El Lissitzky was the Russian avant-garde’s unofficial emissary to the West, traveling and lecturing extensively on behalf of Russia’s modern artists who believed that abstraction was a harbinger of utopian social values. Basing himself in Berlin and Hanover in the 1920s, Lissitzky helped produce publications and organize exhibitions promoting both Russian and Western art that shared a common vision of aesthetics steeped in technology, mass production, and social transformation.
While Lissitzky was teaching architecture and graphic design at the Artistic Technical Institute in Vitebsk, his art shifted from figuration to geometric abstraction. Under the tutelage of Suprematist painter Kazimir Malevich, Lissitzky began a body of work he would later call Prouns (an acronym for “Project for the Affirmation of the New” in Russian). These nonobjective compositions broadened Malevich’s Suprematist credo of pure painting as spiritually transcendent into an interdisciplinary system of two-dimensional, architectonic forms rendered in painted collages, drawings, and prints, with both utopian and utilitarian aspirations. Blurring the distinctions between real and abstract space—a zone that Lissitzky called the “interchange station between painting and architecture”—the Prouns dwell upon the formal examination of transparency, opacity, color, shape, line, and materiality, which Lissitzky ultimately extended into three-dimensional installations that transformed our experience of conventional, gravity-based space. Occasionally endowed with cryptic titles reflecting an interest in science and mathematics, these works seem engineered rather than drawn by hand—further evidence of the artist’s growing conviction that art was above all rational rather than intuitive or emotional.
Proun (Entwurf zu Proun S.K.) is exemplary of Lissitzky’s unique enterprise. One of two studies for a larger oil painting, this composition uses different mediums to suggest a range of properties for the otherwise straightforward geometric forms, which become dynamic through their suspension within a precariously balanced visual field. Like all of the Prouns, this work is a highly refined object. Thus, while they parallel certain tenets of the Russian Constructivists, who used a similarly reductive visual vocabulary and sought to merge art and life through mass production and industry, Lissitzky’s Prouns lack the rough-hewn experimental nature of Contructivist objects, remaining more on the side of aesthetics than utility.