Whitechapel Gallery provides the answer

For a recent seminar on my MA course we were all asked to think of a question about contemporary art today and to bring in an image that was relevant to that question. Mine was “whether originality was still possible or whether everything had been done”. It was not so much that I believed that originality was a thing of the past, but I thought it worth debating whether the emphasis on novelty in art itself became a constraint.

My image was a screenshot of the chaps below; who together make up Azorro, a Polish artists’ collective. In their video, made in 2003, and which I only just discovered by chance,  the four of them decide that they must come up with a new idea. They start off suggesting a horse, rapidly move on “to a square with some kind of background”, and keep coming up with ideas that become progressively more outlandish, but each time they decide that it has already been done. It is comical and their timing is perfect but what is really brilliant about this short film is, that having had the first conversation, they discuss the subject  again in a different location. Of course, the second time it had been done already – by them. It was originally shown on twin screens at the Raster Gallery in Warsaw. It is well worth a watch.

Unexpectedly I got the definitive answer to the question Has it all been done rather sooner than I expected. It was at the Whitechapel Art Gallery exhibition Adventures of the Black Square, which didn’t sound wholly promising but which turned out to be unexpectedly inventive and enjoyable. The exhibition takes as its reference Malevich’s famous black square, though to be precise it is his rectangle that they are showing; the square is presumably having a breather after its recent spell at the Tate.

The idea behind the exhibition, according to the blurb, is to look at how art relates to society and politics. It is apparently divided into four themes: Communication, Architectonics, Utopia and The Everyday, though with the hard to follow labeling and a poorly executed booklet, which got the paintings and rooms mixed up, I was not particularly aware of the themes at the time. In any case, they  were broad enough to allow the curators to put in pretty much anything that they liked.  So, the result seemed more like a brisk canter through the last hundred years to discover  what those artists, who had rejected Azorro’s opinion that it had all been done, had made of  this one basic shape.Black Quadrilateral, undated, by Kazimir Malevich. Downstairs, Whitechapel had managed to assemble quite an impressive collection of the  geometric. There is work by Malevich himself, whose rectangles, whilst ground breaking at the time, look surprisingly small and amateurish. There were paintings  by fellow Russians, Aleksandr Rodchenko, Vladimir Taitlin and  Lyubov Popova where  her  Painterly Architectonic, 1916, holds up remarkably well. It all lies in the quality of her brush strokes. There are 100 black tiles by Carl Andre, less well known than Equivlalent VIII, his bricks, and which look, as they always have done, rather like a flooring sample. You were allowed to walk on them too, but I noticed that very few people did so. There was a rather charming black square by Eva Hesse with a sort of tit thing in the middle, trailing a length of black electrical cable like a stream of black milk. There too was a sample of Mondrian’s well known geometric form. Some commentators have felt that originality and inventiveness lay here on the ground floor. Personally, I found that, whilst it was good to see  all these works for historical reasons, they lacked the power to excite, precisely because so many of them were familiar. A Mondrian always looks like a Mondrian, though as with the Mona Lisa, strangely rather smaller than you might expect. Upstairs there were some less familiar works, many created in the last couple of years and the connection to the black square was becoming more tenuous, and the geometry less rigid. I particularly liked Liu Wei’s colourful and intricate  painting Purple Air; there were no black squares in sight but the link as far back as Mondrian was apparent, The squares were visible in this striking work by Jenny Holzer Top Secret 32 . It looked younger than its 65 years. Jenny Holzer's Top Secret 32 (1950). I was less keen on the Mondrianesque work shown above – as art work, though as a carpet and a place to sit down it was extremely welcome. And yes there is a square in the middle. Of particular note was Angela de La Cruz’s Shrunk . Yes  it is black and geometric but it has come a long way from Malevich’s small black rectangle. Constructed from paint and canvas but on stretchers that have been mangled and broken, it occupies that  interesting middle ground between a sculpture and painting; I thought it proved that there is always more that can be said, 002

Adventures of the Black Square: Abstract Art and Society 1915 – 2015, is showing at the Whitechapel Gallery until April 6

One thought on “Whitechapel Gallery provides the answer

  1. This video is perfect. Intriguing idea for a show; too bad the execution was lacking. Funny the first time I saw a Mondrian in person at MOCA in L.A. I was was underwhelmed by the scale as well!

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