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Hurling defiance at art history

Kazimir Malevich's "Black Suprematic Square," 1915
Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow

He was as much a nonconformist as Chris Ofili who mixed his paintings with elephant dung or a Karen Finley who smeared her body with chocolate in the name of art.

Hurling defiance at art history and all things representational in 1913 Russia, Kazimir Malevich invented his own art movement that he called Suprematism, where nothing is real except feeling, and did the most radical thing for his time and place. He painted a single black square.

He wrote of his defiance this way:

“In a desperate attempt to rid art of the ballast of objectivity, I took refuge in the form of the square, and exhibited a picture that represented nothing more than a black square on a white field, the critics - and with them society - sighed, ‘All that we loved has been lost. We are in a desert. Before us stands a black square on a white ground...’ But the desert is filled with the spirit of non-objective feeling, which penetrates everything.”

Following up on the black square painting, he tried a single white square, saying, “I have broken the blue shade of color boundaries and come out into white. Behind me comrade pilots swim in the whiteness...”

Now, a century later, London’s Tate Modern has mounted a giant retrospective of Malevich’s work that traces the evolution of his style.

In “Dynamic Suprematism,” Malevich set large rectangles in one direction and smaller ones set in another. By their contrasting directions, even despite their freedom of association with anything in the visible world, they appear to move.

In “Black Trapezium and Red Square,” Malevich introduces a dark trapezoidal mass that, despite its size and shade, fights for attention from a decidedly smaller red square. This not only demonstrates the power of color, but also shows that recognizable objects are not necessary to tell a story.

Malevich believed so much in what he was doing that he had his coffin covered with his own work. One wonders if Ofili and Finley have that kind of confidence.

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