Moholy-Nagy: Future Present is the title of a dazzling exhibition, co-curated by the LA County Museum of Art, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, and the Art Institute of Chicago. The 300 paintings, drawings, collages, photographs, graphics and other works demonstrate the extraordinary versatility and innovative brilliance of a Hungarian-born artist, who was part of the international avant-garde in Weimar-era Berlin, and an influential Bauhaus teacher. Like so many exiles from Nazi Germany, he moved to the U.S., leavening its provincial culture, and opening the New Bauhaus in Chicago in 1939.
There’s a handsome, richly illustrated catalogue, published by Yale University Press, to serve as a scholarly introduction to Moholy-Nagy (1985-1946), and nobody who cares about modern art and design should miss the last presentation of the exhibition at LACMA through June 18. It’s unlikely that so many works of this artist will ever be shown together again, and the subtly understated installation by Johnston Marklee is a model of its kind.
Works are grouped chronologically and by theme, and Moholy-Nagy seems, from the start, to have achieved a mastery of abstract composition, under the influence of Dada and the Russian Constructivists. These sharp-edged geometries embody the shock of the new, an upheaval amid the ruins of the old. “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive/And to be young was very heaven,” wrote Wordsmith of the turmoil following the French Revolution. In the 1920s, euphoria was kindled by the overthrow of empires and the false dawn of the Bolshevik coup, a dream that swiftly became a nightmare.
Moholy-Nagy and his colleagues at the Bauhaus were intent on creating a brave new world in which all the arts would find novel forms of expression, and new technologies would be harnessed to bring good design to the masses. His experiments with photograms, which convey the shadows of objects placed on light-sensitive paper, photomontages, typography and metal constructions reveal a restless mind, constantly experimenting. All these ideas come together in the Room of the Present, a total work of art conceived in 1930 and only now receiving its American debut. —Michael Webb