Guestbook: Tina Rivers Ryan on Molnar’s corrupted squares and challenging the modernist cult of rationality with its own tools
I’ve always loved squares and cubes, with their symmetry and stability and perfect rationality. The history of early 20th century modern art is filled with them, from Malevich’s Black Squares to Mondrian’s grids of primary colors and Albers’ colour studies. Although every artist might decide to use these shapes for different reasons, ultimately, they became a symbol of the almost scientific pursuit of “progress’ in art—as if art itself could be made as perfectly rational as geometry or industrial mass-manufacturing. But the square and cube are always haunted by their negation—by the threat of entropic dissolution or the specter of the chaos that lies beyond their borders. In the 1960s and 1970s, postminimalist artists made squares that literally seemed on the verge of collapse (signaling a preference for the messiness of reality over the perfection of abstract ideals), such as Richard Serra’s One Ton Prop (House of Cards) or Gordon Matta-Clark’s Splitting. I love these works, but I’m especially drawn to artists like Julio Le Parc and Vera Molnar, who embraced industrial and technological materials and processes to produce their own corrupted squares, essentially challenging the modernist cult of rationality with its own tools. When I look at Molnar’s many ‘transformations’ of the square, I see not only the automation of composition through algorithms, but also a celebration of the everyday beauty of the vitally imperfect, and even a kind of political statement about the values we encode in our technologies.

Tina Rivers Ryan is an art historian specializing in modern and contemporary art, with a focus on the uses of new media technologies since the 1960s. An Assistant Curator at Buffalo AKG Art Museum since 2017, her recent exhibition “Difference Machines: Technology and Identity in Contemporary Art“ was awarded the 2022 Award of Excellence by the Association of Art Museum Curators. Ryan’s writing has been commissioned by museums including the Walker Art Center, the Dia, and HangarBicocca; and she regularly writes about exhibitions and (more recently) the rise of NFTs for magazines such as ArtforumArt in America, and ArtReview. 

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