Santa Barbara Museum of Art: Constructivist László Moholy-Nagy and ‘The Shape of Things to Come’

Richard Friswell
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László Moholy-Nagy (or Ladislaus), CH Space 6 (detail), 1941, Oil on canvas, 119 x 119 cm, Estate of László Moholy-Nagy

“The reality of our century is technology: the invention, construction and maintenance of machines. To be a user of machines is to be of the spirit of this century. Machines have replaced the transcendental spiritualism of past eras.” ~ László Moholy-Nagy

Moholy-Nagy was an artist in a time of cultural revolution. He believed that humanity could only defeat the fracturing experience of modernity—only feel whole again—if it harnessed the potential of new technologies. He held that artists should transform into designers, and through specialization and experimentation find the means to answer humanity’s needs. And yet, throughout his career, he continued to fundamentally think of himself as a painter. His interest in qualities of space, time, and light endured as well, transcending the wide range of media he happened to be working in. Whether he was painting, creating “photograms” (photographs made without the use of a camera or negative), or crafting sculptures made of transparent Plexiglass, he was ultimately interested in studying how all these basic elements interacted. xxxxxx

This rarely-assembled exhibition of Moholy-Nagy canvases, organized by the Santa Barbara Museum of Art and guest curated by Joyce Tsai, is the first to emphasize artist’s use of painting as a means of overcoming the limits of early 20th-century technology. Of all the great names to emerge from the Constructivist period surrounding war-torn Europe in the early 1900s, Moholy was perhaps the most protean talent, the most versatile. As Hilton Kramer wrote in The New York Times a few years ago, he “is an artist who still somehow resists the normal categories of criticism almost a quarter of a century after his death. One reason, of course, is his extraordinary Moholy was a painter, sculptor, designer, photographer, filmmaker, teacher, and theoretician. He achieved distinction in all of these fields, and showed an unmistakable genius in several.”

Right: Laszlo Moholy-Nagy (1925-26). Portrait by Lucia Moholy.

The works selected explore how the practice of painting served as the means for László Moholy-Nagy (1895-1946) to imagine generative relationships between art and technology. Featuring a suite of paintings executed on traditional supports, as well as on new industrial materials like plastics and aluminum, this presentation highlights how the artist’s deployment of painting served to synthesize the inter-medial practice for which the artist has become so renowned. Organized chronologically and thematically, the exhibition is organized chronologically and thematically to show the evolution of Moholy’s thought and practice over his career. The presentation begins with the emergence of his abstract painting in the early ‘20s and highlights his embrace of a new machine aesthetic, more sympathetic to Constructivism. It links his style, technique, and materials to his tenure at the Bauhaus when the project of Moholy-Nagy.compositionunifying art with technology stood at the center of the school’s artistic and pedagogical endeavors. It then traces the profound political and technological impact World War II had on him.

Left:  Composition (detail), n.d. (ca. 1922-23) Paper collage on paper, 12 x 11″ SBMA, Gift of Mrs. Charlotte Mack, 1953.

László Moholy-Nagy was born in Borsod, Austria-Hungary in 1895. He started painting while recuperating from wounds suffered in World War I. He earned a degree in law, joined a poetry circle, and became a full-time artist in 1918. Architect, Walter Gropius, invited him to join Germany’s Bauhaus staff in 1923. He would remain until 1928, heading the metal workshop, developing techniques of painting with light, and editing Bauhaus publications. In a sense, the Bauhaus movement, in which László Moholy-Nagy was so strong a moving spirit, sought to ‘co-opt’ themaholy-Nagy crop space mod 46 prevailing industrial/technological Zeitgeist before it could co-opt the culture around him.

Right: Untitled Space Modulator (1946). Oil on Plexiglas. McMaster Museum of Art, Levy Bequest Purchase.

It was a utopian vision, and some would say a failed one. But for all of that, the achievements of this almost legendary center, in education and in design and function, continue to have immense influence throughout the world. The Bauhaus, under Walter Gropius, gathered together in one place Klee, Kandinsky, Feininger, Albers, Breuer, Schlemmer, and Moholy-Nagy. There, his views on art were shaped by these artists, and other faculty, founders and leaders in modernist movements such as Dadaism, Suprematism, Constructivism, and debates about the experimental role of photography.

