A-|A+

MoMA

NEW IN THE GALLERIES: THE RUSSIAN AVANT-GARDE

January 30, 2014  |  Collection & Exhibitions
New in the Galleries: The Russian Avant-Garde
A view of Russian avant-garde works in MoMA's fifth-floor Painting and Sculpture Galleries

Installation view of the fifth-floor Alfred H. Barr Painting and Sculpture Galleries, The Museum of Modern Art, summer 2013. Pictured are works by from left to right Kazimir Malevich, [at far left], El Lissitzky, Vasily Ermilov, and Aleksandr Rodchenko. Photo: John Wronn]

MoMA’s collection galleries are always changing. When the Artist’s Choice: Trisha Donnelly exhibition closed this past summer in one of the fifth-floor galleries, the Department of Painting and Sculpture had a chance to use that space to conceive a new installation of Russian art from the Museum’s collection. The Russian avant-garde developed through experimentation across mediums, initiating a fluid creative exchange in which it was as likely for a poet to paint as it was for a visual artist to write. MoMA’s extensive holdings of Russian avant-garde books, drawings, and prints, as well as its more frequently displayed paintings and sculptures, made it possible to represent this period of radical artistic innovation in all its richness. Because the gallery includes a number of light-sensitive works on paper that can only remain on view for a few months at a time, we developed the installation as a series, currently in its second iteration.

A view of Russian avant-garde works in MoMA's fifth-floor Painting and Sculpture GalleriesInstallation view of fifth-floor MoMA gallery with works by Malevich, summer 2013. Photo: John Wronn

The gallery we were working with is situated between those devoted to Futurism and Dada; the chronological framing of these two early avant-garde movements served as a point of departure for the presentation of this Russian material. The first iteration focused on the beginnings of the Russian avant-garde in the early 1910s. Since MoMA has collected the work of Kazimir Malevich in great depth, he seemed a logical figure to look at closely, and we were thrilled to be able to illustrate the development of Malevich’s work from Cubo-Futurist experiments through the articulation of Suprematism, his pioneering abstract idiom. It was really exciting not only to be able to tell this story through MoMA’s outstanding selection of Malevich’s paintings, but also to show how his strategies played out across various mediums, including books, prints, and drawings.

A vitrine of works related to Kazimir Malevich

Installation view of fifth-floor MoMA gallery, summer 2013. Detail of vitrine with, at left, a Futurist book of poetry by Aleksei Kruchenykh, Let’s Grumble (1913), and, at right, a libretto for the Futurist opera Victory over the Sun (1913). Photo: John Wronn

We included the libretto for the futurist opera Victory Over the Sun (1913), for which Malevich designed sets and costumes, and a Futurist book of poetry by Aleksei Kruchenykh, Let’s Grumble, opened to a spread in which Malevich inserted a drawing of a peasant woman going to a well—a motif he also employed in his iconic painting Woman with Pails (1912), which hangs nearby.

Installation view of the fifth-floor Alfred H. Barr Painting and Sculpture Galleries, The Museum of Modern Art, summer 2013. Photo: John Wronn

Installation view of fifth-floor MoMA gallery with works by Liubov’ Popova, summer 2013. Photo: John Wronn

Having studied Cubism in Paris in the early 1910s, in 1916 Lyubov Popova joined Malevich’s Suprematist group, and over the next two years she created a series of works called Painterly Architectonics. Among the most impressive in this series, Popova’s 1917 painting in MoMA’s collection is a monumental composition that focuses on the interrelationship between several brightly colored geometric planes treated almost as solid, material entities. While this painting is often on view, it has never been shown together with a rare set of prints Popova made around the same time. (MoMA acquired one of only two known sets four years ago.) The portfolio format creates an effect of continually shifting and rotating forms, as the energy of each sheet seems to influence the push and pull in the others.

A view of Russian avant-garde works in MoMA's fifth-floor Painting and Sculpture Galleries

Installation view of fifth-floor MoMA gallery, winter 2013–14. Pictured are works by Rodchenko, and, at right, Varvara Stepanova. Photo: John Wronn

Last December we took Popova’s prints down in order to limit their exposure to light, replacing the works with a painting by Varvara Stepanova and four drawings by Stepanova’s husband, Aleksandr Rodchenko (joining several of his other works already on view). The artist couple gave all of these works (except Rodchenko’s Spatial Construction) to the Museum in 1935, when they learned that its founding director, Alfred Barr, Jr., was preparing the exhibition Cubism and Abstract Art, to be held at MoMA the following year. By the mid-1930s, the artists had come to consider abstraction and the medium of painting irrelevant to the needs of Soviet society—Rodchenko had moved on to photography, and Stepanova to design—and they were thrilled to learn of this American interest in their abstract work.

