Inventing Abstraction, 1910-1925, the new exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, should be the kind of show that MoMA was made for, and it is.
Like last year’s de Kooning: A Retrospective (which could have been subtitled Deconstructing Abstraction), the new show draws on the museum’s finest tradition of world-class scholarship presented in visually stunning terms.
Organized by Leah Dickerman, Curator, with Masha Chlenova, Curatorial Assistant, of the Department of Painting and Sculpture, the exhibition delves deeply into the historical period, bringing forth unknown, ravishing works while casting familiar ones in a startling new light.
To begin at the beginning: one of the show’s biggest surprises is the realization that, here in the House That Pablo Built, the three modest Picassos we encounter at the entranceway — two small drawings from MoMA’s collection and an Analytical Cubist oil on canvas borrowed from the Museum Ludwig in Cologne — are the only ones in the show.
While it’s true that Picasso’s painting, “Femme à la mandoline” (“Woman with mandolin”) (1910), is planted front and center, blocking the rest of the exhibition until you deal with it and move on, the absence of the artist’s works beyond this point — in contrast to the walls dedicated to Kazimir Malevich, Piet Mondrian, Theo van Doesburg and even Fernand Léger — seems like a canonical shift.
And no Braque at all! What has become of the two Modernist mountaineers of yore?
The progression of the show — straight from Picasso to Arnold Schönberg, whose second string quartet inspired Wassily Kandinsky’s “Impression III (Konzert)” (1911), on view in the same room alongside other works by Kandinsky, including his art/poetry book, Klänge (Sounds) (1913), and František Kupka — implies that as soon as Picasso helped set abstraction off, the ripples went everywhere and influenced everything.
Historically, we think of Cubism and Kandinsky as the catalysts, but as the show unfolds and we see how swiftly, and wildly, the permutations of abstraction spread across Western culture, we might easily be convinced that abstract art would have happened anyway. If Picasso, Georges Braque and Kandinsky never existed, someone else would have provided the spark. With traditional aesthetics breaking down and European militarism careening toward war and revolution, the place was already soaked in gasoline.
One of the strongest impressions left by the show is the extent to which early abstraction infused formal rigor with giddy flights of imagination — monumental architectonics jostled by intuitive and impetuous gestures.
Giacomo Balla’s self-described “iridescent” paintings, Stanton Macdonald-Wright’s sunny “Conception Synchromy” (1914), Wyndham Lewis’s boldly colored “Workshop” (c.1914-15) and Bart Van Der Leck’s gouache “Untitled”(1917), in which structured intervals of white and blue evoke the wide-open sea, are just a few works by artists from far-flung countries (Italy, the United States, Great Britain, Holland) who found diverse and fecund means of expression within the limits of geometric shapes.
Another was Morgan Russell, an American whose prominently displayed “Synchromy in Orange: To Form” (1913-1914) bowls you over with its size (11 x 10 feet) and the impact of its interlocking forms.
Russell’s name barely registered at first, but a bit of research revealed that he co-founded the Synchromist movement with Macdonald-Wright but abandoned the style by 1930 after having been, according the MoMA Archives website, “discouraged by financial difficulties.”
While Russell reads as a minor blip in the history of Modern Art, the curators recognized the work’s inherent power and showed considerable fortitude by placing it in such a noteworthy position — at an intersection of two galleries where it interrupts the traffic flow like a giant stop sign.
The painting, which was borrowed from the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, New York, features a false frame surrounding its central image. Emblazoned with the words “A LA FORME,” the work’s subtitle, “To Form,” in French on the bottom left and “ORANGE” on the lower right, the frame calls into question the authenticity of the abstraction it encloses, wrapping it in quotation marks like much of the painting being done 100 years later.
An intriguing aspect of the show is how fluidly the multiple strains of Modernism run together — Cubism, Vorticism, Futurism, Suprematism, Dada and the rest. What they shared seems to matter much more than how they differed, a point underscored by the sublime exhibition design.
Simultaneously open and intimate, the layout allows you to see a panorama of works installed in different rooms, giving the impression that the artworks are characters appearing in one grand opera rather than on discrete stages, following their own narrative.
By embedding the artists in such a sweeping context, and by taking pains to diversify the scale and media of the artists’ works, individual encounters become remarkably rich.
