Moholy-Nagy: Future Present @Guggenheim

JTF (just the facts): A retrospective exhibition containing roughly 300 paintings, photographs, films, sculptures, books, magazines, graphic design, advertising, and other ephemera, installed against white walls and on grey partitions on all the floors of the museum’s spiral galleries.

Photographically, the show includes the following:

  • 75 gelatin silver prints/photograms, some with graphite/gouache additions, 1922-1943
  • 1 collodion silver print/photogram, 1922
  • 36 gelatin silver photomontages (original and rephotographed/enlarged), 1923-1929
  • 14 35mm color slides, 1935-1956

The show was organized by a trio of curators – Carol Eliel, Karole Vail, and Matthew Witkovsky – and will travel to the Art Institute of Chicago and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 2016 and 2017 after its stint at the Guggenheim. (Installation shots below. This too large group of pictures includes all of the photographs on view, along with a sampler of the paintings, sculptures, films, and installations. Apologies to mobile readers who find the number of pictures excessive.)

A comprehensive catalog of the exhibition has recently been published by the three sponsoring museums and Yale University Press (here and here). Hardcover, 324 pages, with 504 black and white and color illustrations. Includes essays by Matthew Witkovsky, Stephanie D’Alessandro, Olivier Lugon, Jennifer King, Julie Barten, Sylvie Penichon, Carol, Stringari, Elizabeth Siegel, Karole Vail, and Carol Eliel. (Cover shot below.)

Comments/Context: Of all the prevailing trends in contemporary photography, the idea that the digital revolution in photographic technology has opened up new pathways for interdisciplinary thinking is perhaps the most unexpectedly ground-breaking and disruptive. This is because it boldly challenges the accepted notion that the different artistic media of painting, sculpture, photography, film, architecture, and graphic design are (and should be) largely independent pursuits. In the minds of many of our most restless experimenters, this traditional separation is both unnecessarily constraining and patently false – in their eyes, art now emerges from a malleable and interconnected set of materials and disciplines that can be limitlessly recombined in new ways, and photography is just one highly effective tool that can be drawn from the larger toolbox. For these artists, to see photography as a discrete individual practice is to misunderstand the fundamentals of how art is now being conceived and made.

With this forward-looking context in mind, this sprawling retrospective of the Hungarian artistic polymath László Moholy-Nagy should provide plenty of timely inspiration and relevant cross pollination – if there was ever a standard bearer for the power of interdisciplinary artistic thinking and technological innovation, it has to be the systematically risk-taking Moholy. For working artists and photographers, an engaged stroll up the chronologically arranged rotunda will provide a feast of reusable ideas, successful (and failed) experiments, and unexpected relationships. From elemental photograms (a term he invented) and machined paintings to full room multi-media installations and distorted Plexiglas sculptures that bend light and shadow, this exhibit provides broad evidence of an artist with a relentlessly testing mind, one who believed in his bones that art and technology were naturally and inextricably intertwined.

While Moholy’s prodigious output in a number of mediums might be enough for several single subject interrogations, this retrospective is resolutely integrated, moving back and forth between paintings and sculptures in the curved bays, photography on flat partitions, magazine work and graphic design in vitrines, and films in the transitional hallways, all connected with the through line of passing time. Starting with the blocky geometries and industrial forms of Moholy’s early Constructivist-inspired paintings, the show is a repeated exercise in abstract motifs being broken down and repurposed in alternate media, the details evolving back and forth based on the strengths and constraints of any one specific medium. Time and again, Moholy seems to get artistically blocked (in terms of exhausting the interplay of a set of forms), only to branch out using some new approach or material, the unique properties of that new technology opening up the doors that had been closed and offering new pathways and white space to explore.

For Moholy and his unwavering interest in the artistic potential of light, photography was central to his thinking, and he returns to it in multiple forms over the three decade span of this exhibition, alternating between examining the varied possibilities of straight photographs, camera-less photograms, and hand crafted photocollages/photomontages. When Moholy was behind the camera, it’s almost as if he took it upon himself to intentionally dismantle everything a camera typically does, trying to better understand the artificiality of its flattened vision. Nearly all of his straight photographs are exercises in upending perspective and restructuring space, rejecting the idea of a fixed viewpoint. He gets distortingly close to faces. He creates negative prints to invert the black and white tonalities of bridges, balconies, nudes, and even cats. He repeatedly looks down from a steep bird’s eye view, turning the stairs, beaches, café tables, and snow covered landscapes far below into crisp geometries. He then reverses course and looks halting upward at the rigging of sails, exploring an entirely different set of exaggerated angles and planes. And when Moholy embraces color photography later in his career, his pictures are squiggly and unstable, bringing motion back into his experiments with light. To my eye, there is something extremely analytical about the way Moholy unpacks straight photography – like an engineer, he continually wants to take it apart and reassemble it to explore the boundaries of how it functions.

