There are careers in the arts that epitomize the spirit of their time in so many salient respects that they attain a kind of mythological status in the eyes of posterity. The life and work of the Russian painter Kazimir Malevich (1878-1935), whose art is currently the subject of an extraordinary exhibition, constitute a career of this sort.1 In every aspect of his endeavors—in his downfall as much as in his triumphs—Malevich was the very archetype of the avant-garde artist in the age of revolution. Embracing without qualm or limit every extreme of belief and aspiration offered up by the tumultuous era in which he pursued his radical ideals, Malevich looked upon art as at once an absolute and an instrument—as pure spirit, on the one hand, and a means of imposing a new social order,...


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