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.
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.
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.
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.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.
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.
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.
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!