When it comes to Hungarian-born American artist László Moholy-Nagy (1895-1946), the only thing more difficult than pronouncing his name is grasping the significance of his art.
Partly that's because his artistic ideas often outstripped his ability to fully manifest them in his work. Theory regularly trumped practice.
At the Santa Barbara Museum of Art, a modest exhibition attempts to come to terms with one part of the artist's eclectic output. It's only partly successful.
"The Paintings of Moholy-Nagy: The Shape of Things to Come" is focused on just 14 paintings, mostly from the 1920s, executed on canvas, aluminum and various plastics. Given a variety of additional works on view, the show is less about his paintings than it is a thumbnail sketch of his general artistic philosophy.
Photographs dominate his legacy. Arguably his outstanding achievement, though, is "Light Prop for an Electric Stage," a complicated kinetic sculpture that he labored on between 1929 and 1930.
On top of that, Moholy-Nagy was also a filmmaker, graphic designer, stage designer, teacher, typographer and writer. He spread himself pretty thin. Launched into innovative exploration by the traumatic destruction of World War I, in which he fought, he died (from leukemia) in the immediate wake of World War II. He was just 51.
(Before we go any further, let's quickly look at pronunciation of the artist's difficult name. Since Hungarian is a complex language and American English is peculiar, two slightly different ones are most common. Take your pick: Mo-HA-lee Nadge or Mo-HA-lee Nadgie.)
Ironically, the show's most compelling work is not a painting but that kinetic sculpture — or rather an exhibition copy of it, made for the Harvard Art Museums in 2006 and authorized by Moholy-Nagy's daughter. The seriously damaged original, also in Harvard's collection, was long ago compromised; other replicas are less complete.
The sculpture replica looks like a Rube Goldberg contraption cobbled together from high-end kitchen utensils — spatula, cheese grater, colander, etc. — plus a few sprockets, some lab equipment and leftover lawn mower parts. The result is a wondrous motorized tower of light-reflective power, rotating on an open-framework base and illuminated by red, blue and clear spotlights.
The lights create shifting shadow play on surrounding gallery walls, while the colored light is mixed, reflected and bent by the glass, metal and plastic component parts. The effect is like the moving lights and shadows of passing traffic filtering through a city-apartment window.
As the sculpture turns, an off-kilter trio of screened fins flap. Periodically a polished wooden ball rolls to one end of a curved track, culminating in a loud crack!
The sculpture's composition is devilishly complex. Take its spiral rod of glass or clear acrylic, attached to a tilted metal disk and poking through another disk, tilted the opposite way. The disks are polished as brightly as the chrome headlamps of a Duesenberg Model J sedan.
When the "Light Prop" slowly rotates, the disks and spiral rod trace variegated spiral paths through space. Bright spots of reflected light travel up the rod and bounce off the polished disks, shooting off onto the walls. They slide across the room in enlarging ovals before dissolving into darkness.
And that's just one element.
Moholy-Nagy made a lovely black-and-white film of "Light Prop," which screens as a video in the gallery. Its shifting, close-up shapes form a virtually Cubist movie.
Having closely examined Cubist paintings and sculptures, he understood that human vision is not static. The eye constantly moves through curved space, absorbing light to create projected images. Abstract art needed to engage that perceptual fact, Moholy-Nagy believed, so that's what he did.
His photographs are the most well-known examples. Like Christian Schad and Man Ray, he set aside the camera for direct engagement with light. Mostly he made photograms, laying objects on light-sensitive paper and exposing them to illumination. Two are in the show, chosen from among more than 100 in the Getty Museum's rich collection.
The homemade simplicity of his photograms is poignant, given his unrealized ambitions for the "Light Prop" sculpture. Most Constructivist sculptors, with whom he shared affinities, wanted to fuse art, industry and technology in the service of designing a new and better world. After Russia's tumultuous revolution and Europe's horrific ruin in World War I, the impulse was potent.
But Moholy-Nagy's agenda was slightly different. "Light Prop" was a prototype for what he envisioned would be elaborate, sculptural light-performances for the public. Rather than change the built environment, as Constructivist artists wished to do, he wanted to change the way people see, releasing individual imaginations.
His timing could not have been worse. The global economy's 1929 crash made expensive projects impossible. The brutal collapse in Germany, where he lived from 1920 to 1935 (he moved to Chicago in 1937), gave National Socialism an opening to usurp — and pervert — the visionary dream.
Albert Speer, Adolf Hitler's architect, likewise merged art, industry and technology — but to grotesque ends. After his monstrous boss took power in 1933, Speer designed what he called a "Cathedral of Light" for a mass rally in Nuremberg. He ringed the parade grounds with 130 anti-aircraft searchlights, pointing their parallel beams straight up into the sky.
The sleek, unornamented Classicism of fascist and Nazi architecture meant to modernize the ancient grandeur of Greece and Rome to glorify the Third Reich. Speer's high-powered lights lifted the style into the heavens, riding on translucent columns of luminosity.
This was a light prop made toxic. The design meant to consolidate the crowd into a uniform, monolithic mass — the exact opposite of opening eyes to the liberation of individual imagination. Moholy-Nagy, who was Jewish, saw the writing on the wall. He soon fled.
The Santa Barbara exhibition centers on Moholy-Nagy's paintings, a medium he set aside as old-fashioned for a few years but picked up again in the early 1930s. He experimented with materials and techniques: incising into plastic, trying out metal and Formica as a support, varying paint textures as a means for altering the play of light across a flat surface. The physical architecture of a painting entered into dialogue with its optical effects.
Often he worked on paper (six examples are here). Perhaps the most compelling is a watercolor with collage on the gritty sandpaper used on a metal shop's grinding tools. With intersections of geometric shapes and color-shifts, he transforms the brute physical material into an elegant perceptual tool.
The paintings are most interesting as the developing run-up to "Light Prop." But the end of easel painting, which many artists of Moholy-Nagy's generation predicted, did not come to pass. (It never does, no matter how many times its demise has been prophesied since then.) One has the sense that he came to understand that painting is itself a potentially useful tool, simply because it is so deeply embedded within society's ideals.
The show, organized by guest curator Joyce Tsai with Santa Barbara Museum chief curator Eik Kahng, also includes a large selection of the rather monotonous, abstract color slides Moholy-Nagy shot at night on Chicago streets. It is accompanied by a selection of posters advertising Alexander Korda's 1935 science-fiction movie, "Things to Come," for which the artist designed some special effects, and a well-made three-channel video projection by Czech-born, Chicago-based artist Jan Tichy, inspired by Moholy-Nagy's abstract photograms.