Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Reduce Yourself to a Zero

'Hmmm, interesting' is the disdainful purr from one of the thousands of quite strikingly haute bourgeois folk attending the Royal Academy's From Russia extravaganza, stood in front of two Malevich paintings. I very seldom write about Malevich, but a chance acquaintance with his work in Amsterdam seven years ago is the reason, more than anything else, that I find myself 'disinterring the Soviet avant-garde' (as someone uncharitably put it) for so much of my time. The Stedelijk museum has several rooms of Malevich's Suprematist paintings, and one morning, distinctly hungover, I wandered into them and was utterly astonished, spending what seemed like hours walking back and forth through them.

The first thing they reminded me of, curiously enough, was Peter Saville - that machine-cut precision, space, dynamism and elegance, all seemed taken from an early New Order sleeve, rather than the more obvious vice versa.* Somewhat shaken already by aforementioned overconsumption, this clarity was like a blast of cold, bright light, the work on the walls uncanny in its seeming stern rationalism and interstellar ambition. Suprematism is not at all easy to write about, this perhaps being one reason for the huge amounts of quasi-mystical verbiage that Malevich expended upon it. The fascinating moment is not the negation itself - the Black Square, the 'zero of form', etc etc, the foundation of an ever-more tedious minimalism - but what happens afterwards, this incredible freedom of shapes and planes careering across the canvas. Unlike Kandinsky's superficially similar breakthrough, it seems hard and rigorous, never painterly and expressive. It opens up an entire imaginary world, and the designers (eg: Rodchenko) who abhorred Malevich's rhetoric used and re-used his sharp lines, angles and juxtapositions.

The reason why I've never really written about Malevich is that - unlike, say, Meyerhold, Mayakovsky, Stepanova, Eisenstein, Vertov, etc etc - he's not someone that can really be taken seriously as a political-aesthetic thinker. While their forms and modes had quite precise, if occasionally deterministic purposes, there is no reason why a cup or a teapot should be designed in Suprematist style - and many were - other than that, aside from those concerns for the spiritual effect of squares and rhomboids, they looked really cool, and likewise no sensible reason why an abstract art group like his UNOVIS should organise itself like the Bolshevik Party. The Suprematists wanted to remake the world, and their new world looked quite astonishing, but purposeless. Accordingly it's absorbed into Greenbergite Art better than anything else, what with the flatness of canvas, the heroic story of Malevich the maverick, and so forth. In Ljubljana right now there's an exhibition 'by' Malevich, in which spoof letters to the Guggenheim by the deceased genius and shoddy replicas of Suprematist works are shoved together in a tired sub-NSK joke. Malevich founded a cult (his disciples were talented, but with the exception of El Lissitzky totally in his shadow), so it's not surprising that one continues to exist around him. One of Malevich's disciples is a simulacra anyway - the entire corpus of Nina Kogan is allegedly a fabrication, some astute forger utilising UNOVISites' similarity to their master to create the work of a Suprematist whose work is otherwise lost to history.

But sod all that. When I look at these paintings, these teapots, these ridiculous bits of avant-garde porcelain, I'm always shaken anew, stunned, awed, all those supplicating cliches that Great Art entails. A world remade on these lines would still rally me to any refounding of the UNOVIS Party, yet I'm frustrated that, other than for purely aesthetic reasons, I can't say precisely why I find them so dizzying.

* NB, as far as I know the only sleeve to feature a Malevich painting is the Raincoats' Odyshape, but if anyone knows any others, the comments box is below...


Blogger Jamie said...

I don't know if you can dismiss Malevich as an important political thinker quite yet. At least Susan Buck-Morss (Dreamworld and Catastrophe) and Alan Antliff (who has written a fair bit about Malevich's anarchism) would differ. I don't have the time or expertise for a sustained contention but I do think there is something more to him.

2:30 am  
Blogger owen hatherley said...

sorry jamie, don't get me wrong - i actually find Malevich a fascinating political thinker (and TJ Clark's Farewell to an Idea is one of the reasons for this) but the work I've been doing is much more about LEF and co, and their Marxism is cogent, coherent and worth taking seriously (in a mileu where they and the rest of the Sov avant-g are treated as fellow travellers in out of their depth) in a way that Malevich's isn't; not that he doesn't have a lot of very interesting political ideas, but they lack the formal logic of LEF - there's no reason why a Suprematist teapot looks like it does other than aesthetics, which is why the productivists (rightly in my view) considered it 'not serious'. i certainly don't mean to dismiss his thought though.

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