Innovative painter, photographer and onetime Chicagoan László Moholy-Nagy gets his due in a new retrospective.
“Future Present” begins at the end, with a single sculpture formed from Plexiglas and brass rods hanging placidly from the ceiling in the exhibition’s lobby. It’s one of the final pieces that László Moholy-Nagy completed before his death in 1946—a three-dimensional representation of his artistic obsessions with architecture, technology, light and innovation. The Art Institute’s retrospective charts the career of the Hungarian-artist-turned-Chicagoan, bringing together more than 300 works that provide a more complete picture of his forward-looking approach.
The exhibit picks up in 1918 just after Moholy-Nagy’s discharge from the Austro-Hungarian army, when he enrolled in painting classes while recovering from a shrapnel wound. His early work is relatively rudimentary, but it cements the geometric shapes, architectural design and abstract composition that carried through the entirety of his career. By 1920, the former law student was entrenched in the Berlin art scene, creating bold geometric paintings and challenging artistic conventions by manufacturing a series of identical enamel “paintings” at a factory (three of which are on display).
Moholy-Nagy hit his creative stride when he was hired to work at the Bauhaus school in 1923, a period of time that “Future Perfect” devotes a sizable amount of gallery space to. There are sections of the exhibit dedicated to Moholy-Nagy’s experimentation with photograms (primitive photos made with light sensitive paper), typographic design, photomontages and photography, each demonstrating a playful but well-studied understanding of the respective medium. Moholy-Nagy’s multimedia approach coalesces in a reconstruction of an installation he designed, aptly titled Room of the Present. Photos and films of architecture, furniture and individuals are situated around a complex metallic sculpture, Light Prop for an Electric Stage, surrounding guests with images that showcase the height of modernity, circa 1930.
The remainder of the exhibition depicts Moholy-Nagy’s forays into film, set design and advertising before marking his arrival in Chicago in 1937, where he moved to open the New Bauhaus school. The work in this section takes on a more experimental tone, including sculptures made from Plexiglas, multi-plane paintings and large canvases that move away from simple geometric shapes and embrace heightened levels of abstraction. Work by Moholy-Nagy’s New Bauhaus students is also displayed, complemented by glimpses of his adopted home, including photos of blurred taillights on Lake Shore Drive.
Though he’s not exactly a household name, Moholy-Nagy’s work remains a touchstone for modern graphic designers, painters and photographers. “Future Present” does an admirable job of distilling Moholy-Nagy’s expansive vision into an exhibition that functions as an introduction to his career and an exploration of his many innovations. More importantly, the retrospective fulfills a Moholy-Nagy quote featured in his Room of the Present installation: “In order to understand the present, we must link it to the self transforming urges of the past.”