Vassar Critical Journal

The Vassar College English Department Student Journal of Critical Essays

Images to Lissitzky’s artwork can be found here.

First there was revolution. In 1917 rebels split the seams of old Russia and opened up a path to something new. Then Kazimir Malevich tried to give it a likeness, in paint. Suprematist Composition: White on White held in its rough grain all of the uncertainty and possibility of that moment in time when everything solid, everything heavy, had begun to dissipate into the clouds. He painted open fields, for society had been turned on its head, and people were asking: what next? The future was taking shape, and it was not yet ruled, not by a state apparatus, not by the draftsman’s compass, not by anything.

This was the world of the artists and writers who, in their search for a language to fit the new reality of worker power, radically transformed the space of art. It was morning, and if you looked out the window, things appeared to be floating toward the sky, on trajectories set at a strange diagonal from Earth. In 1918, when Malevich painted White on White, the storm of World War I, the upheaval of the Bolshevik revolution, and a civil war that would last until 1921 had not only destroyed the old social order, but also much of the industrial infrastructure that would be needed to construct a modern socialist society.[1]The world had to be rebuilt, and the Russian avant-garde placed itself in the center of that collective project, turning towards the public in a way that no group had done before, and few have done since.

These Russians soon found that in order to speak to the new crowd art would have to find a new form. In 1920, El Lissitzky enlarged a suprematist painting to the size of a billboard, and placed it outside a factory entrance in the city of Vitebsk, in the hope that the flying planes of red and black, so radical in the realm of the picture, could constitute a revolutionary culture in the realm of life.[2] Only, the image did not quite take. The suprematist geometries, kept within the limits of the picture-frame, did not have the bandwidth, the reach, to assemble the new collective culture on their own. Lissitzky’s experiment was a false start, and it revealed to the Russian avant-garde that in order to speak to the people en masse, they would need to stretch their purview to include novel forms of mass communication.[3]For Benjamin H.D. Buchloh, the need to root the new art in the reality of collectivized production inspired the Russian artists to pivot towards the mechanically reproducible media that had proliferated during the early twentieth century.[4] Communist expression would not look like an easel painting, but would permeate into the objects of life itself, leaving its red mark on flags, posters, newspapers, radio transmissions, films, buildings, pots, uniforms, and of course, books. And the suprematist planes would not be thrown away—far from it. They would be systematically transferred onto a whole array of everyday objects, and imported into the space of print communications that had developed according to the interests of the market.

Thus, when we open up El Lissitzky’s book, About Two Squares, hoping to glimpse the qualities of the modern word and image, it is not only appropriate to make a comparison to its contemporary print media, but in fact we have struck upon a moment in which the avant-garde utterance is spilling into the domain of the mass-produced page. The boundary between the work of art and the mass communiqué, that crucial borderline increasingly electrified since the advent of mechanical reproduction, appears to dissolve into the air along with everything else vaporized by the workers’ revolution.

About Two Squares is a story about two messengers from afar who come to share their knowledge of another reality. It is the reality of a classless society, to be sure, a utopia without hierarchy brought about by revolution, but it is also a new kind of city, a new kind of person living in a new dimension. It is a cosmic reality that falls from the heavens and orders the chaos found on earth. The book’s extreme sparsity, the economy of its eight pages and the density of their figures, allow the work to tell a set of connected stories by way of metaphor and metonymy. Much like the advertisements in magazines and newspapers, which were strategically organizing words and images to train the reader to buy, Lissitzky’s pages communicate multiple meanings at once. His stories lie at different atmospheric levels in relation to the earth: some are concerned with the situation on the ground during the moment of revolution, some with the bracket of air in which new steel will rise, and some with celestial strata, with launching out into the stars.

After the title page bearing Lissitzky’s byline, the stories begin with an open call, an invitation for the people to come to the book. A white cyrillic “P” sits on a field of black ink, with ribiatam, the world for children, unfurling in its upper semicircle. The great P is tilted back on a diagonal, and the word vsyem, “to all,” is set to its left on an axis continuous with ribiatam. This layout assembles the energy of a bow stretched to its climax, ready to launch the reader forward, horizontally into the proceeding sequence of pages or vertically up into the sky. A second “to all” lies on another diagonal below the first, on a thin scrap of white, like an echo of the first call reverberating in the black ground. According to Patricia Railing, this ricochet address comes from revolutionary radio broadcasts, which, during the civil war, would begin mass appeals with “to all all…”[5] The words can be read in different sequences in order to assemble different rhythms. Does this page read “to all / to all… / children,”or “to all / children / to all…”? Is Lissitzky’s book meant for children, or is it that, before exposure to the logic of revolution, we are all unlearned, untutored, young? On the first page of About Two Squares, the whole public is called to action simultaneously, this time to read.

