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Review: Adventures of the Black Square – Abstract Art & Society

Monday 26 January 2015
Words Alice Bell

‘New art for a modern age’ is how the artworks on show are described; and despite the majority of the work being produced in the last century, it still feels contemporary, yet familiar. Tracing a century of Abstract art from 1915 to today, the Whitechapel Gallery has brought together over 100 works by 100 modern masters and contemporary artists.

We now see the effects Modernist and Minimalist art has had everywhere – from architecture, to graphic design, to fashion – but 100 years ago it was revolutionary, controversial even. For it was born out of a desire to make a political statement in places like pre-revolution Russia and has been intertwined with society ever since.

Kazimir Malevich, Black and White Suprematist Composition, 1915

Kazimir Malevich, Black and White Suprematist Composition, 1915

The exhibition opens with the piece that gives the exhibition it’s name – one of Kazimir Malevich’s radical ‘black square’ paintings, where for him, the blocks of colour and white space were equally important, representing freedom or ‘suprematism’. It’s not all pared-down painting though; there are beautiful photographs documenting the rise of Construvtivism in the architecture around us and sculpture bringing the carefully composed forms into 3 dimensions – you are even invited to walk across Carl André’s slate tiles.

Arranged chronologically, the exhibition is divided into four key themes: CommunicationArchitectonicsUtopia and The Everyday – helping to give the works context and highlight their importance. The latter part of the exhibition shows current artists’ interpretations and how the influence of the early Modernists still plays today.

Dan Flavin, 'Monument' for V. Tatlin, 1966-9

Dan Flavin, ‘Monument’ for V. Tatlin, 1966-9

There is also humour and lightness alongside the serious, stark pieces. Dóra Maurer’s Seven Rotations (pictured above) is a playful take on self-portraiture and you could easily miss Cildo Meireles’ Southern Cross. I actually thought there had been a mistake and it had been left out, until I spotted a tiny 1cm cube of wood, almost camouflaged against the gallery floor.

Running alongside this exhibition are two free shows not to be missed; David Batchelor’s Found Monochromes – a collection of photographs of white rectangles encountered on walks through cities – and Dutch artist Bart Lodewijks’ White Li(n)es – a site-specific commission and lovely story about creating a bit of beauty in city centres.

Adventures of the Black Square: Abstract Art and Society 1915 – 2015, runs until 6 April 2015 at the Whitechapel Gallery.