‘My highlight of 2018’ — Suprematist Composition by Kazimir Malevich

Max Carter, Head of the Impressionist and Modern Art department at Christie’s in New York, selects a painting that caused ‘one of art’s great thunderclap moments’ — and which sold for $85.8 million in May

It marked one of the giant leaps forward in the history of art. In 1915, Russia’s Kazimir Malevich began to produce paintings of complete, geometric abstraction. Unlike other artists of the time, whose work was shifting only gradually away from the representational, Malevich’s switch to abstract was sudden and premeditated.

In May 2018, one of his revolutionary pictures, Suprematist Composition, realised $85,812,500 in the Impressionist and Modern Art Evening Sale  at Christie’s New York — a record figure at auction not just for a work by Malevich, but by any Russian artist.

‘The painting has the virtue of having both historical importance and extraordinary beauty,’ says Max Carter, Head of the Impressionist and Modern Art department in New York. ‘Malevich’s take-up of abstraction — with little warning or preamble — was one of art’s great thunderclap moments.’

Kazimir Malevich (1878-1935), Suprematist Composition, 1916. 34⅞ x 28  in (88.7 x 71.1  cm). Sold for $85,812,500 on 15 May 2018 at Christie’s in New York

Kazimir Malevich (1878-1935), Suprematist Composition, 1916. 34⅞ x 28 in (88.7 x 71.1 cm). Sold for $85,812,500 on 15 May 2018 at Christie’s in New York

Composed of multiple, geometric forms in an array of colours, Suprematist Composition — like the other ‘Suprematist’ paintings Malevich made in a brief period up to 1919 — reflected the artist’s wish to experience the world in a state of higher, or supreme, consciousness. By dispensing with earthly subject matter, he said, ‘I feel myself transported into an abyss in which one feels the creative points of the universe around one.’

In the process, Malevich turned conventional assumptions about art on their head. Indeed, to many contemporaries, his approach seemed to announce the end of painting itself. (His protégé, the artist El Lissitzky, labelled Suprematism ‘the clear sign and plan for a definite new world never before experienced’.)

‘The painting is one of the purest statements of the 20th century, and has lost none of its revolutionary power’ — Max Carter

‘Malevich’s Suprematist abstractions broke with the past and articulated the future,’ says Carter. ‘These works are very rare — and great examples in private hands are rarer still. That’s what made Suprematist Composition  such a special work for us to bring to auction.’

Painted in 1916, it would be included in every major survey of Malevich’s Suprematist works during his lifetime, including what’s widely regarded as his landmark, international retrospective in Berlin in 1927. It boasts one of the artist’s most sophisticated interplays of colour and geometric form on a white canvas, and in May it comfortably surpassed its pre-sale estimate of $70 million.

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‘The painting is one of the purest statements of the 20th century,’ says Carter, ‘and has lost none of its revolutionary power in the century since it was painted. It will be a very long time before we see a work like it on the market again — alas!’