In the face of fascism, he showed industrial-strength optimism: The art of Moholy-Nagy at LACMA

The optimism of László Moholy-Nagy is staggering.

Here was an artist who, born into difficult circumstances in a small farming village in southern Hungary, turned 19 just eight days before Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated at Sarajevo in 1914, igniting the fuse of the Great War.  Moholy-Nagy barely survived military duty on the unspeakably brutal Russian and Italian fronts.

Then he arrived in postwar Berlin just as the Weimar Republic ushered in waves of chaotic upheaval, ending with the 1933 rise to power of gruesome National Socialism. His expensive dream of merging art and industrial technology in large-scale dramatic spectacles ran headlong into the 1929 economic collapse, soon enough followed by the arrival of Albert Speer, Adolf Hitler's architect, and his extravagant Nuremberg mass rallies. The Jewish artist migrated through Amsterdam and then London to Chicago, where he died of leukemia at 51 — a short year after the cataclysm of World War II came to a crashing end.

Despite the tumult, you might never know any of this from looking at his art.

On the evidence of “Moholy-Nagy: Future Present,” a large and fascinatingly beautiful show that opened recently at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, one could be forgiven for assuming that, like water rolling off a duck’s back, the severe troubles of the 20th century’s first half barely affected him.

Curiosity, color, wry humor, excited trial and error, prolific innovation — the artist grabbed an avant-garde sensibility and never let it go. “Future Present” asserts that this world is the best possible world, and inevitable change should be courted, its possibilities maximized. Moholy-Nagy is often called a utopian, but optimist seems a better fit.

The first painting is a zigzagging array of red and black stripes and triangles, all pierced by thick bars that are like I-beams merged with golden shafts of light. The 1919-20 abstraction of radio towers and railroad switches is of modest size, executed on rough-hewn burlap. Postwar shortages may have had something to do with the burlap choice, but it’s also working-class canvas for a painter engaged in constructing pictures.

The painting’s imagery of Industrial Age mechanisms of communication and transport resonates all the way to the last room, 300 works later, where three sculptures are suspended on wire from the ceiling. Twisted planes of transparent plexiglass pierced by tangled metal rods refract and reflect light. Linear drawings in space, they cast moving shadows on adjacent walls to become four-dimensional animations.

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Chris Alexakisart