The beginning of Yevgenia Petrova's introduction to Kazimir Malevich in the State Russian Museum is puzzling at first. Noting that the rapidly growing number of publications on the artist in recent decades has done little to make him less enigmatic, she points to "the long period during which his heritage was inaccessible to art historians." She goes on: "The first major monographic exhibition of the artist's oeuvre the artist's oeuvre was only held in 1988, bringing together works from collections in various countriesˇRussia, Holland, Germany and the United States. This unique exhibition was also accompanied by a catalogue. Other exhibitions soon followed and Malevich grew in popularity."

No one would deny that Malevich is fast becoming a household name. Prices for his paintings have skyrocketed, andˇcause or effect?ˇlawsuits abound: The two are as linked here as they are in any other case of celebrity status, and Clemens Toussaint, the lawyer who is making a lot of noise on behalf of the Malevich heirs he has laboriously tracked down in the most remote villages of the former Soviet empire, would likely not have initiated his "restitution" campaign, which resulted in the Museum of Modern Art and the Fogg handing over paintings that then immediately appeared at auction, had he not smelled a pot of gold (on this controversial character, one among many scavengers feeding on Malevich, see Marc Spiegler's story in the July 2003 issue of Art and Auction). A good measure of Malevich's rising fame is provided by the publication of a small monograph in the French DÚcouvertes series, a popularizing set of paperbacks devoted to all manner of subjects (number 445 in the encyclopedic collection, this excellent introduction, written by Andrei Nakov, is immediately preceded by volumes devoted to Islamic architecture, Fritz Lang, the PŔre Lachaise cemetery, Confucius, graphic design, Jean Cocteau, wine, Chateaubriand, aluminum, and marriage). Yet Petrova's lines produced a traffic jam of flashbacks; I recounted the many pre-1988 publications and exhibitions I had noshed on for years, particularly the four volumes of Malevich's writings translated into English, which were edited by Troels Andersen (two in 1968, one in 1976, one in 1978), as well as Andersen's groundbreaking 1970 publication on Malevich's 1927 Berlin exhibition and on the Stedelijk Museum's formidable holdings (twenty-eight paintings, seven gouaches, and fifteen drawings) that eventually resulted from the exhibition and had made Amsterdam, ever since 1957, a mandatory pilgrimage destination for any serious scholar of twentieth-century art. Surely Petrova knew, as well, of the impressive work done in the '70s by Nakov and Jean-Claude MarcadÚ in France and by Charlotte Douglas and John Bowlt in the United States. In short, presenting the 1988 exhibition as a watershed seemed a bit excessive.

It soon occurred to me, however, that Petrova must have had the Russian situation predominantly in mind, and I blushed at my own pedantry. Indeed, one of the most memorable aspects of the 1988 exhibition she alludes to was that its Amsterdam venue was preceded by two stops in Russia (Leningrad and Moscow) and that its catalogue was bilingual. Not only was it the first time so many works from Russian museums were united with the Dutch trove; it was also the first time since 1929 that Malevich's oeuvre was presented to the Russian public as a whole.

An almost immediate aftereffect of Gorbachev's perestroika (initiated only two years earlier), this event had immense consequences. For the two generations of Russian curators who had been the caretakers of Malevich's work (and that of other members of the Russian avant-garde) in that country's public collections, hiding them in storage, saving them from destruction, at times risking their lives in doing so, this was a triumphant moment of vindication. The final photograph reproduced in Kazimir Malevich in the State Russian Museum shows a well-lit Suprematist room in the Leningrad venue of the 1988 show, filled with works from both the Stedelijk and Saint Petersburg's Russian Museum, among which the large Black Circle painted around 1923 (it was sent to the Venice Biennaleˇbut not exhibitedˇin 1924) proudly hung high on the wall. This photograph shouts, "At long last!" At long last, among other things, Russian scholars would now be able to engage publicly in research on Malevich, to benefit from the work of their Western peers, and, after having caught up with it, to contribute to everyone's knowledge of this complex oeuvre. This is what Petrova meant when highlighting the importance of the 1988 show, and she was right.

