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Kazimir Malevich: Suprematism

Deutsche Guggenheim Berlin

January 14 to April 27, 2003

Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York

May 13 to September 7, 2003

The Menil Collection, Houston

October 3, 2003 to January 11, 2004

"Untitled (Suprematist Composition)" by Kazimir Malevich

"Untitled (Suprematist Composition)," by Kazimir Malevich, oil on canvas, 20 7/8 inches square, circa 1916, Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Venice

By Carter B. Horsley

Russian artists around the time of World War II and shortly thereafter were probably the most avant-garde artists in the world as well as the most abstract.

They fell into two main camps, Suprematism and Constructivism. Kazimir Malevich (1878-1935) was the foremost Suprematist and the "Kazimir Malevich: Suprematism" exhibition at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York is stunning. The show opened earlier at the Deutsche Guggenheim Berlin and will travel afterwards to the Menil Collection in Houston.

Malevich's finest "non-objective" works were mostly executed during World War I, a decade or so after Vasily Kandinsky had ignited the fires of abstraction with his wild and rapturous geometric flourishes. In comparison with Kandinsky, Malevich may appear to some as a cool, minimalist, conservative abstractionist. Indeed, Kandinsky usually appears superheated and kaleidoscopic while Malevich is boldly simple and severe. Malevich reportedly was not a great fan of Kandinsky. Malevich's reductionist approach to abstract painting is "minimalist," to say the least, a good quarter of a century before Mark Rothko, Josef Albers, Donald Judd, Ellsworth Kelly and the like. Moreover, Malevich's work have a resonance and beauty that only Mark Rothko approached and Rothko's works are softer and not as bold.

In a May 27, 2003 review of this exhibition in the Washington Post, Blake Gopnik maintained that Malevich created "some of the most gorgeous and important paintings ever," and added that his abstract works are "overwhelmingly potent studies in pure form" and "achieve a radical, electrifying balance among shape, color and composition that's rarely been matched, and never surpassed."

In his exhibition catalogue essay, Matthew Drutt, the curatorial director of The Menil Collection in Houston, states that "Malevich is unquestionably the most celebrated Russian artist of his generation," adding that "By the middle of the last century, both Western and Soviet institutions had acquired more of his major works than those of any of his colleagues, and during his brief lifetime no fewer than five solo exhibitions were devoted to this work, both at home and abroad." "With the single-mindedness of a missionary or a prophet, Malevich spent nearly fifteen years of his career espousing the aesthetic and moral superiority of a system of abstract art he termed Suprematism. A complete departure from any pictorial method theretofore recognized in art, Suprematism was characterized by Malevich as 'that end and beginning where sensations are uncovered, where are emerges `as such.'" In a review of Malevich's paintings in the 1927 Great Berlin Art Exhibition, Ernst Kallai remarked that "it is quite difficult to imagine what further development in painting is possible beyond what has been achieved." Mr. Drutt observed that "No other Russian artist, not even Kandinsky, who had been celebrated in Germany long before Malevich, had ever received such distinguished attention."

After the 1927 Berlin exhibition, however, Malevich returned to Russia, but within a few years his work began to fall out of favor: Drutt cites the following denunciation in the official press: "in spite of all the wonderful aspects of Malevich's creative work, the foundation of his artistic activity to foreign to proletarian culture. His entire work conveys the notion that he, as a bourgeois artist, needs art not for serving society, but only for the sake of form." In September, 1930, Malevich was jailed for practicing "formalism" even though Malevich defending his work as "having been carried out on behalf of the ideals of the Soviet state." He was released that December but would die in 1935 after a brief illness. His late works were figurative in a Cubo-Futuristic style and in his last years he would backdate some of his "Post-Impressionist landscapes and neo-Renaissance portraits designed to create a logical progression of styles and attitudes in his work," according to Mr. Drutt.

Some other contemporary critics castigated his work.

"Malevich's art outlived such pessimism and decades of government repression," Mr. Drutt wrote, "as well as the artist's own descent into self-doubt, which at the end of his career led him to abandon abstraction for a kind of Italianate realism only tenuously connected to his previous concerns. More than merely survive, his art assumed a prominent position in the canon of High Modernism, commanding a level of respect and influence in the history of art reserved for precious few."

"Suprematist Ornaments" by Kazimir Malevich

"Suprematist Ornaments," by Kazimir Malevich, plaster, 17 ¼ by 15 ¾ inches, 1927, reconstructed by Paul Pedersen in 1978, Musée National d'Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris

While he is best known for his paintings and aesthetic polemics, Malevich also was involved with architecture and based on some models including in the exhibition and the catalogue he clearly had a fine and powerful vision. The small model above, for example, is an exceptionally fine and interesting massing.

