Hungarian-born László Moholy-Nagy is considered one of the most versatile and inventive artists of the 20th century. Prolific in photography, film, painting, sculpture and graphic design, he sought to merge art with the latest technological advances of his time.
A retrospective of Moholy-Nagy’s work, the first in the United States in nearly half a century, opened Feb. 12 at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA). “Moholy-Nagy: Future Present” was curated in collaboration with the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York and the Art Institute of Chicago, where it already has been presented. The exhibition, including more than 250 pieces representing some dozen media, reveals the many facets of an avant-garde artist with little name recognition outside academic circles.
“He thought about art as a very holistic project,” said Carol Eliel, curator of modern art at LACMA. “And he believed in the value of art. He believed in harnessing the strengths of technology to help serve mankind through art.”
Moholy-Nagy (1895-1946) pursued his art like a scientist or engineer, adopting new forms and materials to achieve his desired outcome. Some of his abstract sculptures incorporate Plexiglas to gain a greater level of reflectiveness and light. He made photograms by placing objects on photosensitive paper to create shadowy, ghost-like figures. And he incorporated new types of metals into his sculptures.
“The reality of our century is technology: the invention, construction and maintenance of machines,” Moholy-Nagy wrote in a 1922 article. “To be a user of machines is to be of the spirit of this century. Machines have replaced the transcendental spiritualism of past eras.”
Moholy-Nagy was born Jewish but later converted to Calvinism. He attended an art school in Budapest after serving in the Austro-Hungarian army during World War I. He was heavily influenced by the art movements of the time, such as Dadaism and Russian Constructivism.
He taught at the Bauhaus, an influential German school of art and design, at its Weimar and Dessau campuses. After the Nazis closed the school, he moved to Amsterdam, London and then Chicago in 1937 to start the New Bauhaus school, which later became the Institute of Design, part of the Illinois Institute of Technology.
He had a profound impact on the Bauhaus, inspiring a generation of German and American students to pursue a modernist approach to art. After he settled in the U.S., he adopted English as his main language, writing letters to Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius (a native German speaker) in English.
“There was this incredible sense of being in the present, and a sense of optimism that whatever got thrown at you, you could deal with it and prevail,” Eliel said. “There is this sense of hope and optimism in this work that is incredibly engaging.”
The physical experience of seeing Moholy-Nagy’s works is critical, whether it’s the flickering light of his black-and-white films, the reflective light on the mounted glass-coated works, or the shifting shadows created by his sculptures. It’s also worth observing the intricacy of his drawings and paintings. His second wife, Sibyl, remembered him as “like a gem cutter, adding with infinite patience facet after facet to his intuitive vision.”
While his choice of media varied wildly, there are several themes or motifs that reveal themselves in Moholy-Nagy’s entire body of work, such as light, movement, transparency and the use of new materials.
For example, “Nickel Sculpture With Spiral” (1921), made early in his career, used nickel-plated metal, “which was an industrial fabrication method, not a traditional art-making medium,” Eliel said. “And then it incorporates this spiral with its sense of movement and has a very reflective surface so that light plays off the surface, so that as you walk around the spiral, you see the light adding to this sense of movement.”
Moholy-Nagy also made traditional oil paintings with a sense of transparency by applying colors to the canvas in a way that appears as if he’s layered colors. For example, the oil painting “A 19” (1927) features rectangles and a circle that overlap and intersect, but his use of paint creates a sense of light shining through transparent layers.
Toward the end of his life, Moholy-Nagy was fascinated by Plexiglas, a new material being used for airplane windshields and other industrial applications. He started making sculptures out of the material by heating, bending and shaping it. At times, he made mobiles out of it, or 3-D paintings with incisions that created shadows, incorporating light and transparency into his work.
The exhibition is organized chronologically rather than by medium. Moholy-Nagy worked in various media simultaneously, although there are episodic bursts of one medium or another. Eliel chose to place film projections onto the walls next to photographs, paintings and posters displaying his graphic designs.
The installation design is key to the effectiveness of this show, which was previously on display at the Guggenheim and the Art Institute of Chicago. It was designed by LA-based Johnston Marklee, a highly-regarded design firm currently working on the Drawing Institute building at The Menil Collection in Houston. Mark Lee, partner at Johnston Marklee, explained why he thinks modernism and the aesthetic values of the Bauhaus are still so influential.
“I think for us the Bauhaus and the functionalists, there’s a latent contradiction between what they preach and what they show. In a way their rhetoric is very dogmatic, often times, like form follows function, in a kind of dictatorial way. But the work that they did was so beautiful at the same time. I think this is an attraction of the work and it’s just very evident in the early work of Moholy-Nagy. I think somehow this lure of modernism is still very strong for us,” Lee said.
Moholy-Nagy also was a teacher and a writer, and he organized and curated exhibitions that traveled the world. One senses, overall, a profound sense of curiosity in his work, and a belief in humanity and what can be achieved through art.
“I think he wanted to really have the notion of visual literacy, in as broad as possible of terms, become an integral part of people’s lives, and he felt that this would improve people’s lives in many different ways,” Eliel said.
Also on display at LACMA is a large-scale installation, the “Room of the Present,” a re-creation of an exhibition space Moholy-Nagy originally conceived in 1930 but never realized during his lifetime. It includes photos, film productions and industrial objects that showcase Moholy-Nagy’s embrace of technology.
Moholy-Nagy died of leukemia in 1946, at the age of 51, leaving behind a rich legacy that influenced minimalist sculptors, abstract expressionist painters and graphic designers of the 1950s and ’60s. Seeing his wide variety of work in one place offers a sense of just how inventive and engaging his art was. One can’t help but think of how excited he would be by contemporary technologies — virtual reality, smartphone apps, 3-D printers — to reach new possibilities in art.
“Moholy-Nagy: Future Present” will be on display at LACMA from Feb. 12 through June 18. For more information, visit LACMA’s website.
A version of this article first appeared in the Jewish Journal.