Malevich described his aesthetic theory, known as Suprematism, as "the supremacy of pure feeling or perception in the pictorial arts." He viewed the Russian Revolution as having paved the way for a new society in which materialism would eventually lead to spiritual freedom. This austere painting counts among the most radical paintings of its day, yet it is not impersonal; the trace of the artist's hand is visible in the texture of the paint and the subtle variations of white. The imprecise outlines of the asymmetrical square generate a feeling of infinite space rather than definite borders.
Curator, Leah Dickerman: Kazimir Malevich's Suprematist Composition: White on White was painted the year after the Russian Revolution of 1917.
Malevich was one of the first artists to create works that stepped away completely from trying to make images of the visible world. And in this work you can see that Malevich is pushing the limits of the possibility of abstraction. A white form glides on a white expanse at the very threshold of visibility. And color is minimized although it's still present. You can see that there's two very different forms of white in the composition. And the surface is very worked. So white is a way of taking away, minimizing color itself and actually focusing on the material of painting.
You see the touch of the brush again and again and you can see that it's very much a picture about the process of painting.
Malevich breaks with the use of perspective that traditional tool to create the illusion of dimensional depth in the work of art although there is a kind of spatial sense that's created by skewing the square form in the center of the composition and the way it's layered over the slightly warmer white ground.
This was painted a year after the Russian Revolution. And you can understand it as part of an effort to create a new visual language for a new world.
With his White on White series Malevich pushed the limits of abstraction to an unprecedented degree. Reducing pictorial means to their bare minimum, he not only dispensed with the illusion of depth and volume but also rid painting of its seemingly last essential attribute, color. What remains is a geometric figure, barely differentiated from a slightly warmer white ground and given the illusion of movement by its skewed and off-center position. With its richly textured surface and delicate brushwork, Suprematist Composition: White on White emphasizes painting’s material aspects, and its simplicity suggests a radical reinvention of the medium. In 1918, a year after the Russian Revolution, the connotations of this sense of liberation were not only aesthetic but sociopolitical. Malevich expressed his exhilaration in a manifesto published in conjunction with the first public exhibition of the series, in Moscow in 1919: "I have overcome the lining of the colored sky. . . . Swim in the white free abyss, infinity is before you."
A white square floating weightlessly in a white field, Suprematist Composition: White on White was one of the most radical paintings of its day: a geometric abstraction without reference to external reality. Yet the picture is not impersonal: we see the artist's hand in the texture of the paint, and in the subtle variations of the whites. The square is not exactly symmetrical, and its lines, imprecisely ruled, have a breathing quality, generating a feeling not of borders defining a shape but of a space without limits.
After the Revolution, Russian intellectuals hoped that human reason and modern technology would engineer a perfect society. Malevich was fascinated with technology, and particularly with the airplane, instrument of the human yearning to break the bounds of earth. He studied aerial photography, and wanted White on White to create a sense of floating and transcendence. White was for Malevich the color of infinity, and signified a realm of higher feeling.
For Malevich, that realm, a utopian world of pure form, was attainable only through nonobjective art. Indeed, he named his theory of art Suprematism to signify "the supremacy of pure feeling or perception in the pictorial arts"; and pure perception demanded that a picture's forms "have nothing in common with nature." Malevich imagined Suprematism as a universal language that would free viewers from the material world.