This was not the first time El Lissitsky identified children as a possible audience for the new art. His first books took shape in 1917, when he produced two volumes of Jewish fairy tales in the style of Marc Chagall, another artist who, on the eve of revolution, sought to bring his forms out of the picture frame and into set design, print, and architectural design.[6]It was Chagall that invited Lissitzky to teach architecture and graphic design at the new Vitebsk State Free Art Workshops in 1919, a collective pedagogical experiment in present-day Belarus towards which the Russian avant-garde was gravitating.[7] When Malevich took Chagall’s place as the head of the school, the curriculum was transformed and the school was renamed “Champions of the New Art,” or UNOVIS, whose seal, a red square inscribed in a black circle, lies on the last page of About Two Squares.[8]It was there, at UNOVIS in 1920, that Lissitzky began designing his “suprematist tale in six constructions.”[9] By the time he finished About Two Squares in 1922, Lissitzky had left behind the hand-drawn letters he had borrowed from Chagall and exchanged them for standardized, professional graphics. Art was to be severed outright from the lap of luxury. Making art was no longer about painterly illusion, or painterly abstraction, for that matter, but rather had to do with construction, with fabricating a universe of suprematist objects situated directly within the new collectivized economy. Writing, too, would have to be reimagined. Lissitsky’s tack towards dynamically arranged mechanical typography came from a desire to make words sound louder, to recover a resonant quality of the word that belonged to orality, a quality that had faded in the age of machines, but that, if revived, could transmit the tradition of revolution to the workers of the world.

The sustained influence of Malevich’s planes can be found in the book’s first construction. A thin black square frames the story’s two heroes, the two squares. As noted by Railing, the page references Malevich’s 1915 suprematist credo, Painterly Realism of a Boy with a Knapsack.[10]Only, Lissitzky has straightened Malevich’s squares, made them of equal size, pinched their corners, and transformed their thick variable paint into uniform printer’s ink. He has snapped the squares to the measure of the plumbline. He wrote, in 1920, in the first UNOVIS magazine, that “those of us who have stepped out beyond the confines of the picture take ruler and compasses—following the precept of economy—in our hands. For the frayed point of the paintbrush is at variance with our concept of clarity…”[11] The new art was to be guided by “economy” and driven by a pursuit for “clarity.” The tools of the architect and engineer were seen to provide a practical means for seeing through the fog to something clear. If this book is a primer for children, the mechanically ruled square is the first letter of the alphabet, the basic unit on which the collective future will be built. Lissitzky envisioned that a string of geometries would tell the story of the new Soviet state, and also sing about the genesis of a new kind of person, a person who ascends into the cosmos. In About Two Squares, the geometries used in the design of buildings and machines (Lissitzky was trained as an architect and practiced as one before the revolution) are treated not as a way to grasp the individual modern subject, nor to stage a clever joke, but as a universal language for the assembly of history’s final form.[12]

After the introduction of the two squares, Lissitzky depicts them approaching earth. In the book’s second construction, a black cluster, a city, protrudes from the surface of a red circle. The town is diagrammed architecturally, with a mix of orthographic and axonometric projections that define Lissitzky’s Proun (Project for the affirmation of the new) paintings. The whirl of projections creates a kinetic condition. For Railing, Lissitzky’s geometries produced a state of motion in which the viewer orbits around the imaginary city, seeing three-dimensional structures from many unstable, shifting points of view.[13] It was the city of trams, automobiles, and electricity, of parallel channels of movement above and below ground. Maybe it was Berlin, where Lissitzky relocated in 1922 to showcase the new Soviet art to the West. Lissitzky was tasked with presenting the revolution and its cultural developments in the European capitals, with some hope that the new forms, in their new vehicles of distribution, could spark the spread of revolution westward and beyond.[14]Lissitzky himself was to function like a flying square. Berlin, as the center of a failed revolution three years prior, as the home of an explosive print culture, and as a meeting point for critical avant-gardes, would have been a clear choice. It was there, in 1922, that Lissitzky finished About Two Squares, and brought it to press, while working as an editor and designer for multiple art periodicals.[15]

Berlin was becoming saturated with the page advertisements that had begun to take shape before World War I, in the great Anglo-Saxon tradition of sales, resplendent with mechanically reproduced images and succinct, strategic applications of text. For Lissitzky, the new rhetoric of the market had a tempo, a staccato drive, that could be hijacked for the purpose of revolutionary communications. About Two Squares incorporates some of the same pictorial and typographical appeals that can be glimpsed in the advertisements of its time.

