Laws of Motion
It was supposed to be part of a revolution, he said. The Suprematists weren’t just looking to create art—they sought a universal connection and a new way of thinking for society. Utopia. Transcendence. To that end, Kazimir Malevich stripped realism from his canvases and instead inserted simple shapes, geometric abstraction meant to undress representation until all that remained was pure feeling. His Suprematist Composition: White on White was a prime example of this concept—a white square tilted on a white background of a slightly warmer tone. An almost monochromatic scene. Almost nothingness.
But what made me look up was when the professor broke from his notes and described the effect that the painting had had on some viewers. After staring at the piece for several minutes, it was not uncommon for museum-goers to begin swaying. Without the traditional depth and perspective that pulled the eye into the painting, the focused viewer could observe the white square dissolving into the surrounding white, which branched into infinite space. The professor smiled as he commented that this untethered visual resulted in viewers wobbling, even occasionally falling. Here was a work that could so move you spiritually that it would move you literally. Something that could so lift your mind from overbearing consciousness that it eschewed gravity for a moment.
It was just what I needed. I was in a rut. An upperclassman at a large state university, I was timid and lonely, smart but naïve, eager to be a legend but lacking know-how, experience, and authority (yes, everything a legend requires). An English major, I cherished my books but feared post-collegiate penury. And I was in love (well, fine. At least in serious, earnest like) with a brooding boy, a classmate, who, if he thought about my existence at all, only did so in a trivially amused manner, the way one might about a clever windup toy. My bus departed from a slightly seedy lot just north of downtown DC. The five hour journey included plenty of time for doubt. What if nothing happened? What if I didn’t have the proper constitution to be moved, if something inside me was anchored to fact rather than belief? Nothing but silence answered. The strangers around me napped and snacked.
It was my first visit to the modernist sanctuary of MOMA, and I indulged in the chairs, the teapots, and the canvases of my favorite artistic period. I took my time, out of both delight and apprehension. No longer relegated to the dull heft of an art history book or the dim screen of a slideshow, Brancusi’s Bird in Space shone before me, and Magritte’s The False Mirror winked. Finally, on the fifth floor, I spotted it.
There weren’t crowds here as there were for the popular post-impressionist paintings or the catchy pop art. I stepped straight in front of White on White, cautiously, carefully, looking at the floor as if it might hint at the optimal viewing distance. Arms limp at my sides, I shut my eyes for a second, took a deep breath, and opened.
Seconds passed. A minute. People walked around me, pausing briefly, continuing on. Two minutes. I squinted my eyes and tried to cross them. Three minutes. I tried to focus through the painting instead of staring at its surface, the way you do with a magic eye image. Four minutes. Five. Step forward. Six minutes. I could be moved. I would be moved. Seven minutes. Closer still. Eight. Step backwards, halfway across the room. Stop. Concentrate.
One arch of my foot to another, slowly, almost imperceptibly, left to right and back, I could have begun to shift my weight. I could tell you, with the confidence of someone decoding messages from a Ouija board, that I glimpsed the infinite. That my body broke from the ground, and as Malevich intended, I floated, soaring into a liberated space of higher feeling, leaving behind the earthly concern of my body. Of my life.
In truth, I stood there, stock still, all weight and no wonder, dumbstruck, forlorn, my feet heavy on the hardwood, and seeming, to the museum patrons that passed by me, to be staring at nothing. Deflated, I made my way downstairs.
The Suprematist movement was eradicated after Stalin and his Soviet government took hold. Creativity, much less abstraction, was forced out to make room for representational art depicting the “common people”—happy, robust workers and schoolchildren, dedicated to the revolutionary romanticism. Malevich was arrested and questioned about his art. Later, denied permission to go abroad and seek medical treatment, Malevich died of cancer in 1935 in Leningrad. His grave is marked by a white cube, on which is painted a large black square.
Back on the streets of midtown, cold air sheared my cheeks and cacophonous traffic assaulted my ears. No longer restricted by the museum’s stringent order and hushed rooms, I was relieved to be part of the discord of the every day. Joining the pedestrians, I moved with the crowd, a small dot on the city’s extensive grid.
Small, but moving.
Mabel Yu is a writer and editor in the Washington, DC area.
NER Digital is New England Review’s online project dedicated to original creative writing for the web. “Confluences” presents writers’ encounters with works of art such as books, plays, poems, films, paintings, sculptures, or buildings. To submit an essay to our series, please read our guidelines.