Light, movement, art: the creations of Moholy-Nagy

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Moholy-Nagy, László, Untitled Space Modulator, 1946. Oil on Plexiglas. (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

The Santa Barbara Museum of Art always keeps people wondering, ‘what will go up on the walls next?’

Right now, adjacent to a room full of paintings by Degas and Monet, is a bit less conventional exhibit. László Moholy-Nagy (1895 – 1946) is known for integrating technology and industry into the arts. He also founded the New Bauhaus School of Design in Chicago, a descendant of the influential German Bauhaus design school. A European immigrant himself, much of his work was dictated and marked by the Great Depression and the Second World War. The exhibit explores why Moholy abandoned paintings to pursue light displays and film, and how he learned to integrate mediums regardless of dimension.

Moholy-Nagy, László, Light Prop for an Electric Stage, 1929-30, exhibition replica, constructed in 2006 through the courtesy of Hattula Moholy-Nagy. Metal, plastics, glass, paint, and wood, with electric motor.

Moholy-Nagy’s Light Prop for an Electric Stage (1929-30) is captivating to watch. It was completely innovative at the time, but according to chief curator Eik Kahng, it also represents one of the greatest artistic failures in the history of art. When it was first publicly displayed in Paris, it broke.

“This is one of the haunting themes of Moholy’s career,” she says. “He’s so far ahead in his vision of what art could become, that the limits of technology are constantly holding him back.”

According to Kahng, Moholy also realized the only force in the world that could pull off the ambitiousness of work like Light Prop would be a fascist regime, like Hitler’s.

László Moholy-Nagy, CH for R1 Space Modulator, 1942. Oil on Formica. (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

When Moholy-Nagy moved to the United States to found the New Bauhaus, his work of the 1930s and 40s shifted toward what Kahng describes as “riotous color.”

“They reflect the optimism Moholy felt in the face of the possibilities of the future in this new world he had come to,” says Kahng.

CH for R1 Space Modulator (1942) is painted on bright red Formica, a kitchen counter-top material. Intricate textures can be noticed if you look closely. Moholy was known to stand myopically close to the surface he painted on.

Moholy helped shape the future of kinetic light sculpture and expand the minds of future artists working with technology and industrial materials.

The Paintings of Moholy-Nagy: The Shape of Things to Come is on exhibit until September 27th at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art. The Light Prop is turned on every half hour (and it’s worth the wait).

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