László Moholy-Nagy, Light Play @Fotografiska

JTF (just the facts): A total of 72 photographs and videos, variously framed in displayed in series of rooms on the third floor of the museum.

The following works have been included in the show:

  • 30 exhibition prints (photograph), 1925, 1925-1928, 1925-1936, c1925-1929, 1926, 1927, c1928, 1928-1929, 1929, 1929-1936, 1930s, 1930-1936, 1931, 1935, 1935-1936, 1937, 1937-1946, 1938, 1939-1946
  • 3 exhibition prints (photographs of artist), c1930, c1930s
  • 4 exhibition prints (photograph of sculpture), 1930, 1937-1946, 1939-1946, 1940s
  • 14 exhibition prints (photogram), 1922-1923, 1925-1926, 1925-1928, 1926, 1939, 1939-1940
  • 18 exhibition prints (collage), 1923, 1924, 1925, 1925-1926, 1925-1929, 1926, 1927, 1928
  • 1 video, 2022, 5 minutes 36 seconds
  • 1 video, 1945, 18 minutes, 38 seconds
  • 1 video (shown on 4 screens), 1930, 5 minutes, 45 seconds

(Installation shots and video stills below.)

Comments/Context: As museums wrestle with how to engage and attract audiences in our 21st century world of always available digital information and entertainment, many are beginning to experiment with their exhibitions calendar, in some cases deliberately reaching beyond traditional definitions of what kinds of things might be shown in a museum setting. Many art museums have added scholarly shows of fashion, sneakers, street art, automobiles, and other touchstones of contemporary culture as an active attempt to stay current and to broaden their perceived relevance.

At the same time, other non-museum venues are similarly exploring exhibit and entertainment possibilities with art content, like the “immersive” Van Gogh shows that have toured many cities in the United States and elsewhere, offering no actual paintings on view, but instead large video screen “experiences” that visually introduce aspects of the artist’s ideas in an immersive manner. And while art critics have generally scoffed at these presentations, their broader popularity (and economic success) is clear, as evidenced by a mushrooming of new immersive projects, featuring Klimt, Monet, Kahlo, and others.

In the few years since its opening in New York, Fotografiska has proven itself to be a photography-oriented venue that is willing to take some risks, both with its content and its presentations. Taking a page from the kunsthalle model and amplifying it for a new age, Fotografiska has mounted a rotating selection of shows, mixing emerging photographers and better known names, and showing their work in darkened, spotlit rooms, often accompanied by mood music, bold graphic design, and video installations. It’s an experiential take on the photography museum, not quite “immersive”, but decently far from old school just the same.

The ability to think about how Fotografiska is “aimed” at a different viewer/customer than the traditional museum-goer is intriguingly provided by a current László Moholy-Nagy show titled Light Play. Moholy-Nagy was a photographic pioneer, who created an influential multi-disciplinary approach to art making while teaching at the Bauhaus in the 1920s. He was a relentless photographic experimenter, who played with steep camera angles, investigated the camera-less forms of the photogram, and built sculptures designed to be photographed (and filmed in motion), among many other unorthodox approaches to thinking about light. In 2016, he was given a superlative retrospective at the Guggenheim (reviewed here), which smartly brought together his artistic output across many different mediums and time periods.

Given this context, staging a Moholy-Nagy show doesn’t exactly seem like the kind of thing Fotografiska would choose to do – since he worked in the first half of the 20th century, by definition Moholy-Nagy isn’t particularly hip, contemporary, or even broadly known, and Fotografiska hasn’t proven to be all that focused on digging deeply into the dusty histories of the master photographers of his generation. But this isn’t a typical Moholy-Nagy show – it’s a sleek repackaging and distillation of Moholy-Nagy’s ideas about photography into a more contemporary visual experience.

Fascinatingly, there is not one single vintage art object on view in this show; everything is a reproduction (with the blessing and participation of the estate of László Moholy-Nagy and the Moholy-Nagy Foundation) and in many cases, once small photographs have been enlarged to much bigger sizes. The exhibit is stylishly produced, with colorful geometric patterns painted behind the framed photographs, and the content skips across Moholy-Nagy’s various approaches and motifs, using enlargements of some of his most famous works as examples. For the uninitiated viewer, Light Play offers an engaging introduction to a key figure in photographic history, with enough imagery to make coherent educational points about the artist’s lasting influence. In an important sense, this show separates content from object, eliminating the usual centrality of the original artifacts and pushing us to consider instead the ideas they represent.

