Alfréd Kemény “Abstract Design from Suprematism to the Present” (1924)
Translated from the German by David Britt. From Between Two Worlds: A Sourcebook of
Central European Avant-Gardes, 1910-1930. (The MIT Press. Cambridge, MA: 2002).
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Wepublish this introductory survey of the Suprematist movement without endorsing the individual value judgments contained therein.
[Original ed. note]
The Cubists and the Futurists fought against the undue preponderance of Nature in visual art. Before them, Nature had reigned supreme in both painting and sculpture, so that visual art had been regarded as an illustrative, reproductive activity rather than as creative design. In their works, the Cubists and Futurists did not rest content with conveying the rule of law in the universe indirectly, through the superficial contingencies of a reproduced Nature. They also rejected the anarchy of confused emotions unfiltered by logic lit is an error to regard Futurism as a merely anarchic movement). They strove for a higher level of design: the direct formal expression of the known cosmic rule of law, in all its purity, primarily through elementary relationships. To this end, “Nature” in art — as conveyed through traditional, naturalistic, and perspectival (reproductive) form — must be transcended; as indeed must the atavism of a predominantly individualistic mentality.
To attain these ends, it was left for new designers to fight the battle to its conclusion. Malevich, creator of Suprematism; Tatlin, creator of Constructivism; Mondrian, creator of Neoplasticism; Lissitzky, creator of the Proun; Eggeling, inventor of the abstract cinema of motion; Richter; Peri; Rodchenko; the Russian Constructivist group Obmokhu; the Russian group Unovis; and the Dutch group De Stijl: these have emancipated art from Nature and psychopathology by creating abstract designs composed of elementary contrasts. Elementary design derived from the elementary relationships between the elementary means of visual art — from elementary relationships of time, space, form, color, light, matter — is the logical outcome of their work. The relativity of the universe, the pure expression of which was obscured in earlier art by chance factors of Nature and emotion, finds full expression in their works, untroubled by accidental factors of nature or emotion.
Relativism, elementariness, and the principle of economy — i.e., the pursuit of the simplest possible organization of the art object — are the common factors that link all these  otherwise contrasting impulses. Parallels with the theory of relativity in physics, and with the principle of economy in modern industrial production, are readily apparent. The contrasts within the new design are rooted in the East-West polarity: the antithesis between the social dynamism of Russia and the comparative social immobility of the West. This is why the new Russian design is predominantly dynamic, while the works of the new Western designers are predominantly static in nature. Even the most revolutionary abstract works of West European artists are conservative by comparison with achievements in Russia. The revolutionary element in West European art lies on a different plane. Those artists who operate on that plane do not embrace abstraction as a refuge from the reality of a decaying society. They make realistic works that unmask the decay of bourgeois society and fight against it for a better future. The major and most significant representatives of this art of creative political commitment are George Grosz, John Heartfield, Rudolf Schlichter, and Otto Dix.
In 1913 Malevich was the first artist in the East, and a few years later the Dutch artist Mondrian was the first in the West, to give suitable contemporary expression to the shift toward relativity, elementarism, and precision in modern art.
Malevich first used the square in 1913, and before long he moved on to the energy-relationships of “visible dynamic repose. “ The “force of statics” slices the square into elongated planar surfaces (which tend toward the condition of a straight line), so that it annuls its own existence as a self-contained two-dimensional figure: as a square.
Malevich painted the square — a black square on a square white ground — because it was the most economical and the most elementary form: essentially, as a symbol for the principle of economy in art. He used “economy in geometricism” — minimizing the number of forms — to concentrate design entirely on the universal. In the subsequent evolution of Suprematism, the square as an antagonistic form cancels itself out, distorted by the action of opposing forces: centrifugal (motion) and centripetal, the mutual gravitational attraction among forms). The outcome here is a relativistic absence of form in design.
Mondrian, too, uses the square as an antagonistic form, one that fulfills its function only in self-destruction. Using the square as the basis of his subdivision of the image plane, he achieves a relativistic formlessness of his own, albeit in a different way from Malevich. The square as form is wholly absorbed by the interrelationships between colors. This self-fragmentation of form enshrines a significant dialectic of polarity. The image as self-contained form is abolished by its own simplest delimiting shape, and through this dialectical process it crosses over into the design of elementary relationships.
Mondrian has carried the picture as two-dimensional design to its ultimate conclusion. Not as a self-contained form, however, but as a comparatively formless, relativistic design: a balanced summation of color relationships. Malevich, for his part, despite the planimetric structure of his works — which still remain pictures — has taken a bold step out of the picture into infinite, moving space.
With Mondrian, it all comes down to equilibrium, repose, and the equivalence between equally weighted parts. Supreme harmony. The aggression of harmony against the disharmony and chaos of present-day life. His paintings give off a deep, mineral note: a sound from those supernal regions of law where all conflict is stilled. Malevich’s Suprematist designs, on the other hand, vibrate with the dynamism of mutually antagonistic planetary orbits. Man is wrenched off balance, challenged to fight for a better design for his own life.
