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Moholy-Nagy isn’t the only major modernist in town right now

Over at the Graham Foundation, a retrospective of the work of Iraqi architect Rifat Chadirji is an unlikely and unintentional companion piece to the Art Institute’s “Moholy-Nagy: Future Present.”



Moholy-Nagy: Future Present" is perhaps the most outstanding major exhibition the Art Institute has displayed during the past few years. The subject, Laszló Moholy­-Nagy, a Hungarian artist who was based in Chicago for most of the last decade of his life, was a prominent professor in the Bauhaus school, and made a significant contribution to contemporary art and design. At the same time, he's someone many spectators are likely unaware of—even those who possess a baseline familiarity with art history. Meanwhile, over at the Graham Foundation, there's another remarkable, albeit smaller, showcase of an important craftsman who's even more obscure: Rifat Chadirji, an architect and photographer who was a critical cultural figure in post-World War II Iraq.

"Art must be matched to its moment," reads the introductory wall text at "Future Present." "It must seek to understand recent technologies and to demonstrate changing relations in the world." One could say this of Chadirji's work as much as of Moholy-Nagy's. In fact, though the two shows are markedly different in scale and range, they share a number of commonalities. Both artists were prominent individuals in their native countries' cultural communities, and both had to flee wartime chaos. Like Moholy-Nagy, Chadirji was enamored of spatial geometry and the photographic image. And most importantly, each person's output altered the visual language of their physical surroundings.

Tension is the perceptible undercurrent of both exhibitions. In the case of "Future Present" (which debuted at the Guggenheim Museum and will next travel to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art), the friction in Moholy-Nagy's artwork is primarily a product of time, material, and commerce. During his most prolific period, roughly the early 1920s until his death in 1946, Moholy-Nagy was a visionary who enthusiastically engaged with the world he was living in. Most of his work was abstract, a series of shapes and lines that resemble architectural sketches or patterns more than paintings. Unlike many artists of the past and present, Moholy-Nagy was zealous about advertising and its ability to provide remunerative opportunities for creative people. He was spellbound by cinema and photography, but his approach was experimental, more avant-garde than his contemporaries. And he supported industrialism and mass-market innovation—he frequently outsourced production of his compositions to metallurgists and contractors, and some of his most famous sculptures are made out of Plexiglas. Moholy-Nagy's chief innovation was synthesizing various disciplines and styles into a visual format and philosophy that both addressed its time period and made a deep impression on the future.

Walking through "Future Present" isn't just a journey into the mind of an artist but a retrospective of many of the most significant artistic movements of the early 20th century. An untitled work from 1939 looks like something Joan Miró could have made; Moholy-Nagy's films seem like precursors to Un Chien Andalou or Jean Vigo's oeuvre; Architecture 1 (Construction on a Blue Ground)/Title unknown (verso) is a double-sided painting that recalls the fictional Kandinsky in John Guare's Six Degrees of Separation. I was reminded of multiple design touchstones: the fragmented and mathematical approach of the British electronic group Autechre, Buckminster Fuller's architectural renderings, the overall aesthetic of the indie-rock group Stereolab, and multiple buildings, lobby artworks, and pieces of furniture all around Chicago. At times "Future Present" doesn't feel like an overview of a futuristic movement so much as a reconciliation of the present with the past, an attempt to reimagine what's now gauche or tacky as romantic and inventive.

Likewise "Every Building in Baghdad: The Rifat Chadirji Archives at the Arab Image Foundation" (which first opened at the Arthur Ross Architecture Gallery at Columbia University's Graduate School of Architecture) often focuses on modern artwork that coexists with antiquated structures. Chadirji worked primarily in Baghdad from the early 1950s until the early 1980s, when he fled Iraq and moved to Boston for a fellowship at Harvard. Fearing that his creations would be destroyed amid the unstable situation in Iraq, he fastidiously documented and photographed his efforts.

In his creative heyday Chadirji designed many buildings that juxtaposed modernist tendencies with the local environment. The Iraq Scientific Academy, constructed in 1965, is a palatial brick-shaped spread with skinny arches around the windows and sky-blue bricks on the front facade. By the mid-1960s Chadirji was showing an increased interest in Mesopotamian architecture—built in 1969, the Administration and Training Institute for Baghdad's Ministry of Social Affairs, located in a desolate, wide-open space, is a series of round brick complexes that look like famous temples; the insides are brightly lit, with open courtyards in the middle of the buildings and Mondrian-style geometric patterns on the windows.

Chadirji's photographs are more preoccupied with everyday Iraqi life: vendors selling turnips and chickpeas on the streets of Baghdad, graffiti that reads "pissing for donkeys only," a promotional poster for Saddam Hussein, and a wide-angle shot of Rowanduz, a mountain town in northern Iraq. "Every Building in Baghdad" is supplemented by the photography of Latif Al Ani, whose pictures often appear to be in dialogue with Chadirji. Many of the images feature glimpses of the architect's projects, such as the Federation of Industries building, a curving high-rise with Chadirji's signature skinny-arched windows randomly positioned on the front wall.

Each of these photos bears the palpable weight of a foreboding future. Even Chadirji could sense it—he was imprisoned in the late 1970s and was subsequently forced to work for Hussein until he was able to escape to the United States. He was also in a constant conversation with history, just like Moholy-Nagy. Chadirji's E. Abboud building, a cylindrical skyscraper plopped on top of a rectangular cement base, vaguely resembles Nuclear I, CH, one of Moholy-Nagy's paintings, which portrays a sphere with colorful geometric shapes superimposed on a modernist high-rise. Judging from his art and writings, Moholy-Nagy likely would've been flattered to see someone in another part of the world echoing his own work, yet unmistakably tweaking and altering it for an ever-evolving and globalized future.  v

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