Thursday, February 9, 2017

Douglas Messerli | "Proliferation of Wonders" (on Moholy-Nagy: Future Present at LACMA)

proliferation of wonders

László Moholy-Nagy Moholy-Nagy: Future Present, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, co-organized by LACMA, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, and the Art Institute of Chicago / the showing I attended was the critic’s preview on February 8, 2017

With about 300 works—paintings, sculptures, drawings, collages, photographs, photomontages, films, and graphic, exhibition, and theater designs—the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s new show, Moholy-Nagy: Future Present (co-organized by LACMA, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, and the Art Institute of Chicago, and currently at its last venue) almost overwhelms one with the artist’s experimental inventiveness. As the catalogue makes clear, few artists worked so hard for social transformation and the incorporation of various technologies as did the Hungarian-born artist.

Indeed, seeing this show is somewhat like visiting a whirlwind of 20th century techniques and materials. Moholy used graphite on paper, oil on canvas, watercolor, ink, Plexiglas, Formica, gelatin silver print, aluminum, film, and numerous other materials to create objects of wall art, photographs, pedestaled and hanging sculptures, furniture—including an entire room (Room of the Present, constructed for the first time for this show from documentation of 1930)—and various other visual objects. 
      As LACMA curator Carol Elliel suggested, moreover, Moholy’s personal life was almost as hectic as his art production. After beginning as a law student in Budapest, he served as an artillery office in the Austro-Hungary army during War 1, moved to Vienna in 1919 and on to Berlin in 1920, writing and designing for Berlin’s Der Sturm. From 1923-1928 the artist taught at the important avant-garde institution, Bauhaus, located in Berlin before moving to Dessau. With the rise of the Nazis he was forced in 1924 to move with his family to Amsterdam, before settling in England. By 1937 he had moved on to the USA, with an invitation from his Bauhaus colleague Walter Gropius to found the New Bauhaus: American School of Design in Chicago. Two years later it was the School of Design, subsequently becoming the Institute of Design, now part of the Illinois Institute of Technology.

At every point along the way, the artist continued to pursue his vast array of interests, represented in this show basically chronologically, revealing not so much radical shifts but the artist’s natural flow of new ideas, techniques, and materials over the course of life. Moholy-Nagy died in 1946 of leukemia. 
      There are so very many stunning paintings, collages, photographs, sculptures, etc. in this show that it is very difficult in a single article to focus on just a few. Moholy’s art may truly be said to be enhanced by the numerous rather than a small selection of masterworks. Certainly some of my very favorites, simply because of their compositions and vibrant colors come very early in the show, most done in the early 1920s, including F in Field, 19, and Red Cross and White Balls (the latter one of the most playful in the entire show); but the collage Q, A 11 (Construction A 11) and others like them seem more iconic Moholy works we know from his constructionist label.

    His fascinating photographs and photograms from the mid-1920s such as Photograph (Self-Portrait with Hand) and Photogram of 1926 are equally arresting, as are his comic photomontages such as Once a Chicken, Always a Chicken from 1925, with Dada-like images. 
      But the real surprises of this show, at least for me, were later works such as the already mentioned Room of the Present, filled with visual treasures, and works from the 1930s such as Space Modulator Experiment, Aluminum 5, the stunning CH BEATA 1 of 1939, and Space Modulator CH for R1 of 1942, along with the several Plexiglass sculptures such as Vertical Black, Red, Blue of 1945 (which is from the LACMA collection) and an entire room of hanging white Plexiglass sculptural mobiles which suggests a snowfall of spectacular dimensions.    
     His experimental films, predating American cinema experimentalist Stan Brakhage’s scratched and abstract hand-colored works, are definitely worth attention as well.
       My only complaint is that the galleries at LACMA, as gracefully designed as they are, seem so stuffed with these wonders that it is hard not simply to be distracted by one work next to the other or by other works across the way, making it difficult to focus on individual pieces for more than a few moments. But as I argue, with Moholy it is the proliferation of such wonders that helps to make us perceive just how significant of an artist he was, and this show, for the first time, truly reveals that fact.
     For those members of the press in attendance at the preview, we were blessed by the attendance of Moholy’s daughter Hattula, a very young child at the time of his death, but who later put her father’s writings and art in order.

Los Angeles, February 9, 2017

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