Black Square: Imagining a New World

Elizabeth Berkowitz
Jul 12, 2013 8:47PM

In 1915, at the “0.10 Last Futurist Exhibition” in Petrograd, Kazimir Malevich formally debuted his new artistic movement, “Suprematism.” Famously staged as the counterpart to the exhibition’s proto-Constructivist corner counter-reliefs of Vladimir Tatlin, Malevich’s Suprematist room enveloped the viewer with works which illustrated not merely a new visual language, but also a new way of being in a modern and progressive new Russia. From crosses, to piles of geometric forms, to simple relations among shapes, each canvas appeared an exercise in reductive simplicity. Yet, the focus of Malevich’s Suprematist debut was the simple black square displayed prominently in the room’s corner—a place, pointedly, reserved for religious icons in the traditional Russian household. Such deliberate, and, some might argue, seemingly blasphemous corner placement implied the reverence Malevich deemed due the black square, what Malevich envisioned not merely as the initiator of a new artistic style, but, in many respects, of a new cosmology.

Malevich came to Suprematism after periods of engagement with the Euro-Russian avant-gardes. Malevich and his colleagues participated in Russian avant-garde exhibiting societies and journals, developed and supported a native, Russian exoticism through the idealization of the Russian peasant, and carefully followed the works of their European colleagues. A visit to Russia by Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, founder of Futurism, in 1914, affirmed the influence of Italian Futurism on the Russian avant-gardistes, and one of the most popular European-Russian avant-garde hybrids was a style called “Cubo-Futurism.” With works such as his 1912 Morning in the Village After a Snowstorm, Woodcutter (1912), The Knife-Grinder (1912), and 1914‘s An Englishman in Moscow, Malevich proved himself adept at merging a Futurist concern for dynamism with the trappings of a particularly Russian life. The Knife-Grinder, after all, shows not a machine’s labor, but the power of human strength engaging with an archaic grinding tool; After the Snowstorm embraces Russian village life, with peasant women of the village persevering in their daily tasks even after severe weather. Yet, it was in 1913, so the story goes, that Cubo-Futurism evolved for Malevich into something more spiritually affecting. In the process of designing the costumes and sets for the Cubo-Futurist opera, “Victory Over the Sun,” Malevich created a backdrop of a simple square divided by a diagonal into dark and light sections. Malevich quickly recognized the simplicity and subsequent iconic potential of this form, and, in later years, he actively attempted to backdate the first Black Square of 1915 to 1913, claiming its deliberate origin in the designs for “Victory Over the Sun.”

To Malevich, Black Square represented a new beginning, a new starting point for visual experience and artistic creation. A simple geometric form, a contrast of values, black square against white canvas, constituted a new language, and the marker for a new artistic vocabulary. From a black square spawned the black cross, from the black cross the Boy with Knapsack (1915) with one black and one red square, and from Boy with Knapsack the ultimate display of Suprematist sublimity, a white square upon another white square (Suprematist Composition: White on White, 1918). Following the Russian Revolution, these foundational geometric units began to take on more political dimensions—red symbolic of the Communist order, for example. But Malevich, as the years passed, had to retrofit his original Suprematist convictions to fit the needs of a political agenda, only later assigning political value to the colors and shapes of his canvases.

What, then, if not a directly political statement, was the new world Malevich envisioned? In what way were his works not merely demonstrations of abstract simplicity, the reduction of form to minimal parts? What is the significance, truly, of Black Square, its debut couched in the reverent pose of the Russian religious icon?

For the answer to these questions and the denial of a purely formalist reading of Malevich’s square, one need look no further than the square itself. In close examination of Malevich’s canvases, one quickly realizes that none of the forms are perfect geometric shapes—some sides are uneven, many appear slightly curved, and almost all appear oriented on a slight diagonal tilt. Looking closely at the canvas base, Malevich painted his white ground not as a white wash or primer, but deliberately executed his brushstrokes as a series of overlapping, choppy diagonal lines. In other words: the world on Malevich’s canvases was, by design, directly counter to both the shape of the canvas (itself a perfect quadrilateral, comprised of horizontal and vertical canvas fibers), and, by extension, to the “real world” beyond the frame. A square, seemingly the simplest shape of an even four sides, becomes a slightly off-kilter testament to our confounded expectations; a cross, the iconic perpendicular intersection, betrays slightly softer edges and a slight diagonal, rather than right-angled orientation. Each of these seemingly minor adjustments betray Malevich’s concern that his early Suprematist canvases convey a world distinct from that of our expected, everyday visual experience. Though formally reduced to a play of shapes and solid colors, Malevich’s Suprematist canvases were anything but mere formal exercises—Suprematism was “art without objects,” but for a higher purpose.

As evidenced in his many writings on Suprematism, Malevich envisioned the new world he executed on canvas as the starting point for a new experience of the world at large. To awaken the potential to see through objects in everyday experience, to see the world as it should be seen, anew, through the eyes of the new era—this was the goal of Malevich’s Suprematist works. For example, in Boy with Knapsack (some of Malevich’s earlier Suprematist works included descriptive titles), the black and red squares betray an anthropomorphic connection—one turning towards, or “following” the other; figurative relationships are here redefined without the need for figurative depiction, and through the vocabulary of a new visual language grounded in the iconic black square. As discussed in Linda Dalrymple Henderson’s The Fourth Dimension and Non-Euclidean Geometry in Modern Art, Patricia Railing and Charlotte Douglas’s writings, and in other studies of Malevich, the Utopian promise of a new vision inspired by Black Square, had its origins in contemporary fascination with the Fourth Dimension and non-Euclidian geometry, Theosophy, and zaum poetry. In thinking about the aesthetics of Black Square and the birth of Suprematism, it is then crucial to any analysis to acknowledge that both had roots in the promise of a new, better world, a world visualized on canvas as a series of foundational units, slowly and sequentially allowing a viewer to acclimate to the potential for the new and better way of seeing yet to come.

Elizabeth Berkowitz