Much has changed during the last fifteen years, and perestroika is only one of several factors in the recent outpouring of publications and exhibitions dedicated to Malevich. The sudden availability of a good portion of Nikolai Khardzhiev's considerable archive and collection after his move to Amsterdam in 1993 and his death in 1996ˇa treasure that had until then been shrouded in near-total secrecyˇhas also played a major role. As Matthew Drutt readily acknowledges, this is the single most important reason for the effectiveness of "Kazimir Malevich: Suprematism," the exhibition he recently curated (after opening in Berlin, the show traveled to the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York and is on view until January 11 at the Menil Collection in Houston).

Three areas of research have benefited from these new conditions. The first is global: While it was still possible until recently to obtain a surprise effect by bringing to the fore previously unknown works by Malevich (as was the case for the exhibition devoted to the late paintings, all from the Russian Museum, held at the Kunsthalle Bielefeld in 2000), we are finally beginning to have a solid view of the artist's corpus. No doubt a few decades will pass before all of his writings are published (he wrote almost nonstop, rarely crossing out any word, preferring to issue a new version over editing an essay), but at least his graphic and pictorial output is now broadly surveyed. Although specialists will inevitably argue over this or that inclusion, Nakov's catalogue raisonnÚ provides an excellent Ariadne's thread to orient ourselves in this confounding labyrinth. Relying in great measure on the pioneering research done by the Czechs Miroslav Lamac and Jiri Padrta and their photographic campaign surveying the collection of Anna Leporskaya, widow of Malevich's pupil Nikolai Suetin, during the '60s, it performs the usual task of any catalogue of the sort (giving information on medium, size, provenance, bibliographic references, and so forth). The entries are minimal (though one learns a lot from the occasional notes), as the already-sizable book was conceived as a supplement to a two-volume monograph. Unfortunately, at the eleventh hour, purportedly for financial reasons, the publisher decided against putting out the rest of Nakov's magnum opus, without which the catalogue is raisonnÚ in name only: Let us hope that, sooner rather than later, someone will take up the gauntlet.

The second radical shift in Malevich scholarship concerns the vexing question of the chronology of his work. The facts are well known: Malevich constantly meddled with dates, starting with the birth of Suprematism, which he always insisted, contrary to all evidence, on placing at 1913 (Suprematist paintings were first publicly presented in Petrograd at the historical exhibition "0,10" in December 1915). Evgenii Kovtun, one of the most courageous keepers of Malevich's flame during the dark Brezhnev years, explained this first of many antedatings as follows: The artist considered (after the fact) the starting date for Suprematism his design of the stage curtain for the final act of Victory Over the Sun, the zaum opera he created with Futurist poet Alexei Kruchenykh and composer/painter Mikhail Matiushinˇreputedly a huge black square on a white ground. (Only recently, however, has the physically obvious fact that the so-called Black Square of the 1915 exhibition was painted over another, more complex Suprematist compositionˇand thus cannot by any means, pace its author, be the first-ever Suprematist workˇbegun to register.) But how to deal with the many remakes painted in the late '20sˇin the Impressionist or Cubo-Futurist stylesˇand dated by the artist as 1903 or 1909? A simple juxtaposition of the early originals and the late copies provides ample evidence that not even Malevich could have believed he would "trap fools" with these works, to use Lissitzky's scandalized phrase. Until recently, there were two standard takes regarding Malevich's antedating of his late-'20s remakes. The first was circumstantial: Having abandoned painting in 1920 to devote his energy to writing, teaching, and building utopian architecture models, and furthermore having brought to Berlin in 1927 most of the works that were then still at his disposal and leaving them there in the care of Hugo Hńring, in the hopes of later returning to the West, Malevich had next to nothing on hand for the retrospective of his work that an audacious curator of the Tretiakov Gallery in Moscow was planning for 1929. He thus spent a whole year re-creating these early paintings from memory. The second explanation (to which I had long subscribed) is subtler: Malevich's compulsive trafficking of dates would be an effect of the historicist logic that he had clearly stated in his first manifesto, "From Cubism to Suprematism: The New Realism in Painting" (1915), and to which he steadfastly clung until the early '20s. In short, just as Mondrian dated from 1907˝1908 the chrysanthemum watercolors he painted in the '20s to pay the bills because it was at this earlier moment that the concept behind them had been generated (and thus it would have been fraudulent for him to deny their pastness), Malevich antedated his late works to the period of their conceptual birth (the thematic and formal sequences of Nakov's catalogue raisonnÚ follow him on this score, with, for example, an indication "motif from 1911˝12" followed by "version of 1928˝29"). But then, what are we to make of the countless de Chirico˝esque works of the late '20s that do not resemble anything previous in Malevich's oeuvre, especially since the artist unabashedly dated a major example, Complicated Premonition, from 1928˝32? And what of the late pastiches of Renaissance portraits, all dated by Malevich as early '30s: Why didn't he bother indulging in creative chronology when it came to these works?

