- A Messier Coherence:Inventing Abstraction at the Museum of Modern Art
Over the past century, the proliferation of abstract art in painting, sculpture, photography, and film has done relatively little to make it more accessible to a broad public. Inventing Abstraction, 1910-1925 at the Museum of Modern Art tries to rectify this situation. The show, which is accompanied by a large exhibition catalog containing thirty-six short but incisive essays, explores the advent of abstraction as both a historical idea and an emergent artistic practice. Commemorating the centennial of the moment at which a large number of artists "invented" the modern notion of abstract art in Europe and the U.S., the exhibition is a sweeping survey of over 350 artworks, including paintings, drawings, prints, books, sculptures, films, photographs, recordings, and dance pieces. The web of relationships goes beyond visual art to incorporate musicians like Charles Ives, writers like Guillaume Apollinaire, and choreographers like Vaslav Nijinsky; it presents a complex picture of modern abstraction's Euro-American roots.
The exhibition, curated by Leah Dickerman and Masha Chlenova of the museum's painting and sculpture department, is a very important one for MoMA, which is still heavily invested in a narrative of modern art that was largely spun by Alfred H. Barr Jr., the museum's first director. In an attempt to raise the level of investigation to that of science, Barr famously supplemented his important 1936 exhibition, "Cubism and [End Page 371] Abstract Art," with a diagrammatic map illustrating the historical development of modernism. The flowchart, which is complete with solid lines with single-headed arrows pointing the way to defining connections (if not to stylistic influences), conveys by its scientific look an exhaustive, even hermetic and hence unchallengeable layout of the course of modern art, a course that takes on the aura of inevitable technological advance. With nearly 400 artworks, Barr's exhibition was even larger than the present show, and it also featured a broad range of media, including painting, sculpture, photography, architecture, furniture, designs for the theater, typography, posters, and films. Barr's diagram channeled the various trajectories of modern art through fauvism and especially cubism, and he varied in size the proper names of movements or artists in proportion to their relevance in the history of abstraction, a move that calls to mind the way that the names of cities appear on a map. The genealogy becomes much less complex after 1925 when all causal arrows lead either to "non-geometrical abstract art" or to "geometrical abstract art."1
Accompanying Inventing Abstraction is a graph drawing that also documents the birth and development of abstract art in the first decade-and-a-half of the phenomenon. This graph, however, is modeled quite differently from the flowchart. Rather than presenting an evolutionary chart [End Page 372] undergirded by the notion that advances in art are generated primarily by prior movements—an idea that belies the active searching out of influences—the diagram that illustrates the logic of Inventing Abstraction presents the emergence of abstract art as a network of communication between individuals. Names of artistic schools or movements are absent from the new map; the emphasis is now solely on artists. The stylistic unity that binds the various clusters of artworks has little to do with geographic boundaries. Vectors chart all known relationships between more than eighty artists, many of whom worked in different countries and in different media. Implied in this model is the possibility—and likelihood!—of double-headed arrows, which signal mutual influence, a sense of the incredible complexity of this nexus of relationships, and the thickness of this particular historical moment.
Like Barr's flowchart, the new diagram introduced in Inventing Abstraction is...