Show of Hands: Moholy-Nagy Lights the Way

Moholy-Nagy's influence hovers over all the blowsy spray effects and bold text in canvases one has seen in galleries ever since (not to mention the Gaussian-blur filters in Photoshop).


“If you ask where is the Picasso of England or the Ezra Pound of France,” the art critic Robert Hughes once lamented, “there is only one probable answer: still in the trenches.” The mad slaughter of World War I decimated a generation of European artists, so we are fortunate that László Moholy-Nagy (1895–1946), fighting in the armies of the doomed Austro-Hungarian Empire, escaped the carnage with only a shattered thumb.

Before the war, Moholy-Nagy dreamed of being a poet, but studied law instead. While recovering from his wounds he turned decisively to the humanities, composing a poem that read, in part, “Space, time, material — are they one with Light?… Come over me, proud Light, fierce Light, burn deep/Ferocious Light, spread through me, cleanse my eyes.”

That may sound like the overheated passion of someone who’d just dodged the Reaper, but Moholy-Nagy’s commitment went deep. He began taking evening courses at a Budapest art school, examining how such old masters as Rembrandt had rendered light and shadow in representational canvases. Soon he was getting up to speed on the fractures of Cubism and the dynamics of Futurism, both in class and in the city’s rowdy cafés (as a member of the anti-war Hungarian Activism movement, he probably found the Futurists’ fetish for combat less attractive than their rhythmically entwined forms). Before long he left Hungary for Vienna and eventually Berlin, where he plunged into a dizzying array of mediums, including painting, sculpture, photography, and film, all while segueing effortlessly between — and at times combining — fine and commercial art.

In the striking yellow, black, and red stripes of Radio and Railway Landscape (1919–20), one feels the influence of Constructivism’s stark geometries but also the young artist’s search for the unseen velocity of radio waves and electrical transmissions. Dadaist monkeyshines animate the eleven-inch-high collage Y (1920–21), particularly in the figure of a blue dog gingerly approaching a rickety network of pipes and unbalanced spinning wheels. Y‘s primaries-plus-black color scheme and large eponymous letter presage his subsequent layouts for all manner of books, periodicals, and ad campaigns.

As he matured, Moholy-Nagy found a way to fulfill the yearning expressed in his poem, coining the term “photogram” for cameraless prints made by placing three-dimensional objects atop photo paper exposed to varying illumination. Using coins, mesh, paper clips, and other sundries — including a toy Eiffel Tower gyroscope — he transmuted light into mysterious entities that morph from hard-edged to diaphanous, swirling ghosts of abstraction that are now nearly a century old.

The human hand is a recurring theme in Moholy-Nagy’s imagery — he probably never forgot his brush with mortality in the Great War. In one photogram, he held his palm well above the paper, more fading spirit than solid flesh; a slightly later print is as emphatic as a slap. Five years on, that bold composition was repurposed for the cover of a photography magazine, but flipped from pale negative to gray positive. In Self-Portrait With Hand (shot sometime in the late 1920s) the camera captures the artist’s smiling face, partially obscured by his outstretched thumb and fingers, which blur as they push into the out-of-focus foreground. He soon began translating the nuances he was discovering in photo emulsion into his paintings, employing an airbrush to soften the lines of his abstractions.

Moholy-Nagy began teaching at the Bauhaus in 1923; there, he encouraged his students to close their eyes and handle textured objects as a way of staying in touch with their “biological centers” and appreciating “the different impulses which reach consciousness.” He also contributed text and designs to the Bauhaus Books series, collaborative publications that explicated and extolled modern art, architecture, and design. His work on book layouts, with all the necessary enlargements and reductions of imagery, probably influenced a piece he did around this time that combined Dadaist wit and Constructivist rigor to stake an early claim to Conceptualism: Moholy-Nagy contacted a factory to make three identical enamel-on-steel paintings in sizes that followed a geometric progression. At roughly 9, 18, and 37 inches high, Construction in Enamel 1–3 poses a question that was coming to the fore in an age when reproduction was becoming easier: What exactly is an original? (The answer became more tangled by Moholy-Nagy’s claim that he used a gridded chart to dictate the designs to the plant supervisor over the telephone, adding, “It was like playing chess by correspondence.”)

Moholy-Nagy explored endless variation on the theme of repetition, twice collaging a figure holding out both hands, fingers spread wide. In one piece, this clone is stacked five high, like an unsteady totem pole, reinforcing the somewhat ominous title, The Law of the Series. This theme recurs two years later when a pair of the figures resurfaced in an ad for a German department store, their outstretched palms demanding that shoppers “HALT!” and follow an arrow through the front door.

In 1930 Moholy-Nagy extended his investigations into the properties of light with a motorized sculpture that could cast shifting shadows onto surrounding surfaces (Light Prop for an Electric Stage). But within a few years he had left Germany, along with many of his modernist colleagues, as the Nazis were gaining power and tightening their net of philistinism. He spent time in London, where he contributed abstract special effects to the H.G. Wells movie Things to Come and designed posters for the Underground transit system that explained how escalators and pneumatic doors operated.

Eventually a group of Chicago industrialists brought him in to direct a new version of the Bauhaus, with the goal of modernizing the training of American designers. Moholy-Nagy’s faith in hands-on materials can be seen in his Plexiglas sculptures from the 1940s, which he would paint on and also incise with deep lines. The clear surfaces were mounted away from the wall so that the scratches would cast shadows, adding airy depth to the work.

This exhibition dovetails flawlessly with the Guggenheim’s off-kilter bays, a testament to Moholy-Nagy’s enduring modernism. His enthusiasm for mixing the bodily with the industrial, the subtlest gradations with the brashest geometries, renews the thrill of a listing stroll through Frank Lloyd Wright’s corkscrew.

And just as the seriality and variable scale of his enamel paintings beat Warhol to the punch by four decades, Moholy-Nagy’s influence hovers over all the blowsy spray effects and bold text in canvases one has seen in galleries ever since (not to mention the Gaussian-blur filters in Photoshop). But he has reached an even larger public through one of the most popular movie franchises of all time: In his posthumously published book, The New Vision (1947), the artist featured a work by a promising student — a wavy strip of Plexi studded with coarse materials and mirrored by its own silvery shadow. Seventeen years later, that young artist, the graphic designer Robert Brownjohn, brought Moholy-Nagy’s Light Prop vision into the Swinging Sixties through the title sequence of the James Bond film Goldfinger, projecting credits and film clips onto a starlet’s gilded, undulating body.

Moholy-Nagy came of age as the techniques of mechanical reproduction blossomed, and his photographs and graphics remain fresh, whether viewed in print or on an iPad. But it is the dazzling individuality of his objects that will draw viewers to this exhibition, a reminder that our digital infinity is no substitute for the human touch.

Moholy-Nagy: Future Present
Guggenheim Museum
1071 Fifth Avenue, 212-423-3500 Through September 7