In the 1988 catalogue, the Russian curators remained somewhat shy about addressing these issues. They acknowledged the difficulty involved and dared to depart from Malevich's own dating of several ostensible remakes (all peasant scenes of the Cubo-Futurist kind, explicitly based on works he had left in Berlin or those that were among the many purchased by the Soviet state in its early years and since dispatched to places unknown in the provinces). But, in doubt and under obvious pressure from their Dutch collaborators, the curators affixed a double date with a question mark to most other late works (e.g., "1908˝10 or after 1927?"), while they stood by Malevich, inexplicably, with regard to the canvases done in the Impressionist style (the most notable folly being the dating of the Russian Museum's large Flower Girl to 1903). Only with the edited version of the 1988 retrospective mounted two years later by Angelica Rudenstine for the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC (which traveled to the Armand Hammer Museum in Los Angeles and the Metropolitan Museum in New York), did matters take a definite turn. Several question marks remained, but Flower Girl and its consort were properly dated 1929˝30. Emboldened by Rudenstine's argument, Russian scholars at last agreed to reopen the file and candidly examine the puzzle of Malevich's chronological manipulations.

The results of this new attitude are palpable in the volume introduced by Petrova. Quoting a student of Malevich's referring to his mentor as "rewriting the past in accordance with current concepts," Elena Basner, one of the coauthors, notes that when the artist finally returned to painting after his Berlin trip, he "tried to analyse his role in the history of modern art, above all in painting. He embarked on the unprecedented step of reconstructing his own creative path in accordance with the theoretical ideas that were being professed at the time. Here we have a phenomenon without analogies in the history of twentieth-century art, whereby an artist reinterprets his entire oeuvre at the end of his life, from the point of view of a mature master, theoretician and teacher. He rewrites his own life story and creates a new, theoretically adjusted chronology, as if attempting to go back through his life and make a 'fair copy' of it." Hence Malevich's belated reconsideration of Impressionism, for example, to which he had only begun to pay serious attention when elaborating his theory of the "additional element in art" during his pictorial blackout of the '20s.

A word on this curious theory, since it might explain, as Paul Galvez recently proposed (in the Spring 2002 Cahiers du MusÚe National d'Art Moderne), another phenomenon noticed by Basner: the cruciform composition of most of the post-1927 works. According to this evolutionary theory, a single essential elementˇMalevich described it as a kind of microbeˇpresides over any given artistic style (for example: the curved line in CÚzanne, the sickle in Cubism, the straight line in Suprematism). When a new ("additional") element is introduced into the artistic body, it is usually rejected by antibodies, but occasionally the infection is strong enough to develop into a long and lethal affliction whose only cure will be the emergence of a new art. As Galvez notes, for Malevich, "the historical progression of modernist art was an outcome of the chronological order in which one 'additional element' challenged, superseded, and eventually replaced another one." Rather than conform to the canonical teleology of modernism as a drive toward a state of aesthetic purity, Malevich sees the historical trajectory of modern painting as "a series of mini-revolutions in which a 'pure' mature style is replaced by an 'impure' young upstart." But this battle for survival and domination is never fought on only a single front, "since at any given moment there might be several additional elements fighting to become the next norm," which accounts for the cohabitation of simultaneous pictorial stylesˇeven within a single work. Now, given that the cruciform organization (and its attendant symmetry and frontality) is the only characteristic common to Malevich's late compositions (they are otherwise utterly eclectic in their stylistic diversity) and that according to Malevich all "additional elements" evolve from preceding ones, Galvez wonders whether the cross (a direct offspring of the Suprematist straight line) was not in fact a bacillus the painter was trying retrospectively to inject into his past oeuvre in order to overcome what he had experienced for almost a decade as an impasseˇjust as his later portraits would reintroduce an "additional element" proper to the visual culture of the Renaissance in order to clinically observe what such a violent bacterial invasion would produce. Reading Malevich's account of the agonizing paralysis of one of his students after he had prescribed him an overdose of the additional element of Cubism (and such painterly lab reports abound in his writings), one feels compelled to agree with Galvez: At least this explanation of Malevich's late style is more in keeping with his uncompromising nature than the often-invoked mere abdication under the pressure of Stalinist terror.