Installation view of the fifth-floor Alfred H. Barr Painting and Sculpture Galleries, The Museum of Modern Art, winter 2013–14. Photo: John Wronn

Installation view of fifth-floor MoMA gallery with four drawings by Rodchenko, winter 2013–14. Photo: John Wronn

A view of Russian avant-garde works in MoMA's fifth-floor Painting and Sculpture Galleries

Installation view of fifth-floor MoMA gallery with three works by Rodchenko, winter 2013–14. Photo: John Wronn

Rodchenko selected a drawing for MoMA from each consecutive year during the crucial period of 1918–21, when he made the shift in his work from composition to construction. This new principle for organizing the basic elements of an artwork (such as color, line, and plane), developed in a series of theoretical debates held at Moscow’s Institute of Artistic Culture (InKhuK) in the spring of 1921, became known as Constructivism. Rodchenko composed the earliest two drawings of overlapping colored, textured forms using curved, hand-drawn lines and visible brushstrokes. Beginning in 1920, he relied instead on a ruler and compass to make straight and crisp marks, proclaiming line to be the foundation of his new constructions. These new two- and three-dimensional works, such as Spatial Construction, laid bare the process of their own creation and suggested that their organizational principles harbored greater potential for social and political transformation than an individual’s psyche.

Having to tell a story with works from our own collection, rather than selecting and borrowing only the most salient examples for a special exhibition, offers an opportunity to examine the history of art in its multifaceted complexity. Juxtaposing objects in the gallery space often reveals unexpected or otherwise hidden dimensions of individual works, especially those at the periphery of the art historical canon.

For instance, Stepanova’s Figure, hardly a typical Constructivist painting, has been in storage for decades. Seen in relation to Rodchenko’s better-known line paintings and Constructivist drawings it acquires a new vibrancy. Stepanova’s kinetic geometric figure was a key subject of works she made in a variety of mediums between 1919 and 1921, including the linocut displayed in the nearby vitrine.

A view of Russian avant-garde works in MoMA's fifth-floor Painting and Sculpture Galleries

Installation view of fifth-floor MoMA gallery, winter 2013–14. Detail of vitrine with, at left, two pages from the book Gaust Chaba by Stepanova, and, at right, two spreads from two copies of the catalogue for the exhibition “5 x 5 = 25: Vystavka zhivopisi” (at top right, image by Popova, at bottom right, image by Stepanova). Photo: John Wronn

In the same vitrine, Stepanova also appears as a poet, with two pages from her book Gaust Chaba of 1919. Like many visual artists in Russia, Stepanova was fascinated with zaum (trans-rational or beyond-sense) poetics, a new language invented by poets Velimir Khlebnikov and Aleksei Kruchenykh in 1912. Zaum celebrated the expressive possibilities of the sounds of words and the forms of letters abstracted from their usual meanings. By writing her texts on fragments of newspapers, Stepanova juxtaposed zaum poetics with the prose of the everyday, and the gestural forms of handwritten letters with the anonymity of the newspaper text.

A view of Russian avant-garde works in MoMA's fifth-floor Painting and Sculpture Galleries

Installation view of the fifth-floor Alfred H. Barr Painting and Sculpture Galleries, The Museum of Modern Art, winter 2013–14. Photo: John Wronn

Another interesting observation came to light when we installed Naum Gabo’s Head of a Woman in proximity to Malevich’s Woman with Pails, a hallmark of the Cubo-Futurist style Malevich was exploring in 1912. Gabo’s work is said to be among the earliest he made following his 1913–14 stay in Paris, where Cubism had a strong presence. Seen next to Malevich’s painting, Gabo’s sculpture appears strikingly Cubist in its use of fragmented planes that are juxtaposed at sharp angles, creating a sense of volume through a play of light and shadow, whether on a flat surface or in three dimensions.

A view of Russian avant-garde works in MoMA's fifth-floor Painting and Sculpture Galleries

Installation view of the fifth-floor Alfred H. Barr Painting and Sculpture Galleries, The Museum of Modern Art, winter 2013–14. Photo: John Wronn

Head of a Woman hangs next to a brand new acquisition: a copy of Gabo and his brother Antoine Pevzner’s most programmatic text, Realistic Manifesto. In 1920 the brothers organized an open-air art exhibition on Moscow’s Tverskoi Boulevard, accompanying it with this manifesto; they plastered some 5,000 copies throughout the city streets. Its differently sized and styled fonts underscore its agitational function: to proclaim to the masses the principles of a new kind of art, which, the artists say, “should attend us everywhere that life flows and acts.”

MoMA’s Russian avant-garde gallery installation will change again this spring, so please come see it!

Comments

These galleries keep drawing me back to MoMA. I love to wander and visit favorite works and then encounter surprises like this really interesting Russian work that was completely unknown to me. Thanks for creating these wonderful small shows out of the collection!

I’m glad you had a chance to explain how a collection gallery can provide certain advantages over a room of an exhibition. It gives you a chance to show some minor works or works in mediums artists aren’t necessarily known for that a big exhibition might not be able to accommodate. And in mining MoMA’s collection, you find things to display in relation to other things as they have never been done before (with many things either having been displayed by themselves when they were acquired or never having been displayed at all). Putting these works together and having them speak to each other gives us a unique view into their era and the artistic ideas and sensibilities in the air at the time.

It’s of course very interesting. What about the second avangard? I mean the ’60 .
For example Mikhail Koulakov. http://www.koulakov.net/life.php
or a film on You tube Identità Koulakov.

Thank you very much for this, I thoroughly enjoyed it especially as there is no chance of me visiting and see the collection in the flesh….one day!

Leave a Comment

* required information
Name*

E-mail address*

Your comments*

Spam check*
Cri_151170 Please enter the text in the image.