Black is the Color of My True Love’s Square

Kazimir Malevich, Black Quadrilateral, oil on canvas, 1917

Kazimir Malevich, Black Quadrilateral, oil on canvas, 1917

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.

Exhibition view that foregrounds Andrea Zittel's Bench (after Donald Judd)

Exhibition view that foregrounds Andrea Zittel’s Bench (after Donald Judd)

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.

André Cadere and a baton

André Cadere and a baton

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.

Matisse: the cut-outs (Tate Modern)

After an eleven-year interlude, the works of Matisse return to Tate Modern. After the Matisse Picasso exhibition in 2002, the focus is now solely on Matisse and his now iconic, paper cut-outs, and related works of his late period. Not surprisingly for one of the most celebrated artists of modern times, the show was heavily marketed as a ‘blockbuster’  and predictably, the crowds are flocking to Bankside. And rightfully too, for the objects here engage on a profoundly material level.

The exhibition consists of fourteen rooms, beginning with a video of an elderly Matisse cutting curved shapes into a piece of blue-painted paper. This emphasis on the physicality of the works as well as the creative process is continued in the presentation of the works through each room, despite the additional roughly chronological lay-out of the exhibition itself. This proves highly effective; visitors are able to walk through each room and feel the development of the works by engaging visually with the exhibits.

Icarus 1946 Maquette for plate VIII of the illustrated book Jazz 1947 © Succession Henri Matisse/DACS 2013

Icarus 1946
Maquette for plate VIII of the illustrated book Jazz 1947
© Succession Henri Matisse/DACS 2013

The displays are also sensitive to the content and colour palette of each, although not always. For example, a cabinet shelf is used in the third room to display all of the bright pages of the printed JAZZ book (1947), with some of the key prints framed above in their original paper cut-out form. The following room is appropriately much smaller and emptier, displaying Matisse’s more spontaneous, less colourful ‘Oceania’ cut-outs as they would have been in his apartment where they had first been pinned. Less inspired is the display of works in the eighth room, where cut-outs like ‘Zulma’ and ‘One Thousand and One Nights’ are simply hung around the white room.

In my mind, the exhibition rightly supports an entirely visual experience. There are of course information labels with the title, date and extra information about each work, but the placement of these labels means the viewer does not see them and the works; instead the labels and titles, to this end often coloured a more subdued grey, are there as a reference should the viewer wish to engage with them. If not, all the main texts throughout the exhibition are usefully included in the free exhibition information booklet.

Henri Matisse, The Snail 1953 Gouache on paper, cut and pasted on paper mounted to canvas © Succession Henri Matisse/DACS 2013

Henri Matisse, The Snail 1953
Gouache on paper, cut and pasted on paper mounted to canvas
© Succession Henri Matisse/DACS 2013

Many key pieces are displayed, in particular the Blue Nude cut-outs (which are given their own room and comparing them to some of his earlier sculptures) and The Fall of Icarus, building up to his larger and more abstract cut-outs such as The Snail. But, what ultimately makes this exhibition well-worth visiting is the chance to see the smaller details often lost in reproductions of them: to see every little pin-hole, and every crease on the painted paper.

Tijana Todorinovic is a first-year BA student at the Courtauld.

Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs is at Tate Modern until 7th September 2014.

Like an Eggshell minus its eggs: Frieze Art Fair 2013

noname3The Belgian conceptual artist Marcel Broodthaers once pondered about the question of how art contains meaning for its viewers. When looking at his beautifully fragile eggs exhibited at Hauser & Wirth at this year’s Frieze, one might wonder whether such meaningful art might be discovered beyond the spectacle of London’s renowned art fair.

A good starting point in the quest for meaningful art might be the variety of performance-based and participatory practice that one can find at Frieze this year. These art forms invite the viewer to take part in the construction of meaning so that one might suspect that they contain a high degree of meaning for the viewer when doing so. Given that these practices originated in the desire to create un-sellable art outside of any institutional contexts, it is surprising that Frieze incorporates these practices, which manifests somehow a reductio ad absurdum of their origins. Yet, does it work?


