Light as a New Plastic Medium: László Moholy-Nagy at the Guggenheim
Moholy-Nagy: Future Present at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum
May 27 to September 7, 2016
1071 Fifth Avenue, between 88th and 89th streets, New York City
In addition to a kaleidoscopic retrospective of one of the last century’s towering aesthetic figures, the Guggenheim’s Moholy-Nagy survey also serves as a history of the reception of abstract art in the United States. The prescient eye of Solomon Guggenheim is noted in the wall text of one 1926 canvas, which had hung – like so many of the Hungarian’s works – in the Museum of Nonobjective Painting, precursor to Lloyd Wright’s spiral temple of modernism. His work had likewise hung at the Brooklyn Museum’s Exhibition of Modern Art, organized by Katherine Dreier and the Societé Anonyme in 1926. It was thus with a keen sense of his achievements in a stunning array of media that the artist himself eventually landed on these shores, as an exile from Hitler’s Germany in 1937. Perhaps no other individual embodied more emphatically a kind of intermedia experimentation than László Moholy-Nagy, who not only helped to introduce the avant-garde to the United States, but navigated numerous, seemingly inimical strains of modernism from the start of his career.
Some of the artist’s early works on canvas make plain his attention to the very objecthood of the support. Tilted Fields (1920-21) interposes bands of unprimed and unpainted canvas with diagonal lozenges of paint, effecting not only a dynamic pulsation of geometry but also a sense of the materials at play. Featuring wheels, pulleys, and other apparatuses, some collages from around the same time reveal Moholy-Nagy’s interest in the mechanomorphic imagery of Francis Picabia. While Picabia’s ambivalent treatments of modern machinery might seem diametrically opposed to Moholy’s earnest, lifelong dedication to the utopia of technology, the long arc of works on display makes plain spirited, and often lighthearted, dimensions which leavened the seriousness of his experiments. Moholy’s mesmerizing 1922 photomontage, Structure with Moving Parts for Play and Conveyance, evinces the sensibility of an artist as sympathetic to the work of Raoul Hausmann and Jean Arp as to the eventual productivist strains of Russian Constructivism. But while the works themselves – and the energy between them – remains crackling even in its coolness, the exhibition’s installation dampens some of the dialogue that might have been staged between its wide-ranging components.
Right from the start, a replica of Moholy’s most renowned inventions – his kinetic sculpture, Light Prop for an Electric Stage (1930) (often referred to as the Light-Space Modulator),– is cordoned off in in a walled-in small room off from the ramp. The viewer is plunged in media res, into a proposed construction of Moholy’s “Room of the Present,” a consummately modernist installation developed in 1930 but never realized. Bearing curving glass panels, perforated metal grills, and numerous panels of montages, film stills, and posters – both by Moholy and by others – the star curiosity of this futuristic cabinet is the Light Prop, which exemplified Moholy’s ambition to use light as a “new plastic medium.” The star of its own film by the artist, the Light Prop proposed a radical new integration of time and space, aesthetics and technology. Its seemingly incidental position here is egregiously anti-climactic.
To be sure, we find some of the Light Prop’s geometric integuments echoed right away in numerous paintings lining the museum’s upward spiral. The surfeit of these various Construction paintings, however, appears at times to reach overkill. The exhibition’s chronological tack accounts for this concentration. Still, the curator might have intercalated these works with some different, and relatively contemporaneous, work, to striking effect. For if any oeuvre bears the record of simultaneous experimentation in seemingly endless media, it is that of Moholy-Nagy. Nearly all of the show is grouped according to medium rather than motif, even when there is overlap in production. The eventual appearance of Moholy’s “photoplastics” – his pioneering photomontages of the mid-1920s – thus comes as a relief to the mediumistic monotony in this hang. The industrially produced enamel paintings from 1923 alsobear numerous points of contact with the contemporary works on canvas, as does his legendary 1921 sculpture, the Nickel Construction. All of these respective examples were displayed separately. The curator seemed more preoccupied with highlighting the ever more rarefied (or workaday, as the case may be) nature of Moholy’s material supports, from Galalith, to Rhodoid, to Trolit, to other unpronounceable industrial plastics.
At any rate, the number of photoplastics displayed together here affords an unprecedented consideration of their innovation, and their intersection with other of the artist’s experiments. Drawing upon Dada and international Constructivism in equal measure, they suggest just how much a sense of play and fantasy endured at the Bauhaus, due in large part to Moholy’s presence. Largely missing from the exhibition, however, is a sense of his legendary pedagogy. Some wall text accounts for his prodigious activity at the Bauhaus, which he joined in 1923 at the behest of Walter Gropius, who tapped him for the precociously technological orientation of his aesthetics (in contrast to the more mystical expressionism of former Swiss master Johannes Itten). We have to make do with a few Bauhaus publications consigned to vitrines. The somewhat awkward display is further exacerbated by the emptiness of numerous bays, in favor of large gray panels, mounted on spindly piers and placed at an angle. While these allow for a closer look at the paintings and other objects, they are incorporated less than gracefully.
Like so many of his contemporaries, Moholy-Nagy found his burgeoning career suddenly buffeted by the rise of Fascism. Shortly after the newly established Nazi regime shuttered the Bauhaus in 1933he relocated first to Amsterdam and then in 1935 to London. The range even of his advertising commissions is staggering, evinced in everything from posters for the London Underground to color coded price tags for a Berlin department store. While undertaking commercial work to support his family, Moholy pursued experimental work in some striking films from the early 1930s, in addition to writing on the modernist possibilities of the medium. Berlin Still Life (1931-32) reveals streets scenes and piles of garbage, while his Architects’ Congress (1933) documents a gathering of the CIAM (Congress Internationale Architecture) in Athens. Here again though, the films (transferred to DVD) were tucked off to the side, around a corner from the ramp and out of sight. Already in his own time Mohly-Nagy had complained about the inadequate circumstances in which some of his films were screened. At least his landmark Light Play (1922) enjoys a larger screen in one of the ramp’s bays.
Moholy’s eventual move to Chicago found him briefly at the helm of the so-called New Bauhaus, eventually redubbed the Illinois Institute of Technology. He soon took up an irrepressible interest in Plexiglas – a material whose banality nowadays belies what must have seemed an almost revolutionary promise. By turns scored/scratched and painted, many of his sculptures push the material past any merely decorative or formal faculties. Moholy coerces its folds to cast shadows, to serve simultaneously as frame, painting, and transparency. While the photograms he completed in Chicago remain striking in their experimentation, his paintings from the period often reach into garish corners of kitsch. Conversely, his experiments with 35mm Kodachrome film reveal how a relatively ordinary instrument could be turned to sophisticated ends.
Verging on the decorative, the increasingly whimsical tendencies of Moholy’s late paintings–before his untimely death in 1946 – suggest a recoil from the terrors ravaging the globe in the early 1940s. What must the artist – who had held such utopian expectations for technology, coaxed by art– only have thought of the uses to which machinery had been put in Europe’s apparatuses of liquidation? A glimpse of the porosity between dream and nightmare comes early in the exhibition. A 1918 crayon drawing on paper reveals a thick copse of trees, likely from the hills above the city of Buda. It long bore the title Landscape with Barbed Wire, however, as Moholy’s widow believed it to represent a view from the front lines of World War One.