A fleet of autos needed an army of tires, and a certain page ad from a June 1922 issue of Vanity Fair seeks to shoot the Firestone firm ahead of the competition. A Firestone tire fills the top half of the page, illustrated in two dimensions as a section. The tire contains within its hollow round an image of two workers at an industrial apparatus which dwarfs them, and which seems to leap from the page in contrast to the two-dimensional tire that functions as its circular frame. While there was color in the pages of Vanity Fair, most of the promotional material is in black and white, and black, the color used to illustrate commodities in the capitalist press, takes on a special meaning in About Two Squares.

When the squares touch down on earth, they strike upon a mass of disorder. They see “black / alarming.” In the book’s third construction, the wheels, levers, and pistons of industrial machinery, so neatly unified in the Firestone image, are blown into a chaotic dispersion of forms, strung along tilted, displaced axes of projection, clattering against each other, day and night.

Lissitzky wedges gaps of negative space between floating metal figures that would otherwise be fused together and weighed down on the factory floor. Perhaps this is the restless, radical operation of the Proun geometries—their insertion of conflict and uncertainty into the surface of the mechanical diagram. Lissitzky is trying to see through the appearance of industrial production as it is presented by the new advertisement. What Firestone shows as an ordered, practical world of supply and demand, Lissitzky shows as an economy always positioned precariously on its breaking point, on the brink of crisis, flowing at every juncture with cacophony. The color black carries some of this critique. Railing notes that in the suprematist vocabulary being imparted at UNOVIS, black symbolized the discord of the market, the chaos that would end with revolution and serve as the beginning of the new, while red was shorthand for the new consciousness, the new world of the worker-in-power.[16] The black of the commodity illustration becomes the graphic sign for the conflict of modern life.

The Firestone advertisement, however, also contains black text. Designers of this page manipulated typeface, weight, and letter size in order to produce a particular reading environment, in order to influence the way in which the reader would come to internalize the verbal information. The typographic layout sets the tempo of decoding, it modulates the volume, pitch, and resonance of the different verbal signs. It begins with a slogan, an invitation to learn more about “A Practical Ideal,” and follows with a low hum laying out the solid business principles that inform Firestone’s “quality product.” The growing momentum draws the reader down the page, culminating in “Firestone” in a faux-gothic font, heavier than any other text on the page, with the initial “F” igniting the rest of the letters like a tongue of flame. The brand name is the ultimate refrain. It gets the final word, the greatest scale and weight, so that it stays illuminated, like the mark of bright lights left on closed eyelids, even after the reader has flipped through the magazine.

Lissitzky emulates the design strategies of promotional copy and takes them further. In each of the six constructions, the image fills the top of the page, while text is set in motion in the bottom third, much like the spatial division of word and image in the Firestone advertisement. Also, like the Firestone advocates, he has arranged typeface, weight, and scale to craft a specific rhythm of reading. In the third construction, two perpendicular lines bind “and” with “they see.” Both lines sound in half-voice, before a horizontal gap of white inserts a pause. The next two words, secure in bold, hold more intensity: “black / alarming” takes the place of “Firestone” as the page’s lasting message. But Lissitzky has found a way to control the text more closely than even the ad men, by spinning the words on their axes and varying the size of individual letters within each word. The first two letters in chyerno (black) and tryevozhnyy (alarming) are enlarged, weighing down the words at the stern, pulling them down on the space of the page, and also accenting their initial sounds. Lissitzky is using graphic techniques to mold the delivery of his poetry. He has picked up a quality latent in the printed page—the capacity of typography to influence the rhythm of reading—so useful to the new advertisements, and extended it to tell the story of revolution.

