Kasimir Malevich, an emblematic work returns to auction

[17 Apr 2018]

Emblematic works by Malevich are sought after by major collectors and museums worldwide. Christie’s is offering a Suprematist painting from 1916 at its Impressionist & Modern Art Evening Sale in New York on 15 May. This is not the work’s first appearance at a public sale…

A Russian artist of Polish origin, Kasimir Sevrinovitch MALEVICH (1878-1935) started and theorised one of the most radical currents of 20th century abstraction, Suprematism. After initial works in the Impressionist style during the early 1900s, his palette became distinctly Fauvist around 1907 / 1908 and he began experimenting with avant-garde aesthetics. In the early 1910s he discovered Futurism and Cubism and appears to have assimilated all of the artistic ‘innovations’ of the era, eventually moving towards an increasingly pure and vibrant form of abstraction. In 1915, Malevitch definitively revolutionized the world of painting with what is considered the first monochrome in history: the Black Square. With its white margins, the Black Square is not a monochrome; but it was nevertheless a radical idea, not far from the monochrome. In December 1915, the work was presented among 39 Suprematist works by the most avant-garde artists of the time in an exhibition titled 0.10 (Zero-Ten). Malevich’s contribution appears to have given a final blow to traditional painting and renewed the painting medium at the same time. For Malevich, Black Square marked the death of something old and the birth of a new era leading painting towards a greater truth, a pure feeling. The famous Black Square, one version of which has been in the MoMA since 1936, is an icon of the Russian avant-garde. A second Black Square was created in 1923 for the Venice Biennale, and a third for the Tretyakov Gallery.

Malevich is one of the world’s rarest Modern artists on the secondary market. This scarcity is partly the result of the ban that was imposed on abstract art in the Soviet Union. The Suprematist works and sketches and all the documents tracing the history of the movement might well have disappeared entirely without the involvement of two clandestine collectors, Nikolai Khardzhiev and George Costakis.

Often, several years go by between the emergence of important works on the market, and in total only seven paintings have been auctioned over the last 10 years. Suprematist compositions are almost impossible to find. Those that have emerged at auctions in recent years have been the subject of recent restitutions to the artist’s rightful heirs, often after lengthy court battles.

A new record expected

Malevich’s 1916 Suprematist Composition offered at Christie’s Impressionist and Modern Art Evening Sale on 15 May 2018 in New York is considered one of the finest and most complex of the artist’s early revolutionary images. The numerous coloured geometric elements in the composition perfectly embody his new vision, that of a work containing its own universe and its own movement. This masterpiece was exhibited at the Malevich retrospective in Moscow in 1919, then in Berlin, before being hidden, along with other important works, for much of the 1930s.

In 2008 the painting was returned to the Malevich family heirs in agreement with the Stedelijk Museum. A few months later Sotheby’s was entrusted with the sale of the painting through a prestige auction in New York. The work reached a new record price of $60 million (Suprematisch Composition, 3 November 2008), burying his previous record of $17 million set on 11 May 2000 at Phillips New York. Ten years after setting that superb record, the same Suprematist Composition could well push the bar significantly higher. That, in any case, is what Christie’s is hoping… and if it succeeds, it may well be a ‘historic’ sale.