Abstract Critical

Inventing Abstraction

Written by Ben Wiedel-Kaufmann

‘The movement of abstract art is too comprehensive and long-prepared, too closely related to similar movements in literature and philosophy, which have quite other technical conditions, and finally, too varied according to time and place, to be considered a self-contained development issuing by a kind of internal logic directly from aesthetic problems. It bears within itself at almost every point the mark of the changing material and psychological conditions surrounding modern culture.’ Meyer Shapiro, Nature of Abstract Art, 1937

‘The answer to the question “How do you think a truly radical thought?” seems to be you think it through the network’. Leah Dickerman, Inventing Abstraction, 2012

© 2011 The Museum of Modern Art

© 2011 The Museum of Modern Art

The first quote is taken from Meyer Shapiro’s response to the vision of abstraction put forward by Alfred Barr in his exhibition Cubism and Abstract Art, at the Museum of Modern Art, in 1936. The importance of Shapiro’s objection, or indeed Barr’s formalism, bear little repeating here – both  trace long and embellished histories across the last 75 years of art historical thinking. Upon crossing the five-storey high bridges of the new MoMA to enter into the show Inventing Abstraction, however, one might be forgiven for questioning where exactly this last 75 years has led us – aside from across a narrow gangway towards attendant vertigo.

At the entrance one is confronted by a diagram that looks like the remnants of a secret service briefing on Al-Qaeda cells (minus the mug-shots), or a potential app for Facebook: in fact the now forgotten ‘friend circle’ on said social networking site is pretty much exactly what it is. The roughly geographical diagram, connecting individual names (or nodes?) by confusing yet impressive webs of red lines is central to the conception of an exhibition whose subtitling claims to present ‘How a Radical Idea [Abstraction] Changed Modern Art’: ‘How do you think a truly radical thought?… you think it through the network’ asserts curator Leah Dickerman (backed up by social scientists) in the perhaps understandably sweeping tones of the catalogue introduction. This explanation might carry in the context of a secret service briefing, or a study of group dynamics. For the purposes of exploring the genesis of abstraction, however, it seems wildly deficient.

Inventing Abstraction, 1910–1925. The Museum of Modern Art, Imaging and Visual Resources Department, photo Jonathan Muzikar © 2011 The Museum of Modern Art

Inventing Abstraction, 1910–1925. The Museum of Modern Art, Imaging and Visual Resources Department, photo Jonathan Muzikar © 2011 The Museum of Modern Art

This is particularly evident if we place the diagram (as we are invited to do) in contrast to the famed diagram Alfred Barr presented on the dust jacket of the catalogue for the aforementioned exhibition. From Barr’s perhaps simplistic, but nonetheless reasoned, exploratory and propositional map of formal influence are reduced to a geographically inspired dot-to-dot.

The absence of an axis of time and the exclusion of any attempt to penetrate the ideas that flowed through the maze of red communication channels are troubling. If Shapiro could criticize Barr’s model for excluding the myriad historical factors external to formal progression, what are we to make of this presentation, where surrounding cultural and historical influence is reduced to an annotated who’s who of abstract practitioners. It is – one might say – a very cogent embodiment of the loss at which, one hundred years after the advent of abstraction, the art world finds itself. Isolated and distanced from both historical and formal analysis, enthralled by the pretences of postmodern social sciences and encumbered by the uncritical trappings of the cult of celebrity we seem unable to form a cohesive historical framework; and are left facing an infographic.

Inventing Abstraction, 1910–1925. The Museum of Modern Art, Imaging and Visual Resources Department, photo Jonathan Muzikar © 2011 The Museum of Modern Art

Inventing Abstraction, 1910–1925. The Museum of Modern Art, Imaging and Visual Resources Department, photo Jonathan Muzikar © 2011 The Museum of Modern Art

It would be unfair to unfold an entire analysis of the exhibition on the basis of this diagram alone (although as with Barr’s it may yet stand as the most permanent visual reminder of the historical vision proposed). It is a relief, therefore, after the vertigo of the entrance well, that the exhibition presents one of the more impressive and complete displays of early 20th century abstract painting that is likely to have been compiled anywhere in the world (though Paul Klee is notably absent owing to a failed loan). Accumulated are a huge range of breakthrough works from Arp, Dove, Duchamp(!), Kandinsky, Malevich, Mondrian, Kupka, Leger, Picabia, Popova, O’Keeffe and many more besides. Laid out in an unfolding succession of roughly geographically grouped rooms, this breadth, and much else, makes the exhibition worthy of repeated visits (difficult, of course, from this side of the pond).

Morgan Russell. Synchromy in Orange: To Form. 1913-1914. Oil on canvas, 11’3″ x 10’1½” (342.9 x 308.6 cm). Collection Albright-Knox Art Gallery Buffalo, New York. Gift of Seymour H. Knox, Jr. © 2012 Peyton Wright Gallery. Photo courtesy of Albright-Knox Art Gallery / Art Resource, NY.

