Monday, June 30, 2003

Suprematism (Construction in Dissolution) [1918] is one of the later works in Kazimir Malevich's Suprematist retrospective at the Guggenheim Museum. The day I was there, the place was bustling with the transition between the Matthew Barney & Picasso shows downstairs (or downramp), so that one couldn’t get any sense of quiet — & hardly any ability to focus — until one got up to the 4th floor annex given over to the old Russian avant-gardist.


The painting is one of a series of white-on-white oil canvases — the background surface more accurately an eggshell tone, but, as with all of Malevich's work, very tactile & worked, by no means a flat plane disappearing behind the object. The object, or foreground, or figure, in this instance is composed of four shapes, one basically an elongated rectangle over which three curving arcs are drawn. The rectangle, to call it that, begins just to the left of center at the top of this vertically oriented canvas, extending diagonally down to end four-fifths of the way to the lower right corner.


At this relatively late moment in Suprematism, Malevich was no longer painting completed geometric figures. Instead, one side always slides into a blur & just fades out. For the rectangle (almost, say, the shape of a ruler), that side is its long right edge. Quite near the top is the first of the three arcs, this one the longest & least curved of the three. It has roughly the same width as the rectangle, but its fading edge faces toward its inner or bottom side. The two other arcs below it, more or less equidistant, are both shorter & more tightly curved, tho it is their bottom, inner portion that also fades.


There is room along the rectangle for a fourth arc — it would have appeared right at the bottom edge — so it is its absence one notices, as much as the presence of the others.


While Malevich has often been characterized as a painter of geometric shapes, it is in fact all the off center moments that predominate in this exhibition. Malevich's black circle, for example, is not centered on its canvas, but to the right, in the upper corner. His black cross has a deliberately hand-drawn, inexact quality that is at least as important to the overall effect of the work as the shape itself. And many of his other paintings are palimpsests of small geometrical shapes scattered across white fields. In them what I often pick up most are the colors — there is the gentlest pink in this exhibition that I ever recall having seen — and the degree to which these canvases, especially those in "portrait" orientation, mimic the printed page, with objects invariably proceeding (as with Suprematism (Construction in Dissolution)) from upper left to lower right.


While Malevich's canvases & constructions — the only ones in this show are architectural fantasies realized in plaster — Malevich would have loved Legos! — plus a quasi-cubist tea setting that is reproduced for way too much money downstairs in the gift shop — often are associated with the Futurist poets with whom he collaborated, such as Khlebnikov & Kruchenykh, his own thinking in these works comes across as more programmatic & formal. His painting gives, as their texts do not, the sense that one is in the presence of a scientist as much as an artist, investigating the logic of his medium in a way that had never before been explored.