Malevich was given a retrospective exhibition in 1978 at the Musée National d'Art Moderne in Paris and ten years later an even large show was held at the State Russian Museum in St. Petersburg (then Leningrad). Several key Malevich works were also included in the 1992 exhibition, "The Great Utopia: The Russian and Soviet Avant-Garde," at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, but, Mr. Drutt wrote in the catalogue for the current show, "as much as these exhibitions were crucial to the interpretation of Malevich's art, none of them benefited from the recent discovery of major paintings and drawings as well as letters and other documentary materials long thought lost or destroyed or else completely unknown, most of which belonged to the legendary historian, collector, and custodian of the Russian avant-garde Nikolai Khardzhiev. Little known outside Russia until a decade ago, he was a trusted associate of many of the artists, including Velimir Khlebnikov, Aleksei Kruchenykh, Kluin, Lissitzky, Malevich, Vladimir Mayakovsky, and Tatlin. When he succeeded in emigrating to the Netherlands in 1993, something he had been attempting for twenty years, he took with him his collection of some 1,350 artworks of the Russian avant-garde and countless letters and documents. Within this vast repository were eight major paintings and hundreds of drawings, sketches, notes and manuscripts by Malevich. These materials are the raison d'être for the current exhibition."

While the Cubism of Picasso and Braque and Gris and Delaunay was an extremely radical departure in painting, the Suprematism and Constructivism of the Russian artists of the 1910s, 1920s and 1930s was just as radical in the abandonment of specific objects or individuals and precursors to much of post-World War II abstraction.

"Suprematist Painting: Eight Red Rectangles"

"Suprematist Painting: Eight Red Rectangles," by Kazimir Malevich, oil on canvas, 22 1/8 by 19 1/8 inches, 1915, Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam

Some Malevich works are exceptional lyrically. "Suprematist Painting: Eight Red Rectangles," shown above, which is in the collection of the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, is pulsating with rhythm.

"Suprematsm: Painterly Realism of a Football Player (Color Masses in the Fourth Dimension)" by Malevich

"Suprematism: Painterly Realism of a Football Player (Color Masses in the Fourth Dimension)," by Kazimir Malevich, oil on canvas, 27 ½ by 17 3/8 inches, 1925, Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam

The year or so before he launched his "Suprematist" works, Malevich produced what he called "Alogic" compositions that, according to Mr. Drutt, "were experiments with visual form intended to confound conventional picture making, inventing new relations or associations derived from a `random' collision between seemingly unrelated images and shapes.Alternately compacted and open, the Alogic works, which combine images of `real' elements such as animals, utensils, and musical instruments with abstract shapes, are critical for understanding how Malevich would end up inventing a new visual language that, while inherently nonobjective in appearance, continued for many years to refer to things in the real world. Thus, in a work like Suprematism: Painterly Realism of a Football Player. Color Masses in the Fourth Dimension, the direct descendant of Malevich's ideas about the transrational, the composition is confusion if interpreted as attempted to represent something real; instead, it has its own inherent logic, one that is both self-referentially and remotely tied to experiences in everyday life. Even the 'logic' of the work's orientation is open to question: there is no one correct direction in which to view the work. Assumptions of up, down, or sideways are thrown into chaos, at least they were in Malevich's lifetime, when he was fond of displaying works in various ways, constantly redefining the way in which a given composition resolved itself visually (hence the alternate orientations of a few works reproduced in this essay."

"Suprematism (Supremus No. 50)" by Malevich

"Suprematism (Supremus No. 50)," by Kazimir Malevich, oil on canvas, 38 1/8 by 26 inches, 1915, Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam

In the catalogue, "Suprematism (Supremus No. 50), shown above, is illustrated both vertically and horizontally as Malevich was wont to alter the orientation as proof of the strength of the composition.

"Suprematism" by Malevich

"Suprematism," by Kazimir Malevich, oil on canvas, 34 ½ by 28 3/8 inches, 1915, State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg

"Suprematism," shown above is one of Malevich's busier compositions but it resonates with dynamism.

"Dynamic Suprematism (Supremus No. 57)" by Malevich

"Dynamic Suprematism (Supremus No. 57)," by Kazimir Malevich, oil on canvas 31 5/8 inches square, 1916, Tate Modern, London

Unlike "Suprematism", "Dynamic Suprematism (Supremus No. 57)," shown above, is a more balanced composition with a lighter and cooler palette that is very effective.

"Suprematism No. 55" by Malevich

"Suprematism No. 55 (Spherical Evolution of a Plane)," by Kazimir Malevich, oil on canvas, 25 7/8 by 19 inches, 1917, Kawamura Memorial Museum of Modern Art, Sakura, Japan

"Suprematism No. 55 (Spherical Evolution of a Plane)" is a lovely and very strong Malevich work involving curved forms.

"Suprematist Composition: White on White" by Malevich

"Suprematist Composition: White on White," by Kazimir Malevich, oil on canvas, 31 ¼ inches square, 1918, The Museum of Modern Art, New York

"Suprematist Composition: White on White," is a classic example of Malevich's bold abstraction and minimalism, decades before the Minimalist school.

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