Helen A. Harrison
The premise of “Inventing Abstraction,” the current blockbuster survey at the Museum of Modern Art through April 15, is that “traditional art was wholly reinvented” in the early twentieth century. While I question the logic of that argument, since the Western art tradition was basically thrown under the bus, the exhibition itself is amazing, if inaccurately titled. (More on that later.) It not only musters a formidable array of paintings and sculptures from the breakthrough years 1910-1925, drawn from MoMA’s own stellar collection and many other sources, but it ranges across the arts to include innovations in music, poetry, dance, photography and cinema in Europe and the United States. Art luminaries share billing with lesser known, even obscure, colleagues, and while some critics have quibbled about individual exclusions the territory is thoroughly mapped—literally so in the show’s lobby, where a huge wall chart traces the multiple connections among the key players.
In this cavalcade of isms, starting with Cubism and proliferating into Futurism, Synchromism, Orphism, Rayonism, Dadaism, Constructivism, Suprematism, Neo-Plasticism, Vorticism, etc., etc., the show presents convincing evidence that modern artists were responding to radical advances in philosophy, science and technology, as well as shifting social and political conditions. To call the era revolutionary is an understatement, with World War I epitomizing the upheaval that led to the rejection of traditional values, not only in the arts.
The modernists’ manifestos proclaimed iconoclastic attitudes that were promoted in their publications and performances. Exhibitions like the Salon de la Section d’Or in Paris, Futurist shows in Rome and London, “0.10” in Petrograd, Salon 2 in Odessa and the Armory Show in New York (celebrating its centenary this year) foisted their aberrations on a puzzled public, whose ears and sensibilities were assaulted by concerts of dissonant music and grotesque dances. Those were the days when such high jinx really could shock, and MoMA’s curators have assembled the proof of just how rapidly and widely the shock waves spread, with Paris as the seismic epicenter.
Notwithstanding the exhibition’s wealth of first-rate examples from this singular era, as well as its admirable inclusiveness, its title is hopelessly misleading. These artists did not invent abstraction, and some of them weren’t even abstractionists.
All cultures practice abstraction in one form or another, and have done so for millennia. Alphabets, numbers, musical notation, money—all are abstractions that have no inherent meaning outside their cultural context. They represent the essentials of communication, just as abstract art communicates essential qualities of aesthetic experience. Picasso’s contention that “you always have to begin with something” is often cited as proof that his art was never completely abstract, but in fact that’s exactly what abstraction is: it starts with something as a point of reference or inspiration and refines it to its essence.
As the European and American modernists were well aware, abstract art had been around for a long time before they got wise to it. The so-called primitive cultures proved to be gold mines of significant abstract forms that inspired Cubists and Surrealists alike. Folk art and tribal art were especially fruitful. These precedents may be acknowledged in the exhibition catalogue, which I haven’t read, but they are completely ignored in the copious gallery labels, which reinforce the wrongheaded notion that abstract art is a twentieth-century Eurocentric phenomenon.
The show also errs in applying the abstract label to work that clearly derives from a different impulse — not to essentialize, but to conceptualize. Pure chromatic and formal compositions and constructions are properly classed as non-objective art because they contain no tangible outside references, however minimal or disguised. To the non-objectivists, abstract art was the bastard offspring of representation. This pure-versus-impure debate has been going on for decades and deserves a fair hearing in an exhibition that aims to analyze “the language of the modern” in all its variety and complexity.
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Vasily Kandinsky (1866–1944)
Impression III (Concert), 1911. Oil on canvas, 30 7/8 x 39 9/16″
Städtische Galerie im Lenbachhaus, Munich
Cover of “Inventing Abstraction” catalogue, illustrating
Lyubov Popova (1889–1924)
Painterly Architectonic, 1917. Oil on canvas, 31 1/2 x 38 5/8″
Museum of Modern Art, New York