The third area where Malevich studies have made considerable recent progress concerns the painter's technique. As in the case of Mondrian, this reflects a radical shift in attitude. Connoisseurs and artists had long appreciated the superlatively elaborate texture of Malevich's Suprematist paintings, and the artist himself has devoted many pages to the topic of pictorial faktura (a major issue for the entire Soviet avant-garde: On this, see the excellent essay by Maria Gough in Res, Autumn 1999). But because it did not fit in the common view of Malevich's art as purely geometric, critics and scholars with very few exceptions had largely ignored this major aspect of his practice (which is a bit like being oblivious to the heavy brushstrokes and encaustic medium of Johns's Targets). This led to major disasters, not only in the literature (the trend is fortunately dying, John Milner's Kazimir Malevich and the Art of Geometry hopefully representing its last gasp), but also in a second mode of interpretation called conservation: The saddest observation to be made at the recent Guggenheim show was provided by a comparison between the paintings that had miraculously remained untouched over the years and those (particularly the ones lent by moma) whose texture had been all but flattened out, at a time when conservators were far less cautious and much more interventionist, by a heavy-handed relining.

The trend began to change during the 1990 show organized by Rudenstine. For her catalogue she commissioned an essay (by conservators Milda Vikturina and Alla Lukanova) on the technique of ten Malevich paintings in the Tretiakov Gallery collection. The findings were remarkable (it is where we learned that beneath the so-called 1915 Black Square, which was not included in the show, lay a composition of the "Dynamic Suprematist" genre). This in turn prompted the Russian Museum team to take a closer look at their large holdings (101 paintings!). The luxurious Petrova volume, replete with X-rays and photographs of the back of many canvases and works on wood panel, is the happy result of this urge, which one might call heuristic myopia. The technical essays in the book, by Svetlana Rimskaya-Korsakova, Olga Klyonova, and Bella Toporkova (the latter two texts devoted to restoration), are far from offering definitive answersˇon the contrary, their authors stress that they are only beginning to tackle the issues at stake and that there is much more to learn. It is to be hoped that their Western counterparts, who have been dormant for years even though they could have obtained much more support from their respective institutions, will join the fray.

The absence of technical data in Drutt's Guggenheim catalogue (as well as in the wall labels in the exhibition) was particularly frustrating, especially with regard to the works that had belonged to Khardzhiev, most of which were in pristine condition. One would have loved to know, for example, when the shiny enamel-like paint that makes up the whitish "ground" of the 1915 Suprematist Composition with Plane in Projection was applied (at places it goes under the ocher polygon, at others, over). Was this original? (A layer of matte white is discernible underneath.) Is it a repair done by the artist after the canvas was returned from the "0,10" exhibition? And if Malevich restored this work, why did he seem less anxious about maintaining others? Or did he perhaps lose contact with them as they made their way to the many art museums throughout the nascent Soviet state, which, in the early years of his collaboration with Narkompros, the Bolshevik ministry of culture and education, he had helped found?

