Kazimir Malevich, Knife Grinder, 1912-13, Oil on canvas, 31×31 inches

Kasimir Malevich is best known in America for his Suprematist painting, White on White (1918), in the collection of MOMA. Less well known are his Futurist works, made a few years earlier, works that deal with painterly issues diametrically opposed to the absolutism of Suprematism. In keeping with communist doctrine, he claims that his work glorifies the proletariat, in the form of the Russian peasantry.

Although Marinetti, the founder of Italian Futurism, visited Russia in 1914 to spread the Italian version of Futurism, he encountered bitter opposition from his Russian counterparts. They were alienated when the Italian vision of Futurism veered towards Fascisim, glorifying industrial power, aviation, and modern technology over worker’s rights. The Russians believed that their roots were in Russian folk art, religious icons and Cubism, and had little in common with Italian Futurism. Malevitch was able to see superb Cubist works at the homes of the two great Russian collectors, Shchukin and Morozov. It is unclear if he ever even saw an Italian Futurist painting.

Malevich’s painting, The Knife Grinder (1912), contains Cubist abstract geometry and fragmentation of form. He explores various ways to create a sense of movement, often achieved by painting limbs that are multiplied, overlapped, stretched and woven into the background. The knife grinder’s hands and legs are repeated and slightly altered as if photographed by a strobe camera to depict the grinding process taking place before our eyes. Walls and the actual space inhabited by the grinder are broken up into a series of planes, creating a kaleidoscopic sense of mirrors reflected and shattered. Random use of scale and multiple perspectives also add to the organized chaos. Movement always involves time, and the viewer is pushed to perceive past, present and future simultaneously as the image moves past an object, or through it by means of transparency. Thus the planes merge on the surface of the canvas, shattering both the image and the light intended to illuminate them.

For me there is much to learn and process from the Russian Futurists. Through my exploration I have discovered many parallels to my own work, particularly in the formal concerns I share with these artists. I see myself in many ways as representing a third generation of artists interacting with the Russian Avant Garde of the early 20th century.


Murray Zimiles, Palio 3, 2016, Oil and mixed media on canvas, 60 x 40 inches

Murray Zimiles, Professor Emeritus, Purchase College, SUNY, author, curator and painter, has exhibited worldwide and has his work in many collections including MOMA, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Brooklyn Museum and others. In 2016, his triptych, 911, was acquired by the 911 Memorial and Museum, NY. An exhibition of his work will open at the Shchukin Gallery, Paris, France this March.