The trouble with black.
Malevich’s Black Square was not the first abstract ‘monochrome’ painting but it happened during a time and place that ensured its place and time in the history of art. Formed out of an entanglement of cultural and political forces shaping contemporary life in the early years of the 20th Century Black Square is a reminder (if one is needed) that art is entirely bound up with its context. The context – then the stresses between geopolitical fault lines, huge economic disparities and the sense that technology would provide a better future (experiences not so remote today) shape the art that is made. Art is a product of its time.
Much has been said about the inexactness of the geometry in Malevich’s paintings, that they fail in their attempt at ‘pure form’ – as if handmadeness undoes ‘purity of form’ dismantling the premise these works aspired to. But it is this ‘failure’ (if that is what it is) that is the most interesting thing of all. The not quite straight lines, the rough edges, the slightly coarse brushed marked surface, all imply spatial conventions still tethered to representation – foreground/ background, in-front /behind, interior/exterior. From the perspective of Donald Judd writing in 1974 the ‘old abstract space’ of Malevich’s Suprematism failed to achieve ‘absolute purity of form’ – the tactile materiality and tangible qualities of one layer painted over another (or collaged like many works by Popova and Rozanova) evidenced something closer to the conventions of cubism and was ‘not very spatial at all’.
The scattergun organization of forms is not the result of ‘necessary’ modular sequences but rather a collection of arbitrary connections that tilt, fall, tip and cross, forming and deforming rather than presenting a set of ‘organizing principles’. Their very precariousness (including the famous Black Square) is what brings these images closer to the unpredictable dimension of the tactile, tacky, sticky, cracked and crumbly humanness in painting. Where even the rigorous reduction of colour – far from reducing meaning, unlocks passages into the unruly fantasies of human consciousness.
“What else than a natural and mighty palimpsest is the human brain? Such a palimpsest is my brain; such a palimpsest, oh reader! is yours. Everlasting layers of ideas, images, and feelings, have fallen upon your brain softly as light. Each succession has seemed to bury all that went before. And yet, in reality, not one has been extinguished.” Thomas de Quincey, Confessions of an English Opium-Eater.
The utopian project has failed but fragments of thought persist and filter through time, one layer upon another layer, images, ideas and feelings falling softly as light. The ambivalence of Black Square has naturally accumulated over the passage of time – gradually shifting meaning and intention – the paintings’ obliterating iconoclasm has been tempered (it has itself become an icon of modernism, and its very originality triggered the opposite – serial repetition) and its revolutionary assertiveness has since been rendered impotent. Now the discussion is academic, focusing on its effect on the trajectory of the history of art – some lamenting that such a work can never be made again – that a painting could harbor such weight of expectation. Now, it is hardly even ironic that the author’s place of birth – Ukraine (land of borders) is (still) in a great deal of turmoil, and it is unlikely that any new technology will make things any better at all.