Art review: Adventures of the black square
Niall Mulholland reviews Adventures of the Black Square: Abstract Art and Society 1915-2015
This epic, ambitious exhibition of over 100 artists in paintings, film, photographs, and sculptures, shown recently in Whitechapel Art gallery, east London, poses the question: "How does art relate to society and politics?" It shows how over the last 100 years abstract art has reacted to historical events.
Abstract art originated at the start of the 20th century from the Modernist movement.
Artists such as Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee and Hans Arp rejected conventional forms and created works without obvious subject matter, emphasising instead shape, colour and texture.
A significant moment was when Russian artist Kazimir Malevich presented a series of paintings of blocks of colour floating against white at an exhibition in St Petersburg in 1915. These were the first examples of geometrical abstraction and the rise of Constructivist art from its revolutionary beginnings in Russia and Europe.
The mass slaughter of World War One acted as an accelerator to the form. Artists rejected all types of authority and traditional modes. The 1917 Russian Revolution was also another great impulse to the new art: from El Lissitzky's iconic poster "Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge" (1920) to Aleksandr Rodchenko's photographs of Moscow's daring new radio towers and the works of other important Soviet artists, such as Vladimir Tatlin.
The development in the 1920s and 1930s of the De Stijl artistic movement of Piet Mondrian and Theo Van Doesburg was also well represented in the exhibition, which influenced the Bauhaus movement of art, crafts and architecture. Fascism in Italy and Germany also demanded a Modernist change of style, although this was barely dealt with in the exhibition.
A welcome addition to the usual story on abstract art was Latin America and the works of artists such as Lygia Clark and Hélio Oiticica. Abstract art in 1950s Brazil reflected growing national self-confidence as the economy grew. It also reflected the dark years of right wing military dictatorship that followed in the 1960s.
The section on contemporary artists was the weakest part of the exhibition. Sarah Morris and Armando Andrade Tudela produce clever depictions of the influence of abstract art on design and corporate brands. But while artists are still experimenting with representations of reality and society, they rarely challenge or indicate other possibilities. Too much feels sterile, even superficial.
This is not entirely the artists' fault. "Artists of the Weimar Republic or Leninist Russia... could still believe in good faith and, without bombast, that art could morally influence the world.
"Today, the idea has been largely dismissed, as it must be in a mass media society where art's principal social role is to be investment capital," wrote the late art critic Robert Hughes.
But as class struggles develop, the best artists will be impelled to make searching critiques of modern capitalist society, pushing abstract art in new, exciting and true directions.
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