Malevich And Suprematism Six Essays

Through an eclectic selection of books from the arts, sciences, humanities, and philosophy, the artist Anne-Sophie Coiffet offers an original perspective on “dark matter.” Its meaning varying according to each field, dark matter shares a complex relationship with representation. It can refer to images deriving from the depths of the psyche (the unconscious), from society (oppressed minorities), and from the natural universe (black holes). Dark matter undergirds an imaginary that permeates each field -- a boundless imaginary whose depth “does not require dimensions to exist” (Bachelard, The poetics of Space).

on the shelf

Ad Reinhardt

By Michael Corris

Reaktion Books, 236 pp, $39.95

Black Light

By Pierre Soulages

Arthaus, 51 mins (DVD), $20

Caverns of Night: Coal Mines in Art, Literature, and Film

Edited by William B. Thesing

University of South Carolina Press, 281 pp, $35


Coal: A Memoir and Critique

By Duane Lockard

University of Virginia Press, 225 pp, $15


Dark Matters: On the Surveillance of Blackness

By Simone Browne

Duke University Press, 224 pp, $25 new


Kazimir Malevich: The World as Objectlessness

By Simon Baier, Britta Dümpelmann, and Kazimir Malevich

Hatje Cantz, 216 pp, $40


Malevich on Suprematism: Six Essays 1915-1926

By Malevich

University of Iowa Office of State, 116 pp, $35, used


Margins of Reality: The Role of Consciousness in the Physical World

By Robert G. Jahn and Brenda J. Dunne

ICRL Press, 432 pp, $19.95 new


Roman Opalka

By Roman Opalka

Dis Voir, $70 new


The Poetics of Space

By Gaston Bachelard

Beacon Press, 288 pp, $36


Gregory Sholette, Dark Matter: Art & Politics in the Age of Enterprise Culture

By Gregory Sholette

Pluto Press, 256 pp, $20 new


Robert Smithson: Sculpture

By Robert Hobbs

Smithmark Pub, $40 used


Pierre Soulages: New Paintings

By Pierre Soulages, John Yau, and Alain Badiou

Dominique Lévy/Galerie Perrotin, 96 pp, $40


Spacetime and Geometry: The Alfred Schild Lectures

Edited by Richard A. Matzner and L.C. Shepley

University of Texas Press, 200 pp, $16 new


Three Steps to the Universe: From the Sun to Black Holes to the Mystery of Dark Matter

By David and Richard Garfinkle

The University of Chicago Press, 280 pp, $20 new


Through the Black Hole (U-Ventures)

By Edward Packard

Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, 160 pp, $8


Undermining : A Wild Ride Through Land Use, Politics, and Art in the Changing West

By Lucy R. Lippard

The New Press, 208 pp, $15

About the curator

Anne-Sophie Coiffet is a French artist and a visual art teacher based in Washington D.C. She has a Bachelor’s degree in literature and the history of art, and Masters degrees in theater and aesthetics. She has worked at various cultural institutions and art publications in Sicily, London, Spain and France. Currently, she is working toward a Ph.D. in aesthetics while also producing various graphic, editorial and video projects.

about bookshelves

WPA invites artists to curate a selection on a periodic basis. The first Bookshelves was organized by Bookish, an itinerant artist bookstore run by Shannon Patrick, a MICA graduate, creative director of Bookish Baltimore, professional photographer, and bartender. All of the books are for sale.


"Suprematism has advanced the ultimate tip of the visual pyramid of perspective into infinity.... We see that Suprematism has swept away from the plane the illusions of two-dimensional planimetric space, the illusions of three-dimensional perspective space, and has created the ultimate illusion of irrational space, with its infinite extensibility into the background and foreground."


Suprematism, the invention of Russian artist Kazimir Malevich, was one of the earliest and most radical developments in abstract art. Its name derived from Malevich's belief that Suprematist art would be superior to all the art of the past, and that it would lead to the "supremacy of pure feeling or perception in the pictorial arts." Heavily influenced by avant-garde poets, and an emerging movement in literary criticism, Malevich derived his interest in flouting the rules of language, in defying reason. He believed that there were only delicate links between words or signs and the objects they denote, and from this he saw the possibilities for a totally abstract art. And just as the poets and literary critics were interested in what constituted literature, Malevich came to be intrigued by the search for art's barest essentials. It was a radical and experimental project that at times came close to a strange mysticism. Although the Communist authorities later attacked the movement, its influence was pervasive in Russia in the early 1920s, and it was important in shaping Constructivism, just as it has been in inspiring abstract art to this day.

Key Ideas

The Suprematists' interest in abstraction was fired by a search for the 'zero degree' of painting, the point beyond which the medium could not go without ceasing to be art. This encouraged the use of very simple motifs, since they best articulated the shape and flat surface of the canvases on which they were painted. (Ultimately, the square, circle, and cross became the group's favorite motifs.) It also encouraged many Suprematists to emphasize the surface texture of the paint on canvas, this texture being another essential quality of the medium of painting.

Though much Suprematist art can seem highly austere and serious, there was a strong tone of absurdism running through the movement. One of Malevich's initial inspirations for the movement was zaum, or transrational poetry, of some of his contemporaries, something that led him to the idea of 'zaum painting.'

The Russian Formalists, an important and highly influential group of literary critics, who were Malevich's contemporaries, were opposed to the idea that language is a simple, transparent vehicle for communication. They pointed out that words weren't so easily linked to the objects they denoted. This fostered the idea that art could serve to make the world fresh and strange, art could make us look at the world in new ways. Suprematist abstract painting was aimed at doing much the same, by removing the real world entirely and leaving the viewer to contemplate what kind of picture of the world is offered by, for instance, a Black Square (c. 1915).

