It’s hip to be square. Or, what 80s American pop songs and early 20th Century Polish-Russian artists have in common.
Kazimir Malevich founded the artistic movement known as Suprematism. Like any artistic style with a manifesto, it has many goals, all of which are very grand, very avant garde, very revolutionary and very difficult to understand practically. In laymen’s terms, Suprematism believes that images and words are secondary to pure emotion. Oh, and they also thought Suprematism would be the superior to all art of the past. Super modest too.
The Suprematists were really into the idea of the zero degree of painting. Essentially they were trying to figure out at what point something ceases to be considered art. Hence, the squares. Malevich and his followers purposely crafted their subjects to come as close to not-art as possible. In exploring this very wonky frontier, they determined that red, black and white were the closest to the zero-degree. Additionally, the square, the circle and the cross were the shapes associated with bare minimum of art. Strong texture and imprecise lines, which showed the mark of the artist, also were part of Suprematist style of painting.
The squares do hold some deeper meaning as well. While Malevich liked to dismiss the connection between objects and meaning, The Black Square had an interesting cultural relevance. When displayed in in 1915, it was placed in the upper corner of the room, which is also where religious icons would be placed in a traditional Russian home. In this way the Black Square takes on a mystic or even sacrilegious meaning. Malevich also had it placed above his death bed, because when the end is near it’s important to have the seminal pieces of your artistic legacy on hand.
If the aesthetic theory makes your mind go numb and your eyeballs go bleh, consider the historical context. You’ll note that Malevich lived in Russia and Eastern Europe through the 1910s, 20s and 30s — a period where nothing important politically happened at all. Except you know, a little thing called the Bolshevik revolution and this guy named Stalin came into power. By the 1920s, the Soviets were pretty unfriendly to artists except those of the state-sponsored, propaganda making variety. The government of the hammer and the sickle did not do squares and crosses and such. In 1933, Malevich painted a self portrait in the state approved soviet-realism style. But instead of signing his name, he added a black and white square in the corner. This is the artistic equivalent giving the middle finger.