What Makes Kazimir Malevich’s Black Square (1915) Not Just Art, But Important Art

Who cre­at­ed the first work of abstract art has long been a fraught ques­tion indeed. Bet­ter, per­haps, to ask who first said of a work of art that a kid could have made it. A strong con­tender in that divi­sion is the Russ­ian artist Véra Pes­tel, whom his­to­ry remem­bers as hav­ing react­ed to Kaz­imir Male­vich’s 1915 paint­ing Black Square with the words “Any­one can do this! Even a child can do this!” Yes, writes nov­el­ist Tatyana Tol­staya a cen­tu­ry lat­er in the New York­er, “any child could have per­formed this sim­ple task, although per­haps chil­dren lack the patience to fill such a large sec­tion with the same col­or.” And in any case, time hav­ing tak­en its toll, Male­vich’s square does­n’t look quite as black as it used to.

Nor was the square ever quite so square as we imag­ine it. “Its sides aren’t par­al­lel or equal in length, and the shape isn’t quite cen­tered on the can­vas,” says the nar­ra­tor of the ani­mat­ed TED-Ed les­son above. Instead, Male­vich placed the form slight­ly off-kil­ter, giv­ing it the appear­ance of move­ment, and the white sur­round­ing it a liv­ing, vibrat­ing qual­i­ty.”

Fair enough, but is it art? If you’d asked Male­vich him­self, he might have said it sur­passed art. In 1913,  he “real­ized that even the most cut­ting-edge artists were still just paint­ing objects from every­day life, but he was irre­sistibly drawn to what he called ‘the desert,’ where noth­ing is real except feel­ing.” Hence his inven­tion of the style known as Supre­ma­tism, “a depar­ture from the world of objects so extreme, it went beyond abstrac­tion.”

Male­vich made bold claims for Supre­ma­tism in gen­er­al and Black Square in par­tic­u­lar. “Up until now there were no attempts at paint­ing as such, with­out any attribute of real life,” he wrote. “Paint­ing was the aes­thet­ic side of a thing, but nev­er was orig­i­nal and an end in itself.” As Tol­staya puts it, he “once and for all drew an uncross­able line that demar­cat­ed the chasm between old art and new art, between a man and his shad­ow, between a rose and a cas­ket, between life and death, between God and the Dev­il. In his own words, he reduced every­thing to the ‘zero of form.’ ” She calls this zero’s emer­gence in such a stark form “one of the most fright­en­ing events in art in all of its his­to­ry of exis­tence.” If so, here we have an argu­ment for not let­ting young chil­dren see Black Square and endur­ing the con­se­quent night­mares — even if they could have paint­ed it them­selves.

Relat­ed con­tent:

Down­load 144 Beau­ti­ful Books of Russ­ian Futur­ism: Mayakovsky, Male­vich, Khleb­nikov & More (1910–30)

The Tree of Mod­ern Art: Ele­gant Draw­ing Visu­al­izes the Devel­op­ment of Mod­ern Art from Delacroix to Dalí (1940)

Down­load Russ­ian Futur­ist Book Art (1910–1915): The Aes­thet­ic Rev­o­lu­tion Before the Polit­i­cal Rev­o­lu­tion

Who Paint­ed the First Abstract Paint­ing?: Wass­i­ly Kandin­sky? Hilma af Klint? Or Anoth­er Con­tender?

Steve Mar­tin on How to Look at Abstract Art

An Inter­ac­tive Social Net­work of Abstract Artists: Kandin­sky, Picas­so, Bran­cusi & Many More

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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