Beauty and Excitation
Matthew Drutt is the curator of the exhibition Kasimir Malevich:
Suprematism in the Deutsche Guggenheim Berlin. In an interview, he
explains why Suprematism forms the peak of Malevich's work.
Sebastian Preuss: There were a number of major Kasimir
Malevich retrospectives over the past decade. The blockbuster in Amsterdam,
Leningrad, and Moscow in 1988/89 comes to mind, as well as the comprehensive
shows in Cologne in 1995 or more recently in Vienna, in 2001. Clearly,
Malevich is well-known to the public both in the East and the West. Compared
to its predecessors, what is unique about the current exhibition in Berlin,
New York, and Houston?
Matthew Drutt: There were several
comprehensive exhibitions on Malevich beginning in 1972 and again in 1978,
when the Centre
Pompidou organized the large retrospective. Actually, that exhibition
was the first to show a great number of works on paper from private collections
in Russia. And even though these last exhibitions were very comprehensive,
none of them benefited from the works belonging to Nikolai Chardschijew,
who was a private collector and historian. He knew Malevich personally
and lived in Moscow for many years before emigrating to Holland in the
1990s. But this exhibition is not simply about the Chardschijew collection.
It's also about the abundance of information both in the Chardschijew archives
- letters, diary entries, other kinds of documentary material, photographs
- and the Russian archives, which weren't accessible during the 1980s and
1990s. And they yielded seven major new paintings, from the high period
of Malevich's work, which was Suprematism.
How did the idea
come about to focus the exhibition on Suprematism?
never been a show that has focussed on Suprematism
per se. In doing that, our idea was to take a deeper, concentrated look
at Malevich's most important period while bracketing out the symbolist,
cubist, and later work. We've never had the opportunity to look at his
high abstraction in a very concentrated way, both in the paintings and
in the various different ways that he used drawing: as a method of sketching
out ideas in a very tentative matter, as a method for documenting works,
and as a didactic, highly specific kind of information that was part work
of art and part pedagogical exercise. This exhibition tries to emphasize
all these different relationships, and I think the emphasis comes across
more clearly by limiting the time span to fifteen years in the whole of
his career. It's a small amount of time when you consider that this is
something that someone did in fifteen years - suddenly, it becomes all
that more fantastic.
Could you please tell us how the idea for
this exhibition was born and how you were able to realize it?
been very lucky over the years to work with the Guggenheim Museum, which
has a number of excellent connections to Russian institutions. They've
done quite a lot: The Great Utopia (more here
being the first major project following the George
Costakis project. Beyond this, when the Stedelijk
organized the first important Malevich retrospective in 1972, they chose
as the exhibition location for the United States. For me personally, Malevich
was one of the first artists I ever fell in love with as a child. It was
always a dream for me to do a Malevich exhibition, and I am particularly
fond of suprematist work. That's always been my favorite material.
this exhibition is like a dream come true for you?
I was extremely
excited when I realized that it had become possible to gain access to works
in recently discovered private collections, or to gain access to new archival
information - when I was able, for instance, to publish the transcript
of his KGB interview following his arrest in 1927… All of a sudden, we
had an opportunity here to introduce several major unknown paintings to
the public, along with previously inaccessible information that makes the
story much more robust - and so we didn't have to tell the same tale again
about what happened to this poor Russian artist, the Revolution, Stalin,
and the death of the avant-garde.
This show is not about the death
of the avant-garde. Rather, it's a celebration of great art and the idea
that non-objective painting can put on a masterpiece performance. I see
this exhibition, really, as a kind of jewel box of great painting and drawing.
So, to put it simply, the opportunity was there and the Guggenheim was
willing to be the catalyst. When I moved to the Menil
Collection, there was an even stronger conviction on the part of that
institution that the show should happen, since they'd gotten involved with
Malevich early on. It was a nice coming together of different forces.
not possible to show Malevich in depth without the cooperation of the Russian
museums. How did your collaboration on this project turn out?
the end, it went phenomenally well. Let's say they've been extremely generous
with lending pictures that are highly precious. These are very fragile
paintings, and they're very important to the Russians for obvious reasons.