It is undeniable that Moholy made numerous declarations about the end of painting especially at the end of the 1920s. He demanded that artistic production reach beyond the confines of the walls of a bourgeois salon, museum or gallery. He advised artists to exchange brush, pigment, and canvas with camera, television, and searchlight. However, even as he made these www.artesmagazine.comradical claims, he returned time and again to painting. In the early ‘20s, he painted a number of works against black grounds, some on highly-polished black wood panels, others on canvas, thickly varnished to mimic the qualities of industrial plastics he began working with at the Bauhaus in the metal workshop.

Left: Nickel Construction (1921), Nickel-plated iron, welded, 14 x 6 9″. Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of Mrs. Sibyl Maholy-Nagy.

He also experimented with materials developed specifically for aeronautics, with aluminum and later with clear, lightweight, increasingly shatterproof thermoplastics in the thirties and forties. These works in plastic stand at the interstices of his many artistic practices, mobilizing techniques and organizing principles drawn from printmaking, film, photography, sculpture, and crucially painting.

With the 1933 closing of the Bauhaus, under orders by Hitler’s conservative National Socialist Party, Moholy then went to Berlin. There, he designed stage sets for the state opera and did experimental film work until the ominous political climate forced him to leave Germany for safer ground. After two years on the move in Amsetrdam and Paris, he came to London, where he began his series of colored constructs in translucent materials, he called Space Modulators. He immigrated to the United States in 1937. He brought the Bauhaus with him, where he established the New Bauhaus, in Chicago. philosophy of the school was unchanged from that of the German original, and its headquarters was the Prairie Avenue mansion that architect Richard Morris Hunt designed for department store magnate, Marshall Field.

Right: Space Modular Experiment, AL 5 (1931-35), aluminum and Rhodoid, 33 x 27″. Private Collection.

Unfortunately, the school lost the financial backing of its supporters after only a single academic year, and it closed in 1938. In 1939, Moholy-Nagy opened the School of Design with most of his original staff. In 1944, this became the Institute of Design. In 1949, the Institute of Design became a part of Illinois Institute of Technology and became the first institution in the United States to offer a PhD in design. He authored an account of his efforts to develop the curriculum of the www.artesmagaznine.comSchool of Design in his book Vision in Motion (1947).

Left: (Auto Headlights), 1939-46. Kodachrome slide. Estate of Lázló Maholy-Nagy.

As a designer Moholy-Nagy remained active as an art advisor for the Spiegl mail-order house, for the Baltimore and Ohio R.R., the Parker Pen Company and others. To a reprint of his New Vision he added Abstract of an Artist and he published numerous articles on education, design, camouflage technique, rehabilitation of veterans, and painting. After 1940 Moholy-Nagy continued to improve on his three-dimensional Space Modulator with richer light effects and the inclusion of free standing or suspended sculptures in the composition, multiplying the effects of shadows with reflections of natural and artificial light. Until the end of his life in 1946, he continued to paint. He created several larger oil canvases and took interest in water colors and ink drawings, creating a variety of new approaches.

Right: Leuk 5 (1946), oil and pencil on canvas, 30 x 38″. Smithsonian American Art Museum.

The premature death of Moholy-Nagy from leukemia, at age 51, only seven years after he founded the Institute of Design, was a severe loss.

“’If I talked would you listen, and if I painted again, would you look?’ He let go of me. Slowly he walked to the other side of the platform. When he turned his face toward me, I saw that he cried.” ~Sibyl Moholy-Nagy, 1950

By Richard Friswell, Managing Editor

The Paintings of Moholy-Nagy: The Shape of Things to Come

Santa Barbara Museum of Art

Santa Barbara, CA

July 5 – September 27, 2015

This exhibition is accompanied by an exquisitely designed, scholarly catalogue, distributed by Yale University Press. László Moholy-Nagy (1895–1946) became notorious for the declarations he made about the end of painting, encouraging artists to exchange brush, pigment, and canvas for camera, film, and searchlight. Even as he made these radical claims, he painted throughout his career. The practice of painting enabled Moholy-Nagy to imagine generative relationships between art and technology, and to describe the shape that future possibilities might take. Joyce Tsai illuminates the evolution of painting’s role for Moholy-Nagy through key periods in his career: at the German Bauhaus in the 1920s, in the Netherlands and the United Kingdom in the early 1930s, and as director of the New Bauhaus in Chicago in the last decade of his life. The book also includes an introduction to the history, qualities, and significance of plastic materials that Moholy-Nagy used over the course of his career, and an essay on how his project of shaping habitable space in his art and writing resonated with artists and industrial designers in the 1960s and 1970s. 


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