It is possible that the silence of the Guggenheim regarding such issues was motivated by the desire to conform to the "myth," as one critic, Christina Lodder, puts it in the July 2003 issue of The Burlington Magazine, according to which the 1915 Black Square was the first Suprematist paintingˇafter all, the iconic canvas and its old master˝like craquelures greeted visitors at the entrance to the New York show, in its first-ever trip to the West. But given the excellent new research provided in the catalogue by Russian curators on various aspects of Suprematism, suspicions of that sort seem unwarranted (particularly noteworthy are the texts by Nina Gurianova on the never-published journal Supremus; Vasilii Ratikin on Malevich's relationship with Lissitzky; and Tatiana Mikhienko on the Architektons, the architectural models Malevich built from 1923 on). All in all, the Guggenheim show was by far the best exhibition ever devoted to Suprematism. Focusing exclusively on the movement (no Cubo-Futurist works, no late figurative paintings), it patiently showed us how the "zero of form" rather abruptly evolved from the Alogism of 1913˝14 (all the drawings for Victory Over the Sun were presented) and guided us throughout the years to end with a newly restored Architekton dating from 1927, shown for the first time.

The secrecy regarding technical aspects might have, alas, a darker source. As mentioned above, the success of the Guggenheim show is due in large part to the recent availability of works that were formerly part of Khardzhiev's collection. Many drawings in the show were clearly labeled as belonging to the Khardzhiev-Chaga Cultural Foundation (these had been previously exhibited by the Stedelijk, which currently hosts them, in 1997). But this is only the tip of the iceberg: Not only were there numerous additional drawings in the show that once belonged to Khardzhiev, but about ten paintings as wellˇthough one found no mention of this fact anywhere. The reason is that the manner in which Khardzhiev's collection was siphoned off by high-profile players in the effervescent market of Russian avant-garde art is not a pretty affair. Any investigation of the current technical state of the ex-Khardzhiev paintings would have led to questions about what had happened to them between the moment when they were last seen flat, unstretched, in the apartment of the collector-archivist in Amsterdam and their installation on the walls of the Guggenheim. Better to remain silent about a painting than risk becoming tabloid material.

Research done independently by reporters all over the globe suggests that the Guggenheim show may represent the final touches on what could be called a ten-year laundering operation involving the corrupt circles of power in Russia and Western cultural institutions. (These allegations have been made by Hella Rottenberg, who in her 1999 book Meesters, marodeurs examines in detail the shady deals in Holland that have contributed to the pilfering of the Khardzhiev collection; by Konstantin Akinsha, whose interview with Khardzhiev just before the archivist's death was the basis for a devastating article in the September 1996 Art News; by Hans-Peter Riese, a specialist on the Russian avant-garde who has published many articles in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung and launched radio broadcasts to protest the plundering; and, last but not least, by Pulitzer Prize˝winning investigative reporter Tim Golden, whose alarming March 31, 2003, New York Times article, the most eloquent denunciation of the pack that fed on Khardzhiev, elicited a full-page paid ad from the Cologne-based Galerie Gmurzynska attempting to rebut his chargesˇbut not the slightest response from the Guggenheim.) This is not the place to enter into the lamentable details of the sinister Khardzhiev affair: One would need the talent of a Martin Cruz Smith to do it justice (Smith's 1992 thriller Red Square presciently includes a German dealer smuggling off a Malevich masterpiece whose description perfectly matches Painterly Realism of a Peasant Woman in Two Dimensions, aka Red Square, previously in the Khardzhiev collection and included in the Guggenheim show). Let us hope, however, that sometime, soon, all the mysteries surrounding the origin and fate of the vast material accumulated by Khardzhiev during his lifetime will be solved. It is not so much a question of righting the wrong done to an old man (the issue of how he had been able to amass so much material is just as tricky), butˇas the matter of technique raised above makes clearˇone will never be able to fully understand Malevich's development until all the cards are on the table.

Khardzhiev concerned himself not only with Malevich: As editor of the complete works of Mayakovsky and curator of the Mayakovsky Museum in Moscow during the most somber years, he considered himself the best caretaker of the whole Russian avant-garde. Today his archives are divided between the Amsterdam foundation that bears the name of him and his wife and the Archives of Russian Art and Literature (RGALI) in Moscow, where, according to Nakov, they are to remain closed to the public until 2015. Fortunately, we now have at least a glimpse at these amazing holdings: John Bowlt and Mark Konecny's splendid A Legacy Regained: Nikolai Khardzhiev and the Russian Avant-Gardeˇa multifarious compendium of testimonies, texts by Khardzhiev himself, and documents from the archives, including several previously unknown essays as well as correspondence by Malevich and his pupils, not to mention many works reproduced for the first timeˇis a hefty hors d'oeuvre that would require a review of its own.

