The Guggenheim’s recently-opened László Moholy-Nagy retrospective is subtitled “Future Past” for a reason—the Russian Constructivist made work about utopias that look remarkably contemporary today. Back in 1947, in a review of a Moholy-Nagy show at the Guggenheim from that year, Thomas B. Hess noted something along these lines. “Perhaps some day the examples of his teaching, his writing, his applied and ‘fine’ art may ‘penetrate into everyone’s daily routine,’ ” Hess wrote, and he wasn’t wrong—many artists these days are making work about technology that looks not unlike Moholy-Nagy’s. Below, Hess’s review from the June 1947 issue of ARTnews follows in full. —Alex Greenberger
“Moholy-Nagy: Memorial to a Many-Sided Non-Objectivist”
By Thomas B. Hess
The irony of the circular evolution of modern painting is personified in the career of the late László Moholy-Nagy. The nineteenth-century pioneers worked in a comparatively popular idiom, but created their new forms with total contempt for the public. The notion that their pictures might brighten civic centers would have been extremely distasteful to Degas or Rossetti. Contrariwise, modern artists, like Moholy, believed in a “new and creative vision” which would “penetrate into everyone’s daily routine,” and would support instead of undermine our industrial civilization and all its technology. Yet their totally non-representational forms could symbolize for the public all that is esoteric and obscure in the modern art of our time.
Walking through this shining installation of Moholy’s comprehensive memorial exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum of Non-Objective Painting (current to July 10) we receive a clear image of both the development and the scope of his protean art. He was born in Basebarsod, Hungary, and was educated towards literary rather than painterly goals––writing poetry and short stories and studying law at the Budapest University. During the war he served in the Austro-Hungarian army, and while convalescing from a hand wound began painting. Discharged in 1918, he completed his law studies, helped found the avant-garde Ma (Today) group and review, and decided to become a painter. After a brief apprenticeship under the influences of Rembrandt and Van Gogh, he developed an expressionist cubism, related to the experiments of Marc and Kokoschka, in which objects were distorted with as much interest in the creation of emotive fragments as in plastic researches, such as The Bridge, 1918, a brightly colored pattern of diagonals. Moholy’s development then became, and remained until his death, bewilderingly rapid. He traveled to Vienna, to Berlin, to a professorship in Gropius’ new Bauhaus in Weimar and later Dessau. Around him he saw the pyrotechnical creations of the crowd of manifesto movements which mushroomed after the war. Here were the Dada drawings of Schwitters and Grosz, Gabo’s and Lissitzki’s smooth Constructivism, here were Van Doesburg the painter, Archipenko the sculptor, the architects Oud and Van Eesteren, the Swedish abstract film director Eggeling and his assistant Richter; and here were the other Bauhaus professors, Feininger, Schlemmer, Breuer, Itten, Klee, Kandinsky, and Albers. It was a time of creation, of optimism, of practical jokes, The old prejudices seemed dying and a young artist could help finish them off with a white triangle or a spiral of shiny metal tape nailed on a piece of painted cardboard. Moholy became one of the most active members of this short-lived German renascence. A medium-sized, stocky man, he would be seen around the Bauhaus campus resting in some bright corner, his thick black hair, large white teeth, and glasses flashing in the sun. He taught the beginners course in the exploitation and understanding of materials. Later he took charge of the metal workshop and classes in photography. In the early ‘twenties, Moholy pasted collages and drew constructions for whimsical machines, but he quickly became preoccupied with the problems of light and transparent materials. Titles were abandoned and paintings labeled as a factory does an airplane or a car. The many works in the exhibition from this period bear such designations as CX-6 or Construction AX-1. The artist, he felt, should serve “the public as an anonymous agent.”
Along with painting, teaching, and formularizing his aesthetics, Moholy, somehow, found time to collaborate with Gropius in planning and designing the fourteen books published by the Bauhaus, including one of his own, Vom Material Zu Architektur [Albert Langen, Munich, 1928, page 50]; to experiment with machines for projecting “light displays”, and to study photography. The photogram, in which an object is reproduced by placing it on or near sensitized paper, is a technique as old as photography. But Moholy developed it to a point where it became a new, independent, and flexible abstract medium.
In 1928 he followed Gropius in leaving the Bauhaus. Then came theater and opera sets in Berlin, designs for exhibitions, advertisements, and books. He continued photographic experiments, delighting in sharply angled shots, as From Berlin Wireless Tower, 1929, [page 18]. The “illiterate of the future,’ he proclaimed, “will be the man who does not know how to handle a camera.” When the Nazis were elected, he moved to Amsterdam, then to London where he designed guide-tour pamphlets and made abstract and documentary movies.
As seen in the exhibition, Moholy kept trying to open the surface on which the painter works to the motions of colored lights. Pure light playing on moving walls, or even on manufactured clouds, was his dream for the future. Paint was applied (often with an airbrush) to such new material as zellon, galalite, trolite, bakelite, and sheets of perforated metal. It was an active life of “urgent research” characterized by a ruling “passion for transparency.”
In 1937 Moholy came to America to head a short-lived New Bauhaus in Chicago. After this venture failed, he opened his own School of Design there [ARTnews, August 1945] and continued until his death last November in the strenuous life of teaching, painting, writing, as well as designing for the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad and the Parker Pen Company.
The exhibition rightly emphasizes Moholy the painter, for no matter how often he insisted that the artist should be a functioning unit of his civilization, and should be as comfortable in the laboratory as in the studio, he always held that “art is the highest aim of life.” The oil on plexiglass Space Modulator 39-45 [page 19] (whose numbers refer to the years of commencement and completion); his last painting, prophetically titled Finis [page 19]; and the watercolor Space-Construction 1945 [cover], all contain and evoke those feelings which differentiate craftsmanship from art. It may or may not be important to know that the white lines in Construction were made by drawing with rubber cement, then painting on the paper, then scraping off the gum; or that to make paint “take” on plexiglass thousands of little lines had to be etched into the plastic; or that the shapes and colors of Finis relate to certain observed “psychophysical laws.” The plexiglass Sculpture, 1946 [page 18] might be as scientific a machine for studying light in space as the physicist’s prisms, but its importance, and the final importance of Moholy, is the transformation of the thermoplastic into sculpture.
“As a young painter,” he wrote, “I often had the feeling, when pasting my collages and painting my ‘abstract’ pictures, that I was throwing a message, sealed in a bottle, into the sea.” And only sentimental wishful thinking could claim that by “participating fully in life” and by “integrating” his specialized fields “with social reality,” Moholy brought “to the masses a new creative vision.” But he did write the message and the “new vision” is on exhibition. Perhaps some day the examples of his teaching, his writing, his applied and “fine” art may “penetrate into everyone’s daily routine.” But they have already given us a valuable and eminently enjoyable art form. [A large illustrated catalogue, price $1.50, with essays on Moholy, accompanies the exhibition.]
A version of the story originally appeared in the June 1947 issue on page 22 under the title “Moholy-Nagy: Memorial to a Many-Sided Non-Objectivist.”