At MoMA

Hal Foster

When Alfred H. Barr Jr launched the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1929, it was a paradoxical enterprise: a museum for an avant-garde art that was very much a work in progress. Nevertheless, for his landmark show Cubism and Abstract Art in 1936, Barr drew up a flow chart that funnelled the various streams of modernist practice to date into two great rivers that he named ‘geometrical abstract art’ and ‘non-geometrical abstract art’. In effect the diagram was a confident projection of a history that the museum would move, strategically, to display and to define. If modernist art was first made in Europe, it was first narrated in the US, and abstraction was its Geist.

Flash forward 77 years. For Inventing Abstraction, 1910-25 (until 15 April), the curator Leah Dickerman offers a different diagram: not a diachronic chart of tributary movements but a synchronic network of charismatic ‘connectors’, such as Vasily Kandinsky, F.T. Marinetti, Guillaume Apollinaire, Francis Picabia, Tristan Tzara, Theo van Doesburg and Alfred Stieglitz, all of whom were polemicists (critics, editors, exhibition-makers) as much as they were artists. Like the diagram, the exhibition looks back to the period when abstraction emerged, not forward to its eventual triumph; rather than project a telos to come, it historicises a moment a century ago. In doing so, the show suggests, perhaps involuntarily, a closure to this practice. Is abstraction ‘a thing of the past’, a form of art that, however world-historical once, is well behind us now?

Liubov Popova, ‘Painterly Architectonic’ (1917).

Liubov Popova, ‘Painterly Architectonic’ (1917).

Inventing Abstraction opens with a complicated Cubist figure by Picasso. It is a conventional enough beginning (recall the title of the Barr show), yet there is no way around it, nor should there be: even if Picasso never went abstract (neither did Matisse, for that matter), Cubism was the fountainhead of abstraction, and key protagonists like Piet Mondrian and Kazimir Malevich felt they had to work through it. Dickerman features Kandinsky next, but she does not present abstraction as having a simple origin. Its sources are transhistorical and multicultural (modernist inspirations include African art, Byzantine icons, and Islamic ornament): abstraction is always discovered as much as it is invented. That said, the purview of the show is strictly European (including Russia and Britain), though the selection is broad and various within this frame, with many provocative juxtapositions and far more women than in past shows (Sonia Terk and Sophie Taeuber, for example, get equal billing with their husbands, Robert Delaunay and Hans Arp). At long last such movements as Italian Futurism and Polish Constructivism are given their due, and lesser figures like the Britons Lawrence Atkinson and Duncan Grant, and the Americans Stanton Macdonald-Wright and Morgan Russell, have their day too. Given the cost of insurance, conservation concerns and political problems (Russia has an embargo on loans), we are not likely to see such an extraordinary gathering of abstract art from this period ever again.

Although Inventing Abstraction includes sculpture, photography and film, it runs heavy on painting. It wasn’t obvious how absolute abstraction was to be achieved in those other media, and the modernist project of ‘purity’ – of an art freed from both resemblance to the world and function within it – privileged painting in any case. At the same time, many painters needed the aid or at least the analogy of the other arts, music and poetry above all. Music had long been seen as the most abstract (‘all art constantly aspires to the condition of music,’ Walter Pater had said), and Dickerman points out the importance not only of Wagner’s chromaticism and Schoenberg’s atonality for Kandinsky (a Schoenberg concert in Munich on 2 January 1911 was an epiphany for the artist) but also of the structural reflexivity of Bach for Paul Klee (who was a gifted musician). As for poetry, Mallarmé had already announced a crisis, and the next generation took the attack on conventional sense to an extreme in Futurist parole in libertà (‘words in freedom’), Russian zaum (transrational) texts, and sound poems (Kandinsky, Arp, van Doesburg and Kurt Schwitters all produced important examples).

The tension between medium-specific and cross-media impulses was generative for early abstraction. Against formalist critics, from Roger Fry through to Clement Greenberg, who stressed the decorous ideal of painting as strictly visual and spatial, Inventing Abstraction shows how abstract artists were concerned often with the tactility of materials (faktura or ‘texture’ was a watchword of the Russians) and sometimes with the temporality of animation (alongside abstract films by Hans Richter, Viking Eggeling and László Moholy-Nagy, there are unexpected projects by Grant and by Léopold Survage, an artist of Finnish descent active in Paris). ‘Tested by abstraction, the boundaries of painting and other media began to dissolve,’ Dickerman argues in a riposte to the medium-specific position. For one thing, abstract painting prompted a loosening of the ground under the viewer: Malevich suggested aerial perspectives in some of his early abstractions, and El Lissitzky rotated his diagrammatic Prouns as he painted them in order to confound any sense of orientation. Such experiments led some painters – Kandinsky, Lissitzky, van Doesburg – to abstract interiors, both actual and projected, and there were other crossings as well. Dickerman opposes medium-specificity and cross-media exchange, but the two principles are not in complete contradiction: however opposed in method, the Gesamtkunstwerk and the pure painting are both committed to the idea of aesthetic autonomy.

Artists were on the verge of abstraction well before the breakthrough year of 1912: why was it such a difficult concept to accept, even for champions like Kandinsky? The principal reason was that it seemed to expose art to the arbitrary, the decorative, the subjective. If art was no longer rooted in the world, what might ground it? If it was no longer governed by the referent, what might motivate it? By and large artists sought a basis for abstraction at the two extremes, in the transcendental realm of the Idea (usually Platonic, Hegelian or theosophist) or in the material register of the medium; in this respect abstraction provided an aesthetic resolution to the philosophical contradiction between idealism and materialism, either of which it could serve. Against the arbitrary, artists like Kandinsky also asserted the ‘necessity’ of abstraction – history demanded it, art required it – and such assertions in turn prompted a flood of words: individual proclamations, group manifestos, lectures, treatises, journals. Dickerman views this visual-verbal relation as a symptomatic ‘split’, even a dissociation of sensibility: ‘This structure – of images and words existing in parallel spheres, the two held at a distance – suggests a division in modernism.’ Yet one might also see it as a relation of supplementarity, and deconstruct it accordingly: which term in the binary truly determines the other in each instance? However parsed, the insight that practice and theory (or, for that matter, performance and publicity) would thereafter compensate for one another in 20th-century art is an important one.

Abstraction had recourse not only to artistic analogies and textual reinforcements but also to radical developments in the sciences of the time, such as the theory of relativity, quantum physics and non-Euclidean geometry; yet more germane, Dickerman argues, were new philosophical paradigms like phenomenology and semiotics. According to phenomenology, perception is not detached and objective – not ‘realist’ in this sense – but subjective and embodied and thus to an extent ‘abstract’. So, too, semiotics discarded the belief that language referred directly to the world (here the intimacy of the linguist Roman Jakobson with Malevich is very telling). Although Dickerman alludes to the impact of new technologies and culture on abstraction, one would like to hear more on this score. The exhibition offers a strong sense of the ambiguous attractions of the abstract world of the industrial machine, as differently evoked by the Futurists, Fernand Léger and Marcel Duchamp, but little sense of the abstractive force of the mass-produced commodity, the becoming-abstract of capitalist life, as variously explored by Georg Simmel, György Lukács and Alfred Sohn-Rethel. After Greenberg (not to mention Theodor Adorno), we often think of abstraction as a withdrawal from the modern world, almost a safehouse for art, but the converse is just as true: the modern world became too abstract to represent in the old ways.

