The Whitechapel Gallery has turned what might have been the Sisyphean curatorial endeavour (and tortuous viewing experience) of revisiting a century of geometric abstraction into a thoughtful, engaging exhibition. Adventures of the Black Square‘s greatest strength lies in its presentation of early-20th-century avant-garde art. This is because it avoids hagiography from the very beginning: greeting the visitor with a work smaller than an A4 sheet of paper, Malevich’s Black Quadilateral of 1915. The exhibition by no means denies the heroism of the Constructivists or Suprematists, but it is resolutely uninterested in re-telling a familiar story and instead chooses to let the pieces tell their own in an appropriately iconoclastic way.
This is an exhibition that is interested not in grandstanding, but in education, as evidenced by the content-driven wall texts that accompany the pieces on display in the first part of the exhibition. These are informative and avoid making blanket ideological statements. Viewers are told, for example, that the Latvian artist Gustav Klutsis, whose striking 1922 designs for loudspeakers are included in the hang, participated in the October Revolution but was shot on Stalin’s orders in 1938. They are not, however, expected to acquiesce to platitudes, or make flash judgments of their own.
The international focus of the exhibition is also noteworthy. While on one hand, the curators’ decision to include not only lesser-known Europeans (ever heard of André Cadere, an itinerant Romanian artist who was best known in the 1970s European art community for leaving cylindrical wooden batons behind in the corners of other people’s exhibitions?), but also contemporaneous artists from present-day India, the United Arab Emirates, Lebanon, Pakistan. While this is admirable and long-overdue, here the exhibition could have used some more context. It opts for a generic tale of ‘alternate modernities’ where it could have told a compelling story about geopolitics. This story deserves a closer look, especially given the globalized scope of the second half of the exhibition.
The Whitechapel Gallery has devoted its whole second floor to a post-1969 continuation of the story of geometric abstraction. There is a certain amount of welcome leveling that happens on the second floor where, for example, an Israeli artist and a Palestinian counterpart are included on equal footing, and internationally-recognized art stars hang next to those only emerging or under-recognized. Some of this seems a bit facile, however, as when Social Practice artists and makers of high-priced baubles, sometimes on a social theme, Liam Gillick and Andrea Zittel are allowed to speak for the ‘reclamation’ of Constructivist ethos, or simply hasty. Perhaps it is because the way in which historiographers are still writing the late-20th century is too fraught with political tension that Adventures of the Black Square sidesteps specific references to international relations, contemporary economic practices, or even the entrenchment of the contemporary art world within the globalized economy. Here, however, the black square escapes its handlers.
Patricia Manos is an MA student at the Courtauld
Adventures of the Black Square: Abstract Art and Society 1915–2015 is at the Whitechapel Gallery until 6 April 2015.