It's easy to feel hypnotised following the discs of white light circling an exhibition space bathed in blue and pink hues. Those colours form the backdrop for a slow dance of geometric shadows, resembling something vaguely architectural. The only sound: the gentle hum and the occasional clanking of the gleaming machine comprising László Moholy-Nagy's kinetic sculpture, Light Prop for an Electric Stage, from 1930.
The work is the centrepiece of 'The Paintings of Moholy-Nagy: The Shape of Things To Come', which runs until 27 September at California's Santa Barbara Museum of Art; it's widely considered the artist's most impassioned enterprise and recognised as a vanguard of the genre. So what if the five-foot tall plastic, metal and glass assemblage is actually a replica constructed in 2006?
Light Prop... is, nevertheless, the perfect entry point for this unique show, billed as 'the first exhibition to explore how the practice of painting served as the means for Moholy-Nagy to imagine generative relationships between art and technology'.
Exhibition organiser Eik Kahng says the original prototype, funded by one of Germany's largest industrial conglomerates, 'was actually a central part of Moholy-Nagy's approach to art-making, influencing everything else he did'.
One can easily perceive similar patterns in many of the show's 32 other pieces, which include works on paper, paintings, video projections and the medium Moholy-Nagy is best known for, the photogram – a photographic process sans camera. No wonder Kahng says the significance of Moholy's painting is often under recognised.
After all, it was Moholy-Nagy himself who once decried the medium as potentially irrelevant. Writing in the show's catalogue, The Paintings of Moholy-Nagy: The Shape of Things to Come, curator Joyce Tsai says that in his 1925 book, Painting Photography Film, 'Moholy-Nagy announced that in the face of ever more sophisticated technologies, painting in pigment would become an anachronism to be supplanted by the creation of optical effects through the use of artificial light'.
Yes, Moholy-Nagy abandoned the canvas entirely, beginning in 1928 – during which time he made his Light Prop. However, just two years later he returned to painting, taking it, says Kahng, 'in a totally new direction'. Hence the show's focus on how painting let the artist 'overcome the limits of early 20th century technology'.
Consider, for example, his 1942 CH For Y Space Modulator, consisting of oil on yellow Formica, or the 'light painting' of Kodachrome slides he made while in Chicago; you'll see digitised versions displayed on four flat screens.
Still, there was a practical aspect to the artist's approach.
'For Moholy-Nagy, living in a time of war and economic instability, without access to giant corporate resources to back your biggest, most spectacular visions, you realise that painting is something that gives you autonomy,' says Kahng. 'You don't need a giant corporation to help you purchase all this complicated technology to realise your dream; you just need to manipulate it differently and use it to change the way you see.'