In 1919 Popova described painting as a "construction," the building blocks of which were color and line. In this work, brightly colored, irregularly shaped planes are layered against a neutral background. The curved bottom edge of a gray shape emerging from beneath a red triangle and a white trapezoid suggests three-dimensionality, while the vibrant colors and jutting edges that seem to extend beyond the frame evoke energetic movement. Painterly Architectonic is one of a series of works Popova created between 1915 and 1919 in response to Kazimir Malevich's Suprematist paintings. Her definition of painting as a constructive process also recalls her engagement with the materially based abstraction of fellow Russian Vladimir Tatlin, in whose teaching studio she worked.
Curator, Leah Dickerman: In 1912 and 1913 Lyubov Popova studied in Paris. So she was very familiar with the developments of Cubism. She also made trips to Italy where she saw Futurist work firsthand. But unlike either Cubism or Futurism she really takes a jump and severs this connection with the visual world to try to make truly abstract pictures.
This picture was made in 1917, the very year of the Russian Revolution, which shook the established order of things at its foundation. And Popova, like many of the other artists of the Russian avant-garde, ended up allying herself with the new Bolshevik government.
If you were going to have a revolution you'd have to start over from the beginning. So there's this idea that painting could serve as a special kind of laboratory or incubator space for developing ideas about what the visual forms of this new world might look like. And in this she finds the metaphor of architecture very helpful. And the series of work she made in 1916 and 1917, Painterly Architectonic, she develops her own style of painting where she layers these skewed geometric forms on top of each other to create these very dynamic, brightly colored compositions.
In counterpoint to the expansive white backgrounds of Suprematist paintings, Popova creates what appears to be a tight, shallow container for geometric forms that seem to push outward from it. Her model of abstraction is suggested by her use of the term "architectonic": treating planes almost as solid material entities, Popova builds a monumental composition focused on the interrelationships between individual parts. In this work, which combines a carefully painted surface with a three-dimensional spatial quality, she combined the respective innovations of Kazimir Malevich (in her use of colored geometric forms and the working of paint on the surface) and Vladimir Tatlin (in the overlapping elements that suggest an abstract relief construction), although the two artists themselves were often hostile to each other. Between 1912 and 1915, Popova had worked in Tatlin's studio. In 1916, she joined Malevich’s Suprematist group, and over the next two years created a series of works, including this one, called Painterly Architectonics.
In Painterly Architectonic, one of a series of works by this title, Popova arranges areas of white, red, black, gray, and pink to suggest straight-edged planes laid one on top of the other over a white ground, like differently shaped papers in a collage. The space is not completely flat, however, for the rounded lower rim of the gray plane implies that this surface is arching upward against the red triangle. This pressure finds matches in the shapes and placements of the planes, which shun both right angles and vertical or horizontal lines, so that the picture becomes a taut net of slants and diagonals. The composition's orderly spatial recession is energized by these dynamic vectors, along which the viewer's gaze alternately slides and lifts.
Influenced by her long visits to Europe before World War I, Popova helped to introduce the Cubist and Futurist ideas of France and Italy into Russian art. But, no matter how abstract European Cubism and Futurism became, they never completely abandoned recognizable imagery, whereas Popova developed an entirely nonrepresentational idiom based on layered planes of color. The catalyst in this transition was Kazimir Malevich's Suprematism, an art of austere geometric shapes. But where Suprematism was infused with the desire for a spiritual or cosmic space, Popova's concerns were purely pictorial.