Now that the heat has finally subsided here in New York City, I had a chance to walk across the Park to view the Guggenheim's huge exhibit, Moholy-Nagy: Future Present. It turned out to be a comprehensive retrospective devoted to a major twentieth century artist who rarely receives the recognition he deserves. It was well worth seeing.
László Moholy-Nagy, who died in 1946 at only age 51, was remarkable for all he managed to achieve in so abbreviated a career. The Guggenheim exhibit is praiseworthy for so attentively tracing his progress from his earliest days as an art student in Budapest when he attended the private school run by Róbert Berény. On display from this earliest period is a monochromatic drawing covered by thick interweaving curved lines; the work is visually interesting but contains little hint of the innovations in style that were to come.
The exhibit could very broadly be broken down into three distinct categories: abstract painting, photograms and photocollages; and conventional photography.
The abstract paintings were almost entirely combinations of circles and lines intersecting one another against a empty background. What to me was most noteworthy about these were the brilliant colors used in them. This may have been due to the lingering influence of his first teacher, Berény, one of the most prominent of the Hungarian Fauve artists. As his career progressed, Moholy-Nagy experimented with different surfaces on which to paint. On display were his "enamel paintings" which created a sensation when displayed in Berlin in 1924. Toward the end of his career, Moholy-Nagy began to apply color to incised sheets of plexiglass. There was even one where the plexiglass sheet had been deliberately warped. Light passing through the painted plexiglass created eerie shadows and endowed the work with a three dimensional quality that could never have been achieved on painted canvas.
In viewing the photograms shown at this exhibit the viewer is immediately reminded of those completed by the surrealist photographer Man Ray during roughly the same period. In general, I found Moholy-Nagy's to be the more sophisticated and thought provoking. He was not so much interested in creating in his work the surrealist effects Man Ray achieved in his Rayographs and yet, though their end purposes may have been different, the works of the two artists often bear a striking similarity. It would be interesting to someday see a dual exhibit featuring these two artists that explored the influence they exerted upon one another. Certainly, Man Ray's drawing Rencontre dans la porte tournante, featured on the cover of Der Sturm in 1922, displays close affinities to Moholy-Nagy's visual designs.
As for traditional photography, what most distinguishes Moholy-Nagy's images is the perspective from which they were taken. Very often the artist would seek out a high vantage point and shoot straight down so that the ground beneath took on the form of an abstract design. Also shown at the exhibit was the artist's 1930's portrait of Solomon Guggenheim himself. This was perhaps the closest Moholy-Nagy ever came to commercial portraiture.
One of the highlights of the exhibit was the installation in the High Gallery of Moholy-Nagy's Raum der Gegenwart ("Room of the Present") whose modernistic design only becomes more evident through the inclusion of a 1920's silent film. On the Guggenheim's website this installation is described as follows:
"On view for the first time in the United States, the large-scale work contains photographic reproductions and design replicas as well as his kinetic Light Prop for an Electric Stage (Lichtrequisit einer elektrischen Bühne, 1930; recreated 2006). Room of the Present illustrates Moholy-Nagy’s belief in the power of images and the significance of the various means with which to view and disseminate them..."
Although Moholy-Nagy is remembered today primarily for his association with the Bauhaus, the present show at the Guggenheim displays convincingly exactly how multi-faceted and influential was this artist and how far reaching his imagination.
The exhibit continues through September 7, 2016.