Dickerman revises Barr dramatically, but not when it comes to the affirmation of abstraction, in which MoMA is still very invested. ‘The propositions were many, and at times contradicted each other,’ she concludes, ‘but in their aggregate they marked the demise of painting in its traditional form and its opening to the practices of the century to come.’ But was abstract painting as absolute a rupture as this makes out? Dickerman insists on its fundamental break with the old model of the perspectival picture, with its metaphor of a window onto a world, its sublimation of the materiality of the painting, its assertion of ‘the primacy of the visual’, its assumption of ‘a discarnate gaze’ and so on. This is true enough: for some artists, such as Aleksandr Rodchenko, abstraction did put paid to the project of representation. Yet for others it was the purification of painting, not its end but its epitome (this is an essential meaning of ‘pure painting’). Given the Hegelian cast of some theorists, abstraction might be understood in large part as the sublation of representation, that is, as its simultaneous negation and preservation. Thus, even as abstractionists like Kandinsky, Malevich and Mondrian cancelled any resemblance to reality, they also affirmed an ontology of the real; even as they rejected painting as a picture of the epiphenomenal world, they insisted on painting as an analogue of a noumenal world: appearance was sacrificed at the altar of transcendence. So, too, even as these artists broke with representational painting, they often did so in a way that continued the tradition of the tableau, reaffirming its criteria of compositional unity for the artwork and epiphanic experience for the viewer. In this respect the glorious Windows of Delaunay reflects on picturing in a way that rivals any self-aware painting by Velázquez or Vermeer.

Robert Delaunay, ‘Windows’ (1912).

Robert Delaunay, ‘Windows’ (1912).

So if ‘the demise of painting in its traditional form’ was not total, what about the ‘opening to the practices of the century to come’? Inventing Abstraction contains examples of avant-garde inventions nearly coeval with abstract painting, such as non-objective collage, relief and construction (an impressive model of the unbuilt Monument to the Third International by Vladimir Tatlin dominates one gallery). For Dickerman, abstraction prepares these devices and others too, including all that we comprehend by the name ‘Duchamp’: the readymade, experiments with chance, the artwork as idea and so on. Yet this strong claim is open to argument: already in the chart drawn up by Barr for MoMA, and later in the theory of ‘modernist painting’ promulgated by Greenberg, abstraction comes to displace these other strategies, and it would not be until after the dominance of abstract expressionism, in the neo-avant-gardes of the 1950s and 1960s, that they returned with any force. Abstraction was a break, to be sure, but it was also used to defend against other breaks that were perhaps more radical.

The final gallery of the show suggests the mixed fortunes of abstraction: there is a testament to abstraction as the necessary future not only of modernist art but of modern life tout court in the form of experimental pieces by Moholy-Nagy, a near travesty of abstraction as a kind of Dadaist nonsense in ornamental objects by Taeuber and Arp, and a set of essays in abstract form by Katarzyna Kobro and Władysław Strzemiński which, however exquisite, also appear stunted, with nowhere to go historically. And what about abstraction today? It does not pretend to the great ambitions – revolutionary, utopian, transcendental – of this early period; that is obviously not our mode. Many artists treat abstraction as a distant archive to cite more than as a continuous tradition to develop – but then nothing can be world-historical twice.

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BOMB MAGAZINE

Avant Garde Without Borders: Inventing Abstraction at MoMA

by Kevin Kinsella

Back-dated art works, Picasso’s frustration, and the transnational creation myths of Abstract art.


Exhibition view of Inventing Abstraction, 19101925. Photo by Jonathan Muzikar. Photo courtesy of The Museum of Modern Art, Imaging and Visual Resources Department.

According to Gabrielle Buffet, her husband Francis Picabia invented abstract art in July 1912 on a drunken drive across France with Claude Debussy and Guillaume Apollinaire. Mix equal parts artist, composer, and poet in a car at the dawn of the modern age, let it bump around for a while, then throw the doors wide, and out pours a brand new cocktail of color, space, and time.

Of course, Vasily Kandinsky might have begged to differ—and he did. An often-told anecdote has it that the Russian-born painter and critic had stumbled upon Abstract art as far back as 1896. One evening, just after arriving in Munich, Kandinsky saw one of his own paintings leaning on its side in his unlit studio. He couldn’t make out the subject of the work in the darkness, but the forms and colors before him nonetheless struck him—an event sparking the revelation that “objects harmed my pictures.” Despite this epiphany, it took Kandinsky nearly 15 years to bring an abstract painting into the light of day, so to speak. It is perhaps more illuminating that this story started going around in 1913, just as the same lightbulb seemed to be switching on in everyone’s head.

Everyone, it seems, wanted to be associated with abstraction’s creation myth—and some went to extraordinary lengths to secure their positions, including going so far as to backdate key artworks as proof of their having been there since the very beginning. For example, an untitled piece from 1913 by Kandinsky was given a new birthday in 1910; Robert Delaunay’s Soleil, Lune, Simultante 2 (Sun, Moon, Simultaneous 2), which was originally shown by the artist in 1913, was reassigned to 1912, as well as Le Premier Disque (The First Disk). The Russians seemed particularly sensitive to their own role in the development of abstraction, with pieces by Natalia Goncharova, Mikhail Larionov, and Kazimir Malevich all receiving reverse facelifts to suggest that their works were anywhere from two to five years older than they actually were. Given the geographic and political barriers at the time faced by these Russian artists, one might understand their insistence that they receive a handicap when it came time to assigning credit for what Leah Dickerman, curator of the Museum of Modern Art’s Inventing Abstraction, 1910-1925 exhibition, calls the “greatest rewriting of the rules of artistic production since the Renaissance.”

Abstraction is now so central to our conception of art that it’s hard to imagine a time before the idea of an abstract artwork. But until 1911, it was impossible for artists and the public to let go of the long-held notion that art is supposed to describe things in a real or imaginary world. So, when examples of nonreferential artworks started popping up about a hundred years ago by the likes of Kandinsky, Picabia, Robert Delaunay, František Kupka, and Fernard Léger, observors didn’t know what to make of them. With such unexpected and dazzling glimpses into the Fourth Dimension, these early exhibitions in the so-called real world were felt almost immediately. Within five years, other artists from across Eastern and Western Europe, as well as the United States—Hans Arp, Vanessa Bell, Sonia Delaunay-Terk, Arthur Dove, Goncharova, Marsden Hartley, Paul Klee, Mikhail Larinov, Malevich, Franz Mark, Piet Mondrian, Hans Richter, Wyndham Lewis, and more—were producing abstract artworks. Things happened so suddenly that comparisons with the past were impossible.


Morgan Russell. Synchromy in Orange: To Form. 1913-1914. Oil on canvas, 11’3″ x 10’1½”.© 2012 Peyton Wright Gallery. Photo courtesy of Albright-Knox Art Gallery / Art Resource, NY.

Inventing Abstraction, which runs at MoMA until April 15, 2013, explores abstraction as both a historical idea and an emergent artistic practice. But while it is tempting from a historical perspective to nail down just who “invented” it, the story of the movement’s sudden proliferation may have something more to say about the nature of innovation itself. Abstraction was not the inspiration of a single artist working in isolation, rather it was, according to Dickerman in her introduction the show’s catalogue, “incubated, with a momentum that builds and accelerates, through a relay of ideas and acts among a nexus of players, who recognize and proclaim their significance to a broader audience.” Indeed, the central tenant of the exhibition is just how much the phenomenon of abstraction was the product of ideas moving between artists and intellectuals working in different media and between far-flung places. If abstraction was “invented,” it was “an invention of multiple first steps, multiple creators, multiple heralds, and multiple rationales,” says Dickerman.

From its start in the years immediately before World War I, Abstraction was an international phenomenon. With less-restrictive passport regulations and increasingly porous borders, people were traveling internationally more than ever before. And when they weren’t traveling, the availability of telegraphs, telephones, and radios kept them in touch and up to date with cultural and scientific developments across Europe and the Atlantic. Within the art world, specifically, the notion of a borderless avant garde was fed by the flourishing of artistic and literary journals—in Paris alone, some 200 “little reviews” of art and culture were being published in the decade preceding the war.

Accordingly, Inventing Abstraction takes a transnational perspective. Surveying key episodes in the movement’s early history, including works made across Eastern and Western Europe and the United States, the exhibition explores the relationships among artists and composers, dancers and poets, in establishing a new modern language for the arts. It skillfully brings together a wide range of art forms—paintings, drawings, printed matter, books, sculpture, film, photography, sound recordings, music and dance footage—to draw a rich portrait of this moment that brought us that hopelessly frustrating question: “Yes, but what does it mean?!”


