This issue contains:
>> Kasimir Malewitsch - an introduction
>> Beauty and Excitation - an interview with the Curator Matthew Drutt
>> Links and Literature on Malevich and the Russian Avantgarde
>> Malevich and Berlin

>> archive

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?

There has 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?

I've 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 and 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 the Guggenheim 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.

Then 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.

It's not possible to show Malevich in depth without the cooperation of the Russian museums. How did your collaboration on this project turn out?

In 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, as well?

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.

Some 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.

They're very 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 group (photo), and some of the others. But the most dominant elements in the modern avant-garde were Malevich and UNOVIS (more here). On the other hand, you had traditional Russian painters such as Alexandre Benois (more here) and The 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 in 1922.

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 Judd, Carl Andre, Ellsworth Kelly, Robert 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?

I don't 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.

Malevich 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?

That's very 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, here and 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