If one has a look at the re-staging of James Lee Byars’ performance ‘Four in a dress’ (a group of four performers is united through the same piece of cloth that connects all of them with each other) at Michael Werner, one quickly realises that it does not. Whilst Byars originally invited the audience to participate in the performance, a pedestal now separates the performers from their audience. The pedestal almost functions like an artificial value enhancer: the performance is declared to be an artwork of high value through the pedestal it is put on. This ignores the fact that the meaning of this piece might only be realised through the interaction with the audience. The irony is that the pedestal that was employed to emphasise the meaning of this artwork at the same time destroys it by drawing a gap between the artwork and its viewers.

Another piece that promises meaningfulness is Pilvi Takala’s ‘The Committee’, the recipient of the Emdash prize. The artist delegated her authorship to a committee of children from Bow who could decide what to do with her prize money. The committee concluded: “We want to build a five star bouncy castle” ( Takala’s work is certainly a nice and politically correct attempt to democratise discourse structures, but somehow the ‘Bouncy Castle’ evokes allusions to Angelo Plessas’ ‘Temple of Play’- a spectacular-sized word for ‘playground’ commissioned for the kids of those who can afford the exorbitant entry prices to Frieze (so probably not the children of Bow). Both promise easy entertainment and distraction. Is this why Plato was so worried about the shallowness of this kind of art that prevents us from understanding a significant meaning beyond mere appearances?

Frieze Art fairThe work that best captures the spirit of Frieze is Dan Graham’s ‘Groovy Spiral’ at Lisson: spectacular and expensive. It directly captivates and engages the viewer and fulfills the promise of being entertaining. Probably exactly these pieces that prompt brief excitement work best within a context in which the spectacle rather than meaning counts.

Maybe, Broodthaers was right to wonder: Has art been drained of meaning, like an eggshell minus its egg?

Sarah Hegenbart is a PhD student at the Courtauld

The annual Frieze London exhibition was in Regent’s Park from the 17-20 October 2013.



Paul Klee: Making Visible (Tate Modern)

kleeTate Modern’s freshest exhibition traces the artistic career of Paul Klee, commonly considered one of the most highly regarded artists of the early twentieth century. Beginning in Munich in the years 1912-13 through to the artist’s last years in Switzerland around thirty years later, the exhibition brings together works that exemplify Klee’s idiosyncratic pictorial constructions and use of line and colour in painting.


Curator and Courtauld alumnus Matthew Gale has carefully selected fascinating works by the German-Swiss artist, many of which are rarely given attention in the paradigmatic visual histories of Klee’s artistic developments. The most striking examples are perhaps found in Room 10 – where one can see how Klee combined drawing and sprayed or splattered paint in Sacred Islands or Clouds (both 1926) – and in Room 13 – where works such as Clarification and Memory of a Bird (both 1932) exemplify the artist’s use of pointillism.


Static-Dynamic Intensification 1923 Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Static-Dynamic Intensification 1923
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

The chronological principle privileged throughout the exhibition – which, in other contexts, sometimes feels reductive or simplifying – has the merit of organizing a quite diverse and, at times, not obviously reconcilable body of work, and of helpfully juxtaposing it – never too simplistically – to historical and social dynamics. The many inclusions of Klee’s own words and the division of space into relatively small rooms each introduced by section labels successfully avoid the now pervasive sterilization of gallery spaces.


Park near Lu 1938 Zentrum Paul Klee

Park near Lu 1938
Zentrum Paul Klee

My only misgiving is that I doubt that “Making Visible” is the most appropriate title for this exhibition. If at the start we are indeed led into thinking that the exhibition will address the various shapes that Klee’s concerns with vision and the visible took throughout his artistic career – the walls of the opening room are upholstered with the quotes “Art does not reproduce the visible; rather, it makes visible” and “Today we reveal the reality that is behind visible things” – those concerns are not explicitly brought back in the subsequent rooms. Paul Klee: Making Visible rather takes the form of a survey – to be sure, a thorough and articulated one – of the artist’s pictorial techniques and innovations, which I would not have so easily identified with interests in vision and visuality. But this is a quite minor hitch when compared to the exhibition’s overall successful achievement of its aims.

Vincent Marquis is an MA student at the Courtauld.

Paul Klee: Making Visible is at Tate Modern until 9th March 2014.