For many years, the museums weren't even allowed to show them. This is
now possible, and Malevich's paintings form the cornerstone of their modern
collections. The fact that they've agreed in the end to all the loans we
requested has been more than just cooperative: it's been extremely generous.
Was this the State Russian Museum, or the Tretiakov Gallery,
Both. In terms of number, the State
Russian Museum (here you find their virtual
tour through Malevich's visual world) has the greater collection, and
then the Tretiakov, of course, has the very special icons: both Black
Squares and the Architecton, for instance. I built up enough
trust with my colleagues at the Tretiakov for them to finally reveal the
existence of a further Architecton that had been presumed destroyed,
when in fact it was in their collection, but needed to be repaired. So
we began a project in collaboration with the Guggenheim, the Tretiakov,
and the Menil Collection to restore that Architecton, which is now
hanging here in the exhibition. As a result, the Tretiakov Gallery has
been extraordinarily generous with loans, and they've been just as generous
in terms of facilitating access to archival material, as well.
of these things had simply been sitting there, without anybody having ever
gone to look for them or having bothered to transcribe them before. I was
interested in doing an exhibition chronology in the book instead of a life
chronology - there were all sorts of exhibitions that showed suprematist
paintings - and then in publishing the criticism that was written about
them at that time. And so you get a sense of the reception of this work
during Malevich's lifetime, both in Russia and in Europe, and it tells
a very interesting story. Obviously, not everybody was in favor of what
he was doing, and it's fascinating to find out why they objected to it.
At the same time, we were interested in seeing who was enamored by it and
who celebrated it. A more balanced account of the work emerges from this.
It's not just about Malevich being a hero of modernism. There's a real-life
story there, with people who disagree within the avant-garde, who disagree
within the critical world. This demonstrates the circles of activity that
really existed at that time.
In the past, it was above all Malevich's
representational oeuvre following the late twenties that was explored and
rediscovered. The legend of Malevich, meaning the severe painter of high
abstraction, was called into question. Now, you're highlighting Suprematism
- in other words, excluding his early steps as well as his later turning
to an old-masterly style in the thirties. What was your intention in limiting
yourself to Malevich's purely abstract period?
I think it was
his best work. And so I've included just a few of the early figurative
works of the late period, the very first figurative works that he made
during the transition from Suprematism back to the figure.
minimal, very nondescript, and they clearly carry on elements from the
non-objective paintings. The pictures that follow don't have the same kind
of synthesis between the non-objective and the figurative. For me, they're
much too illustrative; in some cases, they show a lack of conviction in
what he was doing. I prefer to see the best work brought together within
a synthesis. It's an aesthetic decision, one that has to do with the privilege
of experiencing beautiful objects in history.
What the graphic
work tells us about what he was doing is redundant. I think it's better
told through the paintings, the objects, and the drawings, because they're
more immediate, you can see the artist's hand at work. They're imperfect,
because they're hand-made. The printed material has a kind of flatness
that doesn't have the same order of beauty and excitement. I'm really interested
in making people feel amazed when they walk through the show, when they
see all these things together. I leave out what a curator perhaps more
concerned with history would call the final chapter - the one that shows
you where it all led. Instead, I try to create closure through this ultimate
moment that Suprematism occupies, right before Malevich became ill and
began doubting everything that he'd done before. It's a positive experience.
What was the contribution of Malevich's Suprematism to the avant-garde
of the 20th century?
It's huge. But it was clear from the beginning
of 1922, when the "First Russian Art Exhibition" was held in Galerie van
Diemen in Berlin, that there wasn't just Malevich, but a whole suprematist
group that had grown up around him. You had some constructivists, the OBMOCHU
and some of the others. But the most dominant elements in the modern avant-garde
were Malevich and UNOVIS
On the other hand, you had traditional Russian painters such as Alexandre
Benois (more here)
World of Art. For Europeans, seeing the contrast between those
two in a single place was remarkable - the whole scope of avant-garde debate
occurring in Russia on this scale. It was unprecedented, and it had an
immediate effect. It resulted in people like Lissitzky
and Malevich being invited to Germany to come and work at the Kestner
Gesellschaft in Hanover and at the Bauhaus
- as well as the Great Berlin Art Exhibition of 1927, which included
a major exhibition of Malevich's work. I think this demonstrates the impact,
response, and interest in Malevich's career that had evolved in a matter
of only five years, the ones following the First Russian Art Exhibition
He would have gone further had he not been arrested following
his return from Germany and restricted from traveling and from communicating
with his colleagues abroad. In a sense, Malevich's story in the West kind
of stopped with the 1927 exhibition. That material ends up being the collection
of the Stedelijk Museum and the Museum
of Modern Art in New York, where they have seven paintings and some
drawings. At the Stedelijk, there are 27 pictures. That becomes the idea
of Malevich's art that's been rooted in the Western imagination for over
50 years. It's an incomplete view, but it's one that certainly inspired
American art of the 1960s and 1970s: people like Donald
Ryman… Malevich was very important for them.
