Archive for November, 2015

Void Where Prohibited

November 22, 2015

I’m not at all pleased that Kazimir Malevich‘s Black Square has intruded upon my consciousness twice in the past few weeks.  In the first instance I was myself partly to blame, because I attended a presentation by an art theorist academic whose talk meandered in eccentric orbits, guided by the gravitational pull exerted by Black Square over the past century.  The experience must have primed my attention for an unexpected return engagement, because I actually took notice of a minor media report proclaiming as novel what I’d thought was old news:

An X-ray examination of Kazimir Malevich’s famed “Black Square” painting by Moscow’s Tretyakov Gallery found that two earlier paintings [are concealed] under the black expanse.  [According to] Tretyakov director Zelfira Tregulova, there’s also an inscription by the artist using the title of a 19th century black square painting by the French humorist Alphonse Allais that purportedly portrays two black men fighting in a cave at night.


There are four known variants of Black Square, the first in 1915 and the last circa 1929 or thereabouts.  The version in the Tretyakov Gallery is (I think) from 1923, but strictly speaking the precise provenance doesn’t really matter.  That’s because the meaning and significance of Black Square always lies outside the frame –in the totality of the social context/ experiential “reality” that accompanies the spectator through time and space to her spot in front of the canvas.

Black Square is a window into the void, a place where a steady gaze brings the viewer no more information than a passing glance … or, alternatively, all the information that anyone can ever know.  Is that its intention?  What would Malevich say?  It might depend on the occasion:

“I transformed myself in the zero of form and emerged from nothing to creation.

Malevich’s 1915 painting is sometimes cited as a historical milestone which marks the break between representational painting and abstract painting —-and Black Square has thus become one of the key (should I say “iconic”?) shorthand symbols for the complex and contested transition from a representative regime of art to the aesthetic schema that still (sorta-kinda) prevails today.  Whatever.

The final, smallest, Black Square painted by Malevich was intended [to be displayed] as a diptych together with the Red Square for the 1932 Leningrad exhibition Artists of the RSFSR: 15 Years.  The two squares, Black and Red, were the centerpiece of the show.


Perhaps this would be the appropriate time to note that:

In United States maritime warning flag systems, a red square flag with a black square occupying the middle ninth of the flag is used to indicate a storm warning.  The use of two such flags denotes a hurricane warning.