Is László Moholy-Nagy the most important artist of the twentieth century?

ArticleNoam M. Elcott at Artforum:

“MOHOLY-NAGY: FUTURE PRESENT” at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, the artist’s first major American retrospective in nearly half a century and surely among the most stunning ever presented, compels us to ask a once-unthinkable question: His accepted biography is less exceptional than it is emblematic of artists of his generation. An assimilated Jew from Central Europe forced into exile after the short-lived Communist regime in Hungary, Moholy relocated to Berlin as the city became a capital of the avant-garde. He joined the Bauhaus and helped shepherd it toward a unity of art and technology. Forced into exile again, now due to the German fascists, he settled in Chicago to found the New Bauhaus. His American pedagogy and publications shaped the contours of art and design for much of the post–World War II period, which he barely lived to see, dying in 1946 at the age of fifty-one.

In the intervening years, Moholy’s reputation has suffered; he has been dismissed as a second-rate painter, a dilettante, and a halfhearted revolutionary. “Future Present,” however, made an eloquent, if convoluted, case for his primacy. The massive show, which was curated by Karole P. B. Vail, Matthew S. Witkovsky, and Carol S. Eliel, comprised some three hundred works in more than a dozen distinct and hybrid media, spanning photography of every stripe, paintings on myriad substrates, sculptures, printed matter, treatises, graphic design, films, exhibitions, theater, and works that still defy categorization. Yet objects were frustratingly grouped according to medium—paintings exalted in hallowed bays; photographs and photomontages (“photoplastics,” per Moholy’s neologism) bundled on floating gray walls; printed matter, including Moholy’s all-important books, trapped in vitrines; and Plexiglas sculptures perfectly lit on an ameboid platform.

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