Poetry was necessary because Lissitzky was trying to make a book that could serve as the spark, the iskra, for revolution. The task for About Two Squares was not only to transform the material of the page, but to trigger a profound transformation in the reader. For Yve-Alain Bois, the book represents an attempt to communicate on the scale of the epic in an era where the potency of that dramatic form had withered away.[17]In 1922, the rush of machinery sang louder than a bard ever could. The epic would be drowned out, unless, as Bois suggests, it found a home in one of the many screens onto which language had spilled during the nineteenth century.[18] Creating an epic of October, amplifying the mythology of revolution, was the goal guiding Lissitzky when he made About Two Squares. As Bois writes, the mechanically produced graphic sign is read by the eye, not by the ear—it is silent, and what Lissitzky was looking for with his typographic experiments was a way to make the word sound, to make it speak again.[19]By directing the book’s materiality in the print shop, the writer could “regulate the intensity, inscribe the silences, and thus program (theatricalize) the diction of writing.”[20]The forward motion in About Two Squares, often compared to the sequential movement of stills in a film, becomes a musical pulse, a song that owes its drama and rhythm to its typographic layout. And if the artist took advantage of the channels of duplication and distribution made possible by the press, the song could spread as far and as fast as a radio wave. Could an epic be fashioned out of the page?

To find out, the artist would have to play a new role. Bois notes how Lissitzky imagined himself as the “director” of a book’s total conception, as a kontruktor knigi (book constructor), a role that seems to resemble the editor of a weekly magazine, who sees the development of a print publication from a global scope, guiding verbal and visual content while working directly on production and distribution.[21]Lissitzky, as konstruktor knigi, could function like an agent for revolution, flying west like a rocketing square, landing in black zones of the market, like Berlin, and planting seeds of class consciousness. The red hits the black with a crash, everything scatters, and on the black settles red, “clearly.” So the story goes. Although, it is not just the reality of workers’ revolution that the square brings to earth, and it is not just agitprop that Lissitzky brings to Berlin. In the book’s fifth construction, a red Proun city rises from the black square of the past. Its weightless prisms rotate, interlock and nudge each other forward, as though outside of gravity, high up in the stars. The mechanically ruled square, and its procedure of exact geometric projection, has elevated the globe to a higher dimension, a utopian realm beyond the clouds that we cannot see, that we do not possess, and yet is taken to be our destiny, if only we can leap high enough to reach it. This kind of thinking is older than October.

It is about a century older, actually, because it expresses the type of knowledge that arose at the end of the eighteenth century, and that, for Foucault, marks the “threshold of our modernity.”[22]In The Order of Things, Foucault writes of a great breach that separates classical and modern knowledge. This crucial break, occurring on the cusp of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, produced a new epistemological space in which the kind of knowledge we call “modern” became possible. Foucault traces a “combination of corresponding transformations” in the study of life, labor, and language, transformations that together describe the change toward modernity.[23]

One of those changes was the birth of man. In classical knowledge, Foucault argues, there was no conception of “a being whose nature…is to know nature, and itself, in consequence, as a natural being.”[24]Man did not appear in the table of representations that constituted knowledge before the end of the eighteenth century. The human being was not an object of knowledge, nor was it thought of as the self-conscious subject that knows. When classical knowledge breaks apart, however, a “new presence” is added to the picture—man, who becomes at once the object of empirical thought and the transcendental subject with the ability to see.[25]All our reflection on the nature of man, on his internal biological processes, on his experience of labor, on his existence in language—all of this is modern. Once man becomes the object of knowledge, the task of knowledge becomes to approach that which is not known about man. After the passage into modernity, the field that knowledge will explore, the “sandy stretches” of the unknown that it will seek to illuminate, becomes the being of man himself.[26]

Thus, when man emerges he is not alone. At his side, from the beginning, is “a whole landscape of shadows,” all that is not thought, is not able to be thought, about man. It is the unthought, and Foucault describes it as man’s double, “a twin, born, not of man, nor in man, but beside him at the same time…an unavoidable duality.”[27]This double has walked hand-in-hand with man since their simultaneous appearance in the beginning of the nineteenth century. It takes different names, but it always “presents itself to reflection as the blurred projection of what man is in his truth,” and “also plays the role of a preliminary ground upon which man must collect himself and recall himself in order to attain his truth.”[28]For Marx, the double is called alienated man. It is the worker, estranged from themselves, from the other, from their labor, and from nature, who is the warped reflection of man in his true form, man as species-being.[29]The task of Marx’s science, then, as it trains its lens on man, is to illuminate his double, and ultimately, to unite the two of them in the process of revolution. Foucault writes that although the “double may be close, it is alien, and the role, the true undertaking, of thought will be to bring it as close to itself as possible; the whole of modern thought is imbued with the necessity…of ending man’s alienation by reconciling him with his own essence….”[30] In the same gesture that modern knowledge creates man as all that he is not, it implies the form of all that he can be. Modern thought, “in the very movement in which it invented man,” produces an ideal, a “promise of fulfillment and perfect plenitude,” right beside the blemish of man as he exists.[31]It is like a belt of red steel, orbiting just beyond the earth, separated from us by a screen of gray fog. That is, of course, until it sends its emissaries our way.

