“The two-dimensional monochrome represents a turning point in art, or more specifically, painterly representation of the world, no longer rendering the world in a realist, figurative depiction in accordance with the traditional concepts of art, but rather transforming our view and our vision of the world. A black square on a white background, with “nothing” in it, constituting, in Malevich’s belief, a vision of pure material infinity and the non-objectivity of the world, becomes a window, beckoning to us to lean through it and transcend the level of illusions, to view the world without intermediary, just via the relation between paint and canvas in their primary material presence.”1
That the material presence of the work is what is emphasized, as simultaneously painting is enlisted in the work of demonstrating “nothing,” is not a contradiction. I have mentioned before in other texts on this blog that abstraction has this dream of leaving the discursive behind in order to arrive into immediate sensation (whether or not it succeeds or fails in this endeavor is another matter entirely): leaving behind the reading of a picture in order to be absorbed into being. In Malevich’s most ‘extreme’ abstractions all the dimensions are paired-down into the two-dimensional plan: everything becomes flat. Malevich wants to displace the world of three-dimensions as a way-station of displacing the world of all the other illusions. If it going towards the primacy of being than it must rid itself of figures. It must show its essential non-being.
Ridding the world of appearances: this is what the term “primary material presence ” is to do. Black Square is the culminating end of the older mechanisms of representation and mediation. It really is the icon of the symbolization of History, which is to say, it is that image of modernity where the eternal is nothing at all.
Pulling everything into the flat does the work of totalization, but as all of what is on show in the two-dimensional field is presenting itself in non-being, it is totality coming to nothing. And if it comes to nothing, then one should be clear in the distinction: it is precisely the “primary material presence” that knows itself to be nothing. Materialism and nihilism go together in Malevich, along as we are prepared to also toss in the metaphor of infinity.
The metaphysics of Black Square attempt to achieve that kind of immediacy I alluded to earlier and which the first quote mentions as “primary material presence.” It is a kind of presentness of sensation in the face of a truth-to-materials. If it is a zero, then it is a materialist zero: a plastic infinity. To escape from seeing into being is the aim of abstract art. The non-figurative field is not an arrangement of decorations, it is an exploration of the actual matter.
“The square is not a subconscious form, it is the face of intuitive reason.” If one says it is not subconscious, then it does not necessarily follow that it is conscious either. It is not the cogitio’s triumph transcendentalism.
Malevich explored painting not in the emotional sphere of the artist’s experience but in what is called the ‘objective’ world. The objective elements of painting (he called the “culture of painting”) established an order governed by painting and nowhere else. It had no more recourse to follow anything outside of itself. So it stands that the means of getting at the non-objectivity of things is to pass through the objective elements: the non-objectivity in Malevich is concerned with such elements displaced from the objects of the world that was the traditional framework for painters. No longer a depiction of things – in a word, “non-objective art.” He writes in Non-Objective Art and Suprematism, originally published in the catalog to the 10th State Exhibition of 1919, “The artist too must transform color masses and create an artistic system, but he must not paint little pictures of fragrant roses since all this would be dead representation point back to life.” But the supposed formalism is exactly not one, because if one is ridding the world of appearances than by all means it would include the formalist appearance, the contrived balance of elements that give all such of weight and fixation upon the very illusion Malevich thought he was destroying (the illusion of color harmonies, of balanced elements teetered onto decorative pattern).
In fact, if one was still fixated on that single form of the square, and this was getting in the way, then the answer ought to be simple: white on white.
Malevich’s world is not an abyss stemming from the rational, even if at first glance his works appear to be carried out as if rationally. Physically engulfed in the material world, he wanted to map unbounded states. The “primary material presence” is an attempt at the primary process of making’s contact with matter, but of a matter coming to fruition not based solely on reason because just at what appears as a moment of the triumph of the cogito’s will upon the thing there flashes back upon the consciousness the inherent unconsciousness of matter. The word intuitive in the phrase “intuitive reason” is paramount because it leads the way out of the straight-jacket of rational development. Malevich is not Mondrian, however much some may lump them all together. Malevich is an architect of the physical abyss of raw matter, tossing his elements out into the white infinity as things in a state of arrested disruption. The ideologies of technology or industry really play a minor part in his making-of-a-world (even UNOVIS’ central theme of economy cannot be wholly conscripted into such valuations of the artist as laboratory technician). It is not utilitarian Constructivism, even and especially if his students went on in this direction. Malevich may have employed the flat, hard-edge as a means to an end, but this is a totality coming to nothing. If the Factory was God, then it is an activity that surpasses any notion of technical refinement – it is not an unchallenged Prometheanism – since what is solid is always on the verge of being disrupted, as if what is balanced one moment could teeter off into oblivion the next. His work never takes on that contrived look of being too balanced, to controlled, even if what does appear rests (for a moment at least) into a kind of unity.
