Where do you go after the Black Square? Following Malevich’s innovations, the story of suprematism is the narrative of the search for revolutionary geometries capable of expressing an emerging society in a radical artistic language.
The black lines and red circles, the floating forms and complex geometries, have become familiar – revived in everything from 1980s pop graphics to postmodern fashion and jewellery. But some of the most fascinating experiments of the era took place when architects attempted to translate a form developed specifically to flatten the painted plane back into three dimensions – into sculptures, buildings and visionary cities.
In the work of one remarkable designer, Lazar Khidekel (1904-86), we can see hints of what these experiments might have turned into had political reaction and technological backwardness not interceded. Khidekel was selected by Marc Chagall at the age of 14 to study at the Vitebsk school of art, where he came under the influence of Malevich and El Lissitzky. By the age of 16, the prodigious Khidekel was turning out striking, fully mature suprematist works, many of which are on show at a small but illuminating exhibition at London’s Pushkin House, Building Drawings, Drawing Buildings: Lazar Khidekel, Suprematism and the Russian Avant-Garde. Some are heavily indebted to his masters but others, notably “Black Suprematism” (1920), reveal a free manner with ink and a subtle building-up of the painted surface, which presage the bold, minimalist works on paper by Richard Serra and others half a century later.
Khidekel was responsible for some of the earliest translations of suprematist language into architectural form. A sports club and the workers’ club for a Leningrad shipyard caused waves in the west. Next, Khidekel began designing visionary cities, floating grids and complex “cosmic” structures somewhere between space stations and megastructures, the kind of utopian urbanism advocated in the 1950s and 1960s by avant-gardists such as Yona Friedman, Constant Nieuwenhuys and Superstudio. But Khidekel was there in the 1920s, barely out of his teens.
The mix of original works and slightly ropey digital prints here does not do great service to the best of this magical creator, while the clunkily classical constructions he inevitably turned to during the Stalinist years are omitted. But there is plenty to inspire. Khidekel is barely known compared with his now-stellar contemporaries, yet in his fusing of art, architecture and urbanism, he remains arguably the most visionary of them all.
Pushkin House, London, until September 27, pushkinhouse.org