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Cover: Self-Portrait with Hand, 1925/29, printed 1940/49 Gelatin silver print 23.7 x 17.7 cm (9 ¼ x 7 inch) Galerie Berinson, Berlin
INTRODUCTION Elemental Marks
GALLERY Geometric Dream Geometry and figure
Architecture (Eccentric Construction) 1921 Oil, metallic paint, and graphite on burlap 29 3/4 x 19 1/4 inches (75.6 x 48.9 cm) Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum
â&#x20AC;&#x153;A consideration of writing also means paying attention to all sorts of graphic marks.â&#x20AC;?
INTRODUCTION Elemental Marks Mark Witkovsky
1.The principal repositories of Moholy’s correspondence and manuscripts, all consulted for this essay, are the Sibyl and László Moholy-Nagy Papers at the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.; the Papers of Marianne Brandt, Walter Dexel, Walter Gropius, László Moholy-Nagy, Lucia Moholy, and Alexander Rath at the Bauhaus-Archiv Berlin; the Sigfried Giedion Papers, Archives of the GIA, Institute for the History and Theory of Architecture, ETH Zurich (hereafter Giedeon Papers, GTA Archives); and the Papers of Walter Dexel, Hans Hildebrandt, El Lissitzky, Albert Renger-Patzsch, Franz Roh, and Jan Tschichold at the Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles.
2.Friedrich Kittler, Discourse Networks, 1800/1900, trans. Michael Metteer with Chris Cullens (Stanford University Press, 1990). For more on the importance and interrogation of network structures in the historical avant-gardes, see Dickerman, “Inventing Abstraction,” pp. 18—22; and Matthew S. Witkovsky, “Pen Pals,” in Dada: The CASVA Seminars, ed. Leah Dickerman and Matthew S. Witkovsky (National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 2007), pp. 269-93.
3.“It could even be argued that, after his initial burst of writing activity in 1922—24, he spent the rest of his career refining the ideas first put forward during the early 1920s, The specifics and technological references may have changed over time, but the core messages remained constant.” Oliver A. l. Botar, Sensing the Future: Moholy-Nagy, Media, and the Arts, exh, cat. (Lars Müller, 2014). p. 154.
Lászo Moholy-Nagy was surely one of the most prolific writers in the history of modern art. Together with shared authorial credit on several books and periodicals, the artist’s bibliography comprises close to 150 essays, statements, and reviews on the work of others as well as an uncounted but certainly extensive number of lectures. Like many intellectuals of his time, Moholy also maintained a voluminous epistolary correspondence, much of which has probably been lost to posterity.1 His dedication to explanatory prose far exceeds that of most makers of abstraction in any field, just as his constellation of useful friendships, near and far, is exceptional even for a historical moment in which the leading art movements—Dada, Constructivism, Surrealism—fed on the formation and interrogation of what media theorist Friedrich Kittler called “discourse networks.”2 Best known as a multimedia artist, Moholy could legitimately be said to have made writing his primary medium. To consider writing as a medium means to assess its relation to the many others that Moholy championed. This goes against the grain of scholarly habit, whereby an artist’s writings are essentially taken as extended explanations for his or her art. As it turns out, Moholy “used” writing across his oeuvre, turning it into a theme and a method in his art even as he kept an unflagging commitment to written analysis. Yet while his expository arguments, as Moholy specialist Oliver A. l. Botar has asserted, stayed largely consistent throughout his mature career, the works of art underwent great shifts: from abstract to figurative and even fantastical as well as from planar and contained to sculptural and unbounded.3 If writing was a medium for Moholy, this would be in the sense of an elemental, life-giving substance, like the light that he treasured and extolled. But in terms of art it was an anti-medium, protean in its material expression and divided against itself. Looking at writing in Moholy’s art—as opposed to looking at Moholy’s art through his writings—means studying his collages with alphabetic letters, but also weighing his early, etymologically driven passion for photography (light-writing) against an evident attraction to other notational systems, for instance in music or dance. It entails reflection on Moholy’s enthusiasm for administration and publishing, heavily writing-dependent activities that he arguably made into components of an art practice rather than distractions from the work of art. A consideration of writing also means paying attention to all sorts of graphic marks, from the penciled outlines of Moholy’s early paintings to the ruled ink lines with which he filled his photomontages and then, quite differently, the swirl of incisions that cover the surface of his later works in plastic and metal. It also requires recognizing his visual obsession in the Chicago years with the materials and procedures of writing, including paper, Parker pens, and work made at one’s desk. Taken together, this many-sided view of “graphisms” writ large shows Moholy’s career less as a tale of continuity—the remarkable consistency of his expository arguments not-
withstanding—than as a study in proliferation and disruption, a welter of materials and marks that come increasingly to resist the very literacy that Moholy claimed, in writing, to prize.
