Abstract art just turned 100, MoMA tells us with a new exhibition, and the museum is throwing it a birthday party. Packed with some 350 artworks, the show, curated by Leah Dickerman and MoMA curatorial assistant Masha Chlenova, is busy and buzzing, a star-studded gala for historic experiments in color, form and even sound.
Visitors are greeted by Picasso’s Woman With Mandolin (1910), but abstract form quickly cedes the floor to immersive color. Wassily Kandinsky’s Impression III (Concert), from 1911—not coincidentally, the same year he released his book On the Spiritual in Art—is a revelation: you probably know that his early paintings derive from listening to Schoenberg’s music, but you might be surprised to see how literally his preparatory sketches take a black grand piano and a concert audience and reduce them to the painting’s flat blocks of color and form. For a moment, abstraction’s mystery seems solved. Not so fast—it is difficult in the extreme to imagine an origin point for Kandinsky’s enormous, sweeping Composition V, 1911, also on view here.
From there we move to the French artist couple Sonia and Robert Delaunay. Robert’s 1913 painting Simultaneous Contrasts: Sun and Moon renders the celestial spheres as fragmented chromatic circles; Sonia’s long scrolls supplement Apollinaire’s words with blocks of color. Modernist writing was an important influence at the time: Stéphane Mallarmé’s seminal poem Un coup de dés from 1897 (reprinted in 1914) is encased here in a vitrine.
“Inventing Abstraction” starts strong and stays strong; even so, a few sections are stand-outs. An entire wall is hung salon-style with a dozen rarely seen paintings by Kazimir Malevich, drawn from collections in Cologne, Amsterdam and Paris. To observe the slight differences in the edges of his compositions is to be reminded that, as much as their idealized geometric forms may suggest otherwise, these pieces were made by a human, not a machine. A spectacular room devoted to the work of Piet Mondrian amounts to a mini-retrospective: black crosses on light ground indicating trees or seascapes give way to entirely abstract checkerboard grids, which lead to iconic Mondrian diamonds of tightly orchestrated primary color blocks.
Such progressions suggest that abstraction comes about when subject matter is finally jettisoned. The works in the show constantly play peek-a-boo with subject matter, though. Malevich’s drawings hint at stage sets, Kandinsky’s, chamber concerts, Mondrian’s, the sea and stars; Theo van Doesburg paints cows and Georgia O’Keeffe flowers, while for the Dadaists the unconscious and chance are other kinds of subjects. Duncan Grant made paintings of Albers-like blocks of color in 1914, but they are clearly depictions of houses, interiors, forests and libraries. Eventually, though, the subject just stops mattering.
Blink and you’ll miss Wyndham Lewis’s pink, brown and maroon paintings (a personal favorite), Anton Bragaglia’s dynamic multiple exposure photographs, Man Ray’s cooly flat “rayograms” from the 1920s and Lyubov Popova’s interlocking lacquered geometries. Léopold Survage’s Colored Rhythm: 59 Studies for the Film (1913) is shown in its entirety: a wall of black watercolor-on-construction-paper paintings that look like early 20th-century theosophist prototypes for tropical drinks or Pink Floyd album covers. There’s a whole corner of dynamic Italian Futurists. And then it’s on to sound: dance notation from Vaslav Nijinski and a room of atonal music by Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Debussy and Bartók round out the show.
But the show’s real triumph is to elevate what we might otherwise think of as minor experiments by lesser-known figures. You might, like this critic, note the inclusion of Marcel Duchamp’s 3 Standard Stoppages (1913-14), Constantin Brancusi’s Endless Column (1918) and Vladimir Tatlin’s Tower (1919) only in passing, and spend much more time puzzling over things like Waclaw Szpakowski’s tightly drawn decorative ink tracings on paper and Mikhail Matyushin’s painterly musical constructions of 1918.
Abstraction was an international phenomenon, and a full half of the pieces in the show are on loan from institutions in places like Leipzig, Otterlo, St. Petersburg, Locarno and Lodz. In demonstrating the interconnectivity of a far-flung movement, a newly created map of an abstract art “network,” on monumental display in the show’s lobby, combines MoMA founding director Alfred Barr’s seminal 1936 diagram of the origins of Cubism and abstract art with more recent theories by art historian David Joselit on the visualization of what he has called the “transitive” networks surrounding a work of art.
If there’s anything jarring about this highly engaging exhibition, it is its claim that “art was wholly reinvented” in or around 1910, as though abstract art popped out of nowhere one afternoon. That the show doesn’t look to earlier years is an institutional limitation, but it should not be an intellectual one. When the catalog wheels in Malcolm Gladwell to describe the aesthetic revolution of 1910, it seems like a case of convenient historical amnesia. French curator Pascal Rousseau’s 2003 exhibition “Origins of Abstraction 1800-1914” at Paris’s Musée d’Orsay made a case for a broader view of nonobjective painting—his kind of organic thought seems more in keeping with how artists today look at history than the pop sociology to which MoMA’s curators have resorted.
That said, it would be great to see the same MoMA curatorial team take on the next 15 years of modern art, and the 15 after that… For New Yorkers, “Inventing Abstraction” is a show that resonates all around us, whether in the architecture of the museum itself, or in the gridded city that surrounds it. The disparate projects on view here don’t demonstrate that anything as monolithic as “abstraction” can be said to have been “invented.” It would be more accurate to say of the many abstractions on display here that the creators were united in their optimism that radical artistic experiments were possible. The show leaves you wondering how artists’ representations of the world—and their understanding of it—might change in the coming years. (Through April 15, 2013)
Update, 1/2: An earlier version of this post omitted the review’s opening paragraphs. It has since been amended so that the piece appears as it does in the print edition of this week’s New York Observer. We regret the error.