"Inventing Abstraction" could have called itself "The Invention of Abstraction," but it is onto something. It is a show that has to reinvent itself with every room—about an art that had to reinvent itself every day.
It is an overwhelming experience. For just fifteen years, from 1910 to 1925, the Museum of Modern Art presents well over three hundred works—and not just painting and sculpture, but also film, music, and dance. It attends to that old sore spot in the museum's collection, a dearth of women. It ranges to parts of Europe that one might never associate with modern art and, early and often, to England and America. It pictures a moment before World War I, when artists found it easy to cross boundaries, in geography as well as art. And then it shows them struggling against new limits.
In its conception, it takes one to the invention of MoMA itself. The journey can be more exhausting than exhilarating, but never boring. Neither the museum nor Modernism will be so easy to dismiss as a stale, oppressive institution again—at least until the next show. They will also be harder than ever to define. Half the point, in fact, is that one cannot define abstract art apart from who practiced it and who did not. If that sounds confusing, start with a side trip a little further yet, to Munich.
If any art movement invented abstraction, it is the Blue Rider. Wassily Kandinsky was a founder (and one of the Guggenheim's visionaries), and his Concerning the Spiritual in Art was a touchstone. Pretty much every abstract painter read it and learned from it for years to come. The group included such close-knit artists as Kandinsky, Franz Marc, August Macke, and Gabriele Münter—with the blue horse and rider a fitting signature for their compositions that never sit still. Yet members also ran to artists with such distinctive styles as Alexej von Jawlensky, Lyonel Feininger, and at times Paul Klee. Their first exhibition, from 1911, toured Europe, and The Blue Rider Almanac in 1912 made clear their ambitions and aims.
One can follow Kandinsky well enough any month in New York, especially at the Guggenheim, but nothing quite matches the Lenbachhaus in Munich. There one sees the group's progress through realism and abstraction, first loosening up and then settling down, and each room brings something astounding and new. These artists were in this together. At the same time, one has to notice something: Kandinsky always seems a room ahead of practically everyone. Even Münter, his talented companion, can barely keep up.
So which was it? Was abstraction the product of a movement or a genius? Was it a breakthrough or just one more step along the way? A history of modern art always comes as a torrent of creative acts, and so does "Inventing Abstraction." Yet the curators, Leah Dickerman with Masha Chlenova, have their own answer to both questions, and it is no. Rather than movements or individuals, they speak of networks. And rather than pure form on the one hand or reinterpretation of reality on the other, they see connections across the arts.
Right out front, they cover a wall with a map of the connections, and it is almost as overwhelming as the show. Untold thin red lines connect more than eighty artists. Thirteen artists highlighted in red have over twenty-four connections apiece. Those nodes run east to Mikhail Larionov and Natalia Gonchorova in Russia, but also west to Alfred Stieglitz with his 291 Gallery in New York City. They include writers, like Filippo Tommaso Marinetti and Guillaume Apollinaire, and exponents of the anti-art in Dada, Tristan Tzara and Hans Arp. Two of the thirteen are women, including Sonia Delauney—here accorded her maiden name last, as Delaunay-Terk.
Sol LeWitt has nothing on this wall drawing. Nor do William Powhida and Marc Lombardi, with their witty charts and take-downs of the contemporary scene. Alfred Barr, MoMA's first director, might have recognized it, though, for it takes off from the cover to the catalog of "Cubism and Abstract Art," his defining 1936 exhibition. It even has Pablo Picasso at its center along with Kandinsky, artists Barr he would surely rank first. Only it adds poets and musicians, while dethroning movements. Where Barr had influences and dependencies, with African art alongside Cubism, this network has only abstraction.
Does Modernism start to sound like the score for a symphony or a movie, with a multinational cast? Maybe the Blue Rider would have agreed. Its Almanac had articles on Cubism, the French painter Robert Delauney, poetry, and the stage. Arnold Schoenberg contributed an article himself. Images included religious and folk art from three continents, a healthy selection of Post-Impressionism, and the scores to music by Schoenberg, Alban Berg, Anton Webern. At MoMA, though, just as with the wall text, push the old story hard enough, and advocacy dissolves into networking.
Inside as well, things start deceptively close to tradition. Picasso gets the first room to himself, for just two drawings and Woman with Mandolin from 1910. It is not the more familiar painting of Fanny Tellier, but one with no clear sign of a woman or a mandolin—"attributes" that he once claimed to have added only later. But then, despite a glorious wire sculpture to honor Guillaume Apollinaire, Picasso turned away from abstraction, because "you have to begin with something," and he never appears again. Kandinsky contributes not in his evolution from nature in motion, but with a big canvas close to abstraction, Composition V from 1911. It took him months of hesitancy and dissatisfaction.
He had drafted his book, the chief curator notes in an impressive catalog essay, as early as 1909. Yet he did not so much as mention abstraction until a planned fourth edition. What happened in between? The key, MoMA argues, was attending a concert of Schoenberg and then poring over the score as a work of art. And by then František Kupka, a Czech artist working in Paris, had beat him to the punch, with perhaps the first abstract painting, followed soon by Francis Picabia. Apollinaire called the style Orphism, after Orpheus—the musician of myth who followed his wife to Hades—and Kupka had a fondness for musical titles, too.
