Comes The Revolution

This fall in New York has been touted as the season, and the raft of museum exhibitions is spectacular indeed. "The most beautiful show in the world" (as we called it) of Matisse continues to beflower the Modern, and Magritte is still playing three-card monte with viewers at the Met. But-at the risk of overdoing the superlatives-the most important show in town is "The Great Utopia: The Russian and Soviet Avant-Garde, 1915-1932," which fills the angled ramps and new tower galleries of the Guggenheim Museum. The uptown, Frank Lloyd Wright branch, that is.

The show arrives after stops in Frankfurt and Amsterdam, and stays through Dec. 15. Then, save for a severely abbreviated version at the State Tretiakov Gallery in Moscow, it disappears. Since much of it will return to the fractured remains of the Soviet Union, "The Great Utopia" may be our last comprehensive look at what is arguably the most crucial, and ultimately tragic, episode in modern art. With more than 800 objects-paintings, sculptures, posters, architectural drawings and models, porcelain services, textiles and one life-size Leonardo-esque glider-"The Great Utopia" tells the story of the one and only time that avant-garde art became the official art of any society. The show also boasts a huge catalog ($50) that'll bulk up the pectorals of the nerdiest art historian.

Although Russian experiments in modernist painting, poetry and theater reach back to the 1850s, progressive culture west of the Urals lagged far behind that of Paris and Italy. But once sharp and hungry Russian artists, like the painter Kazimir Malevich and the sculptor Vladimir Tatlin, got hold of cubism and futurism, they rode them at warp speed into pure abstract painting (Malevich's "suprematism") and engineering-like sculpture (Tatlin's "constructivism"). When the revolution came suddenly in October 1917, it found among its supporters a small clot of geniuses (Malevich and Tatlin, the painter-photographer-designer Aleksandr Rodchenko and the all-media visionary El Lissitzky) and a larger group of excellent artists (including an uplifting number of women such as Liubov Popova and Varvara Stepanova). They believed that they could break down not only the bourgeois barrier between fine and applied art but the whole Western separation between art and real life. Once Utopia arrived (in short order, the artists thought), art would permeate human endeavor to the point that every liberated worker would be at least partly an artist.

For the first seven or eight years after the storming of the Winter Palace, it all seemed to be working. Shows of the new painting sparkled with intensely wrought, brightly colored circles, triangles and squares. Sculpture turned into proposals for thrusting, midair platforms from which Lenin could address the proletariat. The most inventive burst of graphic design ever exploded into posters and signboards that used differences of scale, photo-derived imagery and dynamic typography in startling new ways. Theatrical costume and set design were reborn in a constructivist fervor. The great director Vsevolod Meyerhold proclaimed, "We want our backdrop to be either an iron pipe or the sea or something built by the New Man." Agitprop boxcar trains, festooned with suprematist emblems, set out into the vast, impoverished countryside to win the peasants over. Academic art schools were converted to the likes of the Petrograd Free State Art Educational Studios. Vanguardist Vasily Kandinsky was elected head of the Institute of Artistic Culture in Moscow. A "workshop without a supervisor" flourished for a while. Esthetic, if not political, paradise seemed just around the corner.

But Russia's civil strife dragged on. The peasantry balked at collectivization. The nascent industrial economy staggered. Perhaps, some artists reconsidered, art should try harder to win the revolution instead of prematurely celebrating its victory. Younger textile designers, for instance, who'd been trained by the likes of Stepanova and Popova in creating abstract geometric designs for the new classless society, began to make figurative patterns depicting the "leading role of the working class." Meanwhile, Stalin outmaneuvered Lenin's other potential successors and welded the lid on an absolute dictatorship. Suprematism and constructivism were regarded as too esoteric and elitist. The charge of "formalism" became art criticism's equivalent of a death sentence. "Socialist Realism," an idealized figuration jazzed up with cinematic angles and flattened space from the glory days of 1915-25, was declared the official style in 1934. Soviet art lumbered off down the road to bureaucratic bombast.

If ever an exhibition was heaven-sent for the Guggenheim's inverted-beehive architecture, this is it. Having endured reams of bad press for the clumsy mounting of shows like "The German Image 1960-88" (1989), the museum decided to gamble big by hiring Iraqi-born London architect Zaha Hadid, 42, to design the installation. Hadid, the grande dame of what's called deconstructivist architecture, was inspired as a student by the Russian avant-garde and figured that the Guggenheim could use an aggressive installation. "I was not trying to be violent to Frank Lloyd Wright--or too polite," she told NEWSWEEK'S Cathleen McGuigan. "His work is so strong it can sustain intervention."

The gamble pays off, in spades. Hadid hasn't designed the easiest exhibition to look at, but she gives us a wonderful idea of how dizzyingly advanced this art must have looked 75 years ago. The exhibition begins at the bottom of the building's trademark spiral ramp with an awesomely "empty" prologue room containing only Tatlin's 1914-15 "Counter-relief" and Malevich's small 1915 painting, "Red Square," hung 15 feet above the floor like some wordless manifesto of liberation. For "The Great Utopia," we must trudge counterclockwise up the ramp (opposite the usual elevator-fed Guggenheim route), seemingly refighting the artistic revolution with every step. At intervals, we veer off into the tower galleries for specialized glimpses of early abstract painting, or constructivist sculptures that hover like satellites over a white planetary bulge in the floor. The number of works thins out near the top. Here we see Malevich's poignant effort, in the late 1920s, to remake himself into a social realist: brightly colored pictures of noble peasants, drawn in a primitive Russian icon style. Finally, we encounter his sad, 1933 realist self-portrait in Renaissance garb. Nearby, like a specter of the crashed revolution, hangs Tatlin's skeletal glider.

Nevertheless, we leave the show pondering an enormous question: if great movements in art history are made by artists who subscribe to a common belief, does it matter what the belief is, as long as the artists believe in something? Italian Renaissance painting is largely religious in content, and it was made by artists who were, to varying degrees, believers. But for centuries the beauty and profundity of this art has quickened the hearts and jellied the knees of nonbelievers. From the point of view of a disinterested museum, religiousness might seem admirable but irrelevant.

On the other hand, it can be argued that in any Marxist revolution a big or little Stalin is inevitable, and that there can be no innocent supporters, however premature, of a dictatorship of the proletariat. Since the Russian Revolution eventually caused millions of violent deaths, perhaps its art, no matter how visually arresting, is at least a little complicit. Scholar Paul Wood, in his brilliant catalog essay "The Politics of the Avant-Garde," cautions both against condemning artists of "The Great Utopia," whose revolutionary passion preceded Stalin's taking power, and against letting them off the hook as total innocents. Art, like life, is complicated.

With the real-world collapse of European communism and the art-world appetite for appropriating cultural rubble, our take on "The Great Utopia" is convoluted further. We have a giddy taste for souvenirs of the old USSR. An American soft-drink maker now prints an offer on the labels of its root-beer bottles: "The Party's Over! Free Soviet Stuff." Just fill out the form and get some neat medals and pins, the kind worn by those humorless Ivans in suits tailored like refrigerator boxes. Fortunately, this stick-to-the-ribs show doesn't wash down like soda pop. "The Great Utopia" is both more than enough to look at and food for thought for a very long time.