HIS paintings languished along with his reputation in the cobwebbed basements of Soviet museums for nearly 60 years. But Kazimir Malevich's work has finally surfaced in an impressive American retrospective that throws fresh, bright light on this leader of the Russian avant-garde, who perhaps minted abstract art; the argument over that question is likely to be intensified by this show.
``Kazimir Malevich, 1878-1935,'' billed as the largest and most comprehensive retrospective ever of his art, was organized jointly by the National Gallery of Art here in Washington (where it's on exhibit until Nov. 4), by the soon-to-open Armand Hammer Museum of Art and Cultural Center in Los Angeles (Nov. 25-Jan. 13, 1991), and by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York (Feb. 7-Mar 24, 1991).
Dr. Hammer is credited with the ``initiative'' that made the exhibition and its United States tour possible.
It is a stunner of a show, which ranges from Malevich's early, gauzy Impressionist paintings on through his kaleidoscope of symbolism, Cubism, figurative art, and the startling ``Suprematist'' paintings that marked his breakthrough into abstraction.
``There is no question about this artist's significance,'' says National Gallery Director J. Carter Brown, who calls Malevich ``a hero of abstract art.'' ``...This man was a revolutionary. He was an innovator and a visionary, and he expresses, in a way, a kind of yearning for freedom - an excitement about innovation, about pushing back the frontiers, about trying risks, about taking an aesthetic to its logical conclusion.
Although the vivid colors and ideas in Malevich's work reach out and hug the viewer like a Russian bear, this is no easy show. It is the visual equivalent of Rubik's Cube. You pore over the vivid imagery, and then you scramble to understand it.
Malevich's signature artistic and philosophic style, known as Suprematism, is discussed at length in the accompanying catalog, and the consulting curator for the show, Angelica Rudenstine, discussed it at the press opening.
Suprematism is ``an extraordinarily difficult conception,'' she said ``...There are art historians struggling with this material in Russian, German, English, and other languages and finding it impenetrable.'' She went on to to explain that, with Suprematism, Malevich ``developed a language that had absolutely no reference to anything recognizable outside the picture frame. It was a total abstraction, a total non-objectivity.
He did this, added Ms. Rudenstine, ``in order to bring a higher intensity of spirituality into his work.''
After a period of delving into Cubism and Futurism, Malevich ``all of a sudden buried himself in his studio for several months, and in December of 1915 he exploded upon the world'' with a groundbreaking show called ``0.10. The Last Futurist Exhibition.'' This show caused ``an immense shock among the most avant-garde of his colleagues, with an exhibition of 35 totally abstract works,'' Rudenstine continued. ``Nobody had ever done this; I mean, he was undoubtedly the first.''
Although Kandinsky is often credited with doing the first totally abstract painting in 1910, Jack Cowart, the National Gallery's head curator of 20th-century art, told the Monitor, ``I think this exhibition shows that Malevich was the first - and in a most uncompromising fashion - totally abstract painter.
``Kandinsky's earlier inventions and developments still had beneath them a figural base. There are evocations of natural elements, whether mountains, or figures, or attempts to capture in paint the effects of music. Thus Kandinsky blazed the trail, but it would be Malevich whose developments in 1915 had done the most uncompromising geometrical and non-figural paintings.
``Malevich was a prime player in this abstract invention, the one who did the biggest break in his work.''
The show includes totally abstract works like ``White Square on White'' and his famous ``Black Square,'' whose subtleties do not reproduce well on newsprint. Also included are 170 paintings, works on paper, and architectural models from museums in the USSR, the US, the Netherlands, and France.
The artist's fame in Russia at the time of the revolution, when Suprematism was a movement supporting it, resulted in Malevich and other artists being asked by the new government to reorganize the artistic life of the country. But by the early 1920s, the hammer and sickle of conservative Socialist Realism prevailed. Some artists were arrested and jailed. Malevich himself was threatened and his teaching position taken away. He did not paint at all for several years.
Westerners knew his work only from a 1927 exhibition he brought to Warsaw and Berlin. The artist, who lived all his life in Russia, left that work in the West, where much of it was acquired by the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam.
In the Soviet Union, his art was ``anathema - banned, and relegated to the basements'' of state museums, as Carter Brown pointed out. It could not be borrowed by museums outside the USSR, and even the Russian people were not allowed to see it until the late 1980s.
Finally in 1988-89, an internationally acclaimed Malevich exhibition was held in Leningrad, Moscow, and Amsterdam, with works drawn from the State Russian Museum in Leningrad, the Tretiakov Gallery in Moscow, and the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam.
According to the National Gallery, the current exhibition includes a ``significantly altered selection'' from that Soviet show, with several major works from American museums and other Soviet sources.
When Malevich returned from Germany, he found it impossible to paint abstract art; the state allowed only figurative art showing the struggles of the Soviet people. ``For a long time,'' said Rudenstine, ``many of us felt that this was a kind of pathetic end to a great career.''
But now she believes that ``Malevich arrived at an extraordinarily powerful new aesthetic in the late '20s and '30s'' - and she hopes this exhibition will prove that once and for all.