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Adventures of the Black Square: Abstract Art and Society 1915-2015

  • Art, Photography
  • 4 out of 5 stars
  • Recommended

Time Out says

4 out of 5 stars

A major show of abstract painting from the past century and how it has been used to channel political ideas and socially-engaged themes.

Fun fact of the year, and it’s only January: under the military junta in Argentina in the 1970s, Venn diagrams were banned, since they illustrated collaboration and collective action. This is just one of the unexpected turns taken by this show tracing the course of geometric abstraction across the last century. Taking as its starting point the 1915 ‘Black Square’ by the Russian painter Kazimir Malevich, it looks at how abstraction grew from a radical ideology suggesting a new democracy of art to become a diffuse and various global language at once able to incorporate indigenous artistic cultures and transcend them.

If that all sounds a bit like hard work, it really isn’t. The early Russian stuff in particular is quite a hoot: both earnest and startlingly imaginative, it presents a world where radio towers and rugs, paintings and railway stations are all equally important, and all formed from a set of basic shapes. It also anticipates a lot of things we now take for granted, like photography being an art form, and women being artists.

So the ‘Black Square’ should have been the dropping of the bomb for twentieth-century art. In fact, two years later, Marcel Duchamp detonated a dirty bomb of his own by submitting a urinal for inclusion in an exhibition, and a lot of this show is really about the conflicting pulls of abstraction and conceptualism over the last hundred years. This means there’s tons of great things to look at: from the spiritual serenity of Josef Albers to wily, witty pieces by Jenny Holzer and Rosemarie Trockel. It also means that the show becomes rather shapeless, with works whose inclusion feels tenuous. Francis Alys repainting the lines in the middle of a road with fantastic concentration is pretty funny, but scarcely relevant, unless you also regard Camden Council as carrying a torch for abstraction. Anyway, a show which has a much bigger overlap between erudition and entertainment than you might expect. Just don’t draw that as a diagram, Jorge.

Chris Waywell


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