Sophie Taeuber-Arp. Untitled (Triptych), 1918. Oil on canvas on board, three panels. Photo courtesy of Kunsthaus Zürich, © ARS, New York/ProLitteris, Zürich.

Above the entryway to the gallery, visitors are confronted with the central question of Kandinsky’s seminal theoretical text On the Spiritual in Art, which first appeared in 1911: “Must we not then renounce the object altogether, throw it to the winds and instead lay bare the purely abstract?” It’s almost a cue to brace oneself before entering the gallery, which isn’t a bad idea when one is about to step into a whirlwind of color, space, and time.

Of course, one can’t confront art at the beginning of the 20th century without first paying respect to Pablo Picasso, represented by the starkly Cubist Girl with a Mandolin from 1910. A rare flirtation with total abstraction for the Modernist master, one is left with a sense that he wasn’t particularly serious about it. And Picasso was the first to admit it, announcing at the time: “There is no abstract art. You always have to begin with something”—a statement which appears on the painting’s label. In the end, Picasso pronounced the painting unfinishable and so too his experiment with abstraction.

With Picasso out of the way, visitors are free to move on to Kandinsky. Without himself realizing an abstract painting in 1910, Kandinsky had described Picasso’s early foray into abstraction as, “splitting the subject up and scattering bits of it all over the picture,” an effect that was “frankly false” but nonetheless an auspicious “sign of the enormous struggle toward the immaterial.” According to Dickerman, “Kandinsky could theorize abstraction before he was capable of doing it. Picasso, on the other hand, was dissecting the mechanics of identification, when he came to abstraction, he was horrified by it.” But things came together for Kandinsky after attendng a performance of composer Arnold Schoenberg’s Second String Quartet on January 2, 1911.


Vasily Kandinsky. Impression III (Concert), 1911. Oil on canvas, 30 7/8 × 39 9/16 inches. © 2012 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris. Photo courtesy of The Städtische Galerie im Lenbachhaus, München.

Impression III (Concert) depicted Kandinsky’s first encounter with the Austrian composer’s pioneering atonal compositions. Two sketches for the painting, though with figures and instruments clearly visible, demonstrate that Kandinsky was depicting neither the particular concert he had experienced that fruitful evening nor a particular composition; rather, the pictures portray his overall impression of a musical performance. The dominant contrast of the picture is apparently the clash between two color masses: black (the piano) and yellow (the audience). Completely lacking in depth, the yellow is bold, a typically “worldly color,” as Kandinsky described it in a letter to Schoenberg. Black, on the other hand, “is the most soundless color to which any other, including the weakest one, would therefore resound more powerfully and more precisely. . . Bright yellow contrasted with black has such an effect that it appears to free itself from the background, to hover in the air and to jump at the eyes.”

From there, the pace and progression of the show suggests that as soon as Picasso and Kandinsky helped work through the initial theoretical kinks, abstraction gained viability as a movement. The 400-odd works on view include numerous paintings—a majority from outside the museum’s collection—as well as stained glass, needlepoint, film, sculpture and illustrated books. At once open and intimate, the layout reveals a panorama of works of varying scale and media installed in different galleries, giving the impression that the ranging artworks are part of a single rich moment or narrative. The effect can only be described as dizzying.

A bit down from Kandinsky, visitors encounter Sonia Delaunay-Terk and Blaise Cendrars’s stunning text-image collaboration La Prose du Transsibérien et de la petite Jehanne de France (Prose of the Trans-Siberian and of Little Joan of France, 1913) The book, illustrated in loose and sensual geometric shapes of blues, yellows, orange, and black, features a poem by Cendrars about a journey through Russia on the Trans-Siberian Express in 1905, during the first Russian Revolution, printed on an abstract picture by Delaunay-Terk. Cendrars himself referred to the work as “a sad poem printed on sunlight.”


Kazimir Malevich. Painterly realism of a boy with a knapsack color masses in the 4th dimension, 1915. Oil on canvas, 28 × 17 1/2 inches. Photo courtesy of The Museum of Modern Art, Imaging and Visual Resources Department.

Pushing on, the grouping of Marcel Duchamp’s broken glass painting, To Be Looked at (from the Other Side of the Glass) with One Eye, Close to, for Almost an Hour (1918), his kinetic sculpture, Rotary Demisphere (Precision Optics) (1925), the wooden objects of his 3 Standard Stoppages (1913-1914) and his oil and pencil on canvas Network of Stoppages (1914) demonstrate the Frenchman’s vaunted range. In these quirky works, it’s as though meaning is excised from the objective world. For instance, in 3 Standard Stoppages, Duchamp challenges the French metric system as an intellectual construct rather than an universal absolute by undoing the metric standard through a random placement of three meter-long threads. In Network of Stoppages, he complicates that idea, by reproducing each one of the three threads three times and positioning them in a diagrammatic arrangement on a previously used canvas (a sketch for his ongoing The Large Glass). By painting over the threads and the images of a female figure and a somewhat mechanical drawing from the earlier work, the visible and semivisible layers oppose three systems of representation: figurative, chance, and the diagram, which maps the world without picturing it.

The Russian wall, a tribute to the earth-shattering 1915 exhibition 0,10: The Last Futurist Exhibition of Painting, where Malevich introduced geometric Suprematism to Petragrad, and so the world, is a show in and of itself. Dickerman and assistant curator Masha Chlenova went to great lengths to bring together the original works to recreate as close as possible the original wall, including the iconic Painterly realism of a boy with a knapsack color masses in the 4th dimension, White on White and Self-Portrait in Two Dimensions. Placed opposite French-born Romanian sculptor Constantin Brancusi’s oak Endless Column, version 1 (1918), consisting of a single symmetrical element, a pair of truncated pyramids stuck together at their base, then repeated to produce a continuous rhythmic line that suggests infinite vertical expansion, it offers one of the most arresting views of the exhibition.


Exhibition view of Inventing Abstraction, 1910–1925. Photo by Jonathan Muzikar. Photo courtesy of The Museum of Modern Art, Imaging and Visual Resources Department.

And just around the corner looms a model of Vladimir Tatlin’s staggering Monument to the Third International (1920) a work whose original-yet-unrealized plans called for a structure taller than the Eiffel Tower and made out of steel and glass to show the transparency and modernism of the new Soviet party. Still, anchored confidently among El Lissitsky’s cathedral-like Prouns, MoMA’s scale model, itself is a soaring temple to the future, and a near-religious experience to behold, which could be said for much of the exhibition itself.

In many ways, Inventing Abstraction is a sequel to one of the first and most famous of the types of exhibitions for which MoMA is so well-known: the pioneering Cubism and Abstract Art show mounted by Alfred H. Barr Jr., the museum’s founding director, in 1936. Barr’s show covered some 50 years, from Cézanne to Surrealism. Dickerman’s is tighter yet also more ranging, including early dance films and recordings of poetry and music into the galleries. Another difference is that she also included American artists (Hartley, Morgan Russell, Arthur Dove, Georgia O’Keeffe, Paul Strand), and increased the numbers of British and Italian artists and women.

Dickerman also places new emphasis on abstraction as a collective endeavor that emerged simultaneously across several art forms, from artists and intellectuals who knew and influenced each other. The story of the origins of abstraction is about relationships, of collective participation. The network through which abstraction spread is suggested in a diagram, made with a nod to the famous chart that appeared on the cover of Barr’s catalog for Cubism and Abstract Art. Visitors are confronted with Dickerman’s own diagram before they enter the Joan and Preston Robert Tisch Exhibition Gallery. Vectors link individuals who knew each other, suggesting the unexpected density of contacts among the movement’s pioneers, by turns casting shadows and throwing light upon those who claimed to have invented abstract art.

Kevin Kinsella is a writer and translator (from Russian) living in Brooklyn. His latest book, a translation of Sasha Chernyi’s Poems from Children’s Island, is now available through Lightful Press.