In Malevich, the cosmic force-relationships that are translated into states of motion appear wholly immaterial. His colors accordingly have no material character. They are used “prismatically,” as the element of light, and as the element of energy in motion.  What is essential is the antithesis between white and black, the archetypal contrast of energy between light and darkness. But the prismatic — apparently immaterial — treatment of colors, and also the planimetric/spatial structure of Suprematist design, corresponds to the essential function of light-motion. Comparatively speaking, light is the least material of all materials; it is matter in its purest energy-state. And so Malevich uses the motion of an airplane and the orbits of the planets to mark the transition to light-design. And there the threads of the polar dialectic of a unitary Time can once more be drawn together. In the West, abstract and elementary light-design was first materialized in the cinematographic designs made (in total ignorance of the work of the Russian Malevich) by Viking Eggeling and Hans Richter. In 1919, Malevich ceased to paint. In his last paintings, the colors are reduced to nuances of whitish gray. In them, he has reached the frontier of that undifferentiated state in which design as such ceases to exist. According to our viewpoint, we can regard this final period of Suprematism either as “point zero of art” or as an experimental attempt to generate nonrelative space, the frontier of “the Void,” through a minimum of differentiation.
Lissitzky has transcended the primitive, planimetric structure of Suprematism. In his Prouns, he achieves new and specific formulations of a constructive and dynamic form of design. The forms are means to an end, sculpturally juxtaposed to create ever-new spatial tensions. The separation of the forms creates antithetical spaces. The same group configurations recur in a variety of projections and depths. This results in multiple spatial contrasts. By moving, “material forms” move space. The space of the Proun is unthinkable without the fourth dimension, which is motion. “The material form is designed according to its motion in space.” With its extreme clarity, precision, and concentration, the Proun is built to transcend and implicitly to combat the repressions, obscurities, and confusions of present-day human life. Lissitzky describes his own work as follows:
The Proun designer concentrates within himself all the elements of modern knowledge, all systems, and all methods; he designs elements of plastic form that stand there like the elements of Nature: like H (hydrogen), like O (oxygen), like S (sulfur). He combines these elements together and obtains acids that attack everything they touch: i.e., they produce their effect in every department of life. This may be a laboratory operation, but these are not scientific preparations, interesting and intelligible only to a small circle of specialists. They are living bodies, objects of a specific kind, whose effect cannot be measured with an ammeter or a manometer…
“Constructivism” arose in Russia, byway of reaction against the exclusively immaterial and metaphysical emphasis of Suprematism, as the art of the material culture of the age of technology. Tatlin was the first to point to the specific — and previously unexploited — constructive possibilities that reside in the materials collectively and simultaneously present in everyday life (such as wood, iron, glass, wire, etc.). The different materials are put in relation to each other in ways that produce sharp contrasts. The objecthood and contrasting qualities of the materials used strongly emphasize the contrasts between the forms. Tatlin’s Contre-reliefs abolish the element of volume, “contained space,” previously regarded as the sole possible way of delimiting space. Relationships in space take the form of relationships in depth.
Tatlin’s work has been described as “Machine Art.” This is just as wrong as it would be to apply the term “Formalism” to Malevich, Mondrian, Lissitzky, or Péri. The spatial tensions in Tatlin’s work derive from entirely new and powerful experiences of space. Which also explains why they are not some aesthetic game played with “beautiful” industrial materials.
The organizational problems of the period of construction in the Russian economy found essential “artistic” expression in the “constructive” works of the Obmokhu  group: the spatial material constructions of Georgy Stenberg, Vladimir Stenberg, Medunetskii, and Ioganson. These were the first Constructivists to take the step into real (physical) space. You can touch their works as real objects — with specific forms and made of specific materials — in space. They subordinate all metaphysical problems of form and space to the rational problems of matter.
Among the artists of the “Left Front” in Russia, another outstanding figure is Rodchenko. His work, with its intense color and its painterly handling (use of different varnishes, different factures, etc.), occupies a distinguished position in “nonobjective” painting. In his linear constructions, Rodchenko was the first to use line as an abstract-painterly element.
In the West, alongside the works of Mondrian, exceptional importance attaches to the abstract film creations of Eggeling and Hans Richter. For the first time, these use time as a real — and not an illusory — element in visual art. In their earliest works, both subdivided time in ways that retained many elements of music. They took unambiguous design elements, such as horizontal, vertical, and diagonal lines and planes, and developed these inventively, after the manner of music, in all their many contrasting and “contrapuntal” possibilities. In these first motion designs, the specific kinetic — and light — functions of film are still far too much obscured by the development of form. Richter comes closer to the essence of film in his latest work in motion design.
Variations in the intensity of light, and contrasts of motion in space, give rise to entirely new, specific spatial functions of light moving in space: the most elementary version of the unity of space, time, and matter. This is the point from which we can expect the abstract kinetic design of the future to evolve: as kinetic design with the velocities of moving light, which shatter every form.
Among the new designers, the Hungarian artist Péri must also be mentioned. In his “spatial constructions,” he has taken design as an element of the wall and as a component part of architecture. He has broken through the rectangular bounds of the easel picture; acutely asymmetrical in structure, his spatial designs set up strong contrasts with the flat surface of the wall. The passive banality of today’s architectural interiors gives way to active force-relationships in space. This space-destroying and space-constructing function is the essential function of his works.
[Originally published as “Die abstrakte Gestaltung vom Suprematismus bis heute,” Das Kunstblatt no. 8 (1924)]