I visited the impressive Malevich retrospective at the Tate Modern recently, and thought I’d see if Marek had a few words on the man. I found this dense extract which talks about Malevich’s role in the minimalism of modern art. The gallery visit he describes near the end left me with the distinct impression he’d be shaking his head at a lot of today’s art were he still alive… – AZ
There is no doubt that, independent from art as a deliberate activity of man, there exist artistic phenomena which move us with their monumental simplicity. The desert, oceans, ploughed fields, steppes, the heavens and earth. Even an empty white wall or repeated rhythms.
But in the end, nothing has the majesty of an uninterrupted surface, an undisturbed unity and indivisible whole – a territory upon which poetry mixes with mathematics, and eternity with our individual existence…
When I was in Egypt, I ceaselessly photographed the sky against the sands of the desert. The most piercing maritime paintings are those in which there’s nothing but water and sky divided by the straight line of the horizon, as if it were the first day of Creation. The fact that these types of paintings are the hardest to paint is well-known to every serious painter.
The literary meaning or narrative – an allusion to some event or other – can make the issue easier, while in any case it facilitates understanding between artist and spectator. A painting, in which nothing definable is happening, can be splendidly ambiguous – or sadly completely devoid of meaning.
Minimalism first appeared on the scene as a new artistic direction less than ten years ago in New York, but the history of minimalist art in the sense of artists taking advantage of the simplest means to create the maximal effect is obviously long and deeply tied to the whole history of modern art.
In 1915, Malevich exhibited a painting of a black square against a larger white square. Soon afterwards he painted several canvasses depicting a white square against a white background. This was typical minimalism but nobody was calling it that yet.
The paintings of Mondrian and the other De Stijl painters from the Netherlands relied on the two-dimensional and very simple formal elements that became role-models for minimalism. Their application to various fields of art as well as architecture had a long-lasting influence on the contemporary sense of form.
But neither Malevich nor Mondrian pushed themselves to the extreme of understanding with certainty or instinctively sensing that which, in my opinion, is a sacred law – that extracting definite statements from any form of art leads to blind alleys.
The term “minimalist art” today is generally accepted, but, when push comes to shove, everybody interprets these trends a bit differently. In my view, a sufficient justification for minimalist art is that, as we all know, throughout the centuries artists have appeared who feel the need to find the simplest solutions and apply an economy of means, often with exceptional results, discarding everything from their art which might be deemed inessential.
But this aesthetic Puritanism must have limits, because if taken too far it completely eliminates any visual elements – it becomes conceptual art that fails to operate on the plane of senses and remains within the domain of pure intellect. Neither pure aestheticism nor pure logic are materials which give rise to real art. Art has to move us – logic and aesthetics ultimately can only merely sate us.
One needs a lot of goodwill to fully assess minimalist art. In an age of haste and mechanised noise, the kind which surrounds us on all sides, one also needs a lot of patience to contemplate upon their exquisite frailty which, when push comes to shove, teaches us nothing new.
And what are today’s conceptualists doing?
There’s an exhibition by one of them at the Robert Self Gallery. Unfortunately, there’s nothing to look at in this exhibition. Upon the walls hang only white paper cards with anaemic print. But it’s not about the lettering, it’s about the concept. The concept is purely philosophical and to evaluate it you have to read everything which was printed out on the cards, which obviously I didn’t do because I don’t come to an exhibition to read a treatise on logic.
I did take a look at one card. It contained two lines of print. The first literally said: “Notions are dependent on comprehension of reality”. Beneath that, the second line was presumably a reply to the first proposition because it read: “It requires neither confirmation nor denial”.
Maybe, I thought to myself, but why put this in an art gallery?