"X" marks the spot in László Moholy-Nagy’s best work. From the paintings he made when he first embraced abstraction in 1921 through his graphic design and his three-dimensional sculpture to the Plexiglas experiments he created at the end of his life, Moholy-Nagy focused our attention at intersections where forces cross and collide. A traveling exhibition that surveys his work—currently on view at the Art Institute of Chicago through Jan. 2 after a stint at the Guggenheim Museum in New York, and on its way to the Los Angeles Museum of Art (Feb. 12–June 18, 2017)—shows how he found things crossing and even coming together in an era in which everything seemed to be coming apart.
According to the exhibition's excellent catalog published by the Art Institute of Chicago, Moholy-Nagy made up his name by combining the name of the village where he grew up with that of a family friend. He was largely self-taught, which makes it all the more remarkable how many different media he mastered. Starting as a painter, Moholy-Nagy produced early experiments of automatic production, in which he described his works over the telephone to a foreman at a paint factory while both of them were looking at a gridded paper (he described the process as “like playing chess”). He also produced camera-less photographs he called photograms, made by exposing photographic paper with objects placed on or near the sheet. He also worked as a graphic designer and filmmaker, an exhibition and set designer, a sculptor, and even a light artist. In all of those forms, Moholy-Nagy produced works that are not only powerful enough to command our attention today, but also were central to the development of our modern notions of graphic and set design, and even architecture. I sense echoes of his sensibility in organizing grids, dynamic diagonals, and mechanistic imagery in the work of countless designers in the present day, even if he had no direct imitators or followers.
Those reverberations in modern art and design across Europe and the United States also emanated from his work as a teacher and administrator. Starting when he took over the Foundation Course at the Bauhaus in 1923 through his founding of the various schools that later morphed into the Illinois Institute of Technology, Moholy-Nagy was an institutional agitator whose work was as much about the intersection of people as it was of forms. He published books, edited magazines, and devised theories of art that sought to both document and guide the forms coming out of a world of cars and airplanes, electric light, mass production, and mass movements.
Wandering through the exhibition, I only wished that he had gone the one extra step of making architecture. Perhaps the compromises involved in making buildings were too limiting for him; certainly his work is already a notional architecture that structures space. Moholy-Nagy made the forms that were inherent in architecture, and left it up to his students to continue his explorations in whatever medium they chose.
Geometry animated Moholy-Nagy’s work: not squares, rectangles, cubes, or circles and globes, but diagonals and spirals, as well as, later in life, the whiplashes and unquantifiable curves of three-dimensional shapes evoking the body. The artist found these shapes all around him, in public spaces, movies, machinery, and in the geometry of bridges. (One bridge in particular, the railroad bridge in Marseilles, was a favorite of Moholy-Nagy's best friend, Siegfried Giedion, who took him to see it.) Moholy-Nagy lifted and used these shapes, either by painting versions of them or collaging photographs he found in magazines and advertisements together. That form of assembly became his preferred mode for most of his life. He set up an order and then populated the resulting space—on canvas, in a graphic design, on photographic paper, or in whatever media he chose—with images he cut out from magazines. His graphic design work made the order evident in red and black lines, setting up a framework. Those red and black lines in all their clarity then accepted the particularities of whatever typed messages or advertising imagery filled in the blank space.
Moholy-Nagy made art that was at the core of modernism, using the new materials, technologies, and modes of appearance that developed after the First World War to create art that celebrates the era’s possibilities and exhilaration. There is little, in other words, in Moholy-Nagy’s work that evidences that violence that was also part of the societies in which he lived, and which drove him from the Bauhaus, then Berlin, then Amsterdam, then London and finally to Chicago, where he died of leukemia in 1946. There is only pure joy in his work and in this exhibition, whether it be in the lines that always point beyond the page or canvas or the wood hand models he made with his students, each an exploration of the craft and sensuality of making. Moholy-Nagy’s work is still as vital and fills us with as much joy today as it did then, and I hope many an architect will again find inspiration in this exhibition of Moholy-Nagy’s art.