Exercise 1.2 Theory or Not

Identify three works of art in which theory plays a decisive role, and three works of art in which theory seems absent. In 100-150 words reflect on the distinction between them.

Three works of art in which theory plays a dominant role

I will start here at an extreme end of art theory, with Kasimir Malevich’s Supremist work, and his Black Square painting made in 1915 (fig. 1).

In terms of Suprematism, Malevich’s theory is that art should be about pure feeling … “the visual phenomena of the objective world are, in themselves, meaningless” (7). In this way, Supremist philosophy has theoretical possibilities, which are then materialised in paintings as theoretical demonstrations.

This is one of Malevich’s key works as he explores how to dispense with most of the characteristics of representational art.

Figure 1.  Black square (1915) Kasimir Malevich


My second example of art where theory plays a decisive role is Le Signorine by Felice Casorati painted in 1912. Figure 2 is my photo of the painting taken from my visit at the Ca’ Pesaro museum in Venice. The painting is of the genre magic realism (or magical realism) with a multiplicity of themes including allegory, portrait, still life, iconography and symbolism.  The flattened plane, and the size of the painting (197 x 190 cm) bring the characters almost into my space as I stand before it.

Figure 2.  Le Signorine (1912) Felice Casorati

The wooden frame gives me the feeling that I am looking through a large window or doorway, the alpine tree perhaps hints to an alpine landscape and a strange world of four young ladies. Each, at their feet, has a label alluding to their character written in Italian: Dolores (pain), Violante (violent / angry), Bianca (white / snow-white?) and Gioconda (joyous), and we see how their characters are portrayed in their demeanour and facial expression; except Bianca’s character is open to multiple interpretations – portrayed nude she may be an exhibitionist, an argument perhaps strengthened by the presence of a mirror behind her reflecting the back of her thighs.   Violante is looking at Bianca, is she angry with Bianca?  Bianca and Gioconda look directly at us, engaging with us – is Gioconda smiling at us or some unsaid comment muttered between them?  And Dolores stares anxiously into the distance as if her pain removes her presence from the companionship of the other three.

Many of the girl’s possessions are strewn around to help us interpret their characters, but the most interesting has to be the turkey next to Dolores – what does a turkey signify in Italy?  I need to investigate further with my Italian friends.


My third example is the sculpture Spiral expansion of Muscles in Action created in 1912 by Italian artist Umberto Boccioni a leading artist in the Futurist movement (fig. 3).

Figure 3.  Spiral expansion of Muscles in Action (1912) Umberto Boccioni

According to Ideelart.com (11):

‘Boccioni was intent on capturing motion in his sculptures. His aim was not to abstract the forms he was sculpting, but rather to represent their essential nature by capturing their movement through space and time.’

This particular piece appeals to me because of my interest in Cubist paintings. This is the first time I have explored examples of sculpture from these movements and this piece stands out as a brilliant work of art. I can see how the snatched glimpses of Cubism are brought together into a human form posed in such a way as to establish the body in motion – not running, but seemingly walking with purpose.


Three works of art in which theory seems absent

My first example in this category is an artwork I saw at the Ca’ Pesaro in Venice by Mel Bochner entitled 48″ Standards (#24) produced in 1969 (fig 4.).  It comprises brown rectangles of paper stapled to a wall (of about 20 metres in length and 7 metres high), with black tape and letraset indicating some measurements.

Figure 4.  48″ Standards (#24) 1969 Mel Bochner

I can clearly see and experience the texture of the materials, but I have no clue as to the theory behind this work of conceptual art.  It’s clearly 2 dimensional, unbounded (there’s no frame) except by the limits of the wall, and the texture of the paper suggests packing material, and the measurements suggest packing dimensions.  The title gives me no further understanding, except that 48″ in the title is a measurement shown on the wall.

Since viewing this work, I viewed a number of works on the web site of Bochner -> link, and explored his biography.  I am still none the wiser: I guess I just have to accept the work for what it is.


