The newest exhibition at the Gagosian Gallery, “Malevich and the American Legacy,” is an extravagant attempt that achieves only modest results.
In an effort to demonstrate the far-reaching influence of the Russian Suprematist painter Kazimir Malevich, the show surrounds six of his major paintings with a variety of works by modern and contemporary American artists. Curators Andrea Crane and Ealan Wingate have loosely defined the term “legacy” in the exhibition’s title, incorporating a number of works that share only a small degree of formal or conceptual relation to Malevich’s paintings. Though this inclusionary approach allows the show to feature an impressive collection of artists such as Barnett Newman, Ad Reinhardt, Donald Judd and Richard Serra, to name only a few, the diversity of the exhibition serves as a detriment to its overall success. By increasing the number of possible Malevich comparisons, the show also lessens the consistency of compelling connections.
The degree of Malevich’s influence varies greatly in each work, even among those placed in the same immediate gallery space. These discrepancies become more pronounced when works are in the presence of one of Malevich’s paintings. On the fifth floor, Malevich’s Suprematist Composition: Airplane Flying (1915) dominates the room despite its diminutive scale among much larger works by Serra, Judd, Frank Stella and Charles Ray. The painting demonstrates Malevich’s astonishing sense of compositional balance, as his precipitously piled yellow rectangles teeter in perpetuity, their equilibrium sustained only by a carefully placed red counterweight. An adjacent painting by Frank Stella, Ouray II (1964), fades in the presence of Airplane, practically disappearing altogether. But Judd’s Untitled (1992), which boldly faces Malevich’s work, each of its six stacked steel boxes framing a different colored Plexiglas sheet, declares itself as a rightful descendant to Suprematist ideas of pure form.
Judd’s work is among the show’s most emblematic explorations of Malevich’s ideas. Untitled (1969), the other work by Judd on view in the exhibition, is a marvelous diffusion of light through a pane of fuchsia-stained glass, echoing Malevich’s use of color and lightness of form. Other sculptures, like Serra’s Malmo Roll (1984), lack Judd’s successful reinterpretation. Despite almost identically mirroring the shapes of Malevich’s Suprematist Painting: Rectangle and Circle (1915), Malmo Roll fails to match the painting in compositional freedom.
The preponderance of works that struggle to establish a connection to the art and ideas of Malevich raise the question of why a gallery like the Gagosian would go to all the effort to assemble a show of this magnitude. Even works that make explicit reference to Malevich, such as John Baldessari’s Violent Space Series: Two Stares Making a Point but Blocked by a Plane (for Malevich), 1976, and Cy Twombly’s Malevich in Point-à-Pitre (1980) do so ironically, obscuring the legitimacy of their connection. Though most of the works on display, including the Malevich paintings around which the show is centered, are borrowed from other collections and therefore unsalable, Gagosian still profits from hosting a show of this stature. The gallery is able to not only consolidate its reputation as an arbiter of historical importance, but, by placing some of the artists it represents among other more well-established names, it dictates and manufactures reputation by association. Rather than clearly defining lines of artistic genealogy, “Malevich and the American Legacy” has only muddled the Malevich lineage, making the process of determining true progenies more problematic.