Most Important Art

Suprematist Painting, Eight Red Rectangles (1915)

Artist: Kazimir Malevich

The three levels of Suprematism were described by Malevich as black, colored and white. Eight Red Rectangles is an example of the second, more dynamic phase, in which primary colors began to be used. The composition is somewhat ambiguous, since while on the one hand the rectangles can be read as floating in space, as if they were suspended on the wall, they can also be read as objects seen from above. Malevich appears to have read them in the latter way, since at one time he was fascinated by aerial photography. Indeed he later criticized this more dynamic phase of his Suprematist movement as 'aerial Suprematism,' since its compositions tended to echo pictures of the earth taken from the skies, and in this sense departed from his ambitions for a totally abstract, non-objective art. The uneven spacing and slight tilt of the juxtaposed shapes in Eight Red Rectangles, as well as the subtly different tones of red, infuse the composition with energy, allowing Malevich to experiment with his concept of "infinite" space.

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Suprematism Artworks in Focus:

Suprematism Overview Continues Below


Suprematism was an art movement founded in Russia during the First World War. The first hints of it emerged in background and costume sketches that Kazimir Malevich designed in 1913 for Victory Over the Sun, a Futurist opera performed in St. Petersburg. While the drawings still have a clear relationship to Cubo-Futurism (a Russian art movement in which Malevich was prominently involved), the simple shapes that provide a visual foundation for Suprematism appear repeatedly. Rich color is also discarded in favor of black and white, which Malevich later used as a metaphor for creation in his writings. Of particular importance is the Black Square (c. 1915), which became the centerpiece of his new movement.

In 1915, the Russian artists Kseniya Boguslavskaya, Ivan Klyun, Mikhail Menkov, Ivan Puni and Olga Rozanova joined with Kazimir Malevich to form the Suprematist group. Together, they unveiled their new work to the public at 0.10, The Last Futurist Exhibition of Paintings (1915). Their works feature an array of geometric shapes suspended above a white or light-colored background. The variety of shapes, sizes and angles creates a sense of depth in these compositions, making the squares, circles and rectangles appear to be moving in space.

Concepts and Styles

Suprematist painting abandoned realism, which Malevich considered a distraction from the transcendental experience that the art was meant to evoke. Suprematism can be seen as the logical conclusion of Futurism's interest in movement and Cubism's reduced forms and multiple perspectives. The square, which Malevich called "the face of a new art," represented the birth of his new movement, becoming a figurehead to which critics and others artists rallied in support of the new style. But many others accused it of nihilism: the artist and critic Alexandre Benois attacked it as a "sermon of nothingness and destruction."

Malevich published a manifesto to coincide with the 1915 exhibition, called From Cubism and Futurism to Suprematism in Art. He claimed to have passed beyond the boundaries of reality into a new awareness. With this, the motifs in his paintings narrowed to include only the circle, square and rectangle. Critics have sometimes interpreted these motifs as references to mystical ideas, and some of Malevich's more florid pronouncements seem to offer support for this: of his use of the circle, he said, "I have destroyed the ring of the horizon and escaped from the circle of things"; and he talked of the Black Square as "a living, royal infant." But, in fact, Malevich scorned symbolism: for him, the motifs were only building blocks, the most fundamental elements in painting, or, as he put it, "the zero of form."

Malevich divided the progression of Suprematism into three stages: "black," "colored," and "white." The black phase marked the beginnings of the movement, and the 'zero degree' of painting, as exemplified by Black Square. The colored stage, sometimes referred to as Dynamic Suprematism, focused on the use of color and shape to create the sensation of movement in space. This was pursued in depth by Ilya Chasnik, El Lissitzky and Alexander Rodchenko; El Lissitzky was particularly influenced by Malevich and developed his own personal style of Suprematism, which he called 'Proun'. The culmination of Suprematism can be seen in the white stage, exhibited by Malevich during the Tenth State Exhibition: Non-objective Creation and Suprematism in 1919. His masterpiece, White on White (1918), dispensed with form entirely, representing only "the idea." This work provoked responses from other artists that led to new ventures, such as Alexander Rodchenko's Constructivist exploration of the roles of specific materials in his Black on Black series (1919).

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Later Developments

As time went on, the movement's spiritual undertones increasingly defined it, and although these put it in jeopardy following the Russian Revolution of 1917, the tolerant attitude of the early Communists ensured that its influence continued. By the late 1920s, however, attitudes had changed, and the movement lost much of its popularity at home, especially after being condemned by the Stalinists. Between 1919 and 1927, Malevich stopped painting altogether to devote himself to his theoretical writings, and following a long hiatus, he even returned to representational painting.

Although Malevich's esoteric concepts prevented the movement itself from gaining widespread appeal, their implications have been far-reaching in the realm of abstract art. Indeed, his desire to create a transcendental art, one that can help viewers reach a higher understanding, is an aspiration one can trace in much later abstract art. It is present in the ideas Wassily Kandinsky outlines in his book Concerning the Spiritual in Art (1912), as well as the Theosophy-inspired geometric abstraction of Piet Mondrian.

The introduction of Suprematism to the West during a 1927 Berlin exhibition was well-received, sparking interest throughout Europe and the United States. Alfred Barr later brought several of Malevich's Suprematist works to the Museum of Modern Art in New York, where they were included in Cubism and Abstract Art (1936), a groundbreaking exhibition that greatly influenced American modernism. Lissitzky played a key role in the promotion of Suprematism outside of Russia, having previously exhibited Proun works that left a deep impression on László Moholy-Nagy, and possibly even Kandinsky. El Lissitzky later used Suprematist forms and concepts to great effect in graphic design and architecture, which helped to shape the Constructionist movement. Today, these echoes are still seen in contemporary architecture, most famously in the recent "Suprematist" work of Zaha Hadid.

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