Giacomo Balla, Futurist Suit, c. 1920
Giacomo Balla, Futurist Suit, c. 1920

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Consider the case of Malevich. Unlike his constructivist contemporaries, Malevich imagined a purely artistic null space that he called “zaum”—a space beyond conscious conception that he explored through his own personal art movement, suprematism. Three small pencil studies of Malevich’s from circa 1917, the year the Bolsheviks took power, are on view. They may seem absurdly reductive—they can elicit groans from bored students in art-appreciation courses—so it’s a pleasant surprise to see these particular modest works firsthand. In one study, a dark square sits at an odd angle in the upper right-hand corner of a small scrap of paper; inside the square is a small white cross. Both shapes are enclosed in an irregular, square format. The delicate shading and the wavering freehand line might soften the viewer to otherwise uncompromising, stark forms.

Not on display are his later works, in which figurative elements return: Those circles and squares became Russian peasant women toiling in the fields. The union of proletarian artists decided to put an end to bourgeois abstraction, decreeing that the people’s art would henceforth be social realism. Malevich tried to find professional validation through his return to figuration, but it didn’t work. Falling out of favor with Soviet authorities, he died penniless in 1935.

Knowledge of modern art’s history of violence would give an entirely different cast to the futurist part of the exhibition. Futurism, we might gather from the show, was Italy’s motion-happy movement—it was all about driving really fast and dreaming about burning down museums. Carlo Carrà’s futurist poem, “Graphic Rhythm With Airplane (Homage to Bleriot)” (1914), is a little word puzzle in which clumps of ersatz lettering take the shape of the fuselage, wings, and rudder of a plane. Other futurist artifacts here include Giacomo Balla’s handmade suit—large spiky triangles of black, yellow, and orange felt, sewn together into a rather loud jacket and pants.

Playful? Yes. But consider the words of F.T. Marinetti, futurist leader and onetime Mussolini ally: “We will glorify war—the world’s only hygiene—militarism, patriotism, the destructive gesture of freedom bringers, beautiful ideas worth dying for,” he wrote. Clearly, whether modern artists were agitating on the left as they did in Russia or on the right as they did in fascist Italy, their efforts to remake the world were not benign.

The one place in the exhibit where fears regarding the way humans seemed on the verge of being turned into machines, swept up in extreme ideologies, or killed in terrible wars really register are in the film clips. Pieces like Len Lye’s Rainbow Dance (1936) radiate a playful consumer optimism: Brightly colored cartoon fish swim by, a monochrome figure swats at a tennis ball, and concentric rings of color turn hypnotically. But then there’s a scene from I Accuse, a 1919 film by French director Abel Gance, in which zombie soldiers appear to be descending on the townspeople who benefited from their sacrifices. At the end of the short clip, the soldiers stand in formation, spelling out the film’s title with their bodies, before melodramatically dropping to the ground, stone dead.

Leni Riefenstahl is automatically creepy just for being Hitler’s fave filmmaker, and the scenes from the 1936 Berlin Olympics in her 1938 film, Olympia, are troubling. Though it doesn’t feature zombies, the film’s figures move silently, in unison, to unnerving effect. Views of hundreds of identically dressed gymnasts are superimposed over one another. The camerawork and editing was revolutionary at the time, and even now the figures look strange and disorienting; human play is rendered unreal and automatic. These people are interchangeable parts in a vast inhuman order, the limits of which cannot be fully seen.

But despite these exceptions, the show mostly offers evidence of the giddy rush of the modern without acknowledging its fallout. Fordism, a universal culture, and the transformation of everyday life came with consequences. Modernism brought us wave after wave of cool stuff; it also brought about the loss of much local culture and tradition, as well as feelings of isolation and dehumanization. The strategy of modernism was to eliminate difference—as architect Kenneth Frampton once put it, modernists bulldozed the landscape level, creating “a condition of absolute placelessness.” In the fine arts, this move toward purification led to high formalism and art that was only about itself. Those ideas were eventually repudiated by fine artists and architects, but the look of modernism is still with us—still paradoxically synonymous with not just wealth and authority but also dispiriting mass production and centralized power. That the modern could not just satisfy the wants and needs of people but be used to manufacture needs—to create fictions in which people would live—is likely something that its innovators would’ve regretted.