About Two Squares is a choice representative for this kind of modern thinking. Man, trapped in the black of economy, estranged from his true essence, awaits a messenger that will bring a new science—the science of the square. The geometries provide a way to see through the clouds, a way to glimpse all that is not yet thought about man, that is, his condition as a worker positioned within an imbalanced social formation. It is only once they have been delivered the new vocabulary of the square that people on Lissitzky’s earth can envision the new suprematist city, the red that settles on the black. Clearly. And once they do, once the right science has brought us closer to man in his true essence—not the blurred double, but the gleaming original—humanity shoots into the stars and falls into orbit around an infinite utopia. Lissitzky wrote that “it is only the creative movement towards the liberation of man,” only the new Russian art, “that makes him the being who holds the whole world within himself.”[32]

On the last page of About Two Squares, the black square has been flung out into space, leaving room for the red earth to flourish, in perpetuity. “Here / it ended,” writes Lissitzky, for man has been unified with his insistent twin, having outstripped the distortion of alienated labor. Science has kept its promise of fulfillment, of plenitude, of perfection. It could not have gone any other way, could it, given Lissitzky’s story. The geometries, from the very introduction of the square, are presented as flawless, they are perfect before they are even tested, for they are said to issue from, and thus guarantee, man’s true essence. So much certitude, and where is it grounded? For Foucault, this is the “anthropological sleep” of modern thought, the circular folly by which knowledge, before it has even begun, has already discovered “the truth of all truth.”[33]To awaken from this great slumber, to think clearly again, man would need to be ejected from the picture. We would have to try to think “without immediately thinking it is man who is thinking.”[34] Anything else, Foucault says, “we can answer only with a philosophical laugh.”[35]

What if, before we close the book, Lissitzky has begun to do just that, to laugh, quietly, to acknowledge the circular nature of his own claim to truth? Below the red Proun city, confidently tracking through the cosmos, Lissitzky places “Here / it ended… / …further.” Further? The word is dal’shye: further, farther, or next, in the bottom right corner, in exceptionally small type, nothing but a whisper. A smirk has escaped through the page because something is not right. Revolution should be over, the new collective state safely installed, with its insignia of the red square branded on every leaflet, every hat, every home, and yet, something is left unfinished, something returns. We flip back to the beginning of the book, because it went by so fast, and watch the process boomerang back on itself. The epic, the alphabet, draws back to its first entry: “Here are / two squares.” Perhaps utopia was only a dream.

In 1918, Malevich painted the clouds, behind which lay the future. Perhaps, he too, was cautious about using human beings as the first term in a line of thought. The same year, Vladimir Mayakovsy watches a horse fall in the street, and approaches it, saying,

Horse, please…

Horse, listen,

why should you think you are any worse?


we are all

essentially horses,

each and every one of us is something of a horse.[36]

Not to worry. Life is definitely worth living again.

[1] Christina Kiaer, Imagine No Possessions: The Socialist Objects of Russian Constructivism (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2005), 4.

[2] Benjamin H.D. Buchloh, “From Faktura to Factography,” October 30 (Autumn 1984): 93,

[3] Buchloh, 94.

[4] Ibid., 94.

[5] Patricia Railing, More About Two Squares (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1990), 39.

[6] Railing, 37.

[7] Ibid., 4.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid., 4.

[10] Ibid., 27.

[11] Ibid., 14.

[12] Ibid., 49.

[13] Ibid., 18.

[14] Ibid., 14.

[15] Ibid., 38.

[16] Railing, 27.

[17] Yve-Alain Bois, “El Lissitzky: Reading Lessons,” October 11 (Winter, 1979): 117,

[18] Bois, 117.

[19] Ibid., 117, 125.

[20] Ibid., 125

[21] Ibid., 114.

[22] Michel Foucault, The Order of Things (New York: Vintage Books, 1970), xi.

[23] Foucault, xi.

[24] Ibid., 310.

[25] Ibid., 312.

[26] Ibid., 323

[27] Ibid., 326.

[28] Ibid., 327.

[29] Karl Marx, “Estranged Labor,” Marxists International Archive, accessed Dec. 7, 2022

[30] Foucault, 327.

[31] Ibid., 334.

[32] Railing, 49.

[33] Ibid., 341.

[34] Ibid., 342-343.

[35] Ibid., 343.

[36] Vladimir Mayakovsky, Listen! Early Poems 1913-1918 (San Francisco: City Lights Books, 1991), 59.

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