Modernism's History Without a History

John Haber
in New York City

Abstraction in the 20th Century

Honestly, I was not going to review this show. Had I stuck to my guns, I would have foregone a great deal of annoyance. And I would have missed something of the Guggenheim Museum's own eccentric and irreplaceable role in Modernism.

I hope at least someone can understand my caution. Over three dozen artists fill an entire museum, sharing nothing more than abstraction—plus those suitably profound nouns in the exhibition subtitle. Whatever can I add? Wassily Kandinksy's White Line (Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, 1920)

There before me stood Lavender Mist and scores of other certified masterpieces. I could draw back from Jackson Pollock and his all-consuming density of line, maybe just long enough to pin a witty and appreciative phrase on it. I could quarrel over who makes the cut, at a time when many others have, quite fairly, attacked the whole idea of a static Western canon. Surely, speaks a majestic voice, the point of abstraction was to shut up and let art speak for itself.

Gatekeeper of culture

The same things that make this show hard to review also make it suspicious. Despite the show's title, not one of its artists hit the big time after 1970, and few illuminate the birth of abstraction either. A very few token sculptors manage to slip past the gatekeepers of culture, but the rest of the participants paint in safely traditional media.

Wall labels barely suggest the existence of performance, design, and theater. One might as well forget about videos and new technologies. (Well, the recorded tour is interactive. No doubt the gift shop's inventory merits computer control, too.)

Just five painters are women, and one appears mostly because she ran the Guggenheim's very first collections. Among women, Agnes Martin and Eve Hesse alone earn more than one work, both halfway hidden behind partitions in back rooms. Coming at the very end, Hesse looks particularly forlorn, as if she were responsible all by herself for the death of a grand tradition.

It sounds less like an exhibition than like business as usual. Is the problem the postmodern museum or abstraction itself? Abstraction seems at once too broad a premise—and far too narrow.

Its breadth makes a curiously vague theme for a major retrospective. Its narrowness cuts the artists off from their aims, their influences, their personal histories, and their public. Indeed, it does the same for abstract painting. Yet the more I recalled what the Guggenheim overlooks, the more I came to understand its legacy.

Abstraction's breadth

Start with abstraction's breadth. Is there such a thing as simply abstraction, despite place, time, artist, and culture? Think of the range of artistic purposes on display and the many ways they must be understood.

Can abstraction today still look difficult, on the cutting edge, pseudo-scientific, or even anonymous? Part of its fabled difficulty is its very diversity, at times approaching imagery, photography, sculpture, or just plain fun. Just a single decade held many distinct inventions of abstract art—in Dada, Kazimir Malevich, Wassily Kandinsky, Kandinsky's "spiritual in art," and Piet Mondrian. Its reinventions have been frequent, too.

Even anonymity has taken diverse forms. One was the anonymity of postwar bleakness and ironic engagement. A urinal or bicycle wheel represents nothing and pointedly aspires to nothing. A second the bold anonymity of an icon of the modern. Malevich's Constructivism created new forms floating so freely that they anticipated aerial photography.

A third included the anonymity of works in a series, but Kandinsky's series evolved over time, because each stood as spiritual autobiography. They began as horses charging over a mythic landscape, but they never lost their associations with what Kandinsky called "the spiritual in art." The last depended on series too, but for Mondrian each series holds a single moment in time, a moment of perceptual instability and glorious variation. (That same exhilarating anonymity took me by surprise, too, at the Museum of Modern Art's Mondrian retrospective.)

In the Guggenheim, abstraction shies away from any such individual associations. Ripped from their contexts, its pleasures may even be multiplied, but they look strangely alike and a little pretentious. They look, in short, like less like an examination of Modernism at midcentury than fine art.

Dada is represented by a single collage, but scraps by Kurt Schwitters of dust and tarnished colors look eerily comfortable, even comforting. Instead of scarred refuse of a terrifying battle, they stand as subtle changes in surface texture, preserved for eternity under glass. Despite myself, I reveled in that new-found perspective, but I also still feared it.

Of the ten paintings by Mondrian, each belongs to a distinct series. Standing apart from each other and from his career, they only seem to provide a miniature retrospective. Rather, they boast of the impact an abstract canvas can make. A yellow and white square from the Hague begs for comparison to the floating rectangles by Malevitch directly below on the museum's spiral.

It is a tribute to the Guggenheim that I cannot remember whether Mondrian's yellow-and-white forms made it into his own retrospective. A painting of his may never look so unique and stable again.

