Moholy-Nagy at the Guggenheim

By Peggy Roalf   Thursday May 26, 2016

“The limits of photography cannot be determined. Everything is so new here that even the search leads to creative results... It is not the person ignorant of writing but the one ignorant of photography who will be the illiterate of the future." --László Moholy-Nagy

This maxim of László Moholy-Nagy, made famous by Walter Benjamin in his writings, is rooted in the artist’s search for new art forms for the industrial age that emerged out of World War I. Moholy-Nagy grappled with the laws of matter—spurred on by the introduction of new building materials, such as Plexiglas and Titanium—that would subsume the laws of nature that informed the art of painting. 

Fundamentally a painter, he developed a teaching program at the Bauhaus Dessau in 1923, based on the unity of art and technology. Moholy-Nagy set out to prove the ascendency of technology through his Constructions in Enamel, known as the Telephone Series. He claimed to have ordered them by describing the designs over the telephone to a local sign-painting company, emphasizing his distance from the manufacturing process that produced them and the degree of technological mediation involved. In doing so, Moholy-Nagy highlighted the conception of the image as transferable data, and identified the artist in the modern age as producer of ideas rather than things.

Together with his wife, photographer Lucia Moholy, he developed a series of camera-less photograms that were combined with 3-D photomontages in Plexiglas. These were the precursors of his experiments in photography and cinema. In his influential book Malerei, Fotografie, Film (Painting, Photography, Film), Moholy-Nagy asserted that photography and cinema had heralded a "culture of light" that had overtaken the most innovative aspects of painting. By the end of the 1930s he had created Light Prop for an Electric Stage, a kinetic sculpture for the theatre composed of color, light and movement. This machine for performance art consisted of a glass and polished metal mechanism that created an illumination sequence created by 116 colored light bulbs flashing on and off. 

Tomorrow, Moholy-Nagy: Future Present, a major retrospective of the artist, opens at the Guggenheim Museum. The exhibition highlights his emphasis on the increasingly interdisciplinary and multimedia work and practice that emerged between the wars, and his ability to move fluidly between the fine and applied arts. A separate space, Room of the Present, a contemporary fabrication of a space originally conceived by Moholy-Nagy in 1930 but never realized during his lifetime, includes a 2006 replica of Light Prop for an Electric Stage. The exhibition runs from May 27-September 8, then travels to The Art Institute of Chicago and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, 1071 Fifth Avenue, NY, NY. Info Related public programs, including films, curator tours, and lectures run through September 6. Info
Above: Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, Room of the Present (Raum der Gegenwart), constructed in 2009 from plans and other documentation dated 1930. Installation view: Play Van Abbe – Part 2: Time Machines, Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven, April 10–September 12, 2010. Courtesy Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum.

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