László Moholy-Nagy (1895-1946)
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László Moholy-Nagy (1895-1946)


László Moholy-Nagy (1895-1946)
incised with signature and date 'Moholy=Nagy 39' (lower right)
oil on incised plexiglass
15 1/8 x 19¾ in. (38.4 x 50.2)
Executed in 1939
Walter P. and Elizabeth H. Paepcke, Chicago, by whom acquired from the artist; Elizabeth's estate sale, Christie's, New York, 10 November 1994, lot 322.
Acquired at the above sale by the present owner.
VAT rate of 5% is payable on hammer price and at 15% on the buyer's premium
Mrs Hattula Moholy-Nagy has confirmed the authenticity of this painting.


Executed in 1939, the present work is a rare and outstanding example of only a few remaining paintings on plastic that the artist made in the 1930s. Inspired by the effect he had observed and filmed in the Light-Space Modulator that he had invented and built during his years as a professor at the Bauhaus, Moholy was preoccupied in his paintings of the 1930s by the attempt to translate these effects into colour and material form. A sketch in the Bauhaus-Archiv in Berlin dated 9 January 1937, in which Moholy establishes the form and interplay of the present work, suggests that he had once envisaged the composition as a three-dimensional construction. The finished work, however, displays the stunning ambiguity of Moholy-Nagy's finest plastic work; at once paintings and sculptures, they create visual tension between movement and stasis, between two-dimensions and three-dimensions, between light and darkness, resulting in a unique conjunction of art and design.

'In working with these materials - uniformly coloured, opaque or transparent plastics - I made discoveries which were instrumental in changing my painting technique... By producing real radiant light effects through transparent dyes on plastic and through other means, one has no need for translating light into colour by painting with pigment. Light painting had arrived' (Moholy-Nagy, in 'Abstract of an Artist', 1944, reprinted in K. Passuth, Moholy-Nagy, London, 1985, pp. 381-382).

It had always been Moholy's practice to adopt the latest industrial technologies in an attempt to integrate the role of the artist, engineer and industrial pioneer. In the aftermath of the stunning developments wrought by the Light-Space Modulator, Moholy also began in the 1930s to introduce light effects, scratching, incising and even cutting holes into the surface of his plastic paintings in addition to painting texturally onto their smooth surface. Using simple geometric forms and a very limited palette, the present painting articulates a sense of the mystery that can infuse even the simplest of shapes when it is subjected to light and movement, a sense reinforced by dynamic streaks of engraved lines into the curved black surface of the background. It was in this way, by weaving a sense of the enigmatic but unlimited possibility of simple form and composition, that Moholy hoped to imbue his work with a profound sense of emotion and to establish a 'perfect balance between feeling and intellect'.

Moholy-Nagy had moved to the United States of America in 1937 at the invitation of a group of businessmen in Chicago who had opened a new school of design. They had wanted Walter Gropius to be the Director but Gropius had just accepted a post at Harvard University and had recommended, in his stead, Moholy, who began to implement Gropius' own curriculum from the original Bauhaus. The New Bauhaus: American School of Design was short-lived, however, closing in June 1938 due to funding problems. In 1939 Moholy was given the opportunity, due to the generous support of Walter P. Paepcke, director of the Container Corporation of America, to open his own School of Design in Chicago, the direct descendant of which, after several changes of location and name, is now a department within the Chicago Institute of Technology. Paepcke and his wife Elizabeth were the first owners of the present work and kept it in their collection their entire lives.