The Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) presents Moholy-Nagy: Future Present, the first comprehensive retrospective of the pioneering artist and educator László Moholy-Nagy (1895–1946) to be seen in the United States in nearly 50 years. Organized by LACMA, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, and the Art Institute of Chicago, this exhibition, at LACMA from Feb. 12 to June 18, 2017, examines the rich and varied career of the Hungarian-born modernist.
One of the most versatile figures of the twentieth century avant-garde, Moholy (as he is often called) believed in the potential of art as a vehicle for social transformation and in the value of new technologies in harnessing that potential. He was a pathbreaking painter, photographer, sculptor, designer, and filmmaker as well as a prolific writer and an influential teacher in both Germany and the United States. Among his innovations were experiments with cameraless photography; the use of industrial materials in painting and sculpture; research with light, transparency, and movement; work at the forefront of abstraction; fluidity in moving between the fine and applied arts; and the conception of creative production as a multimedia endeavor. Radical for the time, these are now all firmly part of contemporary art practice.
The exhibition includes approximately 300 works, including paintings, sculptures, drawings, collages, photographs, photograms, photomontages, films, and examples of graphic, exhibition, and theater design. A highlight is the full-scale realization of the Room of the Present, an immersive installation that is a hybrid of exhibition space and work of art, seen here for the first time in the United States. This work—which includes photographic reproductions, films, images of architectural and theater design, and examples of industrial design—was conceived by Moholy around 1930 but realized only in 2009.
Moholy-Nagy: Future Present is co-organized by Carol S. Eliel, Curator of Modern Art, LACMA; Karole P. B. Vail, Curator, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum; and Matthew S. Witkovsky, Richard and Ellen Sandor Chair and Curator, Department of Photography, Art Institute of Chicago. The exhibition’s tour began at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, continued at the Art Institute of Chicago, and concludes at LACMA.
The LACMA exhibition is designed by the Los Angeles-based architecture firm Johnston Marklee. The installation’s design reflects the transparency and dynamism of Moholy’s work, with a diagonal visual “cut” through the entire exhibition space. At the same time, details of the installation pay specific homage to Moholy’s vocabulary both in Germany (a black line running along the floorboards and around doorways) and in Chicago (organically shaped plinths and pedestals for the later sculptures). Moholy-Nagy is accompanied by a comprehensive exhibition catalogue, the most extensive English-language book on the artist to date.
“Moholy-Nagy is considered one of the earliest modern artists actively to engage with new materials and technologies. This spirit of experimentation connects to LACMA’s longstanding interest in and support of the relationship between art and technology, starting with its 1967–71 Art and Technology Program and continuing with the museum’s current Art + Technology Lab,” according to Michael Govan, LACMA CEO and Wallis Annenberg Director. “This exhibition’s integrated view of Moholy’s work in numerous mediums reveals his relevance to contemporary art in our multi- and new media age.”
“Moholy’s goal throughout his life was to integrate art, technology, and education for the betterment of humanity; he believed art should serve a public purpose. These goals defined the artist’s utopian vision, a vision that remained as constant as his fascination with light, throughout the many material changes in his oeuvre,” comments Carol S. Eliel, exhibition curator. “Light was Moholy’s ‘dream medium,’ and his experimentation employed both light itself and a range of industrial materials that take advantage of light.”
László Moholy-Nagy was born in Hungary in 1895. He enrolled as a law student at the University of Budapest in 1915, leaving two years later to serve as an artillery officer in the Austro-Hungarian army during World War I. He began drawing while on the war front; after his discharge in 1918 Moholy convalesced in Budapest, where he focused on painting. He was soon drawn to the cutting-edge art movements of the period, including Cubism and Futurism. Moholy moved to Vienna in 1919 before settling in Berlin in 1920, where he served as a correspondent for the progressive Hungarian magazine MA (Today).
The letters and glyphs of Dada informed Moholy’s visual art around 1920 while the hardedged geometries and utopian goals of Russian Constructivism influenced his initial forays into abstraction shortly thereafter, particularly works that explored the interaction among colored planes, diagonals, circles, and other geometric forms. By the early 1920s Moholy had gained a reputation as an innovative artist and perceptive theorist through exhibitions at Berlin’s radical Galerie Der Sturm as well as his writings. His lifelong engagement with industrial materials and processes—including the use of metal plating, sandpaper, and various metals and plastics then newly-developed for commercial use—began at this time.
