Lot 21
  • 21

El Lissitzky

300,000 - 500,000 USD
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  • El Lissitzky
  • The Constructor
  • Gelatin silver print
photograph of a photomontage, initialed in the negative, framed, Buhl Collection and Guggenheim Museum exhibition labels on the reverse, 1924


The photographer to Kate Steinitz

The Collection of Lydia Winston Malbin, New York

Sotheby's New York, The Collection of Lydia Winston Malbin, 16 May 1990, Sale 6021, Lot 87

Hendrik Berinson, Berlin

Steven Kasher Gallery, New York, 1998


New York, Guggenheim Museum, Speaking with Hands: Photographs from The Buhl Collection, June - September 2004, and 4 other international venues through 2007 (see Appendix 1)

Palm Beach Photographic Centre, In Good Hands: Selected Works from the Buhl Collection, March 2011

Middletown, Delaware, Warner Gallery at St. Andrew's School, In Good Hands: Selected Works from the Buhl Collection, October - November 2011


Jennifer Blessing, Speaking with Hands: Photographs from The Buhl Collection (Guggenheim Foundation, 2004), pp. 129 and 229 (this print)


Franz Roh and Jan Tschichold, FotoAuge (London: Thames and Hudson facsimile reprint of the 1929 original edition, 1977), cover

Margarita Tupitsyn, El Lissitzky: Beyond the Abstract Cabinet (Yale University Press, 1999), pp. 76, 78-82

Ute Eskildsen and Jan-Christopher Horak, Film und Foto, der Zwanziger Jahre (Stuttgart, 1979), pl. 152

Dawn Ades, Photomontage (London, 1976), pl. 102

John Szarkowski, Photography Until Now (The Museum of Modern Art, 1989), p. 176


This photograph is on thin single-weight paper with a matte surface. The tones of this paper are cool, and range from a deep black to very light, almost white, gray. The print is unevenly trimmed, and shows some minor wear on the edges. It is otherwise in excellent condition. When examined under a blacklight, this print does not appear to fluoresce.
In response to your inquiry, we are pleased to provide you with a general report of the condition of the property described above. Since we are not professional conservators or restorers, we urge you to consult with a restorer or conservator of your choice who will be better able to provide a detailed, professional report. Prospective buyers should inspect each lot to satisfy themselves as to condition and must understand that any statement made by Sotheby's is merely a subjective qualified opinion.

Catalogue Note

El Lissitzky’s The Constructor, arguably his most famous work, encapsulates his beliefs about art, photography, and the role of the artist in the modern world.  Lissitzky was one of the great triumvirate of artist/designer/photographers, along with Moholy-Nagy (Lots 20 and 22) and Alexander Rodchenko (Lot 18), who championed photography’s primacy in the production of art of their time.  The three were alert to photography’s ‘plastic’ nature—its ability to achieve a vast array of artistic effects, through montage, collage, the photogram technique, and in combination with text—and understood its ability to function simultaneously as a tool for communication and for personal expression.  Photography was, in essence, the quintessential art form for the modern era.

Lissitzky wrote: ‘The language of photography is not the language of painting, and photography possesses properties not available to painting.  These properties lie in the photographic material itself and it is essential for us to develop them in order to make photography truly into art’ (Sovetskoe foto, No.10, May 1929).  In The Constructor, Lissitzky offered a masterful demonstration of how photography could be used to create a kind of art that was wholly new.  

The Constructor was completed in 1924, during the Russian artist’s sojourn in Berlin.  The original work, now in the State Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow, combined a variety of photographic techniques, including multiple exposure, collage, and photogram.  The photographer’s own name, in Roman type, appears in the upper left portion of the frame, and was made by using his Berlin letterhead as a paper negative.  The stenciled letters XYZ and the circle were drawn on the original in ink.  In The Constructor, two central figures are merged together: the hand of the artist, holding a draftsman’s compass, intersects with a self-portrait of Lissitzky.  Lissitzky’s eye appears in the very center of the hand’s palm.  The merging of Lissitzky’s lucid and attentive eye, with his hand, which seems poised to add to the already completed circle, captures Lissitzky’s conception of the thinking modern artist, perfectly in control of the new media.  In the Buhl Collection, this image takes its place within a group of images, most notably Herbert Bayer’s Lonely Metropolitan (Lot 12), in which hands and eyes are meaningfully combined. 

This photograph was previously owned by Lydia Winston Malbin, the great collector of Modernism and Futurism, whose collection was sold by Sotheby’s New York in 1990.  Along with the Lissitzky offered here, the auction included works by Kandinsky, Duchamp, Balla, Picasso, Braque, Miró, and many others.   The Malbin catalogue states that Lissitzky gave this print of The Constructor to artist and photographer Kate Steinitz (1889-1975).