The future was then: Hideyo Okamura channels El Lissitzky
All good feuds must come to an end. The United States and the former Soviet Union. The Hatfields and the McCoys. The Hook art writer and the University of Virginia Art Museum.
I decided to climb down from my arty high horse when I learned what the Museum was planning for its current exhibition, “El Lissitzky: Futurist Portfolios.” For two weeks in September, contemporary artist Hideyo Okamura occupied the Museum’s south gallery– a.k.a. the “Pine Room”– and transformed it into a modern work of art designed to showcase El Lissitzky’s visionary prints.
Russian-born Lissitzky’s heyday in the 1920s was brief but forever changed art. Lissitzky leapt through a window of opportunity when the Russian Revolution lifted restrictions on Jews. Trained as an architect and engineer, he turned his back on figural art to envision a new technological world in the abstract, exploring geometric constructions that played off perceptions and expectations of spatial relationships. His futuristic compositions were so radical that Lissitzky coined a new word for them: “Proun.”
Hobnobbing with like-minding artists in Europe, Lissitzky met German artist Kurt Schwitters, who introduced him to the modern art-supporting Kestner Society. The association enlisted Lissitzky to create two portfolios of lithographs for its members.
The first portfolio, Proun, comprising a cover, a title page, and six plates, hangs in the south end of the transformed Pine Room. The geometric compositions are spare and deceptively direct. Yet Lissitzky manipulates the circles, lines, and angular objects so they appear to shift between two- and three-dimensions, sometimes defying gravity.
Plate number 6 depicts an interior that elides art and architecture, an idea Lissitzky attempted in several German shows. It also serves as the basis for Okamura’s surrounding environment. Using similar wall compositions, Okamura adopts Proun’s sober palette of black, grey, and dark taupe for this end of the exhibition, while progressively introducing more color as the space moves north, where the second portfolio, Victory Over the Sun, hangs. Reflecting Lissitzky’s embrace of the rule-breaking freedom of geometric abstraction, Okamura liberates Lissitzky’s elements from their frames, letting them range around the room in carefully constructed visual moments.
The interplay between Lissitzky’s prints and Okamura’s space is dynamic. Each enlivens the other. Without Lissitzky’s portfolios, Okamura’s exquisitely detailed room would lack context. Likewise, Lissitzky’s 1920s prints gain new vitality from Okamura’s staging.
Stellar both visually and intellectually, “El Lissitzky: Futurist Portfolios” is not to be missed. I’m glad the past didn’t keep from me seeing the future.
"El Lissitzky: Futurist Portfolios" is on view at the University of Virginia Art Museum through December 28. 155 Rugby Road. 924-3592.