Under the influence of Dada, Moholy used letters—elemental language—as material signs in his art for a period in 1921—22 (see plates 015—16, 019—21), nearly contemporaneously with his start in expository writing. His alphabetic interests, however, tended less toward the Dadaist flouting of rules than toward coding, which is to say, the establishment of new rules. One collage of that period, perhaps a finished work or merely a study for future ideas, summarizes this understanding of the alphabetic theme with radical concision (plate 055). Bold and heavy, the first three letters of the alphabet are arranged into a stately yet mystifying equation: B • C = A —A (in Europe, multiplication may be indicated by a dot). The C is backward, the second A is upside down, and its inverted apex is colored red. The thickness of letters, their orientation and coloring, have become potentially calculable elements in an alternative computational system.
Such “letter math,” whether absurdist or utopian, can only strain against conventional writing. Perhaps inadvertently, the two uses of lettering face off in Das große Rad (The Great Wheel; fig. 3), a canvas that Moholy showed repeatedly at the time as well as in his 1934 Amsterdam retrospective. The wheel, which doubles as a floating city, gathers signs and symbols of the desirable modern world around its circumference as if through a gravitational force of attraction. Among these are the artist’s initials, MN, painted as block letters on the underside of the magnetic mecca. Their prominence is heightened by proximity to his signature, which is, however, written according to the expectations of cursive penmanship and salon painting—a static, aged world that appears decidedly “unmoved” by the modern one suspended nearby. The competition manifest here, between letters as writing and letters as visual signs, figures the great differences (largely elided in scholarship) that exist between Moholy’s essays and his art.
4. Wege und Richtungen: Abstrakte Malerei in Europa (Paths and Directions: Abstract Painting in Europe). exh. cat. (Stádtische Kunsthalle, 1927), p. 17; entries Ph 1—Ph 4 and Ph 14 are listed as “Photos Ohne Kamera” (Cameraless Photographs), whereas entries Ph 10—Ph 13 and Ph 15—Ph 17 are given in the category “Photogramme.” Moholy’s first documented exhibition with photograms took place at the Galerie Fides, Dresden, in 1926. See Renate Hevne and Floris M. Neusüss with Hattula MoholyNagy, eds., Moholy-Nagy: Photograms; Catalogue Raisonné (Hatje Cantz, 2009). pp. 38-39, 120.
In the early 1920s as well, the artist began to give his paintings coded titles, such as Q XX (plate 042), Z VII (plate 064), or A 19 (plate 086). (Others were titled generically: Komposition, Collage, Auf weißem Grund [On a White Ground].) In one early instance, in 1927, Moholy similarly titled his photographs and photograms with the abbreviation Ph.4 That reference is easy to decipher; what Q or Z stood for is not readily understandable. Code in Moholy’s art can be playful, and, like his typographic “sums,” it deliberately fails to add up. It was in these years as well that Moholy embraced the term “photogram” to describe his cameraless experiments. A brilliant choice of word, quickly accepted as standard by the world at large, it comes close to “photograph” yet remains—once
5. See Astrid Steiner-Weber, “Grammar,” in Encyclopedia of Ancient Greece, ed. Nigel Wilson (Routledge. 2013), pp. 328-29.
again—closer to the elemental: not photo + graphein (light + writing), but photo + gramma (light + alphabetic characters).5 Considering his simultaneous promulgation of scratch-writing and darkroom experiments, one wonders whether the term Photogramm occurred to the artist because of his interest in the Grammophon even more than his desire to renew die Photographie (see fig. 4). To jettison photography, even temporarily, as a context for Moholy’s work with the photogram, and to connect it instead to sound, means to understand “medium” as an elemental environment rather than a given material and its uses. Writing is the medium, a life-giving intellectual force, and an exploratory grammar—of light, of sound—is the goal. The photogram would enable Moholy to advance his (phonic) scratch-writing through (optic) light, making it in the process more alphabetical and thus more elemental—or so it seemed at the start.
