Collection 1880s–1940s

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Kazimir Malevich. Suprematist Composition: White on White. 1918 512

Oil on canvas, 31 1/4 x 31 1/4" (79.4 x 79.4 cm). 1935 Acquisition confirmed in 1999 by agreement with the Estate of Kazimir Malevich and made possible with funds from the Mrs. John Hay Whitney Bequest (by exchange)

Kerry Downey: I take people to see this painting a lot, and I find it frustrates and confuses a lot of them. A white square? What does that have to do with anything? But there’s actually a lot of complicated things going on here. The artist, Kazimir Malevich, painted this in the immediate aftermath of the Russian revolution.

Artist, R.H. Quaytman: He was very caught up in an extreme political and social moment of intense upheaval. It didn't seem important to paint the landscape anymore, or paint the nude, or paint the story. That's how radical that time was in that moment and that break.

Kerry Downey: I sat down with painter R.H. Quaytman to talk about it.

R.H. Quaytman: There's many parallels to be drawn between that moment and our moment. A deep sense that something very foundational has to change in order to save the planet or the world or humanity, and I think he was feeling that deeply along with many, many other creative minds of the time.

He was interested in changing how we look at the world because the world had changed and people said, you know, what is real anymore? Where is reality?

Kerry Downey: You're standing on the precipice of this world that has been flipped upside down. And you're a painter -- what tools you have at your disposal? You've got paint you've got shapes. You've got the world around you, and you don't want to use those tools in the same way that they've been used before. You want to reinvent them. To us looking at it today, it looks blank, but its blankness is about that capacity to reimagine. It's about possibility.

R.H. Quaytman: I think what he needed it to do was to respond spiritually to his profound awareness of this shifting reality of humanity. Such a big thing for such a little painting.