The painting Z VIII (1924) by Laszlo Moholy-Nagy (1895–1946), is a schematic representation of intersecting transparent planes. It is a dictionary of Bauhaus formalism, and would come off as generic were it not for its decorative colors, colors that predict the perverse prettiness of Postmodern stylists like Ettore Sottsass and Michael Graves. A beautifully installed survey of the Hungarian-born modernist’s career at the Guggenheim moves nimbly between his commercial work and his artwork, in the process revealing an artist inclined toward a cheerful and inclusive formal vocabulary—and with a calling to work in the present.
To claim that some artists represent their times better than others is to privilege a univocal interpretation of the past; all artists position themselves toward the present. And yet, it is true that while some go for an overtly subjective view, others aim for objectivity. Moholy-Nagy was in the latter camp. Moving through the world, he seemed to bring along as little of himself as he could. His prolific writing career and pioneering teaching activities showed a face-forward and self-diffusing progress, as do his engagement with the various artistic discourses of his time (Dada, Constructivism, the Bauhaus) and his embrace of new materials, specifically the first iterations of plastic. Remember “One word: plastics” from The Graduate? Mike Nichols was parodying the technological optimism that Moholy-Nagy’s work exemplifies.
And yet, what Moholy-Nagy brought to the styles and materials he utilized was an elegance seemingly beyond his control. This formal eloquence manifests itself in, for instance, Papmac from 1943, in which a deformed piece of bubbled Plexiglas becomes a cosmic interplay of geometry, organic forms, transparency, and shadows through the addition of colorful shapes and incised lines. His sculptural formalism and technological curiosity come together in his culture Light Prop for an Electric Stage, a kinetic work from 1930, present at the Guggenheim in the form of a replica. It took an expansive intelligence and a high degree of humility to refer to such a complex and beautiful sculpture as a prop, as Moholy-Nagy did, using it for photographs and for the hypnotic film, Light Play: Black-White-Gray, that he completed in 1930.
Unlike many surveys, the Guggenheim’s builds toward a climax. Further up the museum’s ramp are Moholy-Nagy’s twisted plastic infinities, like Leda and the Swan from 1946, which show the artist willing himself into the fourth dimension. The curved edges of the thick Plexiglas catch light and fling it out into space, only to see it folded back within the form. By pitting decoration against dynamism, he created sculptures that seem to store energy.
Moholy-Nagy was interested in creating the Gesamtkunstwerk. Unlike Wagner’s fulfillment of this concept, which involved a consolidation of all the arts into opera, he spread his activities across the entire plane of creativity. His life’s work was a thinning of the self into a membrane that lets light through. The vicissitudes of war helped push him in this direction; he went where the opportunities for survival were. But if he had not already had this instinct toward flexibility and dematerialization, could he have pulled such elegant objects out of a collapsing world?
On the other end of the spectrum from Moholy-Nagy, hyper subjectivity seems to be in vogue these days, especially on TV, where it is being utilized to humorous effect in several comedian-driven shows. Lady Dynamite, a Netflix production starring Maria Bamford and based on her own experiences, chronicles the life of a comedian before and after her emotional collapse and diagnosis of Bipolar II Disorder. Before her breakdown, the Los Angeles-based Maria is a frenetic workaholic with sub par friends and lovers who mistake her illness for high energy, and agents who exploit it. Post-breakdown, she returns home to live with her parents in Duluth, Minnesota, wishing to die in the city’s grey Midwestern light. Back on her feet, and back in L.A., she tries to learn how to say no to her agents and friends and stay on her medication, even though one of its side effects is a slackening of her creative abilities.
The show, created by Pam Brady and Mitchell Hurwitz, is nerve-wracking and raw. The L.A. sequences have the high-key light and cheerful colors of an ’80s sitcom, a dissonant backdrop for the carnival of cruelties that beset Maria. She dresses like she is off to a picnic or a puppy party, trying so hard to be uncomplicated and cheerful that it hurts. In the fourth episode, she takes refuge in an invented identity she has named Diane. Where Maria is squeaky and sexually incompetent, Diane is erotically bold. Diane is disturbing, more symptom than character.
Maria is not vulnerable in the way the world of entertainment wants women to be. Her vulnerability is clinical, rather than merely affective. She has a confused moral map; she doesn’t suffer from a surplus of goodness. Her attempts to be a better person (to be less racist, to be a better friend) are all form, not felt. What is vulnerable in her is her creativity, which is linked to her life force. In one particularly brutal episode, her agent convinces her to toss her meds in order to “be herself”; the result is a total collapse. A comedy about someone who must send her old self off on a burning boat in order to live as a new, more functional, yet dimmed person sounds about as feasible as a musical adaptation of the Francis Farmer Story, but somehow this series works.
Bamford’s partial valorization of what used to be called “madness” and is now called mental illness has a ring of Romanticism to it. It would have been easier to create a gentler comedy more imbued with the triumph-over-adversity narrative, but that would never capture the character of Maria, who is honest to a moral and pathetic fault. Maria in the present exists in a limbo of half-felt emotions and badly wired human connections. Though she makes it clear that medication saved her life, Bamford’s project is not to flatter the psychopharmacological industry, but rather to reveal its inability to deliver the mental utopia it promises. Bamford’s Romanticist attachment to her own illness is not the “right” way to think about these things. Like Maria, she is on the wrong side of everything.
“Moholy-Nagy: Future Present” runs through September 7 at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York; Lady Dynamite is a television series on Netflix.
Matthew Weinstein is an artist based in New York.