If a single decade displayed such breadth, think of the shifts in abstraction's fortunes over time. One shift began when a generation left totalitarian Europe for America. As two working traditions within the abstract—two entire continents—came into collision, the shock produced that electrifying change in Modernism called Abstract Expressionism. It also led to a new home in America for European styles, the Museum of Non-Objective Painting.

That museum was the ancestor of the Guggenheim, with all its concern for higher purity and abstract beauty. Ironically, this exhibition stands for the history of an abstraction without a history.

Abstraction's narrowness

Like its breadth, abstraction's narrowness is equally part of this exhibition's puzzles. It excludes even more than women, blacks, and Third World ideals. One can easily forget that few painters here wholly gave up what they had been doing to become abstract, any more than modern art altogether turned its back on Cubism.

This show has to omit Mondrian's still lifes and piers. It can make one forget that ethereal landscapes run through much of Kandinsky's work. Here is another sense in which there may be no such thing as abstraction.

A room for Willem de Kooning focuses on his creamy late paintings. I just had to be overwhelmed. Could this artist ever have been accused of losing his vision in senility? All well and good, but one would never know that his long career slipped so provocatively back and forth between women and abstraction. Nor, unfortunately, would one be drawn to ask why.

The show's grand theme, that subtitle about freedom and discipline, suggests exclusions too. Modernism reflected on what art or abstraction might mean. Pop Art used irony to that end, while a Minimalist might have relied more on formalism, but both tactics were present from the first Cubist collages.

This show has no room for Marcel Duchamp's wit, and its exclusions disguise the irony in works that remain. One hardly knows whether to call it parody or homage when Gerhard Richter revamps Abstract Expressionism with a squeegee and an old photograph, as if Mark Rothko were to toss off a one-liner. A Robert Rauschenberg two-panel white painting appears to have nothing to do with appropriation in Pop Art—or today's "Sensation." Instead, it looks as subtle as Franz Kline's huge black-and-white oil next to it. Like the other paintings that I have mentioned, it looks simply beautiful.

If formalism is the flip side of irony, I should not have been surprised that the Guggenheim leaves out Brice Marden or Jennifer Bartlett. Marden and others almost fetishize painterly materials, as they explore the illusion of depth that a subtle, almost neutral surface will convey. The artists closest to Marden fare least well. Off in a back room, Martin's finely drawn grids have the air of abandoned furnace screens.

Finally, the Guggenheim imposes on abstraction through its famous spiral architecture. Those Richters were meant to hang on the wall of a modern gallery, not be bolted to floor and ceiling. They no longer stand apart, but they take on an imposing presence.

In short, abstraction has never looked so good. That is its strength and weakness, and it is nothing less than the museum's mission. It is announced early on, when a lengthy wall label talks of abstraction nebulously as sheer feeling and experience. Just imagine what can happen when the museum certifies art from another tradition entirely, Africa!

I started out dismissive, but I came to appreciate that feeling more and more. I also came to associate it with the origins of the Guggenheim. Only I never lost my sense of puzzlement and regret.

Abstraction's moments of insight

In the show's best moments, everything comes together. One gets selections rarely seen in New York, such as paintings by Barnett Newman in private collections.

The curator cleverly includes a core of artists with five or ten works each, while mixing in enough other paintings to suggest this century's achievement. That mixture of depth and breadth works very well indeed. Several artists that I have already mentioned get enough works for a deservedly privileged enclave, but a single Helen Frankenthaler well before her lighthouse series, on loan from Berkeley, stopped me in my tracks. Responding to the first generation of Abstract Expressionism, could she have kept so well their combination of blotchy forms and simple colors?

Many choices gain by the creative juxtapositions across the Frank Lloyd Wright rotunda. Directly above Abstract Expressionism, Frank Stella exhibits his latest metal constructions. They look surprisingly funky, almost like one of the crushed automobile parts from John Chamberlain.

Wright's light-filled space at last looks pretty decent itself. One experiences his abstract composition as it was meant to be, rather than just its obnoxious imposition on decent art. For the first time too, the adjacent tower seems almost fully integrated into Wright's original space. Besides, the tower windows allowed me a memorable view of Central Park under with a foot of freshly fallen snow. Abstraction has its more familiar side too!

At other times, my puzzlement itself entered into the experience. I enjoyed Number 3, a privately owned Pollock that I may never see again. Still, I enjoyed it in the Guggenheim's very peculiar way—from several feet away, behind the barrier of the museum bay's tilted floors.

I did not exactly stand far enough away to see it as a formal exploration of its flat surface. I could not see it all in one glance, as a kind of map plotting the undeveloped Wyoming landscape of Pollock's youth. I could not approach closely enough to be lost in the spontaneous gesture of "action painting." I could not quite make out individual drips as traces of a creative act or of an alcoholic male's brutal sexuality.