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THE NEW REPUBLIC

Art

January 19, 2013

The MOMA’s “Inventing Abstraction” is Exhilirating, Challenging, and Completely Wrong

By

It has been a long time since I saw museumgoers as fully engaged as the crowds moving through “Inventing Abstraction: 1910-1925,” the visual and intellectual banquet at the Museum of Modern Art this winter. Visitors are wide-eyed, attentive, quietly exhilarated. And why not? They are having the kind of full-out artistic experience on which the Museum of Modern Art built its legendary reputation, but which it has rarely managed to produce in recent years. From the first work you see, Picasso’s austere Woman with Mandolin (1910), through to the final room with its wealth of work by Jean Arp, Sophie Taeuber-Arp, and László Moholy-Nagy, this is a show that electrifies through its sure-footed presentation of the early abstract avant-garde in France, Germany, Russia, England, and the United States. Leah Dickerman, the MoMA curator who organized the exhibition, knows how to install works of art, and that’s a far rarer talent than is generally acknowledged. The grace with which Dickerman juggles a wide range of material is thrilling to behold. She never allows the many extraordinary books and more ephemeral items on display to detract from the explosive power of gatherings of paintings by Robert and Sonia Delaunay, Léger, Mondrian, and Malevich. “Inventing Abstraction” is almost too good to be true. And that’s where the trouble begins. Dickerman has achieved this end-to-end visual coherence by denying the dizzying heterogeneity that characterized the early years of abstract art

“Inventing Abstraction” is packed with tremendous works and formidable ideas. That the exhibition is also, at least in my view, deeply wrongheaded does not in any way detract from its importance. “Inventing Abstraction” is so forcefully, lucidly, and persuasively wrongheaded that it achieves its own kind of intellectual glory, instantly recognizable as the latest in a great Museum of Modern Art tradition of shows that make arguments that practically beg to be contradicted. “Cubism and Abstract Art,” the legendary 1936 MoMA exhibition with which “Inventing Abstraction” has much in common, was in its day said to be wrongheaded by many people, including Meyer Schapiro, at the time a very young art historian. Alfred H. Barr, Jr, the founding director of the Museum of Modern Art who organized “Cubism and Abstract Art,” would most likely have agreed with Leah Dickerman when, in the opening wall text of the present show, she declares that “Abstraction may be modernism’s greatest innovation.” I certainly agree. The trouble begins when Dickerman goes on to define abstract art as an art that “dispensed with recognizable subject matter.” And the trouble only deepens later in the show, when in a wall label for Marcel Duchamp’s 3 Standard Stoppages, we are told that “the emergence of abstraction spelled the demise of painting as a craft and its rebirth as an idea.”

As Dickerman tells the story, abstract art is a prescription rather than a permission. This is a terrible mistake. She is fascinated by work by Mondrian and Malevich, where at least for a time it seems that abstraction is a way of limiting and thereby intensifying the possibilities of painting. She banishes from the exhibition Paul Klee and Joan Miró, two seminal figures whose profoundly abstract visions did not exclude “recognizable subject matter.” What Dickerman cannot admit is that abstraction in fact released painters to approach experience in an extraordinarily wide variety of ways.

Dickerman weaves so many fascinating strands into her story that some museumgoers may not even notice what has been left out. She has found a remarkable early abstract painting by Vanessa Bell, a compact composition of rectangular forms that has a blunt, pragmatic integrity. And although she could have perhaps done with a little less Georgia O’Keeffe and Marsden Hartley, Dickerman is right to emphasize how early and how forcefully American artists come into the story. The trouble with the way Dickerman tells this story, however, is that abstraction becomes too much of an absolute. She emphasizes the nobility of artists who were either on the verge of entirely banishing recognizable subject matter or had already done so. But abstraction, which arguably originated with the symbolist impulse in late-nineteenth-century art, was always less a matter of banishing reality than it was a matter of creating new realities, each of which had its own relationship with what the painters who in the nineteenth century set up their easels out of doors referred to as reality. In order to maintain the scheme of “Inventing Abstraction,” it sometimes seems that Dickerman is forced to willfully ignore the evidence before her eyes. If Miró and Klee have been excluded for the sin of recognizable subject matter, then why is it that Léger’s Les Disques, with its evocations of machinery and wrought iron, makes the cut? If “recognizable subject matter” has been banished, how is it that so many of the works in the exhibition contain letters or numbers, which are recognizable to any child?

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The absolutism that this exhibition imposes on abstract art is not an absolutism that many of the artists embraced, at least not for very long. Arp, one of the heroes of Dickerman’s story, spent his later years carving abstracted human torsos in marble, neoclassical visions that owed as much to Ancient Greece as to cubism and abstract art. Mondrian in the 1920s and 1930s did paintings that excluded pretty much all associations with the recognizable world, yet when in his later years he titled paintings Place de la Concorde, Trafalgar Square, and Broadway Boogie Woogie, I think you can certainly argue that he was encouraging his audience to recognize some fundamental relationship between abstract form and particular local realities. If Duchamp was a critical figure in the history of abstract art—and this is the formulation of Dickerman’s that strikes me as most wrongheaded—what does she make of the readymade, which is arguably the most realistic of all works of art?

As for Klee and Miró, the two most egregious absences from this exhibition, they believed that abstraction liberated the artist to embrace nature—or “the nature of nature,” as Klee put it—in a whole new variety of ways. Dickerman would perhaps file Miró under Surrealism, which many would say is itself a form of abstraction. And she did apparently intend to have one Klee in the exhibition, his Homage to Picasso, although the truth is that Klee should have been as central a player in this exhibition as Léger, Malevich, or Arp. The longer I consider the exclusions of Miró and Klee, the more difficult they are to comprehend. Some will say that “Inventing Abstraction” reflects an old orthodoxy at the Museum of Modern Art, where sometimes (although by no means always) abstraction has been regarded as a one-way street leading to ever increasing purity. But if MoMA’s vision of abstraction embraces the work of the Abstract Expressionists, then it makes no sense whatsoever to exclude Miró and Klee, whose richly poetic understanding of the content of abstract art left such a deep impression on the American avant-garde in the 1940s.

Leah Dickerman’s enthusiasm for the work that she embraces here is so heartfelt that it can’t but be infectious. When she places the dark silhouette of Brancusi’s Endless Column before a wall of preternaturally lucid paintings by Malevich, she produces a theatrical effect that museumgoers are going to remember long after this show has closed. And it is pure dramatic genius to set Tatlin’s Monument to the Third International under a skylight, so that the thrusting form seems to be taking off into the stratosphere. Yet in this instance the brilliance with which Dickerman puts together an exhibition—and we have seen it before, with her involvement in exhibitions devoted to Dadaism (when she was at the National Gallery) and to the Bauhaus and the murals of Diego Rivera (at MoMA)—tends to tie the story all too neatly together. The technique of dedicating parts of galleries or entire galleries to work done in particular geographic localities, which brought coherence to heretofore chaotic material in her great Dada show, makes the story in “Inventing Abstraction” look more logical and seamless than it really was. At times, by shifting from one country to another, she seems to be trying to draw our attention away from what might be uncomfortable thoughts. Léger, one of the heroes of her story, would be painting figure compositions well before Dickerman’s closing date of 1925, but before we can even consider that uncomfortable fact we’ve been whisked off to Russia and Malevich’s abstractions. And so it goes.

Considering that many of the artists Dickerman includes had at best a passing interest in her definition of abstract art, you might think Dickerman herself would have begun to ask a few questions. The problem begins at the very beginning of the show, when in the label for Picasso’s Woman with Mandolin, Dickerman quotes Picasso’s famous statement: “There is no abstract art. You always have to begin with something.” For Dickerman, these are fightin’ words, dividing the non-abstract artists (beginning with Picasso) from the abstract ones. Interestingly, Dickerman does not include Picasso’s next line, which in fact complicates the story because what he says is that in the end “you can remove all traces of reality.” In a catalogue essay, the well-known scholar Yve-Alain Bois makes the same point even more aggressively, proclaiming Picasso’s “loathing of abstract art.” My feeling is that both Dickerman and Bois are drawing the lines a little too sharply. Picasso was quite evidently fascinated by Mondrian’s most radically simplified compositions of the 1920s, a fascination reflected in the white expanses, black lines, and primary colors in his Painter and Model series of the late 1920s. And as for the revolutionaries who are the subject of “Inventing Abstraction,” as I moved through the show I found myself coming back to Picasso’s statement, because more often than not the artists were precisely “begin[ning] with something.” If Dickerman really believes what she says, why on earth has she included photographs by Alfred Stieglitz and Paul Strand, which merely look at recognizable sights in a fresh way?

