Kazimir Malevich and the Russian Avant-Garde

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Ann Goldstein left her position as senior curator at MOCA three years ago to become director of the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam. During her time there, she oversaw the completion of a controversial new building and re-installed their impressive collection. Now, she has decided to move on though not, as widely assumed, because there is a new post available at Moca. According to my conversation with her, she wants to take a break from the break-neck pace and assess a few options. She has no specific plans for her future, she says. She and her husband, artist Christopher Williams, who is about to have a big show at the Art Institute of Chicago and the Museum of Modern Art in New York, will continue to maintain an apartment in Cologne as well as LA. The last shows under her reign are, however, terrific.

I specifically wanted to see Kazimir Malevich and the Russian Avant-Garde, organized by the Stedelijk's Bart Rutten and Geurt Imanse, on view through February 2, 2014.


Kazimir Malevich, "Black Square," 1929
Courtesy of The State Tretyakov Gallery

The Stedelijk has a large number of significant paintings by Malevich, especially from the height of his Suprematist period, 1915 to 1920, when he abandoned any reference to the figure or the landscape and painted sublime compositions of white and black, most notably the black square within a white square that is hung high in the corner of the gallery like a Russian icon. In this installation, adjacent walls bear Malevich's white canvases afloat with bars, squares or circles of black, red, yellow or blue Another gallery features four canvases of off-white forms on white.  The soft, brushy surfaces of these paintings do not translate in books or digital reproductions. Their emotive power must be experienced first hand but that is not an easy feat given the rare opportunity.


Kazimir Malevich, "Mystic Suprematism," (red cross on black circle), 1920/1922
Collection Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam

This exhibition is arranged chronologically documenting Malevich's progress as he worked through the styles of advanced art in Western Europe such as Impressionism, Cubism, Expressionism, Futurism. All the while, one cannot help but be conscious of the question of history, World War I, the October Revolution of 1917, the subsequent civil war in Russia. Malevich was determined to make a new art for a new world, one that was pure and untainted by the past. He developed elaborate theories to support his art and translate his ideas into architecture, design and applied arts. Among the many insights of the show are charts and documents Malevich used to spread his philosophy. The show includes works by Popova, El Lissitsky, Rodchenko and others who explored similar ideas.


Kazimir Malevich, "Self-Portrait," 1908-1910
Collection The State Tretyakov Gallery

Alas, his position at the forefront of non-objective art was met with hostility and repression by government forces by the late 1920s. As Stalin gained power, abstract art was deemed useless compared to the Social Realism considered useful as propaganda. Malevich was forced to return to the figurative painting that he had rejected and, soon after, died of cancer in 1935.

This exhibition includes much material drawn from the collections of Nikolai Khardzhiev and George Costakis, two brave collectors determined to save the art produced by the Russian avant-garde despite the threat to their own personal safety. They saved works on paper, leaflets, documents, correspondence, as well as drawings and paintings. Khardziev was able to get much of his collection to Amsterdam in 1993 where it is on loan to the Stedelijk. The remainder of the Costakis collection is housed in the State Museum of Contemporary Art, Thessalonika. The show will travel to the Bundeskunsthalle, Bonn and Tate Modern, London.


Lawrence Weiner, "Oval Rises above the Triangle"
Courtesy of the Museu d'Art Contemporani de Barcelona

However, this show is not the only Goldstein accomplishment before leaving as director. She also presented Written on the Wind: Lawrence Weiner Drawings, a show originated by Museu d'Art Contemporani de Barcelona. Weiner, who uses language as the material of his art, has long had a studio in Amsterdam and a long association with the Stedelijk. In fact, a bronze plaque of his words was mounted on the exterior brick wall of the museum in 1988. Goldstein had organized a Weiner retrospective at MOCA in 2008 so having a show of his pithy word play seems a fitting conclusion for her tenure at the Stedelijk.

For more information, go to stedelijk.nl.

Banner image: Hunter Drohojowska-Philp at the Stedelijk Museum.