Moholy-Nagy: Finding the Present in the Past

Z VII by Lazlo Moholy-Nagy, 1926, oil and graphite on canvass

Z VII by Lazlo Moholy-Nagy, 1926, oil and graphite on canvass

I got up to the Guggenheim to see Future Present, the retrospective of Hungarian-American artist Lazlo-Moholy-Nagy (1895-1946).  Spiraling up all six levels, this show presents his work in a chronological fashion, beginning with his years in Budapest, then Berlin, Weimar, Dessau, Amsterdam, London, and finally Chicago, where he settled in 1937, becoming the director of the Chicago Bauhaus, then founding a school of design. (He had been the Director of the Weimar and Dessau Bauhaus between 1923 and 1928)  I would recommend starting at the first floor, and working your way up, so as to better appreciate his progression through the fields of painting, photography, typography,   printmaking, industrial design and sculpture. Through his deliberate subversion of the traditional separation of “high” art from applied art, and his embrace and incorporation of technology, he exerted an influence that continues to resound in contemporary design aesthetic.

The first stop is Room of the Present (Raum der Gegenwart) a present-day fabrication of an exhibition space Moholy-Nagy conceived in 1930 (but was not realized in his lifetime), meant to showcase the vanguard mediums of the early 1930’s. In some ways it was a platform for his ideas about the power of images, and the importance of the way they were disseminated.  Be sure to see the Light Prop for an Electric Stage (1930)  a sculpture/device which incorporates glass spirals, perforated disks, and other moving parts. After his death, it was called the “Light-Space Modulator,” and has since been alternatively viewed as either a kinetic sculpture or an early example of Light Art.  Throughout the exhibit, you’ll find works entitled Space Modulator, so this is a good introduction to that concept.

19 by Lazlo Moholy-Nagy, 1921, Oil on canvas

19 by Lazlo Moholy-Nagy, 1921, Oil on canvas

No matter his style or his medium, Moholy-Nagy’s oeuvre seems to be suffused with an innate sense of rhythm and balance.   He was constantly experimenting with light, lines, architectural shapes, and relationships.   His works almost always contain a dominant geometric form that is either larger or darker, or that in some way distinguishes itself from the other elements, but is still in harmony with them.  Very often his shapes seem poised to move around the canvas.

I had been familiar with Moholy-Nagy’s paintings from the 1920’s and 30’s, starting with the Dada-influenced canvasses populated with numbers and letters, and moving on to Constructivist influenced paintings. For me it was interesting to see how the artist’s palette shifted from the browns and grays of his early works, to the brighter blues and reds that dominated his later ones.  I was delighted to discover his work in other media in this exhibition.

Slide by Lazlo Moholy-Nagy, 1923, photomontage

Slide by Lazlo Moholy-Nagy, 1923, photomontage

Throughout the 1920’s, Moholy-Nagy was intently focused on photography, viewing this as a medium being able to create “the New Vision,” which could foster a new understanding of art in a fast-changing culture.  His photos are fantastic, creating new optical sensations; they’re always off-center, often with a strong diagonal line, giving them an architectural feel.  Most are taken from either below or above; those taken facing the subject are usually focusing in on a particular section or detail.  Depicting a wide range of subjects, they are all arresting studies in texture, shadow, and light.  The same is true of his photo-montages, comprised of images cut and pasted from magazines, which the artist augmented with pencil and ink drawings, playing with perspective and imbuing them with humor and a cinematic touch.

Poster for the London Underground by Lazlo Moholy-Nagy

Poster for the London Underground by Lazlo Moholy-Nagy

In the 20’s and 30’s, Moholy-Nagy created photograms, or cameraless photos, by placing objects on a sheet of photographic paper, and exposing it to light.  While these luminous images are mostly abstract,  sometimes you can almost decipher the object. 

Moholy-Nagy also worked in commercial design, employing then-new techniques such as using only lower-case letters for main titles, which seems so commonplace today.  In the same section you’ll also find his posters for the London Underground, which make that subway seem to be the safest and most modern of transportation systems (who would have thought that escalator mechanics and pneumatic doors could be engaging!).  Nearby you’ll see his stage designs for productions of The Merchant of Berlin, Madam Butterfly, and the Tales of Hoffman.  Photos of these sets are projected on the wall, clearly showing Moholy-Nagy’s open design, which in 1929, would have been avant-garde, but which we take for granted today.

Space Modulator by Lazlo Moholy-Nagy, 1939-45, oil and incised lines on Plexiglas

Space Modulator by Lazlo Moholy-Nagy, 1939-45, oil and incised lines on Plexiglas

The last level showcases Moholy-Nagy’s novel use of industrial plexiglas, which he molded into sculptures, or used as a drawing medium, onto which he would either incise or paint lines and abstract shapes. (He heated the plexiglas in his home oven, so he could shape it).  These pieces are mounted on clips or rails, so they can be away from the wall, casting shadows.  You’ll also find several of his larger scale paintings from the mid-1940’s, mostly employing bright red, gold, yellow, blue and black geometric shapes.  I especially liked the three large drawings whose backgrounds are finely rendered curving lines, with a geometric sculpture seemingly floating in the negative space.

Even though there’s a lot to see in this show, you don’t feel overwhelmed, as there’s plenty of space between individual works, and the various sections. 

Moholy-Nagy was active during a period of intense technological and societal change, much like our own time.  Through his response – incorporating the new and breaking down the artificial boundaries imposed by a prior age, he offers us a highly relevant paradigm in today’s cultural and technological shifts.

Be sure to see this show before it closes on September 7th.

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