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Triple Echo - The Malevich/Reinhardt/Hotere Nexus

Triple Echo

The Malevich/Reinhardt/Hotere Nexus

By Howard Davis

'Jean Michel Massing, Towards a Global Art History,' co-edited by Mark Stocker, Curator of Historical International Art at Te Papa, is obviously a labour of love, handsomely produced with over 100 illustrations. It is a Festschrift to honour Massing's retirement as Professor of the History of Art at King's College, Cambridge, and contains twenty-one essays by colleagues and former students, reflecting the many fields of research that he explored throughout his academic career. Defying strictly linear, spatio-temporal trajectories, the global aspect of Massing’s oeuvre binds together a variety of topics, paying homage to the interdisciplinary nature of his approach to the field of art history. It is Stocker's own contribution that will be most salient to Kiwis, a perspicacious study of Molly Macalister’s imposing and controversial 'Maori Warrior' sculpture in Auckland, entitled 'Maori, Modernism and Monumentality'.

The current juxtaposition of works by Ralph Hotere and Ad Reinhardt at Te Papa perfectly exemplifies Massing's preoccupation with the transmigration of imagery in a remarkable triple echo effect. A New Zealand artist of Maori descent is exposed to a lecture in London by a leading American Abstract Expressionist, whose primary inspiration is the work of pioneering Russian avant-garde artist Kazimir Malevich. The resulting transcontinental repercussions and reverberations permanently impacted twentieth-century painting with the force of a thunderclap.

Ralph Hotere
Black Painting 1968
(Collection of the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery, New Plymouth)

Malevich was a devout Christian mystic who believed the central task of an artist was to render spiritual feeling. His highly geometric and abstract works laid the foundations of the Suprematist movement, as outlined in his manifesto 'From Cubism to Suprematism.' He exhibited his first 'Black Square' at the 'Last Futurist Exhibition' in Petrograd in 1915. A second 'Black Square' was painted around 1923 and some believe a third was painted in 1929 due to the poor condition of the 1915 square. One more 'Black Square,' the smallest and probably the last, may have been intended as a diptych with his 'Red Square' for the 1932 exhibition 'Artists of the RSFSR: 15 Years,' in which the two squares were the centerpiece. This final square is believed to have been created in the late twenties or early thirties, despite the date '1913' written on the back. As Malevich lay dying in 1935, a 'Black Square' was mounted above over his deathbed and mourners at his funeral waved a banner also bearing a black square. They failed, however, to fulfill his final wish - for his grave to be topped with an 'architekton,' one of towering abstract maquettes, equipped with a telescope through which visitors could gaze at Jupiter. Instead, his friends and disciples buried his ashes in a grave marked with a black square.

Taking his inspiration directly from Malevich, Ad Reinhardt was a major influence on Conceptual and Minimal art, claiming he painted the "last paintings" that anyone can paint. He believed in a philosophy he termed "Art-as-Art," using his writing and satirical cartoons to advocate against what he described as "the disreputable practices of artists-as-artists". Reinhardt devoted his final years almost exclusively to the creation of the 'Black Paintings' (1953-67) - uniform five-foot squares, some composed with a ghostly Greek cross hovering in a mist of barely distinguished black and gray hues. He felt they represented the ultimate in abstract painting, being concerned with art alone and bearing no reference to anything outside themselves, not even the suggestions of soulful angst in much Abstract Expressionist art.

In fact, none of the Reinhardt's paintings were ever completely black, but rather consisted of a careful arrangement of tonalities meticulously applied in multiple layers. Although he sought to remove all references to the external world from his pictures, he remained convinced his art had the potential to affect social change. For Reinhardt, black was the ultimate abstraction, its purity both consuming and transcending every other possible shape and colour. Like Malevich, he was fascinated by various aspects of mysticism, believing his 'Black Paintings' were the absolute zero of art, developing this concept in his theoretical writings, and connecting it to such esoteric philosophies as Negation Theology, Neo-Platonism, and Zen Buddhism.

Ralph Hotere
Black painting XV 1970
(Collection of the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa)

Ralph Hotere was brought up in a devout Catholic family and his elegant, sophisticated window works reveal the sensibility of a supremely talented decorative artist. Steeped in Marist theology, sacramentalism, and iconography, he was imbued with a sense of the sacred from which he would continue to draw inspiration throughout his life. From this deeply religious heritage, mystical themes naturally inform his work, as James K. Baxter (himself a Catholic convert and one of several poets with whom Hotere collaborated) would have immediately grasped.

In 1961, Hotere travelled to London, where he studied at the Central School of Art and Design, and from 1962-64 he toured Europe, witnessing first hand the development of the Pop and Op Art movements. In1968, he began the series of works for which he is best known, also dubbed the 'Black Paintings,' in which black pigment is used almost exclusively. In some works, strips of colour are placed against stark black backgrounds in a style reminiscent of Barnett Newman. In others, simple crosses appear in the gloom, black on black. Though certainly minimalist, these works possess a redolent poetry, invoking the perennial mysteries of spiritual transcendence, religion, and death.

Astute critics were not slow to liken their extreme reductivism to Reinhardt, whose 1964 lecture at London's Institute of Contemporary Art Hotere apparently missed, but nonetheless quoted in the catalogue of his 'Zero' show at the Barry Lett Gallery in 1967. But while Reinhardt intended his paintings of the late fifties and early sixties to be entirely self-referential, using monochromatic colour and geometric shapes to elicit a meditative response from the viewer, Hotere often refers to the outside world and frequently incorporates written texts in his work. His shiny, reflective, lacquered surfaces - each featuring a perfectly-centered, sharp, slit-like cross painted in one of the seven colours of the spectrum - are in some ways the antithesis of Reinhardt's self-effacing images. Nevertheless, the direct lineage of influence is undeniably evident, albeit as a reaction to or adaptation of Reinhardt's work, rather than simply mimicking it - and what would be the point of that?

Ralph Hotere
Black Phoenix 1984-88
(Collection of the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa)

The themes of Hotere's 'Black Paintings' extend to his later works, notably the colossal 'Black Phoenix' (1984-88), constructed out of the burnt remains of a fishing boat. This major installation incorporated the boat's prow flanked by burnt planks of wood, with other planks forming a pathway leading the prow. Each plank had a strip laid bare to reveal the natural wood underneath and several of the boards are inscribed with the Maori proverb, 'Ka hinga atu he tete-kura haramai he tete-kura' - "As one fern frond (person) dies, one is born to take its place". Hotere made a slight, but highly significant change in the wording, replacing "haramai" (to transfer or pass over) with "ara mai" (the path forward).

Comparing the work of Malevich, Reinhardt, and Hotere from this perspective, I can't think of a better illustration of Jean Michel Massing's central concern - the international migration of artistic imagery, themes, and motifs, as the inspiration and basis for the development of a global history of art.

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