'The Great Utopia': it's ambitious, but a failure

October 18, 1992|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,Art Critic

New York -- At the Guggenheim Museum's show of early 20th century Russian art, the best comes first. Off the lower end of the museum's famous spiral ramp is a single high-ceilinged gallery designed for displaying big works of art. Now it is all but empty, save for two widely spaced, quite modest-sized objects.

Placed high on the left, so that you look up to it as you would to a precious icon, is Kasimir Malevich's "Red Square" of 1915. It is a simple square of red paint on a white background. Malevich painted it as the modern era's non-objective successor to the religious icons of the Russian past. A statement of what he called suprematism, it was art raised to its purest level, having reference to nothing beyond itself (hence non-objective). And it stands as an icon to so much of what has come after it in 20th century art, including geometric abstraction and minimalism. You look at it and you think of Frank Stella's famous statement about his own work, "What you see is what you see," which was thought revolutionary half a century after this picture was painted.

Placed low on the right, opposite to (and in opposition to) Malevich's painting, is Vladimir Tatlin's "Counter Relief" of 1914-1915. Made of pieces of iron, wood, copper and rope, it, too, has its descendants in found art, concrete art, and in particular the Russian brand of constructivism, based on a utilitarian principle. It was created before the 1917 revolution, but its implications and the subsequent work of Tatlin and others led to the post-revolution "productivist" idea that art should be practical in its implications and that the artist should serve society, not some abstract aesthetic. We can even see it as a sort of great-great-grandfather of the current outpouring of art related to social issues.

These two far-reaching works, placed with supreme effectiveness, serve to introduce "The Great Utopia: The Russian and Soviet Avant-Garde, 1915-1932," the vast and sprawling exhibit that occupies the Guggenheim from bottom to top, including the newly opened annex. This wonderful juxtaposition of two seminal works starts the visitor off on the journey up the spiral's seven levels (and the annex's four gallery floors) with high hopes.

But, though this first gallery is located at the bottom of the exhibit physically speaking, it's the high point in the non-physical sense. From here on it's an uphill struggle through a downhill experience, for as an exhibit "The Great Utopia" is a hugely ambitious failure, though it must be said an interesting one.

Too many objects

It's a failure for two main reasons. First, it's simply too big for its own good. Consisting of some 800 objects, from paintings and sculpture (or perhaps more accurately constructions) through photography, architectural designs and models, costume designs, posters and books to ceramics and textiles, it's surely exhaustive but so exhausting that one finally doesn't care any more.

The intention was certainly admirable. With the new freedom in Russia opening doors to archives and art long hidden away, there was a commendable desire on both sides of the ocean to do the Russian avant-garde show. The people on this side, presumably, wanted everything they would give us, and the people on the other side, in a positive explosion of generosity, couldn't stop giving. The selection committee consisted of 14 people, and the exhibit looks as if there were a prize for the one who could come up with the most things.

It was, perhaps, a natural impulse. The early 20th century Russian avant-garde is no longer unknown. Aspects of it have been shown in the West for at least 20 years, and many of its figures -- Malevich, Tatlin, Alexander Rodchenko, El Lissitsky, Aleksandra Exter, Mikhail Larionov, Liubov Popova, etc. -- are now recognized by museum-goers. It must have been thought (( that the best rationale for this exhibit would be to make it the

ultimate exhibit.

Ultimately, however, the show defeats its own purpose. This isn't so much a question of viewer fatigue as one of inability to edit out lesser works so that one can focus on what's there. It has been said, wisely, that if you put five objects in an exhibition case, everybody sees all of them. But if you put 50 in, nobody sees any of them. In that sense, this is an exhibit full of 50-object cases. And the 728-page, 8-pound catalog, with 21 essays by 19 contributors, suffers from a similar bloat.

Too much history

The second reason for the failure of both exhibit and catalog is that they pay too much attention to the avant-garde's relation to Soviet history after the revolution and too little attention to its relation to 20th century art. It is interesting to learn how a great art movement such as that of the Russian avant-garde, which was already in progress at the time of the revolution, can be affected by a major upheaval in the society.

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