In 1923 Moholy began teaching at the Bauhaus, an avant-garde school that sought to integrate the fine and applied arts, where his colleagues included Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee, and other pathbreaking modernists. Architect Walter Gropius, founder of the Bauhaus, invited Moholy to expand its progressive curriculum, particularly by incorporating contemporary technology into more traditional methods and materials. He also had a part in Bauhaus graphic design achievements, collaborating with Herbert Bayer on stationery, announcements, and advertising materials.
Photography was of special significance for Moholy, who believed that “a knowledge of photography is just as important as that of the alphabet. The illiterates of the future will be ignorant of the use of the camera and pen alike.” In the 1920s he was among the earliest artists to make photograms by placing objects directly onto the surface of light-sensitive paper. He also made photographs using a traditional camera, often employing exaggerated angles and plunging perspectives to capture contemporary technological marvels as well as the post-Victorian freedom of the human body in the modern world. His photographs are documentary as well as observations of texture, captured in fine gradations of light and shadow. Moholy likewise made photomontages, combining assorted elements, typically newspaper and magazine clippings, resulting in what he called a “compressed interpenetration of visual and verbal wit; weird combinations of the most realistic, imitative means which pass into imaginary spheres.” Moholy-Nagy includes the largest grouping of the artist’s photomontages ever assembled.
After leaving the Bauhaus in 1928, Moholy turned to commercial, theater, and exhibition design as his primary means of income. This work, which reached a broad audience, was frequently collaborative and interdisciplinary by its very nature and followed from the artist’s dictum “New creative experiments are an enduring necessity.”
Even as his commercial practice was expanding, Moholy’s artistic innovations and prominence in the avant-garde persisted unabated. He continued to bring new industrial materials into his painting practice, while his research into light, transparency, and movement led to his 35 mm films documenting life in the modern city, his early involvement with color photography for advertising, and his remarkable kinetic Light Prop for an Electric Stage of 1930. An extension of his exhibition design work, Moholy’s Room of the Present was conceived to showcase art that embodied his “new vision”—endlessly reproducible photographs, films, posters, and examples of industrial design.
Forced by the rise of Nazism to leave Germany, in 1934 Moholy moved with his family to Amsterdam, where he continued to work on commercial design and to collaborate on art and architecture projects. Within a year of arriving the family was forced to move again, this time to London. Moholy’s employment there centered around graphic design, including prominent advertising campaigns for the London Underground, Imperial Airways, and Isokon furniture. He also received commissions for a number of short, documentaryinfluenced films while in England.
In 1937, the artist accepted the invitation (arranged through his former Bauhaus colleague Walter Gropius) of the Association of Arts and Industries to found a design school in Chicago, which he called the New Bauhaus–American School of Design. Financial difficulties led to its closure the following year, but Moholy reopened it in 1939 as the School of Design (subsequently the Institute of Design, today part of the Illinois Institute of Technology). Moholy transmitted his populist ethos to the students, asking that they “see themselves as designers and craftsmen who will make a living by furnishing the community with new ideas and useful products.”
Despite working full-time as an educator and administrator, Moholy continued his artistic practice in Chicago. His interest in light and shadow found a new outlet in Plexiglas hybrids of painting and sculpture, which he often called Space Modulators and intended as “vehicles for choreographed luminosity.” His paintings increasingly involved biomorphic forms and, while still abstract, were given explicitly autobiographical or narrative titles— the Nuclear paintings allude to the horror of the atomic bomb, while the Leuk paintings refer to the cancer that would take his life in 1946.
Moholy’s goal throughout his life was to integrate art, technology, and education for the betterment of humanity. “To meet the manifold requirements of this age with a definite program of human values, there must come a new mentality,” he wrote in Vision in Motion, published posthumously in 1947. “The common denominator is the fundamental acknowledgment of human needs; the task is to recognize the moral obligation in satisfying these needs, and the aim is to produce for human needs, not for profit.”
The exhibition is installed chronologically with sections following Moholy’s career from his earliest days in Hungary through his time at the Bauhuas (1923–28), his post-Bauhaus period in Europe, and ending with his final years in Chicago (1937–46).
The fully illustrated exhibition catalogue offers extensive and fresh essays on the breadth of Moholy’s output as an artist, writer, and teacher and also considers his importance for contemporary art. Edited by exhibition co-curators Carol S. Eliel, Karole P. B. Vail, and Matthew S. Witkovsky, the catalogue includes essays by all three as well as by Julie Barten, Sylvie Pénichon, and Carol Stringari; Stephanie D’Allesandro; Jennifer King; Olivier Lugon; and Elizabeth Siegel.