Crowded Squares and Empty Shadows

John Haber
in New York City

Alexander Rodchenko

Enough art: I was desperate to get out of town.

By the time I caught the bus at the Port Authority, I had already left New York's cultural diversity far behind. It happened half a mile back. Running late, I had hit Herald Square like a brick wall, only each brick had a rapid motion all its own. Wedged between discount stores and superstores, I and the other bricks elbowed our way inch by inch to the other side.

Half a century earlier and half a world away, Alexander Rodchenko photographed another public square, from a vantage high above. Alexander Rodchenko's Spatial Construction #12 (Museum of Modern Art, c. 1920)The Soviet artist's viewpoint cuts off the far end of the street, and buildings to either side leave no other way out. The casual shadows come from men, assembling for the forced pretense of a socialist rally. The camera looks down on them all, with a diminishing not only of scale but of humanity.

Instead of an escape from the crowd, Rodchenko's detachment left him trapped. At the end of his career as an artistic leader, he saw only shadows and empty spaces.

Between them, the two squares describe the problem of creative art now. After a century of squares, some of them on canvas, does modern art have what it takes to hold out for more? And who is going to pay for it?

Paradoxically, the summer's most invigorating exhibition looks at Rodchenko's poignant career. And just as oddly, the best defense of government's role in supporting art may start in the Soviet Union, with government at its most horrific. It is time to square off.

The joy ride

The Russian revolution offered artists a joy ride. They took the lead, actually creating modernity. Rodchenko's poignant retrospective carries one on that ride, from its scary heights to its terrible crash landing.

Today, a decade after Neo-Geo, Kazimir Malevich and Liubov Popova still do not look tongue in cheek. They create only squares and lines, with a searing insensitivity to a painting's texture. Their surfaces have suffered badly over time. Yet Malevich's white square on a square, white background make me soar and float unlike any work I can name. And soon after, Popova made constructions so solid that Fernand Léger with his skyscrapers would have been jealous.

Selections from those first, glorious abstract paintings make a great frame as one enters Rodchenko's show. They discarded frames anyhow, so one may as well enter to see whatever is left. And what is left is Russian Modernism's tragedy. If their work stood to modern art and the Soviet Union as prophecies of freedom, Rodchenko had to live with its realization.

Rodchenko's idealism, unlike Malevich's, rests on an instinct for beauty. That explains his appeal to many people put off by his great precursors. When Rodchenko paints something as ideologically inspired as a flag, its whiteness throws lovely shadows amid a shimmering black. The same shadows, cast by his only surviving sculpture, dance near the ceiling of a tremendous, sad, and chilling retrospective.

Rodchenko took the pulse of a nation advancing from dreams of freedom into terror, but he never lets go of its dreams. Like Anthony Blunt, the great art historian and Soviet spy, he backs a horrible system while maintaining his dedication to art and ideas. His idealism is plain enough, in fact, when he gives up painting. If followers of Clement Greenberg predicted the end of art history from time to time, Rodchenko just went ahead and did it. He painted three canvases in red, yellow, and blue, deepened them in varnish, said it is finished, and quit.

Then he had to survive after art, very much like a painter today. A utopia literally stands nowhere, as critics of American pragmatism have argued, and nowhere is just where he had to go.

The crash landing

First Rodchenko's wild, rigorous eye moved on to posters, collage, design, and photography with a command of cutting-edge art at home and in Europe that look ahead to Sheila Pinkel and beyond. Some posters fall flat, in more ways than one, but perhaps that reflects his mixed feelings about his nowhere. Leading the arts under NEP, Lenin's New Economic Policy, he had to help loosen socialism to compete with a market-driven world abroad. Mixed feelings suit a mixed economy, just as in art today.

Alexander Rodchenko's Stairs (Sepherot Foundation, 1929–1930)He had made his first compromises. And then, after more compromises and many deaths, Rodchenko faced Stalinism. Had he negotiated so well from lone artist to art's bureaucrat? Now he had something more frightening in store. Still a power in the arts, he no doubt had the Soviet equivalent of grant applications on his desk all the time. They became art's paper promises.

I feel, rightly or wrongly, powerful emotions in his late work, as early Soviet photography suffered its setbacks under Stalin. Perhaps I feel only his disappointments, a nation's violent tragedy, and a quieter tragedy for anyone's ideals. I may be reading something into his work that is not there. But I feel it all the same, in part because Rodchenko's sense of beauty only intensified in black and white.

From his late photographs, one remembers first something as simple as a woman's face. Where the early flag painting glowed even in black, the photograph makes the light upon her into a harsh, isolated shadow. Rodchenko's look at her face parallels his viewpoint at that mass rally. In both photographs, he could never again come down from his isolation. He could never again put his feet on the ground and look another person in the eye.

Early in his career, Rodchenko had abandoned painting as a dead end, even as others in his country pushed Modernism into stage design. Like postmodern critics now, he thought of abstract art in those glory days of Modernism as living-room decor for the wealthy, and he determined long ago to tear down the walls. Like the revolution, he knew what private funding can mean for untold millions.

