Did Laszlo Moholy-Nagy Phone-In His Best Art?

THE DAILY PIC: The Guggenheim shows abstractions that Moholy-Nagy claimed he ordered by telephone.

Moholy-Nagy, Laszlo

THE DAILY PIC (#1600): There’s tons of great work in the retrospective of Laszlo Moholy-Nagy now at the Guggenheim Museum in New York, but the best may be this abstraction done in enameled metal in 1923, along with two others the same in every detail except for their sizes.

What makes this trio of pieces so important, however, is less their amazingly elegant looks than a lie that Moholy seems to have told about them. He launched the myth that, when it came time to order the pieces from the traffic-sign maker who fabricated them, he transmitted his instructions purely by telephone, without any kind of sketch or schematic to back them up. (Someday, I will find time to recreate what such a call would have needed to sound like. I imagine it taking up the better part of the sign-maker’s afternoon: “But Herr Moholy, can you not please a drawing to us send?”) And doesn’t Moholy’s abstraction itself look  as though it might represent the idea of data being transmitted at a distance?

The reason Moholy’s backstory matters so much, even as a white lie, is because it works so hard to establish the idea that modern artmaking – and maybe most artmaking – is fundamentally a mental rather than a manual process. And that this can be true even when the goal is to turn out a gorgeous object, which is something most later conceptualists tried (and often failed) to avoid doing.

It’s especially appropriate that Moholy’s assertion of conceptualism is in fact built on something that lives only in the mind: a lie.

Almost a century after Moholy’s imaginary call, its argument is still hard for many people to accept: Even in the case of an almost pure mental-ist such as Andy Warhol, quite sophisticated collectors still pay more for a piece that is known to have been touched by his hand.

Moholy’s anti-manual ideal clearly never quite sank into the culture at large, but that’s not a sign of its failure. It is yet another proof of Moholy’s unbelievable daring. (The Museum of Modern Art, New York, Gift of Philip Johnson in memory of Sibyl Moholy-Nagy, 1971; © 2016 Hattula Moholy-Nagy/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York)

For a full survey of past Daily Pics visit blakegopnik.com/archive.

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