ART IN LOS ANGELES:
PAST PERFECT OF LAZLO MOHOLY-NAGY
By Jeffrey Head
Moholy-Nagy: Future Present is the first comprehensive exhibition in Los Angeles for artist Laszlo Moholy-Nagy. The exhibition travelled from the Guggenheim Museum in New York and The Art Institute of Chicago, before making its most recent and last stop at LACMA. Described as the first major retrospective of Moholy’s career in almost 50 years; it also serves as a dynamic survey of key developments in 20th century modern art by one person whose work represented the era in which he created. He also generated an aesthetic which remains essential, influential and contemporary.
During the brief and prodigious span of his career from the 1920s to the 1940s, Moholy created a sense of depth, movement and tension in every medium. From painting, sculpture, photography and film, to typography, publishing and advertising.
G. Smirg, 1923. Watercolor and collage on sandpaper. © 2017 Hattula Moholy-Nagy.
Moholy worked with a variety of materials in new ways applying innovative techniques. He was among the first artists to use Plexiglas, then a relatively new commercial material. Several of his specially formed and painted Plexiglas mobiles hang in the exhibition. He also combined materials in uncommon ways, including oil painting on burlap or watercolor on sandpaper.
Moholy’s photograms, which he created throughout his career, are also exhibited and may represent the best known aspects of his photographic work. These pieces remain intriguing images of light and shadow.
The exhibition also features the largest collection of his photomontage work. Mostly completed in the 1920s, Moholy assembled and edited otherwise unrelated images to create a narrative, taking into account scale and proportion. Moholy’s photograms, which he created throughout his career, are also exhibited and may represent the best known aspects of his photographic work. These pieces remain intriguing images of light and shadow.
Space Modulator CH for R1, 1942. Oil and incised lines on Formica. © 2017 Hattula Moholy-Nagy.
Hattula Moholy-Nagy, Moholy’s daughter, recently visited the Los Angeles version of the exhibition at LACMA. In addition to his art, she anticipates her father’s film work and stage designs may find a larger audience here. Several of Moholy’s short films from Hattula’s own collection play within the exhibition: “Berlin Still Life” (1936), “Metropolitan Gypsies” (1932), “Impressions of the Old Marseille Harbor” (1929/31), and “London Zoo” (1936). The latter led filmmaker and fellow Hungarian, Alexander Korda to hire Moholy for special effects in his film “The Shape of Things to Come” based on the H.G. Wells story. Moholy’s work, however, was cut from the final version. There are also photographs of Moholy’s stage designs for Jacques Offenbach’s Tales of Hoffman (1929), and Madam Butterfly (1931). Even from photographs, it is possible to get a sense of Moholy’s kinetic props and lighting. These could be viewed as a pragmatic and creative extension of his Plexiglas sculptures, also in the exhibition. It is easy to speculate how Moholy might have further influenced film and the performing arts had he not died of Leukemia at the age of 51
His professional career was based in Chicago where he served as the director of the New Bauhaus, and founded the School of Design (now The Institute of Design). For Hattula, “the work from the Chicago period are among my favorites mainly because I remember them hanging in our apartment and my father created some of them at home.” Space Modulator CH for R1, 1942 is one such piece, among several from her personal collection in the exhibition.
Although a much earlier work, Photogram Mondgesicht (Moonface) or Self-Portrait in Profile, 1926, is also from Hattula’s collection she explains, “I have come to a better understanding of the social values my father was expressing in his art. Children are very literal-minded, so I had to grow into an appreciation of what my father was doing. Growing up my father’s art has also inclined me towards bright, cheerful, and tidy art of all periods, figurative as well as abstract.”
Of the nearly 300 works in the exhibition, the most distinct is perhaps Moholy’s 1946 design of the Parker 51 pen with a chrome desk set. Six buttress-like forms provide rhythm and balance with a single fountain pen positioned at the end. As with Moholy’s three-dimensional artworks, the desk set is dramatic looking for its play of light and shadow. This object is special, because it is the only functional, applied art piece and everyday object in the exhibition. It also represents Bauhaus ideals of integrating art and industry along with the machine aesthetic. Developed while he served as artistic advisor to Parker during the 1940s, Moholy received a patent for the design which incorporated a magnet ball and socket enabling the pen to pivot in all directions. Although the desk set did not go into production, Parker incorporated Moholy’s magnetic component in hundreds of desk sets for more than 25 years.
The desk set was not known to exist after its initial appearance. Then, in 2013 it was found. Hattula commented on how she believes there is still academic research and discoveries to be made about the lesser known aspects of her father’s career.
This exhibition is an opportunity to enjoy Moholy’s significant and wide-ranging contributions to modernism.
“Moholy-Nagy: Future Present” is on view at The Los Angeles County Museum of Art, through June 18, 2017
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