8. Art historian Hal Foster has observed that Moholy excelled at identifying properties of one medium in order to apply them in another; see Foster, “The Bauhaus Idea in America,” in Albers and Moholy-Nagy: From Bauhaus to the New World. ed. Achim Borchardt-Hume, exh. cat. (Tate Publishing/Yale University Press, 2006), p. 93.
The photogram, a term coined to suggest literacy in or with light, also made newly manifest the complex relations between writing as image and written language. That complexity is already apparent in the little magazine Broom (see plate 061), where Moholy for the first time published an essay on this technique, in March 1923, illustrated by four of his photograms (four others, by Man Ray, appear elsewhere in the issue).6 By turns complementary and divergent, the essay and the photograms established intertwining paths for Moholy to follow in making writing his most broadly used antimedium. The essay, “Light: A Medium of Plastic Expression,” upended the emerging modernist ethos of medium specificity. Although Moholy wrote here only about photography, his use of the word “plastic” connoted a sculptural dimension, one that would be heightened in the photomontages, which he called Fotoplastiken. To this invocation of the third dimension Moholy added a discussion of temporality: “Since these light effects almost always show themselves in motion,” he concluded his article, “it is clear that the process reaches its highest development in the film.”7 Thus, the essay was instantly about three media in one.8
9. Moholy-Nagy, Malerei Photographie Film (1925), p. 30.
In the course of preparing his contributions, Moholy also made three photogram designs for the cover of Broom that the magazine did not publish. Although it would be another year before he arrived at the word “photogram,” his interest in “light-letters” is evident in these designs, presumably made by assembling paper cutouts on a photographic sheet— which, in turn, becomes a stand-in for the physical journal cover. Photographic paper, a sort of writing sheet, would now hold actual alphanumeric signs. This merger of the lexical and the photographic—yet another alternative notational system—closely anticipates the highly influential idea of Typofoto, or photographically driven typography, that Moholy would announce and propagate in his 1925 book Malerei Photographie Film (Painting Photography Film) and for years afterward.9
6. Moholy-Nagy. “Light: A Medium of Plastic Expression,” Broom 4, 4 (Mar. 1923), pp. 283—84; repr. in Passuth, Moholy-Nagy, pp. 292—93. The essay comes at the end of the issue, separated from the illustrations, and may have been offered as a counterweight to Man Ray’s contribution. For more on the avant-garde revival of photograms and photomontages, see Clément Chéroux, “Les discours de l’origine” (The Debates about the Origin), Études photographiques (Photographic Studies), no. 14 (Jan. 2004), available at http://etudesphotographiques.revues.org/377.
7. Moholv-Nagy, “Light: A Medium of Plastic Expression,” p. 293,
On the other hand, the notion that photography could communicate unequivocally is undermined as much as realized by these unpublished photograms—once again precisely because writing operates for Moholy as a multi- or antimedium. The creation of lettering “in” light makes alphabetic signs somehow coextensive with other signs: for example, the directional arrows, dots, and lozenge forms that appear in different versions of the design. The absolute identity, meanwhile, of the letter o with a geometric circle in every iteration of the composition (typographers are usually at pains to give O and 0 separate shapes) epitomizes the “disappearance” here of writing-as-image into a larger visual field. To look over these photograms is to choose constantly between a unidirectional, planar operation of reading and a multidirectional operation of scanning, each producing its own resonances. Thus, for instance, in one of the variants (plate 060), the two circles align horizontally, and read as o’s, in the word “broom,” which appears to lie flat; yet they align vertically as zeroes with the number four in addition to appearing to advance perspectivally toward the viewer, with the four the largest and seemingly nearest digit, scanning from top to bottom.
