

    Will he find, as some do, that it is difficult – nay, impossible even – to separate the black square from the white ground (oops! I think I just did)? Will he find in all the endearing and pathetic wonkiness of that unsquare square a touching human dimension of freedom that militates against God, Fascism and the Ideal in all its damned worst oppressiveness? Will he seek and find hidden value in the aged cracking of the very fabric of the very paint; will he stumble upon progressiveness and hope in all its very ordinariness, and yet, simultaneously and strangely, unearth the portents of a nihilistic future foretold, a future that in its very quiddity will forgo all dreams of meaning? Will he concur and momentously conclude, as many do, that the characteristic of hand-made-ness, provided of course it excludes subjective-ness and expressive-ness, is just the very thing for abstraction, and probably all it needs, ever, damn it?

    Will he find in its magnificently meaningless wonkiness a matchless fury of the senses that smashes down all cronyism and establishes a new political order, whilst also niftily and surreptitiously swimming beyond the ensuing deluge of bathos, pathos and irony to reach a transcendental Eros?

    Knowing John, he could well find in “The Black Square” a blistering visceral rigour and intensity, an infinite variation of scale, size and colour, or even a reflection of his very own conflicted subjectivity. Then again, he’ll maybe just walk quickly past, too embarrassed to be seen spending time contemplating something that is less interesting than gazing at his own shoes.

  3. Chris Hargens said…

    So let’s say came upon this black square unawares, perhaps attached to a wall in some big-city alley. Would I give it much notice? If I subtract the artist from the equation, is there much to distinguish it from many of the other objects I might encounter in that alley? Couldn’t some of those other objects equally serve as subjects for aesthetic contemplation?

    • Peter Stott said…

      Everything one sees is part of the visual field, as such it has pictorial value, it’s capacity to be seen other than what it is, the pavement as space and form as opposed to it being tarmac, concrete etc. The idea of the square being what it is, really there and that, is of curiosity to some, probably because if the mind identifies with a 2D shape, then what does that say about the mind? That we are all robots? The 2D shape is a peculiar thing in 3D space. But this has been around since the first writing upon a clay tablet, so it’s not as radical as is claimed, similarly Duchamp’s urinal and it’s capacity to be pictorial as part of the visual field. Velaszuez did this over 500 years ago with his painting of a peasant cooking eggs. The question of 2D is of interest, but of more interest to me, is the capacity of the 2D to represent 3D.

    • Robin Greenwood said…

      Quite so. A rather good painter called Peter Kinley once told me of an interesting way to judge the value of art. What would you think of it (the painting or sculpture) if you dug it up by chance in your back garden? Crude but effective.

      As for you John B., well… it may already be too late! In all seriousness, I’d be interested to know if you think Malevich actually got better as his career went on.

  4. John Bunker said…

    It is with great trepidation and no small sense of foreboding that I have finally made my decision. I am to visit Malevich’s ‘Black Square’ next Thursday at 11am.

    I’ve amended my will and spoken at length with my wife, children and other important family members. Now that I’ve been warned by Robin of Black Square’s deadly and malevolent influence, I’m rather concerned for all my fellow artists and the tens of thousands of other good members of our artistically inclined public who have and will visit it…

    Robin’s words seem to echo around my studio as I write, clustering for a moment in a dark cracked and wonky squarish void, in a corner, high on a wall…… “In the end came utter disarray, mentally, physically, artistically.” Crikey!

    If you don’t hear from me again- then you know what fate may have dealt me. Rather than the hunted sailor’s ‘Black Spot’, I have been handed the haunted artist’s ‘Black Square’……

  5. Patrick Jones said…

    Without having seen the show and no history book at hand,I cannot dis-associate the radical vision from events on the ground.The Black Square to me represents an anarchist/socialist Tabla rasa of hierarchical structures of the White Russian regime.The Black negated its White Czarist enemy,smashing its institutions and cronism.It has always fascinated me that Abstract Art was born alongside an earthquake of political idealism and Eutopian longings.It is implicit in its lanquage.

    • Peter Stott said…

      So to you ‘abstraction’ is a 2D symbol not an illusionistic representation of something 3D. It’s a sign, rather like a road sign.

    • Peter Stott said…

      You’re not looking at it in a formalist way, but bringing to the picture romantic notions of politics which you’re projecting on to it.

    • Peter Stott said…

      I thought the point of ‘abstraction’ was the removal of all cultural and visual pareidolia, to reveal the supreme ‘God’ image.
      I’m guilty here too of considering Malevich’s ideological goals, Suprematism, a revelation of the 4th dimension.

  6. vc said…

    It may not be aesthetically sufficient for many viewers, but as Coombs and Linsley point out, it is not pictorially and materially null. There is something to see- it is not just an idea. At least one viewer finds it full of the “terrible fury of the senses.”

  7. Peter Stott said…

    I designed a patent application for an artificial imagination which as well as being a piece of conceptual art about knowledge transfer, it is a theoretical computational model of a cognitive framework of transcendental looking. The artificial imagination in this case, is all the possible ways that 3D form can be obtained from 2D shape/shape combinations. This is available free online at Hans Ulrich Obrist’s and e-flux’s ‘Agency of Unrealized projects:

    http://www.e-flux.com/aup/project/peter-stott-a-patent-application-for-an-artificial-imagination/

  8. Peter Stott said…

    That was last century. I have created a 21st Century art theory called ‘Transcendental Imaging’. I have an article published by intellectbooks.com called ‘Transcendental Imaging and Augmented Reality’ This can be accessed online if one googles ‘transcendental imaging’. In that article I create a facsimile of the Malevich square and call it ‘Black Trazpezoid’. I ponder on the question as to what form the 2D square might represent in an illusionistic sense. 2D shape > 3D form representation. This identifies the principle problem of contemporary abstraction; how to go beyond the face value of the image and one’s base identification with that, in this case, the square, the ultimate 2D shape, the most difficult of shapes to see as form,e.g. the trapezoid form projected from it. One then has to somehow swim beyond the ensuing deluge of Bathos, pathos and irony to reach the transcendental Eros, identified by De kooning (his simulacrum paintings of ‘women’, also identified similarly by Marcus Harvey in his ‘Readers’ Wives’ series.
    My conclusion to date, is that augmented reality is needed to articulate the transcendental form/space with surface and depth cues, to go beyond the cognitive barriers of base identifaction (seeing faces, for example) and the face value of the art (the square).
    I’ve used the Malevich square as an example, because when one looks at complex abstract art, it’s almost impossible to talk about base identification and face value and one’s attempts at transcending those necessary cognitive constraints that are there for our survival as we negotiate the perceived external world.

  9. Anonymous said…

    This seems to be nothing more than an empty gesture made for the sake of creating prattle amongst critics. Yves Klein’s “untitled blue monochrome” at least has the merit of being outwardly attractive, its colour drawing the viewer into its depths, a depth which is totally lacking in “black square”. The words of Max Beckmann seem fitting: “nothing could be more ridiculous or irrelevant than a “philosophical conception” painted purely intellectually without the terrible fury of the senses grasping each visible form of beauty and ugliness.”