László Moholy-Nagy: A 19, 1927, oil and graphite on canvas, 31½ by 37⅝ inches; at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. © 2016 Hattula Moholy-Nagy / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

László Moholy-Nagy was a young Constructivist in Berlin when, in 1923, he accepted the architect Walter Gropius’s invitation to teach at the Bauhaus in Weimar. Moholy-Nagy’s democratic embrace of new technologies and mediums had a colossal influence on the school’s direction and legacy—and, thus, on modern visual culture. As revealed by the more than three hundred paintings, sculptures, photographs, films, and other works exhibited at the Guggenheim Museum in “Moholy-Nagy: Future Present”—a retrospective that the museum co-organized with the Art Institute of Chicago, where it is currently on view, and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, where it will open in February—Moholy-Nagy was a kind of artist-scientist committed to establishing a new taxonomy of forms through relentless, empirical experimentation. 

Moholy-Nagy took over the Bauhaus’s preliminaries course as well as its metal workshop. Under his tutelage, Bauhaus students produced work using modern materials, tools, and machines—his approach signaling a departure from the quasi-mystical impressionism of his predecessor, Johannes Itten, toward the idea of the Gesamtkunstwerk, or “total work of art.” Art, design, architecture, technology, and teaching were unified in the holistic vision he shared with Gropius of a more rational (and happier and less violent) future. It was a bold vision, and its impact is still widely felt today. The shimmering surfaces of glass and steel in modern architecture; the spare functionalism of minimalist interior design; the notion that beauty and mass production were not inimical to each other—all owe debts to the Bauhaus. 

Born into a Jewish family in Hungary in 1895, Moholy-Nagy led an itinerant life that seems to have embodied the vicissitudes of his time. He fought in World War I, after which, in 1919, a counterrevolution against the short-lived Hungarian Soviet Republic that he supported drove him from his country. He went briefly to Vienna and then to Berlin, where he encountered the Dadaists. Political currents would sweep him through several German cities during the heady years of the Weimar Republic, as the Bauhaus was forced to move from Weimar to Dessau to Berlin before the school was closed for good in 1933, amid the rise of the Third Reich. In the years leading up to World War II, Moholy-Nagy moved to the Netherlands, then to London, and finally to Chicago, where in 1937 he became the founding director of the New Bauhaus, today the Illinois Institute of Technology’s Institute of Design. He died of leukemia in 1946, at age fifty-one.

As the Guggenheim presentation demonstrated, Moholy-Nagy’s earliest works reflect most directly the Constructivism that would influence his entire oeuvre. Pieces like Red Collage (ca. 1921) and the painting 19 (1921), with their flat, economical assemblies of geometric shapes, strongly resemble compositions by Kazimir Malevich and El Lissitzky. But where Malevich eschewed all allusion, many of Moholy-Nagy’s paintings from this period, such as The Bicyclist (Still Life), 1920/22, an almost Cubist attempt to render its subject, show a lingering attachment to representation. That attachment, however, was short-lived, soon replaced entirely by an allegiance to abstraction and reappearing only at the end of his life. Increasingly, the artist embraced what he considered the objective qualities of creation; he was not, as he would explain in a 1938 book, “immediately interested in the personal quality of expression which is usually called ‘art,’ but in its primordial, basic elements, the ABC of expression itself.” 

Moholy-Nagy’s use of industrial materials (metals, plastics, laminates) in his work started early. The sculpture Nickelplastik mit Spirale (Nickel Sculpture with Spiral, 1921), although it took cues from works by Russian figures like Vladimir Tatlin, innovated with its reflective surfaces and delicate spiral of razor-thin, nickel-plated iron. Moholy-Nagy’s first photograms surfaced around 1922 and presaged the play with layering, translucence, light, and shadow that he went on to enact more fully in his later mixed-medium works. 

While at the Bauhaus, Moholy-Nagy became a prolific photographer and developed a concept he called “New Vision.” “The photographic camera,” he explained in his book Malerei Photographie Film (Painting Photography Film, 1925), “reproduces the purely optical image and therefore shows the optically true distortions, deformations, foreshortenings, etc., whereas the eye, together with our intellectual experience, supplements perceived optical phenomena by means of association and formally and spatially creates a conceptual image.” He wanted an “objective vision” that was “optically true” to replace what had been “stamped upon our vision by great individual painters.” His deep-focus photographs like Photograph (Berlin Radio Tower), ca. 1928–29, a vertiginous view of the ground from a radio tower, were meant to capture that truth—offering perspectives so unfamiliar that, as he noted, many people found the images false and disconcerting. Similarly, his photos of human subjects do not feel like typical portraiture. Blurred, magnified, printed in negative, or shot from extreme angles or intensely shallow focus, they, too, were experiments for the New Vision. 

The chain-driven, kinetic sculpture Lichtrequisit einer elektrischen Bühne (Light Prop for an Electric Stage, 1930) serves as the apotheosis for the sort of light-play that Moholy-Nagy had previously pursued in his photograms. A roughly five-foot-tall, motorized construction with lights affixed to its base, the work consists of assorted parts—perforated metal discs, metal grills, plexiglass pieces, an angled corkscrew-type implement—that rotate and turn, casting kaleidoscopic patterns of light and shadow on their surroundings. He continued such light-play, if more modestly, in a number of works in the 1930s and ’40s—most notably his “Space Modulators,” which he called “vehicles for choreographed luminosity.” These works take various forms: some are simply paintings; others are sculptures suspended from the ceiling; still others are painting-sculpture hybrids that hang on the walls. Many of the examples at the Guggenheim were of this last type. A number of them consist of single rectangular plexiglass pieces, sometimes warped, that have been incised with lines, painted with geometric compositions, and/or dotted with holes, their reflective, shadow-casting surfaces creating shifting optical effects.

Through war, exile and, finally, disease, Moholy-Nagy clung to the idea, informed by his left-wing politics, that human society was perfectible through art, technology, and industry. His work remained as resolute and unsentimental into his final days as the disease that killed him. There is a danger to this kind of clinical approach to art-making, as there is whenever art is made subservient to ideology. It is an unfortunate truth that much of the twentieth-century architecture and design we most associate with bureaucracy and state-run attempts at imposing social order bears the stamp of what the Bauhaus and its Russian forebears introduced. Still, a kind of moody pathos emerges from Moholy-Nagy’s tireless inquiries, especially toward the end of his career. Facing death, it seems, he arrived at a marriage between the personal and the objective in his work. In his “Leuk” paintings from the mid-1940s—in their unique way, his most touching works—he reprised a form of representation by rendering organic-looking shapes that referenced the leukemia that was killing him. The paintings magnified and externalized his assassin, subjecting it to his usual uncompromising rigor. A vulnerability emerges and, with it, a deeper sense of the human behind the ideas.