I am really fond of the fact that appearing upon the Black Square are all sorts of cracks in the painted surface. To be sure, this wasn’t Malevich’s intentions – he did not conjure up this erosion. It is in fact the erosion of time upon the surface. It evokes in the technic imagination all sorts of fear, entropy and ruin. And of course these are the things that are of a more fundamental (dis)order than any of the polished surfaces. In this sense all classicism fails, even and especially the modernist technician classicism, which is to say, it comes to nothing.
Technological ideology has no sense of time. It sought a refinement of the field, to cast away those ‘impurities’ of the entropy, and of course this really is impossible. Just as painting is earth, just as Malevich can never really ‘break away from the earth’ precisely because he is a painter, so too the earth is built upon the disruption of whatever appears. One has no need to tether oneself out beyond the ground as a fantasy of cosmism, as if that and only that could deliver one into the nothing that is. It is precisely in the rising and falling of forms upon the ground, in the manner of earth’s sedimentation and erosion processes, that the truth of materials is discovered. To me the truth of the Black Square’s inherent mysticism is evident in the crackling of non-objectivity, but not in the sense of its refinement as a rational thing. Malevich’s abyss is not caught within the narrow bounds of technicians: it is really not a ‘pure’ system at all, as if it could only ever reference differentiated technics. Painting’s culture can show a way out of culture, to in his words displace the “language of the tribe.” The abyss opens up behind the elements on show precisely because (and not in spite of) it being evident as solid material fact.
Such painting no longer represents ‘realist’ or ‘figurative’ depictions, no longer dead representation points back to life, but instead presents the living matter itself. And if one is present the presentness of the living matter then one would have to go the end: one would have to demand that through the non-figuration’s direct assertion of matter would include simultaneously its decomposition.
I may be guilty of using Malevich for my own ends, but this is what we all do when we look at art. I want to employ him towards my own vision of just what constitutes the metaphysics of painting because I take him seriously. At least unlike some of his contemporaries he died knowing he had accomplished something – that as the tide of reactionaryism swept through his work wasn’t all in vain. Did he find it, in the end – that oblivion in the face of primary material presence? I think so. Perhaps the image of him lying in his coffin is actually the most fitting picture? This image of the cadre reminds me of that other image of the body lying in state: that of Lenin. Consistently Malevich attempts to wrestle “Lenin” away from the Party and make Lenin the property of UNOVIS, because as he realized the body may belong to the Party but UNOVIS has what the body symbolizes. If I am guilty for using Malevich for my own ends, then one ought to charge Malevich for doing the same with Lenin. In Malevich’s metaphysics and in the formative years after the revolution, for a time the world events and the quest for annihilation of the self went hand in hand, and that Lenin is equated with Black Square is no small assertion. “Wear the Black Square as the mark of world economy,” Malevich says. His vision was towards stripping the image of the nonessentials to get at the essence of that thing like stripping the language attributes of the tribe: to usher in a world were considerations like race or nationality didn’t matter. To live in a world where the sign became arbitrary, where its totalizing achieved an emptying out: this is the utopia of the image that shall not manifest until the revolution took place. “Communism is already non-objective. its problem is to make consciousness non-objective, to free the world from the attempts of men to grasp it as their own possession. In this lies the attainment of the highest end. Here the new religion has found its own international limit, the signs of which lie in Leninism and not Lenin.”
…To make the world free from the attempts of we humans to possess it as our own. That is no small feat. We are a far cry from that today. How could we painters even begin to pretend that painting could usher in such a consciousness? Oh well, at least some tried. And maybe there are some of you out there, who being able to escape from words into being can experience the image in its matter-of-factness.
If you take on board my emphasis on the cracks in the Black Square and my subsequent remarks about the erosive qualities of being, then you’d probably see that my reading emphasizes the geological flux of the primary material presence – I cannot really help this since it is precisely what I am searching for in my own work, and because it is something I am after it colors my vision of Malevich. It is a solid on the brink of oblivion where what would’ve been solid (as consciousness, as form) begins to dissipate into that very “excitation” that Malevich spoke of so eloquently.