“Adventures of the Black Square: Abstract Art and Society 1915–2015” opened with the painting Black Quadrilateral (ca. 1915) by Russian Polish artist Kazimir Malevich. An off-kilter black rectangle on a white field, the painting is small—a mere 6½ by 10 inches—and unassuming. Yet it was among Malevich’s works that inaugurated the Suprematist movement, whose artists were closely associated with the Russian Revolution.
With over 100 pieces by 100 artists from around the world, the show examined modernism’s social legacy through the lens of geometric abstraction. Aleksandr Rodchenko’s radically cropped black-and-white photograph Shukhov Tower, Moscow (1929), for example, speaks to the Russian avant-garde’s rejection of bourgeois figurative art, as does El Lissitzky’s abstract propaganda poster Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge! (1919–20).
The theme of abstraction’s relationship to society is sustained in works such as Fernand Léger’s La Ballet Mécanique (1923–24), a cinematic commentary on modern speed and spectacle, and Cildo Meireles’s Southern Cross (1969–70), a tiny cube of wood representing Brazil’s indigenous cultures. But the show loses focus with such contemporary works as Gabriel Orozco’s Light Signs #1 (Korea), 1995, an arrangement of colored circles that is more pretty than political.
A version of this story originally appeared in the June 2015 issue of ARTnews on page 95.