In 1972, Donald
Judd writes about how, for him, Malevich is the first real non-objective
painter; he compares him to Mondrian. He demonstrates that Mondrian is
a romantic, whereas Malevich is purely concerned with color, texture, and
form. He's making a very clear statement about Malevich's position as a
forefather of American art. He also had an impact on European artists such
as Yves Klein and others, and on the Constructive movement in London, the
Circle Group. Polish modernism was deeply affected by Malevich's
presence. He very quickly became this kind of modernist icon, and he left
behind a legacy for the West. He managed to publish a book with the Bauhaus
in 1927, Die Gegenstandslose Welt, which became one of the great
texts of modernism.
What about the situation today? What does
Malevich mean for contemporary art?
There are obviously still
a lot of contemporary artists concerned with abstraction, with non-objective
painting - for the so-called Radical
Painters in the United States and Europe, Malevich continues to
be a kind of historical monument to their enterprise. Certainly, I also
think the Neo-Geo painters (more here)
of the eighties were looking to Malevich as their hero. Even painters who
aren't abstractionists per se still respond to him. What I really believe
about the work in the exhibition is that it shows how much of a painter
Malevich actually was. What he does with texture, what he does with his
sense of color is really quite magical. He gives a depth and a texture
to things - his whole understanding, on a scale from very large to very
small. He's very instructive.
Isn't the Black Square
a myth of modernism that should be called into question?
know if you need to question it. The debate is whether this was the first
abstract painting, or whether Kandinsky (painting
from 1914) created the first abstract painting. But it doesn't really matter.
We use the word icon, but you could also say it was "the logo" for an entire
school. It had that kind of currency, it was his visual signature - the
Black Square. In one simple form, it signifies everything that he
was trying to do. For this reason, you wouldn't deny its importance in
history, or whether one version of the Black Square is more important
than another. The Black Circle and the Extended Rectangle
in this show are just as powerful in terms of the idea Malevich had concerning
pure form. Remember: the circle, the square, the cross, and the extended
rectangle were the four primary suprematist elements. In that respect,
one can over-privilege the Black Square. It's not just about the
square - it's also about the extension of the square.
was not only a great painter, but also an important theorist and author
of writings on art. How does this exhibition bring the public into contact
with these theoretical and philosophical aspects?
hard. Malevich was a horrible writer. He used words that in some cases
were difficult to understand, or he made them up. He had a very convoluted
style of writing. One of the things I did was to ask the great authorities
on Malevich's work, such as Jean-Claude
Marcade, to write an essay that synthesized Malevich's writings in
the key points he made and to relate them back in some way to the visual
evidence that Malevich left behind with the paintings - and to finally
situate all this within a philosophical context.
You mean Malevich's
affinity to Nietzsche (more here,
an english site)?
Exactly! I don't know how one can do that
successfully in an exhibition. I'm very weary of shows that provide too
much text, preventing people from thinking for themselves about what they're
looking at. It's like trying to establish people's horizon, telling them
what they should be seeing. You have to experience the composition by yourself.
Exhibitions that go on and on about what Suprematism and suprematist life
were all about - that almost amounts to killing the experience of the paintings.
In the end, the writings were more important as a means for getting other
artists to understand how to read Malevich's paintings. They were a kind
of justification. We've seen those pictures for more than seventy years,
and so we might need a little less justification by now. What I really
believe about the work in the exhibition is that it shows how much of a
painter Malevich actually was. You don't have to be interested in non-objective
form to be interested in these paintings.
Interview: Sebastian Preuss.
Translation by Andrea Scrima