BOOK REPORT | ADVENTURES OF THE BLACK SQUARE
Abstract Art and Society 1915-2015 | Edited by Iwona Blazwick
Adventures of the Black Square (the exhibition catalgue for a show at the White Chapel Gallery in early 2015) focuses on the history of geometric abstraction (as opposed to biomorphic abstraction) taking Kazmir Malevich’s radical “black square” first presented in 1915 as its starting point. Arising from the Constructivist and Suprematist movements the book argues that with its roots in social change, geometric abstraction gave form to the utopian aspirations of modernism and on a much wider global scale than previously thought. Abstraction in the early 1900’s was radical both in form and ideology, liberating artists from representation, traditional subject matter and conventions of display such as gilt picture frames.
I think that one of the reasons that I am still drawn to art of this era is that it so powerfully illustrates the politics and changing social ideals of cultures radically affected by war and the industrial revolution.
The chapter on Architectonics looks at the increasingly active role of artists in architecture as they broke out of the salon seeking a role in shaping the modern era;
The architectonics of the modern aimed to dissolve boundaries between art, environment and society (62).
This chapter goes on to discuss the far-ranging implications of this new thinking from the De Stijl group to the Bauhaus school and the continuum along which abstraction could exist. Although often a utopian artistic ideal, taken to it’s opposite extreme abstraction could also use the principles of a universal language, stress on the communal and suppression of subjectivity to “represent an authoritarian disregard for the individual” (63). In fact Post-Modernist critique would later align the modernist fervor for technological innovation as “a destructive mastery of the natural world and the presage to mass consumerism” (17) as well as a colonial force aiming to take over all areas of human existence through the built environment.
The floating blocks envisioned by the Russian avant-garde have landed on earth, made manifest in the bland ‘big box’ supermarkets, factories and warehouses spreading across the developed world (63).
The chapter “Communication” discusses the iconography of the tower, the triangle as a vector symbolizing a single voice to a mass audience and the cone as a megaphone. Mass media and graphic design become intertwined as ideas travel; there’s a later section on magazines with artwork by El Lissitzky and Rodchenko amongst others. Photography became increasingly democratized as portable cameras became available in the 20’s and 30’s; a precursor to the omni-present modern cell phone and the rise of citizen journalism/activism.
One of the interesting things I learned was that stripes made an appearance in 1968 pasted onto advertising posters in Paris by Daniel Buren – a campaign to “silence the siren calls of capitalism. Signals of revolution had turned to signs of protest” (125). Think about the square and stripe as symbols of redaction, of censorship.
At the same time that abstraction is discussed as quintessentially modern it’s also acknowledged as the basis of ornamental design throughout human civilization, laden as it is with ancient traditions and symbolism from cultures around the world. Although this is only touched on, it’s definitely an area that I will continue to research in the future.
The final chapter “The Everyday” is probably the most interesting to me, drawing as it does on making art “useful” by bringing it closer to craft, design or architecture. As someone with a textiles practice, it’s interesting to be presented with language like “the fabric of material culture” (169), that alludes to how deeply connected we are to textiles. Not to mention a messy relationship to labour in our global economy (particulary in regards to fashion), even though that’s not readily recognized in our modern culture.
We are reminded that the artwork is the result of labor; and making labor visible is a way of taking pride in production, adding a class perspective. To make process transparent and to demystify the artwork is not to dismantle it – rather it shows that art and the beauty in the everyday. (169)
There’s also a great essay entitled “Abstraction at War With Itself” by Briony Fer which I love for it’s articulate stance on the many contradictions of abstraction, and an entreaty to reconsider abstraction in its uneven and disrupted development in terms of what it might be in the future. I am an eternal lover of abstraction over realism, drawn to Malevich’s search for absolute truth through “pure feeling”. There’s an almost primitive pull for me to certain shapes and colors in the work of modern artists like Ro/Lu, Sarah Morris and Toma Abts.
It’s pretty clear that abstraction is not going away anytime soon. Given that we’re on the cusp of a radical social revolution in the form of the Internet and social media well as facing major societal shifts around issues such as environmentalism and capitalism, the question becomes - how is abstract art reinventing itself for our times, our concerns? And that, my friends will require further enquiry into a variety of art forms not by any means constrained to painting. Stay tuned…!
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