To get the full impact of the exhibition's strangeness, it may help to start at the end and work back. You may do so by mistake anyway, for the exit is right next to the "network," and previous shows have all run just that way. An alcove there has a stream of music, Debussy as well as atonality, and it seems only right that I first heard an American, Charles Ives. The main room that follows only pumps up the diversity, with its wall next door for Poland, Sweden, and Hungary—including a woman whose white steel resembles a model for an airplane hanger (Katarzyna Kobro), a man trained as an architectural engineer (Waclaw Szpakowski), and others with notations for a theory of vision (Wladyslaw Strzeminksi, who also inspired the Polish composer Zygmunt Krauze), a symphony (Viking Eggeling), film (Eggeling), and austere but sensual dance (Rudolf von Laban and Mary Wigman). Vaslav Nijinksy himself choreographed starting with untitled arcs in pencil and crayon. At the Bauhaus, Josef Albers worked in a grid of iron, copper, and glass.
This is creativity without the mark of the creative artist. Man Ray makes his photograms, with the direct if ghostly imprint of objects, while László Moholy-Nagy sends his compositions to an enamel factory for construction. Kurt Schwitters starts with the fragments of wartime, Jean Arp text and wood scraps, and Sophie Taeuber-Arp a demand to "avoid canvas." You may not even notice when in this room painting at last appears. The next rooms, again working backward, tackle more familiar ground, but do not celebrate art for its own sake too soon. Constantin Brancusi planned his column as architecture or monument, while Theo van Doesburg designed for an actual home—and, with his elegant Porch Railings and Porch Shadows, Paul Strand photographed one.
Had you worked forward instead, you would be hit by an explosion of color. Kupka introduces the luminous swirls of Rayism (named for x-rays) in Paris, Synchromism and Georgia O'Keeffe in America, and Futurism in Italy. Later in Russia, Liubov Popova makes color out of oil and marble dust on wood. In this chaos of correspondences, often the largest work stands out, like a canvas by Morgan Russell, half a dozen by Fernand Léger, or a near fractal tiling by a far less familiar name, David Bomburg. Also in England, Duncan Grant's scroll within a light box unfolds like a movie. Monument to the Third International, by Vladimir Tatlin, never did reach higher than the Eiffel Tower as he had wished, but its helix and rotating forms within have probably never looked so monumental.
Still, the emphasis is on connections. Léger's The Disks hangs right beside rotating sculpture by Marcel Duchamp. Apollinaire composes with the printed page as a two-dimensional word salad, Delauney-Terk collaborates with a poet, and Delauney dedicates a work "to one would invent a language." Just as often, connections translate into proliferation and explosion. Experiments in form by Kasimir Malevich lead to the grander simplicity of white on white, but then Alexander Rodchenko and Russian revolutionary art takes off in other directions. Unfortunately for the artists, so did the revolution.
"Inventing Abstraction," then, combines the classics of modern art with a new history. Just what makes it new? Try once more to imagine Kandinsky's difficulty, with a little more help from the curator and the catalog. Maybe, as Piet Mondrian wrote, "Cubism did not accept the logical consequences of its own discoveries," but could they? "What," Kandinsky asked, "is to replace the missing object?" What is abstraction anyway other than an absence of realism?
The answers, the show argues, came in realizing that the questions did not need an answer. If a koan like that sounds suspiciously postmodern, it is. Modernism as a network relates to contemporary doubts when it comes to the march of history, the lone creator, and the "originality of the avant-garde." It also has a parallel in Deconstruction, for which there is no escape from texts about texts. The whole idea of abstraction as not exactly abstract parallels the roots of Deconstruction in structuralism, for which words and sounds take on meaning only in contrast to other words and sounds. As the curator also notes, that theory came about at much the same time as abstraction.
One can see why "Inventing Abstraction" is both so strange and so comforting. It has its heart in Modernism but its head in Postmodernism. Compared to a survey of abstraction in 1996 or of postwar abstraction in 2012, both at the Guggenheim, it sticks to Alfred Barr's founders but unmoors them from their foundations. That also explains the show's occasional departures from its own premise. Kandinsky or Kupka may not get his evolution, but De Stijl in the Netherlands does, because Mondrian in his analysis of piers or van Doesburg of a cow is seeking a vocabulary for abstraction. Duchamp's Standard Stoppages, too, functions as a critique of language, for he created a seeming map of a war zone from the chance fall of metric units in thread.
The exceptions, though, also raise further questions. Was abstraction really so arbitrary? How far can one cut art off from its evolution? Kandinsky's Composition V still has the shadows of horses and the white profile mask of a face amid the triumphant black curve, and exactly when did those echoes die away—or his abstraction stop evolving? Picasso may have broken with Cubism and then backed away, or he may have been exploring contrasting conceptions of reality and the imagination all along. A wall label notes that Marsden Hartley read Kandinsky, but not his borrowing from German military uniforms or his fixation on an officer who wore one. And what he had read was concerning not the impersonal but the spiritual in art.
In their different ways, the Bauhaus and Malevich's Suprematism meant to change society. So, for that matter, did formalists like Barr or Clement Greenberg later. The very word movement has associations with both politics and esthetics. Conversely, it may not help to look for parallels to language, because few if any artists before 1925 would have heard of structuralism. Similarly, people often compare Cubism and abstract art to Einstein's spacetime, but his general theory of relativity did not appear until the middle of World War II—and artists could not possibly have understood it. One is still left with unexplained parallels and coincidences.
The show's contradictions come down to the paradox of Postmodernism itself. It pushes Barr's drawing and his canon to the point that his understanding of them falls apart. And then it pushes abstraction as utterly distinct and utterly unmoored to the point that this dissolves, too, into dance, film, politics, and form. Nor is that entirely a bad thing—especially today, when abstraction really does often flirt with other media at the expense of formalism. Surveys and survey texts have a way of giving answers just when art keeps asking questions. The joy of "Inventing Abstraction" is in packing so much in without waiting for an answer.
"Inventing Abstraction, 1910–1925" ran at The Museum of Modern Art through April 15, 2013.