The major retrospective examining the works of László Moholy-Nagy at the Art Institute of Chicago presents not only his prolific output, but also the amazing range of his art despite his life ending all too soon at the age of 51. The exhibition displays 300 multimedia works that have been gathered from public and private collections across Europe and the United States. The works on display range from 1920 when the artist moved to Germany until his death in Chicago in 1946.
Moholy-Nagy was a restless innovator, experimenting with a wide variety of mediums ― painting, photography, film and sculpture ― as a way to illustrate his belief that life, art and technology are all interrelated. He believed in working with new materials and experimenting with new techniques ― painting on clear plexiglass, Formica, and aluminum as well as playing with time-lapse photography. Moholy-Nagy’s experimental photography stretched the boundaries of the medium with his off-kilter perspectives, extreme close-ups, and camera-free reactions on light sensitive paper.
Moholy-Nagy has had a strong influence on many artists over the last few decades. The exhibition shows how he foreshadowed kinetic art, Minimalism, conceptual art and experimental film.
Born in Hungary in 1895, Moholy-Nagy was taught modernist techniques in an art school in Budapest that he attended after serving in the army during World War I. After the war, he moved to Berlin and became enamored by Dadaism, Surrealism, Cubism and Russian Constructivism. He came to prominence as a professor at the Bauhaus art school in Germany (1923–28). He left Germany due to the rise of Nazism and moved to Chicago in 1937 where he founded the New Bauhaus in Chicago, a school that continues today as the Institute of Design at the Illinois Institute of Technology.
Perhaps what is most striking about this exhibition is not only the scope of his work, but how well the collection is organized in numerous rooms. One room is dedicated to 38 photomontages that are brought together for the first time. Another room displays the three “telephone paintings” that were made in Berlin where Moholy–Nagy dictated the paintings’ specifications by telephone (a relatively new invention at the time) to a foreman of a sign factory. The three paintings (works in baked enamel on copper) were then made by factory workers. The fact that the paintings were made by ordinary laborers demonstrates his commitment to a non-elitist approach to creative work. Another room is dedicated to all six photographs of Moholy–Nagy’s plunging views from the Berlin Radio Tower. There is also a room that displays Room of the Present ― a contemporary fabrication of an exhibition space conceived by the artist in 1930, but not realized in his lifetime.
Also highlighted in this exhibition is Moholy–Nagy’s time in the United States where his art went through an artistic metamorphosis ― from planar painterly abstractions to three-dimensional hybrids of painting and sculpture. This is the first time that the artist’s late works in plexiglass—wall-mounted, freestanding, and hanging in midair— are brought together.
The exhibition concludes with Moholy-Nagy’s recorded voice along with a projection of abstract color slides of blurred headlights and taillights on Lake Shore Drive at night.
Perhaps Moholy-Nagy’s philosophy about life and art can best be summed up by his credo, that appears in this exhibition’s introductory wall text, “Every citizen should be a student, and every student should make art.”
This exhibition debuted at New York’s Guggenheim Museum last spring. It closes in Chicago on January 3 and will then travel to its final destination, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
To see László Moholy-Nagy’s master works, be sure to visit his exhibition before it closes. You can also learn more about Moholy-Nagy and his art by watching this short video produced by the Art Institute of Chicago.