My second example in this category of art where theory seems lacking is the (in)famous pile of bricks called Equivalent VIII by Carl Andre “made” in 1966 and first displayed at The Tate Gallery in 1976.   Once again, I struggle to identify an art theory with this work.  It’s minimalist, and it exists in its environment and will impact anyone who stumbles across it – a health and safety issue: perhaps that’s really the subject of this work.  But as Andre states in an audio clip, a piece of art doesn’t need to be recognisable as anything – it can just exist (audio available on the Tate web site -> here) – but then anything can be art.  Jonathan Jones opined in the Guardian that this was the most boring controversial artwork ever.  He goes on to say:

‘Equivalent VIII is the very opposite of conceptual art. Instead of airily escaping the physical nature of art into a world of thought, it dumbly and relentlessly insists on its material reality – and nothing else. Being an arrangement of bricks is all this arrangement of bricks does or wants to do. It is brute fact. It is there. And that’s that.’

Figure 5.  Equivalent VIII (1966) Carl Andre

In my research I was amused by the museums who had created replicas of this work, whereupon Andre had declared them forgeries.


My third, and last, example is another (in)famous installation, Fountain, by Marcel Duchamp, first displayed in 1917 (fig. 6).  According to the BBC, in 2005 this artwork was voted by 500 top artists as the most influential piece of modern artwork of all time (12).

According to TheArtStory (13):

‘After the work had been rejected by the [Society of Independent Artists] on the grounds that it was immoral, critics who championed it disputed this claim, arguing that an object was invested with new significance when selected by an artist for display’

Comprising a urinal set on a plinth with the name R. Mutt and they year 1917 painted on the side, it caused much discussion on whether this truly is a work of art.

Figure 6. Fountain (1917) Marcel Duchamp

I think this stretches the search for art theory in a similar way as Andre’s pile of bricks, except of course this found object has been altered by having the Mutt name and year painted on it.  So given this alteration then perhaps it is more worthy of a place in art than the bricks.

A side note …

I was tempted to include an example of a classical realist painting such as Claude Lorrain’s 1644 painting Landscape with shepherds as an example of a painting where theory seems lacking. However I conclude that the key theory with this style of painting is that they conform to the theories of linear and aerial perspective, prominent theories of ‘accurate’ pictorial representation in the modern age since the Renaissance. So I think I would place this example somewhere in the middle of a spectrum of art where theory plays a dominant role and art where theory seems absent.

Figure 7. Landscape with shepherds (1644) Claude Lorrain


Reflection on the distinction between art where theory plays a decisive role and where theory seems absent (100 – 150 words)

Where theory has a dominant role, the artist creates work which displays one or more accepted theories of the art world, those theories having been constructed through discourse by artists and art critics over time, and often embodied in a named movement such as Constructivism, Cubism, Impressionism, Suprematism and Futurism.

I believe that all art is based on a theory to some degree, so my choice of examples of works where theory seems absent are based on examples in which I simply don’t completely grasp the theoretical basis for the work. These are generally art works made from found objects and simply collected in some way, without modification, and proposed to be a works of art.

(116 words)


Main research during this part of the course

  • Reading the paper Modernist Painting by Clement Greenberg (notes made in notebook)
  • Investigated Kazimir Malevich and the Suprematist movement
  • Investigated Alexander Rodchenko and the Russian Constructivist movement
  • Started reading The Monochrome and Blank Canvas (notes made in notebook)
  • Visited the Peggy Guggenheim and Ca’ Pesaro museums in Venice – researching concepts of theory.
  • Reading chapters 1 to 3 of Sturken and Cartwright, Practices of Looking: an introduction to visual culture.
  • As a consequence of reading about Constructivism, I watched the film Man with a Movie Camera (1929) by filmmaker Dziga Vertov available on Youtube -> link

Contextual research

In this section I record some of my research initiated by this exercise.

While attempting to understand Clement Greenberg’s theory of Modernist art, my tutor pointed my towards the artists Kazimir Malevich (1879-1935) and Alexander Rodchenko (1891-1956) as artists who Greenberg saw as theorists.  So this is my investigation into the works and theories of these artists.

Malevich and Suprematism

Wikipedia has this to say about Suprematism …

‘Suprematism … is an art movement, focused on basic geometric forms, such as circles, squares, lines, and rectangles, painted in a limited range of colors. It was founded by Kazimir Malevich in Russia, around 1913, and announced in Malevich’s 1915 exhibition, The Last Futurist Exhibition of Paintings 0.10, in St. Petersburg, where he, alongside 13 other artists, exhibited 36 works in a similar style. The term suprematism refers to an abstract art based upon “the supremacy of pure artistic feeling” rather than on visual depiction of objects.’ (6)

Malevich invented the term ‘Suprematism’ because, according to TheArtStory.org … ‘he believed that art should transcend subject matter — the truth of shape and color should reign ‘supreme’ over the image or narrative.’ (3)

Malevich’s paper on Suprematism is on Artchive.com at this link -> link

An often quoted phrase (it seems) is that Malevich … ‘believed in an extreme of reduction: “The object in itself is meaningless… the ideas of the conscious mind are worthless”. What he wanted was a non-objective representation, “the supremacy of pure feeling.” 