Alas, two other recent Malevich titles, Milner's Kazimir Malevich and the Art of Geometry and Margarita Tupitsyn's Malevich and Film, despite being profusely illustrated, are distinctly less appetizing. Reading Milner, one cannot but feel sorry for him: so much intellectual energy spent, so much knowledge accumulated, all in vain. The British art historian's enterprise belongs to a long tradition that could be called the "iconology of abstraction." Initially a defensive mode, when the legitimacy of abstract art was at stake (as when Georges Vantongerloo attempted to demonstrate that Mondrian's Neo-Plastic compositions were based on the golden sectionˇto the fury and disgust of the Dutch painter, who broke off his lengthy friendship with him), it soon became a strategy allowing scholars to conduct business as usual: If one could treat Rothko's or Mondrian's or Newman's canvases as encrypted messages of the same kind as, say, DŘrer's Melancholia, one could deny that abstract art's mode of signifying was any different from that of the art of the past. At first the pathetic diagrams that Milner publishes next to reproductions of Malevich's paintings (from the Cubo-Futurist period on) recall Erle Loran's 1943 CÚzanne's Composition: Analysis of His Form, with Diagrams and Photographs of His Motifs, famously ridiculed by Roy Lichtenstein. But at least Loran was responding, however clumsily, to the contradictions of various aspects of CÚzanne's work, providing no fewer than nine diagrams for a single painting, and he made clear that if there was any "constant" in the artist's compositional system, it resided in the dynamic tension between various structures (planar, volumetric, coloristic, and so forth). Furthermore, Loran categorically rejected all attempts to read modernist painting as the illustration of a geometric system: He condemned Gino Severini's return-to-order lucubrations on that score and discarded any invocation of Leonardo's or DŘrer's proportional studies as patently ludicrous, amounting to a denial of CÚzanne's modernity (his outcry is to the point: "For all the rules offered by Leonardo, one might conclude that Cabanel, Bouguereau, and Meissonier were the acme of artistic achievements!").

The path blocked by Loran is precisely the one taken by Milner. Had he paid more than lip service to Malevich's iconoclastic 1914˝15 Partial Eclipse (Composition with Mona Lisa), in which a collaged reproduction of the famous dame is twice crossed out in red (alas, her smile has lost the cigarette that originally jutted out of it), he would perhaps have avoided the red herring. Among many other pseudomathematical fantasies of the sort, Severini's rants on the proportions of the equilateral triangle (which he sees at Karnak, at the Parthenon, and at Notre Dame in Paris), on the golden section, on the Fibonacci sequence, on Pythagoras, DŘrer, and Leonardo, etc., are hailed by Milner as relevant models for a study of Malevich's art: "Malevich knew of such methods," we are told, "which he applied in vershok and arshin units."

These two Russian words, referring to an archaic system of measurement, epitomize Milner's eureka: Learning from a book on Liubov Popova that this painter had adorned the back of a canvas with the inscription "3/4 arsh," he endeavored to pass through this sieve the entire corpus of Malevich's paintings, sizing them all as multiples of arshin (28 inches) and vershok (16 per arshin), with special attention devoted to the number nine and its multiples (don't ask me why). No matter that things do not always squareˇexceptions can always be explained away. Milner had found the tool he thought he needed in the quest for his grail and was determined to prove that Malevich's work was based entirely on an a priori system of proportions whose key resides in various occultist doctrines. The paranoiac result is akin to the delirium of conspiracy theories or to the cult of Nostradamusˇwith all the mandatory excursions into astrology (the 1911˝12 peasant paintings are said to illustrate zodiacal signs), alchemy (by way of Duchamp, even though we are never told how Malevich could have learned of the Frenchman's alleged interest in the matter), theosophy (Mme Blavatsky was Russian, you know), and fourth-dimension babble (an old clichÚ fueled by the interest of Malevich's friend Matiushin in Gleizes and Metzinger's moronic Du Cubisme, which he translated into Russian, and for the mystical writings of P.D. Ouspensky).

