Almost a decade ago, David Cameron informed Tony Blair, unkindly but accurately, ‘You were the future once.’ A visitor to the Whitechapel Gallery’s exhibition, Adventures of the Black Square, might mutter the same words in front of the first exhibits.
It is now a century since Kazimir Malevich painted the starkest abstractions in the history of art: one simple geometric shape painted on a background of another colour. It was not, one might have thought, an idea with much mileage. Yet those early geometric abstractions had the compressed power of revolutionary manifestos.
For good or ill, there has followed 100 years of modernist, post-modernist, and now post-post-modernist geometry in art. This is the theme of the exhibition. It is the Whitechapel’s misfortune that this follows hard on a comprehensive Malevich blockbuster at Tate Modern last year and also a fine survey of Latin American abstraction at the RA.
Nonetheless, Adventures of the Black Square has an intriguing tale to tell. Essentially, Malevich’s masterpiece stood for the future, because it depicted nothing in particular. It was an icon — not in the loose, contemporary sense but in a precise, art-historical one. It was derived from the religious images of the eastern Church in its head-on clarity. Of course, it represented no holy figure or political doctrine. It was simply geometry. But that in itself was a kind of message, suggesting order, reason, harmony.
Away with the clutter of the past! That was the appeal, and also the big mistake that one sees being made in architectural schemes by Malevich and others, such as ‘Architechton’ (1924) by his associate, Ilya Chashnik. The error was that the nice clean rectangular forms in the drawing clearly came before much thought as to how human beings were going to live inside them.
This was, notoriously, the problem with the multitudinous modernist buildings that sprouted all over the globe in the later 20th century. Many of them turned rapidly into sink estates and desolation, and then — in some cases — were recolonised by exactly the sort of people who thought them up in the first place. That is, architects, designers and the type of modernist aesthete who might like to live with a piece of woven geometric art on the wall, such Anni Albers’s rectilinear grey, black and yellow ‘Hanging’ (1926).
In other words, in a century, we’ve been through several cycles: a love affair, on the part of some at least, with revolutionary modernism; disillusion with the dystopias that resulted; a renewed interest in it as a style with its own charms. This is what the exhibition tries to encapsulate: quite a task since geometric modernism spread around much of the globe — to North and South America, Asia and the Middle East. About half a century after they were written, Piet Mondrian’s neo-plasticist manifestos were translated into Arabic — a language in which one hopes they make more sense than they do in English.
It is visibly a struggle to fit all this in. In the upper galleries devoted to more recent art there are plenty of ironic comments and references to abstraction, though little of high visual wattage. In the ironic-comment department, I liked a painting by Keith Coventry, which looks like a work by a Dutch modernist of the 1920s — delicate yellow rectangles on a white background — until you read the title: ‘Sceaux Gardens Estate’ (1995). It is a ground plan of a housing project.
One thing about abstraction that the exhibition doesn’t make quite clear is that some people did it incomparably better than others. For my money Piet Mondrian was the true poet of squares and lines. His ‘Composition with Yellow, Blue and Red’ is dated 1937–42, a period spanning his flight from Paris, sojourn in London and arrival in New York. Evidently, he took his time getting those squares right, and that meticulous attention to nuances of line and hue is what makes it sing.
For anyone wanting a real aesthetic hit from simple abstract forms I recommend the sculpture by the American artist Richard Serra at the Gagosian Gallery, 6–24 Britannia Street, WC1 (until 4 March). Although he is clearly related, art historically, to Malevich & co., Serra’s work is very different in emotional feel.
At Britannia Street, he is showing several pieces, each filling a gallery and looking as if it might have been assembled from bits of left-over battleship. ‘Backdoor Pipeline’ (2010) is a huge, complexly curving corridor — like a section of whale’s intestine reproduced in rusty steel — through which you uneasily walk; ‘Ramble’ (2014) a maze in which, instead of topiary hedges, the barriers are head-high metal plates a foot thick.
Serra’s work is almost aggressively spare: you just get a colossal form or two, that’s it. But he is able to make you not just conscious of weight and mass, but also awed by them. His art has nothing to do with hope for a utopian future.