White on white

White on white (1918) Kazimir Malevich

Fig 8. White on white (1918) Kazimir Malevich

Wikipedia has this to say about White on White …

‘Malevich dispenses with most of the characteristics of representational art, with no sense of colour, depth, or volume, leaving a simple monochrome geometrical shape, not precisely symmetrical, with imprecisely defined boundaries. Although the artwork is stripped of most detail, brush strokes are evident in this painting and the artist tried to make it look as if the tilted square is coming out of the canvas. Malevich intended the painting to evoke a feeling of floating, with the colour white symbolising infinity, and the slight tilt of the square suggests movement.  (4)

Black Square

Black square (1915) Kasimir Malevich

Fig. 9  Black square (1915) Kasimir Malevich

Wikipedia has this to say about Black Square …

The work is frequently invoked by critics, historians, curators, and artists as the “zero point of painting”, referring to the painting’s historical significance as a paraphrase of a number of comments Malevich made about The Black Square in letters to his colleagues and dealers.

Malevich had made some remarks about his painting.

  • “It is from zero, in zero, that the true movement of being begins.”
  • “I transformed myself in the zero of form and emerged from nothing to creation, that is, to Suprematism, to the new realism in painting – to non-objective creation.”
  • “[Black Square is meant to evoke] the experience of pure non-objectivity in the white emptiness of a liberated nothing.”


Rodchenko and Constructivism

According to Sturken and Cartwright the Constructivists …

’emphasized the realistic aspects of showing the artwork’s materials and structural elements of form. They suggested that revolutionary artists should expose the means of production to viewers rather than hide technique and equipment from view.’ (Sturken, M & Cartwright, 2009)

According to TheArtStory.org:

Constructivist art often aimed to demonstrate how materials behaved – to ask, for instance, what different properties had materials such as wood, glass, and metal. The form an artwork would take would be dictated by its materials (not the other way around, as is the case in traditional art forms, in which the artist ‘transforms’ base materials into something very different and beautiful). (8)

Russian Constructivism came out of the Bolshevic October revolution of 1917.

‘Constructivism called for a careful technical analysis of modern materials, and it was hoped that this investigation would eventually yield ideas that could be put to use in mass production, serving the ends of a modern, Communist society.’ (8)

‘Russian Constructivism was in decline by the mid 1920s, partly a victim of the Bolshevik regime’s increasing hostility to avant-garde art.’ (8)

It is interesting to see Rodchenko’s 1918 painting Non-Objective Painting No 80 as, according to TheArtStory.org, it was painted in response to Rodchenko’s encounter with Malevich’s Black Square painting.

Figure 10.  Non-Objective Painting No 80 (1918) Alexander Rodchenko

Rodchenko became famous for his photographs and photomontage work. According to the website Culture24.org.uk:

‘For a time [Rodchenko] was the perfect example of the committed, early Soviet era communist who believed passionately in the relevance of art to society. He embraced photography as the perfect vehicle for his staunch constructivist principles, which dictated that art should be used as an instrument for social purposes.’ (15)

According to TheArtStory.org, Rodchenko’s 1930 photograph The Staircase:

‘is one of Rodchenko’s finest photographs. Often credited with devising the key principles of modern photography, Rodchenko is praised for his use of unusual angles and perspective.’ (16)

Figure 11.  The Staircase (1930) Alexander Rodchenko


List of images

Figure 1 and 9. Malevich K (1915) Black Square [oil on linen] 79.4 x 79.4 cm At: Museum of Modern Art, New York City, USA. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:White_on_White_(Malevich,_1918).png (Accessed 04 Feb 2017)

Figure 2. Casorati F (1912) Le Signorine [oil on canvas] 197 x 190 cm At: Ca’ Pesaro, Venice, Italy (Photograph by David Bell, taken 11 March 2017)

Figure 3  Boccioni U (1912) Spiral expansion of muscles in action [plaster] At: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Umberto_Boccioni,_Spiral_Expansion_of_Muscles_in_Action,_plaster,_photograph_published_in_1914.jpg (Accessed 18 March 2017)

Figure 4. Bochner M (1969) 48″ Standards (#24) [Brown paper stapled to wall, black tape and letraset] At: Ca’ Pesaro, Venice, Italy. (Photograph by David Bell taken 11 March 2017).

