MoMA’s Modern Starts Slights Abstract Art

Certain exhibitions require repeated visits if we hope to attain a serious understanding not only of their constituent parts but of the ideas and intentions that govern their organization and execution. The Modern Starts exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art has been especially challenging in this respect. It has been open to the public for nearly two months, and it is my experience, anyway, that repeated visits continue to astonish even the most jaded observer with esthetic revelations not easily obtainable elsewhere, particularly at this level of quality. Yet the more one sees of Modern Starts , the more one also comes to understand that this is an exhibition with a very particular agenda.

I don’t mean by this merely the reinstallation of familiar modern masterworks from MoMA’s great collections in ways that radically depart from the allegedly “linear” reading of the modern movement that was established by the late Alfred Barr and more or less reaffirmed by William Rubin during his tenure as director of the museum’s department of painting and sculpture. This reconfiguration of MoMA’s masterworks-and indeed, of a fair number of works that don’t exactly qualify as masterpieces-is, of course, the most obvious thing about Modern Starts , and has already been much commented upon. The agenda I have in mind is about something else.

Simply stated-and in certain sections of Modern Starts it is an agenda that is very simply implemented-what governs the conception of this extraordinary exhibition is a shift in intellectual priority from the esthetics of modernist style to a concentration on the subject matter of the art under review. This is, to be sure, a perfectly legitimate way to approach the art of the modern era. Yet, in common with other approaches to such a large and complicated subject, this emphasis on subject matter, or thematic “content,” is more illuminating about certain works of art than it is about certain others.

About many forms of representational or figurative art, for example, it can sometimes be very illuminating indeed. Yet even in that area of modernist art it can also at times be very misleading, for it tends to reduce the iconography of modernism to a succession of illustrations-illustrations, that is, of the social or technological history of modernity. And that is not, perhaps, what many of the major talents of the period under review, 1880 to 1920, had in mind in creating their work, even their representational work. Moreover, the tripartite division of Modern Starts into sections devoted to People , Places and Things made this tendency to reduce modernism to the level of historical illustration more or less inevitable.

Where this approach to the modernism of 1880 to 1920 most conspicuously fails, alas, is in its treatment of the rise of abstract art, which is one of the major events in the last decade, 1910 to 1920, covered by this exhibition. Amazingly, there is simply no attempt made in this very large exhibit to provide a coherent account of this development. In his introductory essay for the catalogue of Modern Starts , John Elderfield acknowledges that the birth of abstraction did indeed present vexing problems for the organizers of the exhibition. “It has originally been our idea to devote a separate section to abstraction,” he writes. “We felt that this was necessary, not only because of the intrinsic importance to our period of the creation of abstract art, but also because of the difficulty of its comprehension, even now, nearly a century later. It took quite a long time before we realized that, by dealing with abstraction separately, we were creating enormous problems for ourselves, and quite possibly for the viewer, too.”

The solution that Mr. Elderfield and his colleagues settled upon, then, was an exhibition devoted to what he calls “the themes of figural representation,” to which, in effect, examples of abstract art by Kandinsky, Mondrian, Malevich and other pioneers of abstraction are not only subsumed but presented to the public as if they, too, were somehow to be regarded as examples of “figural representation.” To drivxe home this dubious point, certain works that lie outside the historical framework of the Modern Starts show are introduced to underscore what the eye, unaided, might not be able to discover for itself. Thus, Mondrian’s abstract drawing, Pier and Ocean 5 (1915), is hung alongside a series of 1990 photographs of ocean surfaces by Robert Adams, and Kandinsky’s classic abstractions, called simply Panels for Edwin R. Campbell 1-4 (1914), but said by later writers to be a representation of the four seasons, are installed in close proximity to Cy Twombly’s 1993-94 series of paintings actually called The Four Seasons . It is at moments like these in Modern Starts that the exhibition descends into the worst sort of intellectual humbug.

Mercifully, in most cases the examples of abstract art in Modern Starts are exhibited without comment or comparison. For some of the wall-text commentary in the installation of the exhibition is risible. Thus, the immense abstract black-and-white wall drawing that MoMA commissioned Sol LeWitt to create for the entrance to the People section of the show is burdened with the following explanation. Because this abstraction incorporates curved lines, they are said to be allusions to “the corporeal,” and “For these reasons his abstract drawing is presented as an introduction to People .” Similarly, the vertical “zips” in the huge Barnett Newman abstraction in the first room of People are said-on whose authority, I wonder?-to represent some sort of masculine principle, therefore appropriate to the People section.

About the Sol LeWitt abstraction, by the way, it isn’t until the reader gets to the notes on page 350 of the catalogue that there is offered the following explanation: “The work by Sol LeWitt is, in fact, not precisely related to the section called People : It is a fully abstract work. We wanted to include it because its combination of linearity and curvilinearity is reminiscent of some of the more extreme, abstracted figural representation in the People section. (We do not presume, however, to suggest that the artist himself would think about it in this way.) Furthermore, we wanted the contrast to show how far modern art has changed since the abstracted figural representation included in this section of the project.” Then why not say so in the exhibition itself?

Modern Starts is, as I say, a marvelous exhibition, but in its treatment of the rise of abstraction it remains a hopeless muddle. To this subject, anyway, Barr’s reading of the history of modern art remains a far more reliable guide.