An attractive softening in places in the individual letters also suggests that they were either not laid flat on the photographic paper or ingeniously moved during exposure to the light, per Moholy’s stated interest in light effects resulting from motion. The two short bars above the M and the H in “March,” for example, seem likely to have been jiggled during exposure or held at a distance from the paper. The various versions of the design all ultimately seem to twinkle, like a film reel flickering in projection. Although in his Broom essay Moholy calls the photogram a technique of “purely optical pictur[ing],” he in fact made it a site of convergence for the material presence of sculpture, perspectival constructions of painting, screen effects of cinema, and signs of writing.
10. Moholy to Giedion and Carola Giedion-WeIcker, Aug. 5, 1946, Giedion Papers, GTA Archives.
On August 5, 1946, a little over three months before his death from leukemia, Moholy, stepping away momentarily from teaching summer courses at a borrowed farmhouse near Somonauk, Illinois, sent what would be his last letter to Sigfried Giedion and Carola Giedion-Welcker, his wife (see fig. 6). Moholy apologized that the letter was “long due but the decision to write is always discarded when I subconsciously weighed it against the possibility to paint. Since my illness,” he confessed, “l have almost a fury to paint or sculpt and I feel that every other concentration is taking me off [sic] from them.” In fact, writing, painting, and sculpting had become inseparable.10 Leaving his complaint quickly behind, Moholy launched into a detailed correspondence that ultimately stretched to a prodigious nine pages. As his writing filled these onionskin sheets, the words became, intriguingly, ever harder to decipher. Irregularly spaced lines of heavy black ink, marked in places with corrections, aster-
isks, and marginal asides, bleed through the translucent material so that each side of a sheet grows confused with the contents of the reverse, shadowing the face of the paper with a backward slant. After completing his monumental epistle, Moholy added at the top of the first sheet a final, apologetic comment: “I promise, I will not write in the future on this paper. It’s terrible to read.” Yet one could just as well appreciate this effect, so close is it to that produced by Moholy’s incisions on both sides of sheets of Plexiglas. It is as if he had exorcised his doubts over the “imposition” of writing on art—an intrusion that he had, in fact, cultivated for more than two decades—by expressing his innermost conviction on the subject: to make art is to write while unlearning how to read. For their assistance with this essay, I thank archivists Wencke Clausnitzer-Paschold and Berthold Eberhard in Berlin and Filine Wagner in Zurich as well as art historian Devin Fore.
Composition (detail) ca. 1922-1923 Paper collage on paper 12 x 11 inches Santa Barbara Museum of Art
Untitled 1920 Paper collage on paper 62 x 52 cm
K VII 1922 Oil paint and graphite on canvas 1153 Ă&#x2014; 1359 mm TATE Museum
Yellow Cross Q.7, 1922 Oil on canvas 37 4/5 × 28 in New York
Z II 1925 Oil on canvas 37 5/8 x 29 5/8” MOMA
GEOMETRY AND FIGURE
Love Your Neighbor; Murder on the Railway 1925/29 Gelatin silver print (photomontage) 11 1/16 × 8 3/16” (28.1 × 20.8 cm) MOMA
Lyon Stadium circa 1929 Gelatin silver print. 9 1/4 x 6 7/8 in. Houk Friedman Gallery, New York
The Diving Board 1931 or earlier Gelatin silver print 11 1/8 × 8 1/8” (28.3 × 20.7 cm) MOMA
Structure of the World c. 1925 Gelatin silver print (photomontage) 9 3/8 × 6 7/8” (23.9 × 17.5 cm) MOMA
Bauhausbücher 11 (Bauhaus Books 11) ca. 1922-1923 Gelatin silver print 5 1/4 x 4 1/16” (13.3 x 10.3 cm) MOMA
Untitled 1925 Gelatin silver print 3 11/16 × 2 1/2” (9.3 × 6.3 cm) MOMA
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