Instruments of revolution

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Women, art and the avant-garde on view at MoMA


  • Varvara Stepanova composed her "Figure" from a fanciful mix of primary colors and simple geometries. Photo: Adel Gorgy

  • Lyubov Popova's "Untitled" helped open new ways of seeing and MoMA's curators chose it to open "Revolutionary Impulse: The Rise Of The Russian Avant-Garde." Photo: Adel Gorgy

  • More than holding its own among the big boys of Russian Constructivism, Alexandra Exter's “Construction,” 1922-23 is a highlight. Photo: Adel Gorgy

  • Alexandra Exter's 1914-15 “Cubist Nude/Theatrical Composition” is among the works by women artists given pride of place in “Revolutionary Impulse: The Rise Of The Russian Avant-Garde.” Photo: Adel Gorgy

  • An early Kazimir Malevich, “Samovar,” explored Cubism before the artist rejected it. Photo: Adel Gorgy

  • A large display of the work of Kazimir Malevich, culled from MoMA's collection, is a highlight of “Revolutionary Impulse: The Rise Of The Russian Avant-Garde.” Photo by Adel Gorgy

  • Soft lines and colors delight in Vasily Kandinsky's “Improvisation” (c. 1914). Photo: Adel Gorgy

  • Naum Gabo's “Head of a Woman,” the ultimate pop-up page, peeks down at visitors. Photo by Adel Gorgy

Before the rosy glow fades from the wave of pink hats, pink signs, pink frustration and pink power that washed New York and cities around the world, it seems a good time to consider how women artists have been represented in the art world.

MoMA presents a great opportunity. While curators Roxana Marcoci, Sarah Suzuki and Hillary Reder were preparing the comprehensive, thought-provoking and visually delightful “A Revolutionary Impulse: The Rise Of The Russian Avant-Garde” (timed to coincide with the 100th anniversary of 1917 Russian Revolution), they may have expressed a revolutionary impulse of their own. Women’s rights aren’t claimed to be a focus of the exhibition, but women sure do get center stage. In MoMA’s gentle uprising that presents some 250 works culled from its collection, the first piece in the show is Lyubov Popova’s black and white wonder of positive/negative space, “Untitled,” and of the 11 artists highlighted on the exhibition’s website, five are women. Almost half. Not half bad.

Besides the complex geometries, controlled colors and adamantly modern compositions that fill the galleries, one of the most overwhelming impressions comes from reading the wall labels and encountering, over and over again, the names of women artists. It’s rare to have a women’s group show (look for a smattering in March, Women’s History Month). But it’s practically unheard of to have women hanging alongside male art stars and be given equal weight and equal consideration. It’s heartening to see.

The Russian Revolution of 1917, which began on International Women’s Day with demands from women for bread and peace, led to a state that changed the rules for women. While Suffragettes marched in New York and Margaret Sanger was being tried and sentenced for disseminating information on birth control, Russian women such as Popova, Alexandra Exter and Natalia Goncharova, who’d already gained significant rights, were busily redefining art.

“We ourselves are creating our own hypotheses anew and only upon them ... can we build our new life and new world view,” Popova wrote. Cubist geometries in muted tones line up like orderly comrades in a series of her linoleum prints, while the same forms, vigorously brushed in primary colors and with deep shadows in “Subject from a Dyer’s Shop,” seem ready to jump into the viewer’s space.

An exhibition this carefully crafted and with this many works tells lots of stories. Political and social history played a huge role in the art of Russia, as did links to European trends, and they’re all here. Loads of “isms” can be found as well. Cubism. Constructivism. Suprematism. Rayonism. Neo-Primitism. Cubo-Futurism. These guys loved a good manifesto and a fancy name to slap on it.

MoMA’s trove of works from this hotbed of creativity is particularly rich. An early Picasso/Braque-derived Cubist exploration by Kazimir Malevich, “Samovar,” hangs in the first gallery, providing interesting insights into how one of the most avant-garde painters of all time started out following a groove others had dug. Adjacent to it is a lovely watercolor in pink, azure, yellow and green, “Improvisation,” by Vasily Kandinsky. Gaze upon a sun with jagged green rays, some things that look like trees, perhaps a shoreline dotted with pebbles. If you squint, you can make a case for it being pure, non-representational abstraction. Though it might be more Fauve than revolution-inspired, it’s too beautiful to leave out of the show. Enjoy it on its own merits.

It would be hard to think of a more revolutionary painting than Malevich’s 1918 “Suprematist Composition: White on White.” While Cubists in France were chopping subjects into tiny little fragments and Italian Futurists left zippy trails behind things to suggest movement, Malevich basically asked: Who needs subjects? Calling his movement Suprematism, Malevich pronounced, by painting a white square on top of an off-white background, his belief in “the supremacy of pure feeling or perception in the pictorial arts.” The exhibition presents a rare whole wall full outstanding Malevich abstract paintings and drawings.

A group of Rayonist works by Natalia Goncharova and her husband, Mikhail Larionov, with slashes of intense tones bursting from unknown axis points, confirm the fervent dedication of Russian painters to finding and exploring newness. Photography and film, poetry and literature joined the avant-garde trends, and the exhibition includes a great selection of photographs by Aleksandr Rodchenko as well as stage and costume designs, and books, posters and leaflets with sophisticated, edgy works of art on the covers. Sculptural highlights are Rodchenko’s “Spatial Construction no. 12” and Naum Gabo’s beloved “Head of a Woman,” the ultimate pop-up book, an astonishing drawing come to life in three dimensions of cut and pasted celluloid and metal.

But for me, many of the most delightful moments came through the work of female hands, highlighted and given pride of place by other female hands a century apart. Popova and Goncharova start the exhibition. Alexandra Exter’s large, vibrant “Construction” balances color, poise and tension, and her “Cubist Nude/Theatrical Composition” sparkles on its own wall. Varvara Stepanova’s “Figure” presents charm and whimsy even under the auspices of a revolution, and Olga Rozanova’s “The Factory and the Bridge” would have been right at home at New York’s Armory Show in 1913.

Thanks to Marcoci, Suzuki and Reder, and a centennial reconsideration, it only took a little over 100 years for the work of these great pioneering women artists’ voices and visions to shine once again. The curators write, “Made in response to changing social and political conditions, these works probe and suggest the myriad ways that a revolution can manifest itself in an object.” Leaving the exhibition, as I did, with a list of women artists to learn more about demonstrated how a revolution can also be manifested in an exhibition.

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