Despite our feelings on the country’s politics today—or perhaps because of them—Russian Revolutionary/revolutionary Russian art has been in fashion over the past 15 years, dissected by every major gallery and shaping our views on architecture, style, and even design. Now revolutionary Whitechapel Gallery takes its turn with “Adventures of the Black Square: Abstract Art and Society 1915-2015,” a wide-ranging and thoroughly engrossing demonstration of how a little black square altered the direction of 20th-century art. And then some.
Yes, a little black square. Kazimir Malevich’s “Black Quadrilateral,” painted on a white ground at a time when his native Russia was mired in war and revolution, is considered “ground zero” of monochrome-mania, a place off from which almost every theme in 20th-century modern art branched. In launching this radical, mathematical work at the groundbreaking 1915 exhibition“Last Futurist Exhibition of Painting 0.10” in St. Petersburg (then Petrograd), Malevich and nine fellow artists articulated a new, democratic movement called Suprematism, a reverence of the square as the most elementary and thus supreme element.
From that moment, the formal, elitist art of the czars was rejected. Pure subjectivity was in.
Suprematism would incorporate and popularize the work of painters, photographers, printmakers, and tapestry-makers in a non-hierarchical way, and even give women a platform for their radical ideas (Lyubov Popova’s 1916 “Painterly Architectonic” promoted the idea of painting in three dimensions, assembled in an architectural process). Bringing art back to a fresh start (hence the “0” in “0.10”), Suprematism represented optimism; the white voids in each painting were as important as the planes of pigment—a boundless arena of freedom.
You could argue that the black square helped set the parameters of contemporary design. This ethos of mathematical harmony played a central role in new and increasingly relevant fields of art: carpet-making, publishing, book-binding, typography, and graphic design. The design of our everyday surroundings, like telephone towers and broadcasting equipment, inspired thrilling concepts of technology and communication. Artists like Piet Mondrian championed the right angles of architectural construction and Theo van Doesburg advocated more dynamic compositions of (horror!) diagonals. Their works face off in one corner of the gallery.
The irony of this utopian worldview was that many adherents of Suprematism—and its offshoots Constructivism, de Stijl, and Bauhaus—were exiled (or worse) by fascists in the ’30s and ’40s.
This is where the Americas come in.
Exiled artist/philosophers like Josef and Anni Albers released their own geometric squares on America through their teachings at North Carolina’s Black Mountain College. Tomás Maldonado and Hélio Oiticica in Latin America propagated this geometric style in books and illustrated magazines like Arturo. From here, it’s not far to Gabriel Orozco’s computer-generated geometric patterns and the absorption of this aesthetic into advertising and logo design. What is the CBS logo, after all, if not an extension of Sophie Taeuber-Arp’s circles? What does the logo of the Olympic Games represent if not mathematical (and political) harmony?
Eventually, the typically monochromatic scheme of the early 20th-century idealists segued into Technicolor. In his “October Colouring-in Book, Spring 1976” (2012-2013), Chromophobia author David Batchelor uses markers to color in the entire inaugural issue of the journal October with the zeal of a young girl. Such wild hues would have seemed overly romantic and far too distracting to a young Malevich, but they brilliantly illustrate that revolutions, even in art, are never black and white.