Artwork Spotlight: László Moholy-Nagy’s “QXXI”

July 6, 2016
Aaron Ehrlich

Moholy-Nagy: Future Present, on view at the Guggenheim from May 27 through September 7, 2016, shows an artist thoroughly occupied with questions of space, light, and form, using any and all mediums at his disposal to answer them. A prominent faculty member at the Bauhaus, Moholy-Nagy was, along with his colleagues, a leader in emerging strains of thought in design, architecture and fine art.

László Moholy-Nagy, QXXI​, 1923. Oil on canvas, 37 x 30 in. Gift of Silvia Pizitz, 1966

László Moholy-Nagy, QXXI​, 1923. Oil on canvas, 37 x 30 in. Gift of Silvia Pizitz, 1966

The Grey Art Gallery’s QXXI, on view in the third bay of the Guggenheim’s rotunda, finds Moholy-Nagy at his most stripped down and literal. Executed in 1923, on the eve of his arrival at the Bauhaus, QXXI is an exercise in economy of form and color. On a foggy gray background that feigns depth with an ever-so-subtly shifting tonality sits a black circle, on the right-hand side about two-fifths down from the top. Heavy and imposing, the circle precedes Adolph Gottlieb, the dry blackness Ad Reinhardt: future present indeed.

A vertical white line interrupts the circle toward its right side, forcing a struggle between the three principal actors on the grayscale. Form’s primacy necessitates the stark coloration; surely such essential shapes would only be hampered by the dancing edges that accompany certain color combinations. In Moholy-Nagy’s practice composition is king, with scale, color and material all falling into rank towards that end.

That 98% of the painting’s surface is devoid of color in the traditional sense offers the crosshair at the bottom of the canvas a place of crucial importance. With this relatively miniscule addition, Moholy-Nagy incorporates a leitmotif of his work: color’s unique ability to add clarity and depth to otherwise linear compositions. Composed of a horizontal sprig of yellow bisected by a slightly shorter, thicker bar of navy, the form puts a tension on the painting’s primary passage while stretching the viewer’s gaze and beckoning him or her to consider the composition in its precise totality.

QXXI  is useful not only to our understanding of Maholy-Nagy’s output; it guides us toward a better understanding of the heady strains of modernism that birthed Color Field painting and Minimalist sculpture. Painters like Al Held, Ellsworth Kelly, and Kenneth Noland would essentially reverse-engineer Moholy-Nagy’s thought process, using color as a means to dictate composition. The Minimalist sculptors, too, would eventually come to see color as a tool to bolster and clarify form. Moholy-Nagy was not just a thought-leader of pre-war art, but a forerunner of so much post-war art, too.

Aaron Ehrlich is an undergraduate intern at the Grey Art Gallery. He is an Art History major in NYU’s College of Arts and Science, and will graduate in the Spring of 2017.



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