Now, at the end of his career, like modern art after a century, he showed the revolution as just one more dead end. The men at the rally mime the socialist ideal of a class acting as one. Ironically, the ideal left people unable to speak truthfully and to connect.

Back to square one

An art critic in Herald Square and an artist under Stalin—can I really compare them? It sounds like blasphemy. It practically denies mass slaughter. Yet each public square stands for a system pushed past its limits, beyond its promises of creative freedom.

If I had seen Stalinism at the Modern, I had felt the market at work on West 34th Street. I do not mean only the tacky, commercial setting or the chaos. I do not mean only those thousands of independent acts leading to the same place—and the same few choices. I mean also how few of those choices I shall ever see again.

Neither I nor any New Yorker I know had set foot in that tawdry intersection for as long as I can remember. Certainly not voluntarily. Leave it to tourists looking for Santa up at Macy's. Yet where else could I find so many people? The four-story malls and megastores obviously had the same idea. Yes, Virgin Records, there is a Santa Claus.

One day down the line, any concentration of capital, from retailing to the arts, ends up in its own Herald Square. Most people may not like what they get, not at first, but then why target most people? There are too many of them, all with prickly, petty desires. Go for the massive, if tiny, minority. The rest, with luck, will follow when they see the choices—and catch the ads on TV. If not, those are the risks.

So for a nation of immigrants bred on German lager and British ales, it is Miller time. So The New Yorker starts to lose money hand over foot trying to expand its audience. So radio plays the same dozen songs, even as it boasts of how few commercials it attracts. And so the art world faces a problem.

The problem is not creating choices. Artists will always do that, even as the choices grow less and less distinct. It is nurturing diversity more than images of a Soviet nightmare. By the time art's microbrews make a comeback, it may be too late. They may offer only passing pleasures for a deadened elite.

We will bury you

I have written elsewhere in defense of the National Endowment for the Arts. Writing soon after a Robert Mapplethorp retrospective, I stressed the myths behind talk of a free market and the lone, creative artist. An economist, David Galenson, has linked them explicitly.

I shall lay it on the line: art needs government money and will have it. It always does, as long as tax laws and subsidies underlie education, business, and nonprofit institutions. I see little value in demeaning direct connections by hiding these indirect ones amid free-market jargon.

Government's role in the arts stays conservative, too, however. It does not matter that the NEA, contrary to myth, rarely endorses art. It funds local groups to promote teaching, audiences, and art yet unmade. Still, every elite knows what it wants, and the arts can pander to it, just as to the masses.

And what does that leave? How does one get from Red Square or Herald Square to the half-deserted streets of Chelsea or a quiet evening at the Met?

Money stands for power. Private purchases or government grants, each permits freedom and yet each carries weight. Of course that weight can bury people. Art thrived—and failed—before a division between public and private even existed, and it will thrive and fail again. But how? Has the debate over the NEA forgotten to ask?

All support for the arts carries weight, and each weight tugs in its own way. And no way, no art, can hope to disentangle public and private—as constraints, as an artist's genius or identity, as means of support. Contrast not two distinct realms, but many connections. This summer's exhibitions show all too well the ambivalent connections between private and public support for art.


Up at the Guggenheim Museum, big money continues to pull weight. A show of motorcycles amounts to my Herald Square, even if Buckminster Fuller and Isamu Noguchi once collaborated on a minibus. It does some things well. For example, it puts in perspective the divisions between fine art and the rest of the world, between decoration and function. However, the attack on fine art loses its roots—in Rodchenko's Russia, Bauhaus, Le Corbusier, and the other modernist utopias. The show fills the museum with record crowds and overshadows it with a corporate banner.

Around New York City, a retrospective of Tony Smith recalls the grand aims of late Modernism. Public and private money both started to flow after World War II. An artist could hope to transform at once the modern museum and a corporate front lawn, but he could still have some fun along the way. Last, Rodchenko looks to a utopia scarier than either the Bauhaus or the free market. His retrospective traces an artist who made shadows dance as he became more and more trapped in his country's darkness.

Which show succeeds the most? At the close of the twentieth century one hardly expects the Medicis, however often big museum donors take on the label. That still leaves some strange combinations. Three tough, flawed shows. Three tough, flawed choices.

I might put my money on the Russian, for all that he gambled and lost. Or maybe I might ask only that each choice be understood. History and society, government and private life—all involve the desires of millions with intricate connections and harrowing loneliness. Rodchenko reminds me that art funding lies necessarily somewhere in the murky space between public and private, just like art.

Any funding source invests in promises. A grant application sits as just another résumé on the desk of just another museum curator or art teacher. All one can say is that the investment is in a person, not a good, and that the promise holds out something that no one has ever seen. It gambles that teaching, studying, and making art will pay off one day in greater public and private acclaim than bartending or flipping hamburgers.

Rodchenko's history reminds me that art died not when money, government, and power came into play. It died with an open society. The NEA is a danger. It is also an essential way to break holes in the walls. Without enough holes, a market economy can no longer speak sincerely about an open society. Without them, art cannot see past public spaces into individual lives.

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The retrospective of Alexander Rodchenko ran at The Museum of Modern Art through October 6, 1998.


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