I'll give only one example, taking purposely the simplest and shortest of Milner's endless computationsˇthat concerning the so-called Black Square of 1915. After being told that it measures eighteen by eighteen vershok, we are served this: "The diagonal of the black square is almost the same length as the edge of the canvas, so that it approaches a ratio of 1:square root of 2, an irrational number. These internal relationships reveal rhythm and energy within the form. There are the first signs of the potential dormant within Malevich's 'zero of form.' The ratio 1:square root of 2 also relates to the 'progression of the square,' that is the size of square produced within a circle drawn within a square. The relation is also made evident by drawing a second square at 45░ to the first to form an octagon. Many other possible progressions and developments illustrate The Black Square's power as a generator of forms once its internal relationships begin to be apparent." And, further on, "The margin of white can also be determined by taking an angle of 18░, again the multiple of 9░, from the corner of the canvas. The margin is 3 vershok wide around a black square of 12 vershok wide. The ratio is therefore 3:12:3, simplifying to 1:4:1." Needless to say, Milner will try his best to find echoes of such proportions in the subsequent Suprematist canvasesˇand he will, of course, providing by that nothing more than yet another illustration of the well-known statistical "birthday paradox" (according to which there's a nearly fifty-fifty chance that two people in a room of twenty-three strangers share the same birthday). Not only are Milner's "discoveries" statistical flukes, but his whole enterprise rests on the willful ignorance of such crucial facts as this: Malevich went out of his way not to paint a black square (it was no coincidence that he entitled his celebrated canvas Quadrilateral at the 1915 exhibition; he wanted to make sure that beholders would perceive the irregularity of his geometric figure). The first to remark on the lack of geometrical determination in Malevich's oeuvreˇand notably that his squares were never square or parallel to the picture's edgesˇwere Donald Judd and Mel Bochner on the occasion of the painter's retrospective at the Guggenheim in 1974 (Judd in the March/April 1974 issue of Art in America; Bochner in the June 1974 Artforum). Since then, Malevich's constant, deliberate affront to the rationality of geometry has become a staple of the Malevich literature (to the point that when a drawing is too neatly geometric, it is enough for Nakov, in his catalogue raisonnÚ, to discard it as produced by one of his pupils, Lissitzky, for example). In short: Milner's premises are utterly flawed, and the entire edifice he has patiently constructed during hours spent with his calculator crumbles at the slightest touch.

Tupitsyn's book is a disaster of another sort. While Milner's text is monomaniacal, Tupitsyn is ramblingˇso incoherent, at times, that one wonders whether it was even read by an editor (and, if so, I would advise the publisher to find another job for the person responsible). Russian born but based in New York, the author is a respected scholar who has already written several books and curated a number of shows devoted to the Russian avant-garde (her most remarkable achievement is perhaps her extraordinary exhibition devoted to Lissitzky's photographic work and his foray into [capitalist] advertisement and [socialist] propaganda; El Lissitzky: Beyond the Abstract Cabinet, the excellent accompanying catalogue, was published in 1999). She has proved herself at ease in the jungle of Russian archives and to have good research instincts. In the present case, she used the latter talent only to pick her topic, which is both acute and topical, and there is no trace of the former. This is a volume hastily put together in order to serve as the catalogue of a similarly slapdash exhibition that traveled from Lisbon to Madrid and which seems to have consisted in the juxtaposition of a few film extracts from Vertov and Eisenstein, a few Suprematist paintings, a few film posters, a few Malevich manuscripts, and a host of works by postwar artists, from Robert Rauschenberg, Yves Klein, and Piero Manzoni to Richard Serra, Sol LeWitt, On Kawara, Art and Language, Komar and Melamid, Ilya Kabakov, Erik Bulatov, and Allan McCollum: absolutely n'importe quoi.

