Consummate modernist: Moholy-Nagy’s landmark Guggenheim retrospective
László Moholy-Nagy may be popularly remembered as the photogram man, but if the Guggenheim, Art Institute Chicago and LACMA have anything to do with it – and they do – Moholy-Nagy’s legacy is finally receiving an all-encompassing retrospective to match his totalised, wide-sweeping practice and impact on the arts.
Opening today and running at New York’s Guggenheim until 7 September is ’Future Present’. A co-curatorial effort from the three aforementioned institutions, which travels first to Chicago and then to Los Angeles, the show is the first comprehensive survey of Moholy-Nagy’s practice to hit the United States in over 50 years, despite the fact that the modernist period he occupied has fallen back into both academic and popular favour in the last few decades.
Born in a small town in Hungary in 1895, Moholy-Nagy was the consummate modernist, complete with unfaltering utopianism. He was an artist, a writer, a teacher, an intellectual. While his career took him West, first to Budapest, then to Berlin (and Mitteleuropa), onto London and then the US (he settled in Chicago in 1928, where he sadly died young at 51, in 1946), along the way Moholy-Nagy picked up elements of contemporary intellectual discussions, folding them into his practice. Ultimately, he brought Bauhaus to America. Moholy-Nagy’s tutelage under school founder Walter Gropius between 1923–1928 is an oft-cited frame of reference, especially as he became the founding director of the Chicago Bauhaus, but this exhibition actually focuses on his progressive perspective of the modernising world through technology – particularly through his choice of materials.
The exhibition, organised chronologically, begins in the 1920s with Moholy-Nagy’s oil paintings, such as the gorgeous A II (Construction A II) from 1924, echoing the constructivist sentiment that he encountered in Berlin’s Der Sturm gallery; as well as the dadaists, whose playful constructions in collages seeped down into Moholy-Nagy’s photo collages. There, nestled into the Guggenheim’s rotunda, are his early 1920s experiments in laying over negatives to create images in motion, such as The Law of the Series, and Joseph and Potiphar’s Family, both 1925, that not only highlighted Moholy-Nagy’s developing artistic style but also his fascination with technology.
Much of this show portrays Moholy-Nagy’s embrace of new technological tools and techniques, in particular the aforementioned photograms which, while he didn’t necessarily invent, became a signature experimentation for the artist; he often used examples in the battle to legitimise photography-as-art.
But it’s in his paintings where the really subtle technological shifts occur, and his new canvases encrusted in enamel, trolit (Bakelite plastic), aluminium and Plexiglas elevate his architecturally inclined subjects, quite literally in most cases. Take, for example, his later series called ’Space Modulator’, such as the 1939–45 version here, or B10 Space Modulator from 1942, where the imagery printed onto Plexiglas is propped up onto a board, thus creating colourful reflections, acting almost as a second painting – or in Moholy-Nagy’s estimation, a ’new vision’, seeing the world with new eyes.
However, Moholy-Nagy’s favourite subject and material was light. And this exhibition reconstructs Moholy-Nagy’s 1930 device Light Prop, perhaps his apotheosis as an artist – a sculpture hybrid and quasi-cinematic projection device with which he made moving images that capture light in motion.
Moholy-Nagy was a believer that art served to liberate the individual. His utopianism trickled down not only in his dealings with artistic experimentation but in his pedagogical ideology. Art teaches enlightenment and social consciousness to everyday citizens – that and light were the constant sources of Moholy-Nagy’s ethos and oeuvre. The way he embraced but also wrestled with technology, finds meaning today – a looming takeaway from this otherwise utterly stylish, illuminating show.