As for the interesting emphasis that Dickerman places on the art of dance—with vintage footage of modern dance performances toward the end of the show—this also raises serious questions about the exhibition’s basic assumptions. Modern dance, with its dramatic reconsideration of the human body’s potential for movement, might be said to be the most realistic art of all, grounded as it is in an exploration of immediate physical experience. Perhaps the point of modern dance was not to regard the body abstractly, but to regard the body in a radically different way than classical ballet, which is arguably the more abstract art in that it imposes on the individual an ideal order, a physical discipline in many respects highly impersonal. By comparison, the modern dancer Mary Wigman, seen here in a performance from 1930, establishes a veritable cult of personality—a naturalism or an expressionism, take your pick, grounded in her own private reality. Dickerman is on far more solid ground when she turns to the relationship between the visual arts and music, a theme at the very beginning of the exhibition, where Vasily Kandinsky and Arnold Schönberg are paired. It is true that music is the most inherently abstract of all the arts, and certainly provided a model for many painters, going back to Fantin-Latour in the nineteenth century. But even here the situation is more complex than Dickerman may allow, because the avant-garde interest in music was also an interest in the Wagnerian unity of the arts—in Gesamtkunstwerk—and even as this encouraged the abstractness of the visual arts it encouraged new forms of symbolic storytelling and image making, which deeply affected the subject matter of Klee, Kandinsky, and many others.

The more I think about “Inventing Abstraction,” the more I find myself arguing with its fundamental assumptions, but the pleasure of the argument is grounded in the intricacy and solidity of Dickerman’s work. Like the great Museum of Modern Art shows of the past—like “Cubism and Abstract Art” (1936), “Dada, Surrealism and their Heritage” (1968), “Primitivism’ in 20th Century Art” (1984), and “Picasso and Portraiture” (1996)—“Inventing Abstraction” challenges us to think our own thoughts. I am left thinking about how often the will to abstraction returns us to representation of one kind or another. I am left thinking that a broader definition of abstraction—a definition that fully embraced the achievements of Miró and Klee and the later work of Kandinsky (which with its symbolic forms may strike Dickerman as insufficiently abstract)—would make it easier to see the art of the twentieth century as a whole. And I am left thinking that a more honest and inclusive view of early modernism would render irrelevant all the talk of postmodernism, because so many of the values we tend to associate with postmodernism—narrative, symbolism, heterogeneity—are in fact aspects of early modernism. As for Picasso’s comment that “you always have to begin with something,” this may reflect not so much a rejection of abstract art as a rejection by this supremely pragmatic and skeptical artist of the spiritual longings that were so often associated with abstract art. The fact is that every artist in “Inventing Abstraction” began with something, even if that something was only a rectangular shape. The invention of abstraction was not about replacing something with nothing or craft with idea (as Dickerman would have Duchamp telling us). Abstraction was the new reality. Apparently we are still catching up with that reality.

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Abstract Critical
14 February 2013

Inventing Abstraction

Written by Ben Wiedel-Kaufmann

‘The movement of abstract art is too comprehensive and long-prepared, too closely related to similar movements in literature and philosophy, which have quite other technical conditions, and finally, too varied according to time and place, to be considered a self-contained development issuing by a kind of internal logic directly from aesthetic problems. It bears within itself at almost every point the mark of the changing material and psychological conditions surrounding modern culture.’ Meyer Shapiro, Nature of Abstract Art, 1937

‘The answer to the question “How do you think a truly radical thought?” seems to be you think it through the network’. Leah Dickerman, Inventing Abstraction, 2012

© 2011 The Museum of Modern Art

The first quote is taken from Meyer Shapiro’s response to the vision of abstraction put forward by Alfred Barr in his exhibition Cubism and Abstract Art, at the Museum of Modern Art, in 1936. The importance of Shapiro’s objection, or indeed Barr’s formalism, bear little repeating here – both  trace long and embellished histories across the last 75 years of art historical thinking. Upon crossing the five-storey high bridges of the new MoMA to enter into the show Inventing Abstraction, however, one might be forgiven for questioning where exactly this last 75 years has led us – aside from across a narrow gangway towards attendant vertigo.

At the entrance one is confronted by a diagram that looks like the remnants of a secret service briefing on Al-Qaeda cells (minus the mug-shots), or a potential app for Facebook: in fact the now forgotten ‘friend circle’ on said social networking site is pretty much exactly what it is. The roughly geographical diagram, connecting individual names (or nodes?) by confusing yet impressive webs of red lines is central to the conception of an exhibition whose subtitling claims to present ‘How a Radical Idea [Abstraction] Changed Modern Art’: ‘How do you think a truly radical thought?… you think it through the network’ asserts curator Leah Dickerman (backed up by social scientists) in the perhaps understandably sweeping tones of the catalogue introduction. This explanation might carry in the context of a secret service briefing, or a study of group dynamics. For the purposes of exploring the genesis of abstraction, however, it seems wildly deficient.

Inventing Abstraction, 1910–1925. The Museum of Modern Art, Imaging and Visual Resources Department, photo Jonathan Muzikar © 2011 The Museum of Modern Art

This is particularly evident if we place the diagram (as we are invited to do) in contrast to the famed diagram Alfred Barr presented on the dust jacket of the catalogue for the aforementioned exhibition. From Barr’s perhaps simplistic, but nonetheless reasoned, exploratory and propositional map of formal influence are reduced to a geographically inspired dot-to-dot.

The absence of an axis of time and the exclusion of any attempt to penetrate the ideas that flowed through the maze of red communication channels are troubling. If Shapiro could criticize Barr’s model for excluding the myriad historical factors external to formal progression, what are we to make of this presentation, where surrounding cultural and historical influence is reduced to an annotated who’s who of abstract practitioners. It is – one might say – a very cogent embodiment of the loss at which, one hundred years after the advent of abstraction, the art world finds itself. Isolated and distanced from both historical and formal analysis, enthralled by the pretences of postmodern social sciences and encumbered by the uncritical trappings of the cult of celebrity we seem unable to form a cohesive historical framework; and are left facing an infographic.

Inventing Abstraction, 1910–1925. The Museum of Modern Art, Imaging and Visual Resources Department, photo Jonathan Muzikar © 2011 The Museum of Modern Art

It would be unfair to unfold an entire analysis of the exhibition on the basis of this diagram alone (although as with Barr’s it may yet stand as the most permanent visual reminder of the historical vision proposed). It is a relief, therefore, after the vertigo of the entrance well, that the exhibition presents one of the more impressive and complete displays of early 20th century abstract painting that is likely to have been compiled anywhere in the world (though Paul Klee is notably absent owing to a failed loan). Accumulated are a huge range of breakthrough works from Arp, Dove, Duchamp(!), Kandinsky, Malevich, Mondrian, Kupka, Leger, Picabia, Popova, O’Keeffe and many more besides. Laid out in an unfolding succession of roughly geographically grouped rooms, this breadth, and much else, makes the exhibition worthy of repeated visits (difficult, of course, from this side of the pond).

Morgan Russell. Synchromy in Orange: To Form. 1913-1914. Oil on canvas, 11’3″ x 10’1½” (342.9 x 308.6 cm). Collection Albright-Knox Art Gallery Buffalo, New York. Gift of Seymour H. Knox, Jr. © 2012 Peyton Wright Gallery. Photo courtesy of Albright-Knox Art Gallery / Art Resource, NY.