Figure 5.  Andre C (1966) Equivalent VIII [Firebricks] 127 x 686 x 2292 mm At: Tate Gallery, London, England  http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/andre-equivalent-viii-t01534 (Accessed 18 March 2017)

Figure 6. Duchamp M (1917) Fountain [urinal] At: destroyed https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fountain_(Duchamp)#/media/File:Duchamp_Fountaine.jpg (Accessed 18 March 2017)

Figure 7.  Lorrain C (1644) Landscape with shepherds [oil on canvas] 98 × 137 cm At: Museum of Grenoble, Grenoble, France https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Claude_Lorrain_034.jpg (Accessed 23 December 2016)

Figure 8. Malevich K (1918) White on white [oil on canvas] 79.5 x 79.5 cm At: State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Malevich.black-square.jpg (Accessed 04 Feb 2017)

Figure 10.  Rodchenko A (1918) Non-Objective Painting No 80 [oil on canvas] 81.9 x 79.4 cm At: Museum of Modern Art, New York, USA  https://www.moma.org/collection/works/78848 (Accessed 21 March 2017)

Figure 11.  Rodchenko A (1930) The Staircase [gelatin-silver print]  At: Private collection http://www.culture24.org.uk/art/photography-and-film/art54117 (Accessed 21 March 2017)



(1) Wikipedia, (2017). Kazimir Malevich. [online] Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kazimir_Malevich [Accessed 04 February 2017].

(2) Webmuseum Paris, (2017). Malevich, Kasimir: Suprematist Compositions. [online] Available at: https://www.ibiblio.org/wm/paint/auth/malevich/sup/ [Accessed 04 February 2017].

(3) The Art Story, (2017). Kazimir Malevich. [online] Available at: http://www.theartstory.org/artist-malevich-kasimir.htm [Accessed 04 February 2017].

(4) Wikipedia, (2017). White on White. [online] Available at: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:White_on_White_(Malevich,_1918).png [Accessed 04 February 2017].

(5) Wikipedia, (2017). Black Square. [online] Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Black_Square_(painting) [Accessed 04 February 2017].

(6) Wikipedia, (2017). Suprematism. [online] Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Suprematism  [Accessed 05 February 2017].

(7) Artchive, (2017). Kazimir Malevich.  [online] Available at: http://www.artchive.com/artchive/M/malevich.html  [Accessed 05 February 2017].

(8) TheArtStory, (2017). Constructivism. [online] Available at: http://www.theartstory.org/movement-constructivism.htm [Accessed 20 March 2017].

(9) Jones, J. (2016). Carl Andre’s Equivalent VIII: the most boring controversial artwork ever. [online] Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/jonathanjonesblog/2016/sep/20/carl-andre-equivalent-viii-bricks  [Accessed 20 March 2017].

(10) Jury, L. (2004). ‘Fountain’ most influential piece of modern art. [online] Available at: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/this-britain/fountain-most-influential-piece-of-modern-art-673625.html [Accessed 20 March 2017].

(11) IdeelArt, (2017). HERE ARE SOME BRILLIANT EXAMPLES OF CUBIST SCULPTURE. [online] Available at: http://www.ideelart.com/module/csblog/post/137-1-cubist-sculpture.html  [Accessed 10 March 2017].

(12) BBC News, (2004). Duchamp’s urinal tops art survey. [online] Available at: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/entertainment/4059997.stm  [Accessed 20 March 2017].

(13) TheArtStory, (2017). Marcel Duchamp. [online] Available at: http://www.theartstory.org/artist-duchamp-marcel-artworks.htm [Accessed 22 March 2017].

(14) Sturken, M. & Cartwright, L. (2009). Practices of Looking: an introduction to visual culture – 2nd ed. New York: Oxford University Press, p146.

(15) Culture24, (2008). Rodchenko’s Revolution In Photography at The Hayward Gallery. [online] Available at: http://www.culture24.org.uk/art/photography-and-film/art54117 [Accessed 22 March 2017].

(16) TheArtStory, (2017). Alexander Rodchenko [online] Available at: https://www.theartstory.org/artist-rodchenko-alexander-artworks.htm#pnt_4 [Accessed 22 March 2017].