Organizationally, the show sets up the broad theme of Moholy-Nagy’s innovative and sometimes radical photographic aesthetics, and then proceeds to provide compelling and tightly-edited visual evidence in the form of photographs, photograms, collages, and other works. In terms of photographs, this means a strong sampler of images that use extremes of perspective as an active compositional tool. Moholy-Nagy’s famous downward looking views from the radio tower in Berlin and the bridges of Marseille are featured prominently, the ground below (including snowy walkways, cafe umbrellas, moored boats, and docks) variously flattened into disorienting geometric patterns. And he applies this same upending of traditional framing to portraits (seen upward, downward, and intentionally interrupted) and views of architectural details (like the Bauhaus balconies, curved stairways, rows of seats, and even the girders of the Eiffel Towel), bringing them closer to spatial abstraction than we might normally expect.

Moholy-Nagy was also a busy experimenter with photograms, and while he made hundreds of these abstract camera-less images during his career, the examples on view here have been edited down to some of his most easily identifiable and approachable. Hands and silhouetted faces provide the subject matter for several moody high contrast pictures, while industrial objects like strainers and wire grids are mixed with coiled rope and loose string to create interactions of hard and soft, or machined and natural. Again and again, Moholy-Nagy finds formal energy and rhythm in the interplay of everyday objects, and there are just enough compositions on view here to hint at the range of aesthetic ideas he explored with this medium. And a few later light experiments, which turned long exposures of auto headlights and traffic signals into shimmering and squiggling abstract lines, are a reminder that his exploration of the properties of light didn’t end with the photograms, but continued on into the succeeding decades.

Photocollages and photomontages (which Moholy-Nagy called “photo-plastics”) were another avenue for the artist to play with imagery and transformative composition. Most of the collages on view here are gathered into one tight corner, with a dense salon hanging of works filling one wall, providing a succinct visual summary of the kinds of experimental juxtapositions and combinations Moholy-Nagy was exploring. Very simple lines and circles were used to create a kind of visual scaffolding on a white sheet of paper, where Moholy-Nagy then laid scavenged images to create unexpected relationships and almost narratives. Bodies squat between lines, pull on them like ropes, climb them like inclined hills, and sit inside them like telescoped views, almost living inside this abstract spatial system. And while the political and cultural references aren’t always obvious, the inventiveness and sophistication of the arrangements certainly is.

The stylistic difference between this exhibit and the recent Guggenheim retrospective is perhaps most clear in the handling of Moholy-Nagy’s 1930 sculpture Light Prop for an Electric Stage. At the retrospective, the original sculpture (which was designed to be photographed and filmed) was on display, sitting on a small pedestal with light cast on and through it, creating shadows on the surrounding walls; at Fotografiska, Moholy-Nagy’s film of the same sculpture (also from 1930) is shown in a large darkened room, on four massive screens that multiply the visuals. In one encounter, the rare and astonishing object is the central focus; in the other, the experience of what Moholy-Nagy wanted to show us is given priority. The object itself was made from planes of perforated metal, metal rods, and other interlocked industrial parts, and when rotated and activated by light, it created a seemingly never ending swirl of geometric combinations and interactions. On film, the up-close results are engrossing – geometries pulling, twisting, and morphing, and proving Moholy-Nagy’s point about how the play of light could be transformative.

How we should think about this “light beer” version of Moholy-Nagy (“all the flavor, with none of the actual art objects!”) is of course up for intense debate, and photography purists will surely scorn this simplified version of an important (and intensely thoughtful and complicated) artist’s work. That said, this is a show that is honest about what it is and what it isn’t, and it’s not fair to judge it based on the standards of a scholarly or academic context. Especially for the viewer who comes to Moholy-Nagy with fresh eyes, this engaging show will provide plenty of opportunities for flashes of insight and inspiration; for some, such a show full of aesthetic ideas could be a real spark of creativity, not to mention education.

In the end, this was an exhibit that I was entirely prepared to dismiss, and yet, the power of Moholy-Nagy’s ideas won me over (again), however unorthodox the presentation. It said to me that there is a potential place for an in-between easier-to-like show like this one, where an unwieldy, expansive, and often esoteric artistic career is boiled down to a handful of memorable points that can be circulated around the world with relative ease. As long as we don’t confuse such a crowd-pleasing sampler with more intense curatorial selection, evaluation, and interpretation of the original art objects, this kind of exhibit can be a net addition to the wider appreciation of an artist’s work. It’s awfully tricky to find the precise spot where simplification becomes unfortunate dumbing down, but this succinct Moholy-Nagy summary show feels like it has plausibly found a workable middle ground.

Collector’s POV: Since this is a museum show, there are of course no posted prices. Moholy-Nagy’s prints are consistently available in the secondary market, with even vintage rarities showing up for sale now and then in the past decade. Public prices have ranged from as little as roughly $5000 for lesser known images, studies, film stills, and images in large editions to as much as $1.5M for iconic photograms, with more mainstream vintage photograms typically finding buyers for five and low six figure prices.

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