If far from all emerge as heroes, grouping together so many artists makes apparent the incandescence of fifteen years of production which witnessed what the exhibition’s organisers and many more before have described as ‘the most dramatic rewriting of the rules of artistic production since the Renaissance’. Looking through the works I was struck by how many of the formal enquiries of the succeeding century were prefigured in that brief period. Picabia’s The Source (1912) and Morgan Russell’s Synchromy in Orange: To Form (1913-14) put pay to the myth that abstract painting owed a monumental scale to Abstract Expressionism (the suppression of scale surely, therefore, falling at the feet of early 20th gallerists); Carlo Carra and Robert Delaunay were, albeit tentatively, raising the possibilities of shaped canvasses some half century before Richard Smith and Frank Stella; and right across the rooms we see multiple investigations into surface tactility, grids, colour theory, deep space, suppressed space, frontal composition, word images and hermetic attempts to forge abstract languages.

For all this vitality, I could not help but feel distanced by MoMA’s presentation. In their attempts to emphasise abstraction’s commonality and novelty they have excluded its historic roots. Whilst a 1910 Picasso (‘abstract in all but name’) bars the entrance wall to the exhibition, its inclusion is intended to attest to abstraction’s ‘conceptual impossibility in 1910’ rather than its artistic lineage. (A usage which conveniently sidesteps Picasso’s continued assertion of abstraction’s conceptual impossibility). And throughout the show works have been selected and organised not to show the evolution and continuity of ideas – the multiple paths which led towards abstraction – but to emphasise the drama and commonality of the conclusions. The Futurists, Leger and Delaunay appear stripped of their evolving interests in simultaneity, urban experience and light and are presented as in some manner homogenous with Kandinsky’s spiritualism. The Americans are presented as Parisian voyagers or strange floating nodes in the network and Dada’s assaults on rationality appear uncritically alongside O’Keeffe’s floral close-ups and Matissean Bloomsbury paintings.

Inventing Abstraction, 1910–1925. The Museum of Modern Art, Imaging and Visual Resources Department, photo Jonathan Muzikar

It is unfortunate that the extensive and beautifully produced catalogue (in which a unifying introductory essay is followed by a series of specific studies) does little to underpin and investigate the foundations of these often quite distinct explorations. Whilst the now standard references to the linguistic experiments of sound poetry, non-Euclidean geometry, Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity, parallel editing in film and breakdowns in subject / object relations in psychology are all present, they are awkwardly pushed into the background by the continued insistence on viewing abstraction as a monolithic invention, pulled from the rib of the network. In this worryingly ahistorical model we are left with very little idea as to the proposed relation of these wider events to the works on display; very little concept of the extent to which such ideas constituted the fabric of the artists’ interests or communications; little to no idea, in short, of the multiple contexts in which the move to abstraction was sown.

Paradigmatic of this approach is the emphasis on cross-media exchange as an apparent source of abstraction. Time and again we are presented with moments in which this exchange is said to have spurred abstraction; be it in the form of Kandinsky’s reaction to a Schoenberg concert or a car journey involving Francis Picabia, Apollinaire and Claude Debussy. But rather than a consideration of the common interests aired in such exchanges we are more often than not left with reductive parables: ‘Put a modern artist, a poet and a composer in a car, rumble along, and what do you get? Abstraction’ states Dickerman. In placing emphasis on such moments without exploring the wider discursive frameworks which informed them, the actual contents of the exchanges remain shrouded in mystery, even as the concept of cross-media exchange (and indeed exchange of any kind) is exalted. As such, for all the attempts to channel music into the gallery (far fewer than I had, in fact, anticipated), we do not move far beyond the problems which Shapiro identified in Barr’s model: for whilst the definition of artistic endeavour is broadened, ‘The history of modern art is [still] presented as an internal, immanent process among the artists.’ (Shapiro)

The contexts in which abstraction came to flourish are of course diverse and complex. Nonetheless, by shortcutting them I cannot help but feel that we move towards reinforcing myth rather than understanding and leave abstraction as a fragile and awkward edifice. In investigating these roots we are not aided by the dissolution of the Marxist certainty that underpinned Shapiro’s analysis nor (and perhaps more disruptively) by the distance which has emerged between the comments and thoughts of so many of the pioneers of abstraction and our own time. It is striking that whilst so many of the formal concerns of the last hundred years seem prefigured in these early works, the pronouncements of many of the leading figures now seem hopelessly distant. Take Kupka’s thoughts on straight lines, ‘a taut cord, energetic beyond nature. Solemn, the vertical is the backbone of life in space’, ‘the horizontal is Gaia, the grandmother’, or Kandinsky’s general spiritual waffle.

František Kupka. Localisation des mobiles graphiques II (Localization of graphic motifs II). 1912-13. Oil on canvas, 6’ 6 ¾” x 6’ 4 3/8″ (200 x 194 cm). National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C, Ailsa Mellon Bruce Fund and Gift of Jan and Meda Mladek. © 2012 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris. Photo courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.

Whilst the current catalogue’s writers (and many art historians before) have attempted to push Kandinsky and Kupka into a contemporary framework by casting their spiritualism as a matter of secondary importance, it seems clear that these spiritual interests provided an essential context for several of the artists who pushed towards abstraction. Kandinsky, Kupka and Mondrian all referred repeatedly and explicitly to the influence of Theosophy on their adoption of abstraction. That these three, coming from different countries and different backgrounds – and not directly connected by the network chart – should all find inspiration in a hybrid form of Eastern mysticism which cast the material world as an illusory fiction seems to offer a more concrete and illuminating path of enquiry into the genesis of abstraction than a million unexplained lines on a diagram. Yet it has been consistently ignored and sidelined.

Vasily Kandinsky. Impression III (Konzert) [Impression III (Concert)]. 1911. Oil on canvas, 30 7/8 x 39 9/16″ (77.5 x 100.5 cm). Städtische Galerie im Lenbachhaus, Munich. © 2012 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris. Photo courtesy of: the Städtische Galerie im Lenbachhaus, München

In presenting the case for abstraction as a ‘radical’ product of the network without acknowledging the heterogeneity of wider interests surrounding the network, the curators belittle the truly radical aspects of abstraction and the exchanges upon which it was built. For whilst Theosophy does not, of course, offer a comprehensive handle by which to approach all of the artists grouped in this exhibition, the shattering of the long-dominant modes of Western thought, which Theosophy’s popularity across Western Europe points towards, surely does. It seems self-evident that, ‘the most dramatic rewriting of the rules of artistic production since the Renaissance’ did not spring magically from the internal logic of the network, but from an equally dramatic shift in social conditions. Ironically, in their obsession with the social scientist’s network theory the curators have, in fact, veiled the influence of a much wider social exchange in which non-Western concepts of spirituality and an increasing familiarity of non-Western modes of art had a transformative role in the evolution of European art.

Writing in his introduction to the third edition of his landmark 1906 study Abstraction and Empathy Wilhelm Worringer described ‘the one-sidedness and European-Classical prejudice of our customary historical conception and valuation of art’ which his study attempted to redress. It is a contribution which has made his study a key text of the period – paralleling as it does a similar shattering of historical conceptions across the arts. Be it through Picasso’s study of African sculpture, Leger’s enthrallment with urban experience or the Russians’ pursuit of a ‘non-objective’ painting, time and time again we witness the artists of the period pulling away from the model of representational aesthetics which had become predominant over the preceding half a millennium. It is a withdrawal which is at once distinct from and bound up in abstraction, a wider centrifugal movement in which abstraction formed a vector. In their vague attempts to present abstraction as the transformative Invention and Idea of the age, however, the curators have lost sight of this context, disembodying abstraction from its wider historical sources and producing a hollowed structure in which diverse experiments are reduced to a series of amorphous and clipped exemplars of abstraction’s networked rise.

