The Twentieth Century Society

Review: Moholy-Nagy: Future-Present

Guggenheim Museum, New York

Reviewed by Alan Ainsworth

The extent, diversity and élan of László Moholy-Nagy’s output was such that that many of us have only a partial grasp of his achievements. This recent exhibition was a rare chance to review his work in all its restless energy, across every type of medium and along the entire trajectory of his career as artist, educator and writer. Paintings, sculptures, photographs, photomontages, projections, documentation and books, light sculptures, architecture and interior design, graphic design, advertising and stage design: all were represented, an astounding body of work which addressed and synthesised most of the key concerns of the modernist project.

The thread running through his career was a commitment to art as a source of social transformation, which moved him seamlessly between fine and applied arts, exploiting what he believed to be the century’s emerging and important relationships between art, technology and life. Born in 1915 to a Jewish family in rural Hungary, he threw himself after law studies and military service into the avant-garde whirlwind of Magyar Aktivizmus magazine before moving to Vienna in 1920. Here, his aesthetic views emerged from the maelstrom of Dada and controlled constructivism, themes that he would continue to work out at the Bauhaus in the 1920s, in Amsterdam and London, and at the new Bauhaus in Chicago in the 1930s, until his death in the shadow of Hiroshima in 1946.

The constructivist aesthetic marked Moholy-Nagy’s paintings from his first encounter, but his commitment to abstraction was not simply a rejection of representation; it offered the potential to work out with oil on canvas (soon supplemented by industrial materials such as aluminium and early plastics) the nature of relationships between shapes in two dimensions. His abstract geometric canvases employ diagonals, curves, circles, half-moons and bands of colour which appear as architectural structures in space, a counterpoint to the emphasis on transparency and light then being proclaimed by German writers and architects. This emphasis on the formal qualities of painting – the relationships between shapes and colours, positive, negative and overlapping spaces and shadows and the inherent stability and/or instability of spatial relationships – might have attracted criticism as a typically élitist modernist project had he not applied these lessons in all the other areas of his work. It is appropriate that this exhibition was first mounted in the space-defying fluidity of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim, an object lesson in the practical application of innovative spatial relationships on human activities.

As early as the 1920s Moholy-Nagy had begun to explore these concerns with other media such as camera-less photograms – shapes exposed on light sensitive photographic paper – and photo-montage. His precision and creativity in the former exceeds that of Man Ray’s experiments in the same medium, and his work in the latter stands comparison with » the astounding montages created by Hannah Höch and John Heartfield some years later. In conventional camera-based photography, his ‘New Vision’ might perhaps have taken its cue from Aleksandr Rodchenko’s manifesto, but his use of unconventional viewpoints, skewed angles, line, shadow and texture successfully translated into practice Rodchenko’s concern that photography should change the way the world might be viewed.

Obsessed by light and its effects, kinetic sculptures were an early preoccupation for Moholy-Nagy. The exhibition illustrates his Light Prop for an Electric Stage of 1930, part of the first showing in the US of his Room of the Present, recreated in 2006. Designs and sculptures like these flow seamlessly into his opera and theatre sets. His graphic design work is particularly interesting: book covers, Bauhaus letter and literature styles, advertisements for Viyella, Harris Tweed and Isokon furniture, posters for London Underground and even train tickets. The range of his engagement was remarkable, yet consistent themes run through the different aspects of his work, explorations in one field articulated into another. By the early 1940s he was creating luminous mobile sculptures made from plexiglass and chrome-plated brass; intricate and unbelievably delicate, with their emphasis on light effects, shaped planes and spaces flowing naturally from his paintings, photograms and kinetic sculptures.

If, like me, your knowledge of Moholy-Nagy’s writings was limited to Malerei, Fotografie, Film (1925), you too will be surprised to find that he wrote 14 books and enough manifestos, articles and studies to cover nearly three pages of the sumptuous catalogue. There can be no more fitting summation of the work of this remarkable innovator that the title of his final (and posthumous) book of 1947, Vision in Motion.

Showing at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art 12 February to 18 June 2017