László Moholy-Nagy at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art

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The Hungarian artist László Moholy-Nagy (1895-1946) is largely known for his experimental films and photographs. His reputation was such that he contributed special effects to the 1936 film based on H.G. Wells’ The Shape of Things to Come.

A well-selected exhibition at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art, however, focuses on the paintings that he did make and why and how he returned repeatedly to the medium. The Paintings of Moholy-Nagy: The Shape of Things to Come is on view through September 27.

Having lived through WWI and the Russian Revolution, Moholy-Nagy abandoned his early ideas of studying law to become an artist, producing geometric abstract paintings in the manner of the Constructivists, a pictorial language without recourse to realistic depictions of people or landscapes.

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László Moholy-Nagy, “AL 3,” 1926
Oil, industrial paints, and pencil on aluminum, 15 3/4 x 15 3/4 inches (40 x 40 cm)
Norton Simon Museum, The Blue Four Galka Scheyer Collection

Thinly painted rectangles, squares and circles carefully arranged on pale ivory or flat black backgrounds were better suited to the industrialized modern era, he felt. In the early 1920's, he was painting such imagery on sheets of plastic or aluminum, materials produced by the rapidly developing post-war industries.

His interest in the intersections of art and science led him to write Painting Photography Film claiming that technological innovations would supplant the primacy of painting in the art of the 20th century. He caught the attention of architect Walter Gropius who hired him for the experimental Bauhaus school in Weimar and Dessau, where he proved to be highly influential.

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László Moholy-Nagy, “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
Harvard Art Museums/Busch-Reisinger Museum
© President and Fellows of Harvard College

Moholy-Nagy’s obsession with the possibilities of technology led him to spend years building a complex machine, Light Prop for Electrical Stage, that would display moving patterns of light and shadow on the walls but it failed to function properly when he exhibited it in 1929. A 2006 replica of the original is on display in the exhibition along with a black and white film of luminous geometric arrangements, which gives an inkling of how the machine was meant to operate.

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László Moholy-Nagy, “TRB 1,” 1928
Oil on plastic
Collection Hattula Moholy-Nagy

Discouraged by this failure, forced to leave Europe due to the rising power of the Nazis, Moholy-Nagy emigrated to the United States and became director of the New Bauhaus and Institute of Design when it opened in Chicago in 1938.

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László Moholy-Nagy, “Untitled (Space Modulator),” 1946
Oil on Plexiglas, 37 x 21.5 cm (14 9/16 x 8 7/16 inches)
McMaster Museum of Art, McMaster University, Hamilton, Ontario

Moholy-Nagy returned to painting and the show includes a number of geometric abstractions from the 1930's and 1940's including Untitled Space Modulator from 1946, curved lines of black with dots of primary colors on a clear Plexiglas panel mounted away from the wall. It was completed the year that the artist died prematurely of leukemia but such pieces had an outsized impact on subsequent generations of artists including LA’s Craig Kauffman, who cited it as an influence for his own spray painted on plastic reliefs.

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Jan Tichy, “Things to Come,” 1936-2012
Three-channel digital video projection
Richard Gray Gallery

By the way, many of the special effects created by Moholy-Nagy never made it into the Wells film but the footage was discovered in the 1970's and now has been modified as a video installation of black and white cones and spheres, radiant in light and shadow, by contemporary artist Jan Tichy.