The most jarring and perhaps explanatory example of the dismembering of abstraction from the wider contexts of modernity comes at the end of Dickerman’s catalogue introduction. Here she presents Duchamp as the rightful heir of abstraction, the figure who more than anyone else has ‘played out the implications of abstraction in his practice’. She continues: ‘In its inscription of artwork as idea, its expansiveness across media, and its divided structure in which work and text are integrally linked but held apart, and the artist is a producer of both images and words, its implications are vast. In all of these senses, abstraction is a form of ur-modernism: it serves as a foundation for what follows. Today, when we see an obdurate object, an encompassing media installation… text presented as image, or a conceptual script, we see the legacy of the invention of abstraction’.

Inventing Abstraction, 1910–1925. The Museum of Modern Art, Imaging and Visual Resources Department, photo Jonathan Muzikar

Here Dickerman reveals the underlying motives of a context stripped focus on abstraction as an ill-defined Idea. In merging abstraction with the wider pull away from ‘historical conceptions of art’ of which it was a part, she attempts to brand abstraction as the progenitor of the conceptual movement. To do so overlooks the fact that Duchamp’s ‘anti-retinal’ work is, at best, only tangentially aligned with the wider logic of abstraction. For whilst Duchamp was undoubtedly a product of the same historical movement away from tradition, his assaults upon visuality (often launched through playful modes of representation) were by no means intrinsic or central to the wider moves towards abstraction. In merging abstraction with Duchamp’s legacy, whilst stripping it of its wider relations to society, Dickerman disinherits much of the greatest artwork of the previous century, condemning its visuality and social relevance as anachronisms.

Inventing Abstraction: 1910-1925 is on at the Museum of Modern Art until the 15th of April. You can download Meyer Shapiro’s Nature of Abstract Art here

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Wild Things: What Was Abstract Art?

MoMA’s monumental exhibition recalls the time when abstraction affected people like love or revolution.
By
Barry Schwabsky
February 19, 2013

Sometime around 1912, painting changed. Artists from Moscow to Westport, by way of Munich and Paris, began making abstract works. “Observers spoke of the exhilaration and terror of leaping into unknown territory,” Leah Dickerman writes in the catalog for “Inventing Abstraction, 1910–1925: How a Radical Idea Changed Modern Art,” the monumental exhibition she has curated at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, on view through April 15. This saut dans le vide, she notes, was “accompanied by a shower of celebratory manifestos, lectures, and criticism, a flood of words flung forth perhaps in compensation for their makers’ worry about how the meaning of these pictures might be established.” It also brought a deluge of labels: “pure painting,” “nonobjective painting” and many more, with “abstraction” being merely the stickiest. In the century since then, the squalls of talk haven’t stopped, with art historians and cultural critics joining artists, their promoters and detractors in worrying at the meaning of abstraction. That so much has been said about abstraction has itself become a topic of discussion. In his 1975 book The Painted Word, Tom Wolfe dismissed contemporary art as mere illustrations of art theory—which some of it has been. What’s more striking to me, though, is that after 100 years of abstraction, no one has been able to state conclusively just what it is.

Sometimes I think that indefinability is the defining feature of abstraction: if you can identify what a painting depicts, then it’s not abstract. The problem is that this notion excludes a good deal of the art normally categorized as abstract. I can say that a Josef Albers painting depicts some squares or a Gene Davis painting shows some stripes, and this ought to disqualify them from being called abstract—just as much as my being able to identify a Philip Pearlstein painting as showing some nude models or one by Rackstraw Downes as depicting an industrial landscape would rule out those works.

At other times, I think the opposite. Although abstraction may have been a thrilling venture into the unknown, it could not remain so. Falling in love leads to marriage; there are no permanent revolutions. In the long run, far from being ineffable, abstraction is an artistic genre like any other, like still life or history painting. If a definition is hard to come by, the general parameters are not: abstraction means paintings of things like squares and stripes, brushstrokes and drips, the basic elements of pictorial form and painterly activity.

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I don’t much care for this second definition, but it’s hard to avoid. The virtue of ”Inventing Abstraction” is that it seductively reminds us of the time when abstraction was still a leap, when it affected certain people like love or revolution. And more like revolution than love, for it was a group effort instigated by a determined, committed few, a pivotal fact that “Inventing Abstraction” gets wrong. “Abstraction was not the inspiration of a solitary genius but the product of network thinking,” announces the opening text panel. This seems to promise a new outlook on what is, after all, a pretty familiar history, of which MoMA has been the central proponent for many years. The problem lies in trying to realize it through the evocation of “network thinking,” a trendy concept that tends to downplay the importance of agency—and not only of individuals, whether or not they are “solitary geniuses,” but also of organized groups, movements, coteries. Many of the key nodes of Dickerman’s proposed network are, as she says, “editors of little reviews,” thanks to their ability to connect far-flung artists and writers. Boosters of networking seem to assume that it is always advantageous to accumulate more and more “weak ties,” as they are called—but the classic avant-gardes who contributed to the invention of abstraction valued intense connections and decisive action. As Renato Poggioli pointed out long ago, “the avant-garde periodical functions as an independent and isolated military unit, completely and sharply detached from the public, quick to act, not only to explore but also to battle.”

For all the trendy lingo, MoMA is repeating the story about abstraction it has always told, only with a few of the details filled in differently, and with a concerted effort to point out connections to parallel developments in music, poetry and dance rather than cordoning off the visual arts as a self-contained realm. Dickerman’s appeals to “network thinking,” and her borrowing of terminology from the likes of Malcolm Gladwell—Guillaume Apollinaire as “connector”—are more decorative than transformative. And despite abjuring “solitary genius,” Dickerman begins the story with Picasso, Mr. Genius himself, where MoMA’s tales of modern art so often begin. Picasso, as is well-known, periodically flirted with something like abstraction but consistently pushed it away, even denying its existence: “There is no abstract art,” he once said. “You must always start with something. Afterwards you can remove all appearance of reality; there is no longer any danger, because the idea of the object left an indelible mark.”

Yet beginning with Picasso does make sense, and especially with one of his early Cubist paintings from which the “appearance of reality” has been so successfully effaced that, if not for its title, Femme à la mandoline (Woman With Mandolin; 1910), we could not make out its subject—or is it just that we imagine we can discern it? In any case, our effort to reconstruct the image helps us see the painting as a whole. Such paintings, as well as slightly later ones like “Ma Jolie” (1911–12), which Picasso endowed with a few more visual cues about the possible subject, are still amazing: solidly constructed and entirely evanescent. As Yve-Alain Bois explains in the exhibition catalog, “Each facet, each plane, whether included in the grid or contravening it, is lit and shaded independently, to the effect that no solid is depicted in the round yet at the same time a sense of depth”—and, I would add, a sense of concreteness—“is conveyed.” The wonder of these paintings is not just that the real-world referent has been nearly expunged, but that the painting itself has been endowed with such a distinct sense of presence.

For painters across Europe, Picasso proved that a different kind of painting was possible, one that would no longer have to “start with something” other than the gestures and materials of painting. Even Arthur Dove, in relative isolation in Westport, had seen in New York City a Picasso drawing that Edward Steichen described at the time as “certainly ‘abstract’ nothing but angles and lines that has got [to be] the wildest thing you ever saw.” Yet these painters continued to look to real things as inspiration for paintings that would no longer depict real things. Consider a painting from 1911 by Vasily Kandinsky, who knew Picasso’s work from photographs; he thought that something about the Spaniard’s paintings was “frankly false,” but also constituted a “sign of the enormous struggle toward the immaterial.” Kandinsky’s Impression III (Konzert) (Impression III [Concert]) announces its subject in its subtitle, yet that clue proves insufficient. It takes a comparison with a sketch Kandinsky made that year at a performance of Schöenberg’s music to see how literal a transcription the work really is: the large black shape that rises toward the upper right is nothing other than a piano lid; the oval blobs and fingerlike forms below it are members of the audience. Unlike Picasso’s painting, Kandinsky’s gains little from being sourced; on the contrary, it seems stronger if seen entirely as an implacable assertion of the force of color and texture. Kandinsky needed an abstraction that would no longer have to “start with something,” and having gone this far, he would reach that goal soon enough, for instance in his Komposition V (Composition V), also from 1911. Note not only the lack of subtitle, but also that the musical reference (this is not a depiction of a concert) is conveyed not visually but structurally. Just as, in the nineteenth century, Whistler had given his paintings titles incorporating words like “symphony” and “nocturne” to suggest that his real subject was not the depicted scene but pure form, Kandinsky invokes a musical analogy to tell the viewer not to look for a depicted subject, but rather the relations between the various “notes” of color.

