Abstract, non-representational, non-figurative art is often associated with modernism of the 20th century, with beginnings charted from Russian and European avant-gardes. Such an art historical trajectory, however, does not recognize the abstract foundations of aesthetic traditions in Africa, the Middle East, and elsewhere. Accordingly, artists’ deployment of line, shape, form, color, texture, and gesture have historically been coupled with a diversity of premises and motivations—in some contexts non-representational vocabularies were associated with newfound innovation, while they signified a reconnection with indegenous tradition elsewhere. Over the course of the 20th century specifically, abstraction—as a counterpoint to figuration and realism—was leveraged for divergent ideological purposes and was famously heralded in the United States during the Cold War as an expression of freedom in contradistinction to communist socialist realism. The Theme brings into juxtaposition various case studies outside the westerncentric narrative of abstraction, thus problematizing the notion of a “universal” language and resonating with mounting awareness of the distinct local lineages that global surveys must necessarily attend to.

The Subject of Nonobjective Art

One hundred years ago, Kazimir Malevich’s Suprematist Composition: White on White and Aleksandr Rodchenko’s Non-Objective Painting no. 80 (Black on Black) hung side by side in the Tenth State Exhibition in Moscow. Now part of MoMA’s collection, the two monochrome interventions and their dynamic relationship shape our understanding of nonobjective painting in post-revolutionary Russia.