Posted on behalf of Jeff Tollefson
I’m standing in the spiraling rotunda of New York’s Guggenheim Museum, and over me dangles a chaotic mess held together by translucent Plexiglas. In the shadow the sculpture casts on the wall, the shapes converge in a pleasing negative blending intention and happenstance – impossible to predict, yet clearly part of a plan. On evidence, this is an artist thinking experimentally, and in multiple dimensions.
The industrial designer, artist and photographer Lázló Moholy-Nagy (1895-1946) was certainly that. As the Guggenheim’s retrospective Moholy-Nagy: Future Present shows, the Hungarian pioneer of the Bauhaus and beyond worked in a dazzling array of media: film, photography, painting, sculpture, graphic design and typography. But behind the restless eclecticism, he adhered to the unifying theory (with the Constructivists) that art is integral to social transformation and must embrace new technologies. At a time of vast industrial expansion, he declaimed himself as “[n]ot against technological progress, but with it”, championing novel industrial materials — from Formica and aluminium to the Plexiglas in Dual Form with Chromium Rods (1946) in the rotunda. Drawn towards the airy, the transparent and the brilliantly coloured, he was also in love with light and movement: like contemporary Alexander Calder, he engineered moving parts and even electric motors into kinetic sculptures.
The exhibition takes a roughly chronological approach. Moholy-Nagy’s career began in earnest after he was injured in the First World War trenches. Much of the wall space is dedicated to earlier works such as the 1924 A II (Construction A II), an oil-and-graphite canvas in the Constructivist mode, that plays with colour intensity and transparency in rhombi and circles. Small abstract sculptures such as the welded, plated Nickel Sculpture with Spiral (1921) have a machined appearance. Its metal spiral inadvertently echoes the Guggenheim’s internal architecture, reflected on its glass case.
Deeper into the show we encounter Moholy-Nagy’s innovative photographic abstractions, which he called photograms. Developed directly on light-sensitive paper, these images (such as the 1926 Photogram) allowed the capture of objects in outline and even a playful profile of his own head. Other works reveal the artist’s intent to harness the laws of physics. Space III (1940) is an abstract, multi-dimensional work composed of a Plexiglas sheet suspended in front of a white panel. The sheet is delicately etched and pigmented on both sides around an untouched circle, so that light both flows through and casts shadows on the panel. “Light does then what I could not do,” he wrote. “A sparkling, vibrating color effect through the addition of the shadows produce mixtures as no one could on the palette.”
Such materials and artistic approaches are ubiquitous now. But context and intention are critical to this show. There were moments when I felt as if I was in a history museum dedicated to the co-evolution of technology, industry and humanity. Clearly Moholy-Nagy was conscious of his place in time, and his role as interpreter of both past and present. He also sometimes felt he was speaking to the future. “I often had the feeling, when pasting my collages and painting my ‘abstract’ pictures, that I was throwing a message, sealed in a bottle, into the sea,” he wrote in 1944. “It might take decades for someone to find and read it.” Gradually I found myself seeing the avant-garde in the work by focusing on details and juxtaposition.
The Room of the Present offers a full realization of the artists’ vision, meshing space, light and an industrial aesthetic. An exhibition space within an exhibition space, it was never built in his lifetime, but constructed in 2009 based on architectural drawings, some of which are on display. Images of dancers and race cars jostle with those of laboratories and industrial facilities. Soviet filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein’s 1925 silent Battleship Potemkin is on view, but pride of place is given to a replica of Moholy-Nagy’s famous mixed-media kinetic sculpture Light Prop for an Electric Stage (1923-30). Attached to an electric motor and a simple gear box at the base, the collection of discs, springs and rods pivot, twirl and twist as the sculpture turns, casting colours and shadows onto the back of the box.
Moholy-Nagy left Nazi Germany in 1934, landing in Amsterdam, then London and eventually Chicago. There, in 1937, he founded the New Bauhaus, now known as the Institute of Design, at the Illinois Institute of Technology. He called his institute a “laboratory for a new education”, where art, industry and intellectual curiosity could come together to solve human problems, large and small. “If the unity of art can be established with all the subject matters taught and exercised, then a real reconstruction of this world could be hoped for — more balanced and less dangerous,” he wrote at the height of the Second World War, in 1943. Thanks to a little luck, and immigration, he survived both wars and remained an optimist to the end, dying from leukaeumia in 1946.
Among the last pieces on display at the Guggenheim are Nuclear I (1945) and Nuclear II (1946). A response to the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, the colourful globes in both paintings recall nuclear fireballs, frozen in a perpetual state of expansion. Inside are mosaic-like collections of abstract shapes, with faint hints of smoke and mushroom clouds.
The bombings were a low point for the role of science in human affairs, but Moholy-Nagy interpreted the horror in his own way — with a chromatic intensity that speaks of hope amid destruction. In these and so many other works in this stunning exhibition, Moholy-Nagy’s belief in human resilience, as well as his sheer joy in experimenting with ideas, materials and light, shine through.
Jeff Tollefson is a reporter for Nature based in Washington DC. He tweets at @ Moholy-Nagy: Future Present runs at the Guggenheim Museum at 1071 Fifth Avenue in New York through 27 September.
For Nature’s full coverage of science in culture, visit www.nature.com/news/booksandarts.