The pairing of Picasso and Kandinsky presents in a nutshell all the dilemmas of abstraction. Whether starting from something already seen was better than starting with the materials of painting was a new problem for painters, but it didn’t spare them the old ones, such as the age-old conflict between the primacy of drawing (as seen in Picasso’s early cubism) or of color (as with Kandinsky). And that’s only the start. Does abstraction, by eschewing pre-established conventions, offer an expression and celebration of “those things that make us individually different and separate from each other,” as MoMA’s former chief curator Kirk Varnedoe once claimed? Picasso might have been pleased to father an art of this sort, just as he would probably have smiled on hearing Vanessa Bell describe a visit to him, in 1914, as one in which “the whole studio seemed to be bristling with Picasso”—where each thing, however unfinished, presented its maker back to himself. But abstraction can also be the herald of whatever is common and universal, as Kandinsky must have believed when he later threw in his lot with the Bauhaus. On this view, the point of abstraction was not just to level the old academies but to supplant them with a new one propagating the new shared values.

In an all-too-contemporary fashion, the metaphor of the “network” allows Dickerman to finesse such disagreements. A network is not an individual, but it’s not a collective either. It is a function neither of inner will or insight nor of shared decision-making. And it lacks discrimination, tending to accept far more than it rejects. But by the same token, Dickerman’s LinkedIn approach makes the exhibition—as Willem de Kooning once said of art itself—seem “like a big bowl of soup,” because “everything is in there already, and you stick your hand in and you find something for you.” At the same time, through its density and the way so many unexpected differences and similarities are provoked, the exhibition communicates something of the giddiness that artists must have felt upon realizing that the rule book was being torn up and would possibly be pieced back together differently. The galleries hum with the feverish mood of a gold rush.

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All the marquee names are here: not only Picasso and Kandinsky, but also Malevich and Mondrian, Duchamp and Léger, Arp and Schwitters, Albers and Lissitzky. They may not have been solitary artists, but that’s no proof they weren’t geniuses. Some play a bigger role than might be expected. Because Francis Picabia gets routinely associated with Dada and Giacomo Balla with Futurism, we may not remember them as great proponents of abstraction. This exhibition tells us otherwise. It also cogently charts the way abstract painting gave birth to abstract sculpture—not so much because sculptors imitated what painters were doing, but because abstraction drew the attention of painters toward the tactile substance of their materials, which turned many of them into sculptors.

But as an exhibition on this scale should do, it also offers surprises. I didn’t know that abstraction had found a toehold in Bloomsbury as early as 1914, when Duncan Grant created a long, scroll-like Abstract Kinetic Collage Painting With Sound and Vanessa Bell made several abstract paintings—including one, with floating rectangles of various colors against a yellow surround (now in the collection of the Tate), that is far more thoroughly reduced, flat and frontal than anything anyone else, even Mondrian, had made at that time. Yet Grant and Bell must have found these experiments unsatisfactory (I certainly do), because they soon returned to making figurative art.

Also from 1914 is a striking Chromatische Phantasie (Chromatic Fantasy) by Augusto Giacometti, cousin of the far more famous Alberto Giacometti. The very few of his works I’ve seen before have been landscapes and still lifes of a broadly post-Impressionist stamp, and no more abstract than a work by Gauguin or Bonnard. But this piece—made, it seems, by roughly dabbing colors onto the canvas with a palette knife—is not only resolutely nonrepresentational but also an abstraction of a sort that seems out of place with anything else in the show, and out of time. With its confident formlessness, and the way touch and color become one, I’d have guessed it to be the work of a tachiste of the 1950s.

For a contrast to Giacometti’s cultivation of the near-random-seeming placement of quite physically distinct bits of paint, there are three drawings by Wacław Szpakowski. Made in 1924, they describe patterns formed by continuous black lines undergoing incessant movement, though always at right angles: the line is always moving either horizontally or vertically, but the patterns created include diagonals. If Giacometti is an unheralded precursor of tachisme, then I suppose Szpakowski plays the same role in relation to Op Art, which makes much of similar optical effects. But as with Giacometti, what’s exciting is not that Szpakowski anticipated a later development; it’s that even within his own time, there is something inexplicable about his having done what he’s done. Using ideas and information similar to those of his peers, he’s arrived at something that is abstract in the strong sense of remaining somehow uncategorizable and even, in a deep sense, unknowable—abstract in a way unlike anything else in “Inventing Abstraction.”

Unfortunately for an exhibition goer who wants to know how Giacometti came to make his Chromatische Phantasie or why he didn’t continue along this line, there’s not a word about him in the catalog. In Szpakowski’s case, one can learn from Jaroslaw Suchan’s contribution that he “was drawn to abstraction by his fascination with the mathematical laws observable in nature” and that “he developed his work not just in isolation from the Polish avant-garde but in complete indifference to the art of the time.” You might find his drawings difficult to distinguish from the kinds of mathematical, scientific or even spiritualistic images that Dickerman insists “are not art at all” because “they were intended to produce meaning in other discursive frameworks.” But that is part of what makes his drawings unsettling and strong. Szpakowski died in 1973, and his works were first exhibited in 1978. The network isn’t everything, and isolation can be necessary even to those who may not quite be geniuses. Szpakowski wasn’t concerned, as Picasso was, with expressing his own anxiety; he was searching for impersonal patterns of universal order. Yet his art was distinctly personal, with a flavor peculiar to itself. Perhaps this is the great lesson of abstraction: that sometimes it can overcome its own antinomies.

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For curators, the inconsistencies between an exhibition and its catalog can be hard to overcome. Anyone who has seen Dickerman’s previous blockbusters for MoMA—on the Bauhaus in 2009 and on Dada in 2006—knows that she is adept at organizing complex exhibitions with scads of material in a lucid way. The same is mostly true here: only the attempt to integrate music into the story falls flat. However, such exhibitions have a particularly symbiotic relation with their catalogs, which need to fill in and give perspective to the historical narrative. In this respect, “Inventing Abstraction” is a disappointment. Perhaps in deference to her fascination with networks, Dickerman’s substantial but fairly succinct introductory essay is followed by thirty-six brief texts on various topics by twenty-four authors (including herself)—not only art historians but luminaries from other fields, such as the composer David Lang and the historian of science Peter Galison. As a result, there is insufficient mediation between her overview and the multitude of details it ought to encompass, and which have been parceled out to the various contributors, who do not always agree with each other or with her.

In her introductory essay, Dickerman seems to take at face value Picasso’s assertion that his first Cubist paintings were done more or less as “pure painting, and the composition was done as composition,” with any identifying “attributes” added only as an afterthought. But in his entry, Yve-Alain Bois refutes this, concluding that Picasso’s interlocutor, Françoise Gilot, had either misunderstood the painter or that he had been indulging in some kind of “convenient” fib. At times, for that matter, Dickerman’s introduction doesn’t even agree with the exhibition. She ends her essay with a brilliant stroke, by claiming Duchamp’s readymades as products of abstraction, and she’s right—but then why isn’t one of them on view? I don’t normally think of Duchamp as a great painter, but really, it’s good to be reminded that Le passage de la vierge à la mariée (The Passage From Virgin to Bride; 1912) is as ravishingly painted as anything in the show. Even so, the inclusion of his Bottle Rack (1914) or his snow shovel, In Advance of the Broken Arm (1915), would have shown another outcome of his interest in abstraction altogether. Like much of the best abstraction, those works are at once paradigmatic and almost inscrutably idiosyncratic.