‘Black Square’ and the Enduring Legacy of Kazimir Malevich

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Russian avant-garde painter Kazimir Malevich made the world safe for black squares. Though he began his training following in the styles of the cubists and futurists in the early 20th century, he soon shed all attachment to representational reality and caused controversy by presenting the world with Black Square, a painting of a black square on a white canvas, which he suspended over the corner of a room at the 0.10 (zero ten) exhibit in 1915. White on White — a painting of a white square within another white square — further elevating Suprematism from polychrome to monochrome compositions — was another breakthrough for non-narrative art. For once art was freed from political, humanist and social issues, and offered as pure painting.

Malevich and the American Legacy at New York’s Gagosian Gallery presents six pivotal works by Malevich together with works by modern and contemporary American artists who are his formal and spiritual heirs, such as John Baldessari, Barnett Newman, Agnes Martin, Richard Serra, Ed Ruscha, Frank Stella, and Cy Twombly, among others. Though Malevich’s Black Square is not in the exhibit, the gallery resonates with homages to Malevich, both direct and oblique, and there are plenty of black squares, or relatives thereof, in attendance. For example, Richard Serra’s Elevational Weights, Jump Start, an enormous rectangular sheet of paper painted over entirely in an icing of black paint-stick, Mark Grotjah’s subtle Black Butterfly Red MAR KGO2, and Banks Violette’s Untitled (Disappear), a large black resin-coated square, whose hard shiny surface and exposed scaffolding are like a piece of concert stage-craft turned on its side. And then there are the connections that while not immediately obvious or expected, strike you with the sensation of having found a word you’ve been trying very hard to remember. Turning to see Donald Judd’s Untitled 1992 after viewing Malevich’s Suprematist Composition: Airplane Flying on the opposing wall had this effect. Judd’s six-part multi-colored wall-mounted sculpture distills Malevich’s gritty palette and cleanses it with light. Paying spiritual respect were Ed Ruscha’s bleach paintings with tongue-in-cheek plaques that read “STICK UP DON’T MOVE SMILE” and “SAY YES TO OUR DEMANDS OR ELSE.” Ruscha’s paintings remind you that while art can rarely shock — and it’s difficult to imagine a time when the rendering of a black square on a canvas was controversial, with a slight adjustment of context it can still be surprising.

While you should check out the Gagosian Gallery show if you can, take a look at this slideshow for some of the works on view, both by Malevich and those of his American legacy.

Kazimir Malevich. Suprematism, 18th Construction, 1915. Oil on canvas. 207/8 x 207/8 inches. (53 x 53 cm). Collection of the Heirs of Kazimir Malevich. Courtesy Gagosian Gallery

Kazimir Malevich. Mystic Suprematism, 1920–27. Oil on canvas. 393/8 x 235/8 inches. (100.5 x 60 cm). Collection of the Heirs of Kazimir Malevich. Courtesy Gagosian Gallery

Kazimir Malevich. Painterly Realism of a Football Player—Color Masses in the 4th Dimension, 1915. Oil on canvas. 271/2 x 173/8 inches (70 x 44 cm). The Art Institute of Chicago, through prior gift of Charles H. and Mary F. S. Worcester. Collection; Art Institute of Chicago. Acquisition Funds, 2011.1. Courtesy Gagosian Gallery

Kazimir Malevich. Desk and Room, 1913. Oil on canvas. 311/4 x 311/4 inches. (79.5 x 79.5 cm). Collection of the Heirs of Kazimir Malevich. Courtesy Gagosian Gallery

© Ed Ruscha. Courtesy Gagosian Gallery. Photography by Robert McKeever

© Judd Foundation. Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY. Courtesy Gagosian Gallery. Photography by Robert McKeever

© Cy Twombly. Courtesy Gagosian Gallery. Photography by Robert McKeever

© Richard Serra / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Collection of the MoMA. Gift of the Grinstein Family. Courtesy Gagosian Gallery. Photo by Peter Moore