The Art Institute of Chicago touts László Moholy-Nagy as “the most renowned international modern artist” ever to reside in Chicago.
It’s a heady and provocative assertion, but one that easily stands up to scrutiny, as evidenced by the more than 300 of the Hungarian-born artist’s multimedia works in an immersive, in-depth retrospective that runs through Jan. 3 at the museum.
‘Moholy-Nagy: Future Present’ Through Jan. 3 Art Institute of Chicago, 111 S. Michigan Free with regular museum admission Info: artic.edu
Although Moholy-Nagy might not have the popular appeal of some of the artists who receive showcases of this scale, this show, subtitled “Future Present,” emphatically reasserts his place as one of 20th century art’s prime innovators and thinkers.
Other exhibitions in recent decades have tended to focus on one facet or another of his output, which encompassed painting, drawing, sculpture, design and film, but this one ably captures the breadth of his creations and how they interrelate.
“This is the first full retrospective in nearly 50 years in this country,” said Matthew Witkovsky, chair and curator of the Art Institute’s department of photography. “We’re really trying to give fair attention to all the areas in which he contributed.”
Proceeding in part from his earlier work in Central European modernism, Witkovsky organized this exhibition with two curators from the Guggenheim Museum in New York and Los Angeles County Museum of Art, where it will travel subsequently. “It seemed like as natural a fit for me as for Chicago to do this show,” he said.
The far-reaching offering draws on loans from dozens of public and private collections across the world, including the artist’s estate, which is overseen by his oldest daughter, Hattula, who resides in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
Largely a self-taught artist, Maholy-Nagy (1895-1946) came to Berlin in 1920, serving first as a correspondent for the art journal, MA (Today) and then teaching in 1923-28 at the Bauhaus, a transformative school of modernist art and design.
Among the best-known facets of his output are more than 400 photograms, a term he coined in 1925. These ghostly looking images are made by exposing objects directly on light-sensitive materials such as photographic paper without the use of a camera. Examples here range from the constructivist “Photogram” (1922), one of his earliest, to “Photogram” (1939), which Witkovsky termed a “radical mystery” because of the unknown processes involved in it.
Fleeing the Nazis, Maholy-Nagy finally settled in Chicago in 1937, where he established and led what became known informally as the Chicago Bauhaus, an institution patterned after its German forbear that later became the Institute of Design at the Illinois Institute of Technology.
The exhibition proceeds in a loosely chronological fashion, beginning with his earliest essays in constructivism and dadaism, such as the crisply rendered geometric abstraction on raw canvas, “Ackerfelderbild (Tilled Fields Painting)” (1920-21).
Roughly divided into two sections, with a screening room for his experimental films serving as a link between the two, the physical configuration mirrors the evolution of Moholy-Nagy’s work, which became increasingly involved with curvilinear sculpture and space. The first rooms are compact and square, while the final gallery is defined by a sweeping 240-foot curved partition – a startling sight in a museum where perpendicular walls are the norm.
Highlights along the way include a room devoted to 40 or so of the artist’s still surprisingly fresh photomontages, the first-ever complete display of the six extant, perspective-warping 1928-29 photos of the Berlin Radio Tower and a 2009 re-creation of his unrealized, futuristic “Room of the Present,” which he designed in 1930 for a museum in Hannover, Germany.
Along one wall in the final gallery is what Witkovsky called a “blown-up book,” a 10-foot tall, 48-foot-long vinyl panel. It employs Moholy-Nagy’s bold design aesthetic and further elucidates the artist’s ideas via quotes from his extensive writings and the words of others.
Much of the work of this ever-enthusiastic champion of the new still looks and feels amazingly contemporary, because of his transcension of any one medium, his enthusiastic embrace of new technologies and materials like Plexiglas and his pursuit of collaborative and mechanical ways of art-making.
Indeed, as the show’s catalog points out, many contemporary artists have drawn inspiration from him, especially since the advent of the Internet, which Moholy-Nagy would have relished, and the renewal of interest in abstraction in the late 1990s in both painting and photography. The list includes Olafur Eliasson, Alison Rossiter and Thomas Ruff.
Moholy-Nagy was hardly an unknown figure, but this probing exhibition shines welcome new light on him and his far-reaching accomplishments. “Are there ways left to appreciate him?” Witkovsky said, “Things left to say and learn? I found that are in spades.”
Kyle MacMillan is a local freelance writer.