In 1921, Aleksandr Rodchenko chose to stop painting, sacrificing his art to the Russian Revolution. His action -- in retrospect one of the most poignant in twentieth-century art -- was the gesture of a true visionary. Intoxicated by the dream of another world, Rodchenko, much like a mystic who yields his private ambitions to become a wandering preacher, gave himself utterly to the transformation of mankind. There was no time in 1921 for an arcane personal art. He would have to change the eye of the people, recasting every aspect of the world -- from teapots to chess boards -- and use the new methods of communication, such as photographs, magazine design, and advertising, to create exalted states of mind. He would collaborate, militate, inspire, instigate.
Since Rodchenko worked in many different areas, his art can easily slip between the cracks in today's specialized museum world. Appropriately, the retrospective of his work now at the Museum of Modern Art is a collaboration among three curators -- Magdalena Dabrowski and Peter Galassi, respectively the curators of drawing and photography at MOMA, and Leah Dickerman, an art historian at Stanford. Apart from its intrinsic interest, this particular exhibition sets our own period into sharp relief. Rodchenko (1891?1956) was arguably the first "media" artist, but one whose vision now seems to come from Mars no less than from Marx -- that is how out-of-sync he is with today's ironic sensibility. With the exception of some of his peers, such as Kasimir Malevich, no other artist of the century gave himself so passionately to the future. None now appears locked so painfully in the past.
Like other revolutionary Russian artists, Rodchenko seemed to fashion his drawings and paintings from air, heat, and mysterious, floating geometries. He would fling the fundamental building blocks of existence into the air, letting them freely find their new utopian form. His rejection of painting was startling partly because -- in contrast to an artist like Duchamp, who also gave up the brush -- he was one of the strongest painters in his milieu. But he brought the same liberating sensation of release to his other work, too. He not only designed a perpetual-motion machine but also became one himself in the days when Russian artists still remained free. He whirled through early Soviet culture, shaking out the dust and inventing the look of the revolution. Even in a museum environment, you can sense his palpable excitement in designing posters and book jackets.
As a manipulator of forms, Rodchenko had a paradoxical eye well suited to the new era. He liked strong and exclamatory images; his graphic design is full of punchy black shapes, more often rectilinear than soft or curved. At the same time, the heavy forms never weigh down their space. They have a certain lilt; the compositions can always breathe. To put it another way, Rodchenko's work appears bold but airborne, at once orderly and free. It generates revolutionary optimism through its visual feel, not just its literal subject matter. Rodchenko's faith in the possibility of creating a new man -- not only a new art -- is embodied in his Worker's Club 1925, originally exhibited at a Paris exposition and now partially reconstructed by MOMA. Here, workers would sit in a new kind of chair, listen to a new kind of speech, read a new kind of magazine. It's a room without shade. Clean, spare, functional -- as bright as a marching song at a parade.
Rodchenko's marvelous photography -- for which he is now best remembered -- tilted the world in a new direction. He would typically skew the angle of his shots, so that our eyes are not dominated by the usual dead-on rectangle. He was trying to break the habits of seeing and slide space itself into new dimensions. Just as in his other work, however, his rigorous compositional sense visually "holds" the elements of the photograph in place; we look down at the heads of workers eating lunch, but the unexpected perspective creates no uncertainty. So many of his photographs convey hope without being the least bit canned, prettified, or sentimental. In Walking Figure, the stride of the man may appear grotesque and puppetlike. But his shadow springs to life. Even Rodchenko's famous photograph Pioneer Girl, in which he makes a monument of clear-eyed youth, is unexpected. The face is beautiful but not pretty.
As Stalin consolidated his power in the late twenties, he shut down the free expression of artists. Only propaganda was then permissible. Rodchenko's art was too playful, earthy, and honest for the earnest pieties that became the rule. But he tried. In the last room of the exhibit are some photographs that celebrate Stalin and depict the construction of a canal between the White Sea and the Baltic, which was built with gulag labor at the cost of about 200,000 lives. What is remarkable about these images is that Rodchenko tries to lie -- but cannot, quite. The work is still excellent; but whether consciously or not, he takes the air out of the images. His diagonals press the image down. A censor would not notice, but his figures now appear visually bound. Even the sky seems imprisoned.
Among the great sadnesses of modern culture is the alienation of serious art from its larger society. For a brief moment, modern artists in Russia dared to rethink the place of Western art, refusing to settle for the making of either luxury goods or personal statements; their hope was quasi-religious, evoking a culture that dreams together without the divisions of class. In many ways, of course, the dream was naïve; no worker made of flesh and blood would actually enjoy hanging out in Rodchenko's Workers' Club. It was a powerful vision nonetheless, and the progression in this exhibit from airy exaltation to crushing reality is devastating. The curators have made an error, I think, in not presenting a sampling of the work Rodchenko created during his shadowy last twenty years. Rodchenko is not just an artist who makes art that is better here but worse there. He is a figure in a modern parable. So we should be forced to confront, at the end, his small paintings of circus clowns.