Steve Johnson. Chicago Tribune
The merits of the major retrospective examining Laszlo Moholy-Nagy at the Art Institute of Chicago are many.
It brings together prime examples from the astonishing range of work created by Moholy, as he is typically called, despite his life being cut short by illness at age 51. The Hungarian native, who would also live in Berlin, Holland, England and Chicago, made films; crafted experimental photographs; created rigid geometric paintings and colorful, playful ones; bent Plexiglas and metal into futuristic sculptures; wrote influential works of art theory aiming to take artmaking off of its pedestal; designed sets for stage plays and advertisements for a Minnesota haberdashery and the London Underground; and generally embraced the materials and the mass-production ethic of the modern age.
The three panels in the 1923 work "Construction in Enamel" were made "in fact at a sign factory," the show explains, and Moholy boasted that "one can even order them by telephone." The number of future conventions this anticipates, in artmaking and in commerce, is stunning.
"Moholy really did seem to make the future come earlier," said Matthew Witkovsky, the Art Institute curator who organized the show along with Karole Vail at New York's Guggenheim Museum, where the show debuted in spring to a warm reception, and Carol Eliel at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the show's final destination. "He jumped into modern art midstream."
"Moholy-Nagy: Future Present," which opened Sunday at the Art Institute, is worth seeing, too, strictly as a value proposition: As with most Art Institute special exhibitions, there is no additional charge, and it packs the museum's Regenstein Hall with some 300 objects, offering a thorough exploration of the artist's work and life, with surprises around every bend. Unlike, say, the 2014 Magritte exhibition "The Mystery of the Ordinary," which by its end began to feel like many examples of similar things, the Moholy show constantly shifts moods and media, mirroring the artist's breadth of intellectual interest.
"Every citizen should be a student, and every student should make art" is the exhibition's introductory wall-text summation of a Moholy credo.
In its last galleries, covering Moholy's nine years in Chicago that represented both wartime refuge and a fresh start, it tells a major art story that, here, is also a local story. Moholy, who lived in Lincoln Park, died of leukemia here in 1946 and is buried in Graceland Cemetery, not only made paintings in a fresh new style while in the city, he embraced the malleability of the new material Plexiglas, and he founded a school.
He had made his reputation teaching at the original Bauhaus, in Germany in the 1920s; out of the Chicago wreckage of the New Bauhaus, which he was lured here to found and direct but quickly ran out of money, he created what lives on as the Institute of Design at the Illinois Institute of Technology. "He remains the most renowned international modern artist ever to have resided in Chicago," the Art Institute says in publicity materials for "Future Present."
But perhaps the show's most potent achievement is this: It helps people who may know the artist more by name — and it's a challenging one for the American tongue; the second part is pronounced "naj" — and by dim sense of his reputation than by any actual work. "Future Present" will change that, whether you come away moved by specific works — the vivid, seemingly delighted abstraction of 1941's "CH B3," say, or the 1946 sculpture Dual Form with Chromium Rods that hangs at the show's entry — or dazzled, a little, by the totality of a man who wrote about democratizing art and who so thoroughly seemed to live that theory.
Some of Moholy's best works, such as his collages, showcase "his original take on unoriginality," said Witkovsky. And he sought out new materials — paintings on plastic and metal, for instance — in part to demonstrate that "the world is programmed, but you can push to play with that program," the curator said.
Moholy's bouncing from one art form and even from one job to another left him open to charges of dilettantism, acknowledged Witkovsky. Although that may have done damage to his reputation, the exhibition, Witkovsky said, argues against that interpretation, demonstrating his facility in many mediums. The galleries show off "Moholy the polymath," he said. "The man of many abilities, but also many registers."
Joyce Tsai is a Moholy scholar at the University of Iowa who has seen "Future Present" in Chicago and New York and organized "The Shape of Things to Come," a 2015 exhibition of Moholy-Nagy's paintings.
She, too, thinks his reputation as "a guy who just phones it in, quite literally," as a theorist whose "conceptual brilliance was compensation for his inadequate hand," is being put to rest by shows such as hers and by this big new retrospective, the first in America in half a century.
"The strength of these retrospective shows is they have allowed us to see how much Moholy thinks with his hands and theorizes in practice," she said. "When we're willing to take a closer look at the things that he made, there's a kind of consistency and precision you don't necessarily expect if you come into the show thinking he's a dilettante and thinking he's only a theorist."
But "Future Present" doesn't shy away from his writing, his theoretical work. His book "The New Vision" has been taught since it was written and continues to be so, Tsai said. And the exhibition devotes one, 48-foot-wide, mostly text wall to excerpts of Moholy's teachings.
"He's saying, Here's how to be an artist," Witkovsky said. "Be in tune to your time, but don't give in to your time. Collaborate. Communicate."