Moholy’s photocollages and photomontages go further in his efforts to deconstruct space. Cut out figures dangle in arrays of drawn lines or perch on or inside circles, with no clear narrative or visual logic, and while an athlete or a political figure might appear, they might just as likely be paired with a small child or an animal, frustrating our ability to make sense of what’s going on. What’s most striking about these works is Moholy’s attempts to reconfigure the management of emptiness. He seems to be wrestling with removing the usual signifiers of distance and scale, leaving his figures floating amid lines and geometries that offer only hints of structure. These photocollages (and their rephotographed copies and enlargements) further break down the rules of photography, turning repurposed imagery into a formal dance without center or unifying balance.

Moholy’s photograms are the most abstract of his photographic efforts, and the most innovative in terms of constant change and experimentation over the years. His early Constructivist-influenced works are filled with elemental planes and overlapping rectangles, where transparency and nuanced tonality add visual interest to the compositions. Heads and hands start to appear a few years later, bringing the immediacy of physical touch back into the artistic equation, often mixed with hard edged machined forms or textural objects for contrast. Playing with exposure length gave Moholy another variable to tweak – adding time led to gestural movement (which would ultimately lead him to film as yet another avenue for exploration), intermediate shadows, and the sense of volume, allowing the simple flatness of his first experiments to become richer and fuller. And in his later photograms, we see him employing even more layers, the compositions becoming more jagged and jumbled. When matched up with paintings from the same years, it becomes clear how he was translating motifs back and forth, extending visual ideas in one medium only to mimic them in the other, which would then kick off a new round of innovation. Seeing so many of his photograms together and in the context of his other works, it is much more possible to trace this iterative progression.

If seen in isolation, Moholy’s paintings might reasonably be seen as repeated exercises in reconfiguring abstract forms. But when they are placed in the wider context of the rest of his art, they are silently infused with the artist’s fascination with the properties of light. Moholy tested various painted textures for their reflective properties, to the point of experimenting with industrial materials (mostly sheet plastics) and techniques (sprays and splatters) never before used in the art world. Metal sculptures were equally light dominated in concept, his Light Prop for an Electric Stage from 1930 expressly designed with the intention of being photographed and filmed, its interlocking planes of perforated holes, open mesh, and metallic rods perfect for bouncing and refracting light in unexpected ways. And his late sculptures made from distorted Plexiglas (some with incised lines) bring bent shadows into the middle of multi-layered painted compositions, the cast light an integral part of the functioning of the three dimensional objects.

Once you start seeing Moholy’s art through this organizing prism of light, the smarter and more directed his many experiments feel. His comprehensive teachings and artistic philosophies (started at the Bauhaus and continually reworked all the way through his time in Chicago) evolve towards a self-contained artistic worldview, and seeming distractions like exhibition design, theater props, or typography all begin to have a logical place inside his broad-based art/technology thought system.

Coming away from this exhibit, I was struck by how prescient (or stubborn) Moholy was about the ultimate hybridization of artistic approaches and mediums. His own artworks continually struggle to find the essence of this big audacious idea and give it life. As a result, there is a dogged charisma to be discovered in Moholy and his persistent look to a certain kind of integrated artistic future, and that tenacious optimism still echoes today with contagious freshness. This superlative retrospective bottles some of Moholy’s single-minded multi-dimensional energy, and given its nuanced complexity, it will likely give birth to yet another generation of artists and photographers who will find a wellspring of fertile ideas here, ready to be resampled.

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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Read more about: László Moholy-Nagy, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, Art Institute of Chicago, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, Yale University Press

One comment

  1. Pete /

    Excellent. Exciting stuff.

    The inter-disciplinary aspect is very impressive, and with top quality right across the board.

    It’s true most photographers don’t extend beyond the medium but then again how many great novelists are also banging out screenplays and poetry/rap? As for opera the composer always seemed to need a librettist. What’s that all about? : )

    There is probably some resistance to accepting multi-specialism, too. We like to pigeon-hole.

    There are a lot of actors (Diane Keaton, Dennis Hopper, Yul Brynner), singers (Michael Stipe, Lou Reed), directors (Wim Wenders) who take photography seriously, but who wouldn’t have their work published or exhibited if not famed already for their achievement in their main field. Muso-painters like Bob Dylan, David Bowie and Ronnie Wood similarly couldn’t produce at the same level across mediums when picking up a paint brush. The Nagys and Warhols and Picassos will always be the extraordinary exception.

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