The grouping of Marcel Duchamp’s broken glass painting, “To Be Looked at (from the Other Side of the Glass) with One Eye, Close to, for Almost an Hour” (1918), his kinetic sculpture, “Rotary Demisphere (Precision Optics)” (1925), the wooden objects of his “3 Standard Stoppages” (1913-1914) and his oil and pencil on canvas “Network of Stoppages” (1914) amplifies the material sensuality of each piece—not a quality you immediately think of when you think of Duchamp, the renowned disdainer of “retinal art.”
Marsden Hartley’s well-known “Painting, Number 5” (1914-1915) from the Whitney Museum is accompanied by two related, highly muscular oils from the same dates, making for an extraordinarily forceful threesome. And yet, when joined by three smaller, quieter works that were made a couple of years later, not long after his difficult return from Germany to the United States, the machismo Marsden of the Iron Cross suddenly becomes a different and far more vulnerable artist.
Elsewhere, Hans Arp’s cutout wood reliefs appear much more nuanced when paired with his biomorphic ink and pencil drawings. Mondrian’s historic evolution from trees to grids becomes as much a tactile change as a philosophical one, the scruffiness of nature giving way to the polish of distilled thought. And standing alone in the middle of a room, the purity of Brancusi’s black oak “Endless Column” (Version 1, 1918) is doubly majestic.
If you want to see crayon drawings by the legendary dancer and choreographer Vaslaw Nijinsky, they’re here. So is a musical score for noise machines, Risveglio di una città (Awakening of a city) (1914), by Luigi Russolo. You can also find a dazzling stained glass grid by a pre-Homage-to-the-Square Josef Albers, drawings of improbable machines by Fortunato Depero and crazy, word-based pieces by Francesco Cangiullo.
The exhibition features a number of intersections of art and literature: tangentially, there are offerings from the artists of the Bloomsbury group, who have been long overshadowed by the literary wing. These include a casually quirky geometric abstraction on a mustard-colored field by Vanessa Bell and a striking panel in gouache, watercolor and collage on paper mounted on canvas, “Abstract Kinetic Collage Painting with Sound” (1914), by Duncan Grant. At 11 inches by 14 feet, 9 ¼ inches, it is one of the show’s surprise standouts.
A more direct association of word and image engendered what may be (and this is saying a lot) the most beautiful objects in the exhibition. They are three sections of a collaboration between the artist Sonia Delaunay-Terk and the poet Blaise Cendrars titled La Prose du Transsibérien et de la petite Jehanne de France (Prose of the Trans-Siberian and of Little Joan of France).
The museum’s website ranks La Prose du Transsibérien as “a landmark in the history of the modern book”:
The poet and the artist conceived of this project as the first “simultaneous book.” When closed, the accordion-folded volume can be slipped into a wrapper. Opened out vertically, the format facilitates the contrast of the darker themes of the poem with the vibrant dynamism of the illuminations that accompany it.
Cendrars called the book “a sad poem printed on sunlight.”
It goes without saying that Inventing Abstraction cannot be given its due in a single viewing or a single review. The checklist is 82 pages long. For every artwork mentioned, there are five others that merit an equal amount of attention.
There is, however, one more item that is nothing short of astonishing. If there is such a thing as a spoiler alert in an art review, consider yourself warned.
The high point of the exhibition for me was when I turned a corner and found myself facing the 1979 reconstruction (commissioned by the Musée national d’art moderne/Centre de création industrielle, Centre Pompidou, Paris) of Vladimir Tatlin’s “Model for Pamiatnik III Internatsionala (Monument to the Third International),” originally made in 1920.
If you know it only from photographs, which presumably is the case for most viewers, there is nothing to prepare you for the visceral thrill this colossal work delivers as it simultaneously soars and plummets in physical space.
Its tilting upward spiral and motorized interior embodies the promise of a new world, a worker’s paradise served up by industrialization and Communism, while its diagonal thrust — viewed through historical hindsight — no longer suggests the forward-leaning dynamism of history but the collapse of a benighted century.
And to think that “Monument to the Third International,” if ever completed, would have been 80 meters taller than the Eiffel Tower. To encounter this legendary work, even in scaled-down form, is a galvanizing experience. Inventing Abstraction may possess an excess of riches, but this alone is worth the trip.
Inventing Abstraction, 1910-1925 opens to the public tomorrow, December 23, at the Museum of Modern Art (11 West 53rd Street, Midtown, Manhattan) and continues through April 15, 2013.