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."
Gallery label from Inventing Abstraction, 1910–1925, December 23, 2012–April 15, 2013.
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.
Gallery label from 2015.
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.
Publication excerpt from The Museum of Modern Art, MoMA Highlights, New York: The Museum of Modern Art, revised 2004, originally published 1999, p. 85.