Tupitsyn reveals herself incapable of summarizing Malevich's ideas on film, jumps from one irrelevant linguistic discussion to the next, and drops a myriad of names (from Barthes to Eco to Deleuze to Jakobson) that allow her to produce ever more non sequiturs while accumulating idiotic pronouncements. My favorite: In order to justify her comparison between an installation shot first published by Milnerˇand incorrectly captioned as a view of the "0,10" exhibition, though she should know betterˇand "a filmstrip hanging loosely above an editing table," she notes that "Malevich neutralized the textures of his paintings, and thus eliminated the necessity of nearing the work of art for close viewing." Thank God those currently in charge of the conservation of Malevich's canvases do not share her view about "neutralization." Enough damage has been done in the past by following such a line. Nothing can be retrieved from this book, which is written as if on acid; it is not even redeemed, as is often the case with catalogues devoted to the Russian avant-garde, by the publication of new documentation. My advice: Skip it.

The fact that Malevich wrote on film has been known for some timeˇfour essays, one of them unpublished during Malevich's lifetime, were collected by Andersen, and a three-page "script/story board" that Malevich composed for Hans Richter, whose collaboration he sought during his 1927 trip to Germany, has long intrigued scholars both of the artist and of abstract cinema. These documents have been discussed in the literature (notably by Annette Michelson, Jean-Claude MarcadÚ, Francois Albera, and Aleksandra Shatskikh, who recently added to the corpus another article originally published in 1929). Fortunately, all of Malevich's essays on film are republished together in the cheaply produced bilingual volume edited by Oksana Bulgakowa, The White Rectangle: Writings on Film (the translations are more considered than in Andersen's editionˇperhaps a consequence of the fact that the original Russian texts are given in the same volumeˇthe editorial apparatus is much more elaborate, and the presentation of Malevich's theses fairly clear). To state it briefly, Malevich's conception of cinema rests on a kind of pictorial imperialism that was rather common among the pioneers of abstract art (one finds the same mechanism at work in Mondrian's apology for planarity in architecture or sculpture). Though he claims to ground his overall theory of art on the modernist dictum according to which each medium has its own laws and is geared toward the pure presentation of its "essence," he cannot but conceive of this unveiling of the "zero" in pictorial terms.

In his first article, published after the release of Eisenstein's Strike and of Vertov's Kino-Eye and while the two directors were accusing each other of plagiarism, Malevich overrules both parties' testimony while charging them with the same crime (though he clearly favors Vertov, to the great surprise of Eisenstein, whom he had befriended earlier): If these directors are to be singled out for having shed their ties to the art of bourgeois theater, they are still basing their composition of individual shots on the pictorial language of nineteenth-century pompier painting (particularly of the group called the Wanderers), a language that was then revived by the multiple enemies of the avant-garde and would soon become officially sanctioned as "socialist realism." While Eisenstein will easily rebut Malevich's claim that there is no fundamental difference between his films and a collection of paintings by Repinˇstressing that this assertion could only be based on an absurd disregard of what constitutes for the director the nature of cinema (montage)ˇthe painter will not be deterred. He maintained his entire life that since the art of cinema seems to be predicated on that of painting, directors will have to learn their lesson from the evolution of painting and will have to travel, as he had done himself, from Impressionism to Cubism to Futurism to Suprematismˇat which point they would at last be able to create "film as such." While Malevich noted that Eisenstein's predilection for contrasts made him a good candidate to absorb at least the "additional element of cubism," his final praise eventually went to Vertov for his embrace of Futurism (his last article on cinema, published in 1929, juxtaposes film stills from The Eleventh Year and Man with a Movie Camera with a reproduction of a painting by Giacomo Balla).

Many more publications, no doubt, will fill up the Malevich shelf of libraries in years to come, owing more and more to the young energy of Russian scholars. With the nearly constant stream of new documents being unearthed and put into circulation, we become ever more conscious of the extent of our ignorance and of the complex challenges that lie ahead: all in all, a healthy state of affairs.

Yve-Alain Bois is Joseph J. Pulitzer Jr. Professor of Modern Art and chair, Department of the History of Art and Architecture, Harvard University. He is a contributing editor of Artforum.

 

 
     
     
 
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