Disclaimer: I am not an art history major or an artist; I just really like 20th century art.
My favorite Russian artist (or artist in general actually) is Kazimir Malevich, and my favorite work from him is the iconic Black Square. I was so lucky in my time in Russia to be able to see two versions of Black Square in Russia—one at Tretyakovsky Gallery in Moscow and the other at the General Staff Building of the Hermitage in St Petersburg.
Malevich writes in his book, The Non-Objective World (1927), that “in the year 1913, trying desperately to free art from the dead weight of the real world, I took refuge in the form of the square.”
I love this. The first version of Black Square came about in 1915, two years before the Russian Revolution of 1917 at the very start of the modernist art movement. Before Black Square, most Russian art was portraiture and landscapes. Art that had to be something.
And Malevich kind of turns this on its head and says, “What about painting nothing?”
Malevich hauntingly writes that Black Square is “the experience of pure non-objectivity in the white emptiness of a liberated nothing” (The Non Objective World).
To me this begs the questions: What does it mean to paint nothing? What is nothing? What does nothing look like? What happens when you stare into nothing? Can nothing exist without something?
He writes further that Suprematism, the art form created from Black Square is the “supremacy of pure artistic feeling” as opposed to being bound to visual depiction (The Non Objective World).
When I define art as something from which deep feeling is evoked, I interpret this statement as something almost Platonic, a depiction of the underlying feeling beyond all forms and behind all beauty. I see Black Square as a removal of the “evokers” and simply a portrait of deep feeling.
As a pianist, I can feel, for example, when listening to a musical performance if there’s something special behind it. It’s some energy, evoked from the work itself, that connects with me—draws me in.
To me Black Square is a visual representation of whatever that energy is in all its ambiguity and possibility. Black Square can be so much or it can be nothing and the fact that that duality can exist at the same time is incredibly moving.
When I look at Black Square, I see possibility.
It’s bold in its stark rejection of what came before and in this way seems to historically provide a haunting precursor to the coming revolution and immense political change.
And personally, I suppose one of the reasons Malevich continues to mean so much to me is because the work was first introduced to me by my father and thus serves as a deep connection I share with my dad, also an artist, and a kind of conjunction of our shared love of art and my own love for Russian language and culture.