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 The picture is absolute – it no longer represents, it simply is.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.
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.
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.
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.