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to jan. 21, 2007

“All is well that begins well and has no end,” reads the caption on one production lithograph El Lissitzky created to commemorate the 1913 Russian opera, Victory Over the Sun. Designed in part by the visionary painter Kazimir Malevich and written in an invented language called Zaum (za-oom, meaning “beyonsense”), the Futurist opera crystallized the visions of a generation of artists who were busy remaking society from scratch. The 12 lithographs from the artist’s 1922 edition included in the Phillips Collection’s “El Lissitzky: Futurist Portfolios” exhibition reveal the artist in context. New Man(pictured), a composition based on parabolas and asymptotic intersections, pays homage to Malevich with a bold, red square placed right in the gut of the figure. Lissitzky shaded his sharp geometry and severe stars with gray-scale, black, gold, and red schemes—a Soviet “look” that served generations of artists. In developing his architecturally minded forms, Lissitzky invented the Proun (pro-oon, an acronym for either “architectonic design of Unovis” or “design for the construction of the new”), a spare spatial construct conceived in an effort to harness the productive potential of the suprematist plane. Lissitzky never fully followed the constructivists, especially in the full-gear transition to concrete-and-steel productivism that occupied them through the 1920s; only one of the artist’s Prounen, No. 6, was ever realized, and it was neither industrial nor sculpture. That design—a stellar and forward-thinking installation plan that came to be called the Proun Room when it was executed in 1923 in Berlin—is the source for the all-over “abstract room” installation (courtesy of contemporary artist Hideyo Okamura) that frames the Prounen and Victory lithographs in the Phillips show. For the most part, Okamura’s room amounts to walls painted to look a little like Lissitzky’s. It’s clumsy, but the installation echoes Lissitzky’s own homage work, and it’s the kind of totalistic gesture that dominated Lissitzky’s day. The exhibition is on view from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday and noon to 7 p.m. Sunday, to Sunday, Jan. 21, 2007, at the Phillips Collection, 600 21st St. NW. (Kriston Capps)