There may be a quiz later on which fine critic came up with each of these fine theories, but here they do not matter. One instead scans the surface, reveling in varied color and texture. One imagines the artist as subtle, calm, measured, and controlling. I was amazed, moved, comforted—and perplexed.

Abstraction as part of the Guggenheim

I have asked whether the Guggenheim is evading its themes or overstating them. I have asked if its role in shaping the canon is neglected. I have asked much the same questions about the Met and other New York monoliths. I turn out to echo questions raised about museums with increasing frequency and stridency.

Like the canon, the museum institution deserves the critical examination it has received. It is often a powerful player, but sometimes helplessly in play to politics. Think of how the Robert Mapplethorpe retrospective was canceled for obscenity, yet also helped shape his posthumous reputation and commercial value.

Every exhibition, however neutral in intention, takes sides. It can attempt a show that ignores the museum's presence, but the arguments over what is said and what is left out have an ugly way of coming back to haunt it. It can instead attempt a show that consciously reflects on its mission, but that can easily take even more attention away from what is on exhibit. (For an interesting look at these issues, pick up Exhibiting Cultures, collected papers from a Smithsonian symposium edited by Ivan Karp and Steven D. Lavine.)

Good art does not sit still without a fight. It has the power to engage, criticize, and transcend its display. If I ever grew puzzled, provoked, or disappointed at the Guggenheim, that is not a tribute to my intelligence. It means the art was that good.

Some pieces, through absolutely no fault of their own, have to accept defeat from this building. Richard Serra stands steel plates on edge, held upright only by leaning upon one another. They should simultaneously threaten and caress the installation and its surrounding materials. Here one such house of cards looks slightly comical, behind a curved barrier of clear plastic. The only hint of danger is that it might not fit in one's broom closet beside the discarded Lucite picture frames.

Other works bother to fight back more ostentatiously. Does the Guggenheim have to bolt some paintings down? Robert Ryman's paintings incorporated the nuts and bolts of display more than a decade ago.

Stella installs a loose-fitting metal contraption that overflows its bay. It lets out a low buzz, sort of the art's squeal of delight, whenever visitors plod a little too heavily along the museum ramp. Somehow that buzz fit in with my associations with Chamberlain's crushed auto parts. Stella may be outgrowing his Princeton education after all.

Sometimes people just have to fight back at the museum. In one tower gallery, visitors traced graffiti in the mist that had condensed on the icy windows. Ironically, the same gallery had a wall label mentioning abstract theater. The bare reference to what the exhibition excludes looks tame by comparison to an actual gesture.

Abstraction as a mission

Yet the museum is more than just a problematic partisan in the art world. Questions about its institutional power are real. Yet they tend to place a museum outside of any particular history, almost like some ominous metaphysical category. "Abstraction in the 20th Century" shows that a museum has been something more too, a loving instigator of Modernism.

A museum like the Guggenheim began with a mission. Did I say that this show leaves out many intriguing interpretations of Abstract Expressionism? Textbook accounts can lose perspective too. The museum's own interpretation may look quaint now, but it played a part in forming a bridge from European abstraction to a crucial postwar generation. But that can hardly leave room for more than one Modernism.

Other exhibitions may have done a better job of living up to this show's title. In just the last year, more than one gallery has brought together younger abstract artists working with materials that have no place at the Guggenheim. So have the sculpture parks around New York. Shows like these challenge abstraction through its relation to imagery and its incorporation of text. These shows ask effectively what in the world abstraction might mean and where its boundaries lie today, perhaps beyond the very criticism of its academicism.

I took pleasure, however, in the Guggenheim's odd show. For all its limitations, those limitations define a part of the recent past. At the very least, the museum acknowledges its own role frankly, with no unnecessary cant about artistic genius and the masterpiece.

In one room, the Guggenheim tries to recreate The Museum of Non-Objective Painting. Kandinsky imitators hang at around waist level, against pleated-velour wall lining. Visitors tread softly on carpeting while Bach plays, just as it once did on a phonograph.

Other parts of the exhibition inspire more of those buzzwords about freedom and feeling. Certainly other parts recall less brusquely Modernism's often insidious partnership with corporate interiors. Still, this room may well stand, only half ironically, for the very best of them.

BACK to John's arts home page

"Abstraction in the 20th Century: Total Risk, Freedom, Discipline" ran through May 12, 1996, at The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. A related review returns to the museum after sixteen years for the same theme and decade, but with a more European bent.


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