Morgan Russell. Synchromy in Orange: To Form. 1913-1914. Oil on canvas, 11’3″ x 10’1½” (342.9 x 308.6 cm). Collection Albright-Knox Art Gallery Buffalo, New York. Gift of Seymour H. Knox, Jr. © 2012 Peyton Wright Gallery. Photo courtesy of Albright-Knox Art Gallery / Art Resource, NY.

If far from all emerge as heroes, grouping together so many artists makes apparent the incandescence of fifteen years of production which witnessed what the exhibition’s organisers and many more before have described as ‘the most dramatic rewriting of the rules of artistic production since the Renaissance’. Looking through the works I was struck by how many of the formal enquiries of the succeeding century were prefigured in that brief period. Picabia’s The Source (1912) and Morgan Russell’s Synchromy in Orange: To Form (1913-14) put pay to the myth that abstract painting owed a monumental scale to Abstract Expressionism (the suppression of scale surely, therefore, falling at the feet of early 20th gallerists); Carlo Carra and Robert Delaunay were, albeit tentatively, raising the possibilities of shaped canvasses some half century before Richard Smith and Frank Stella; and right across the rooms we see multiple investigations into surface tactility, grids, colour theory, deep space, suppressed space, frontal composition, word images and hermetic attempts to forge abstract languages.

For all this vitality, I could not help but feel distanced by MoMA’s presentation. In their attempts to emphasise abstraction’s commonality and novelty they have excluded its historic roots. Whilst a 1910 Picasso (‘abstract in all but name’) bars the entrance wall to the exhibition, its inclusion is intended to attest to abstraction’s ‘conceptual impossibility in 1910’ rather than its artistic lineage. (A usage which conveniently sidesteps Picasso’s continued assertion of abstraction’s conceptual impossibility). And throughout the show works have been selected and organised not to show the evolution and continuity of ideas – the multiple paths which led towards abstraction – but to emphasise the drama and commonality of the conclusions. The Futurists, Leger and Delaunay appear stripped of their evolving interests in simultaneity, urban experience and light and are presented as in some manner homogenous with Kandinsky’s spiritualism. The Americans are presented as Parisian voyagers or strange floating nodes in the network and Dada’s assaults on rationality appear uncritically alongside O’Keeffe’s floral close-ups and Matissean Bloomsbury paintings.

Inventing Abstraction, 1910–1925. The Museum of Modern Art, Imaging and Visual Resources Department, photo Jonathan Muzikar

Inventing Abstraction, 1910–1925. The Museum of Modern Art, Imaging and Visual Resources Department, photo Jonathan Muzikar

It is unfortunate that the extensive and beautifully produced catalogue (in which a unifying introductory essay is followed by a series of specific studies) does little to underpin and investigate the foundations of these often quite distinct explorations. Whilst the now standard references to the linguistic experiments of sound poetry, non-Euclidean geometry, Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity, parallel editing in film and breakdowns in subject / object relations in psychology are all present, they are awkwardly pushed into the background by the continued insistence on viewing abstraction as a monolithic invention, pulled from the rib of the network. In this worryingly ahistorical model we are left with very little idea as to the proposed relation of these wider events to the works on display; very little concept of the extent to which such ideas constituted the fabric of the artists’ interests or communications; little to no idea, in short, of the multiple contexts in which the move to abstraction was sown.

Paradigmatic of this approach is the emphasis on cross-media exchange as an apparent source of abstraction. Time and again we are presented with moments in which this exchange is said to have spurred abstraction; be it in the form of Kandinsky’s reaction to a Schoenberg concert or a car journey involving Francis Picabia, Apollinaire and Claude Debussy. But rather than a consideration of the common interests aired in such exchanges we are more often than not left with reductive parables: ‘Put a modern artist, a poet and a composer in a car, rumble along, and what do you get? Abstraction’ states Dickerman. In placing emphasis on such moments without exploring the wider discursive frameworks which informed them, the actual contents of the exchanges remain shrouded in mystery, even as the concept of cross-media exchange (and indeed exchange of any kind) is exalted. As such, for all the attempts to channel music into the gallery (far fewer than I had, in fact, anticipated), we do not move far beyond the problems which Shapiro identified in Barr’s model: for whilst the definition of artistic endeavour is broadened, ‘The history of modern art is [still] presented as an internal, immanent process among the artists.’ (Shapiro)

The contexts in which abstraction came to flourish are of course diverse and complex. Nonetheless, by shortcutting them I cannot help but feel that we move towards reinforcing myth rather than understanding and leave abstraction as a fragile and awkward edifice. In investigating these roots we are not aided by the dissolution of the Marxist certainty that underpinned Shapiro’s analysis nor (and perhaps more disruptively) by the distance which has emerged between the comments and thoughts of so many of the pioneers of abstraction and our own time. It is striking that whilst so many of the formal concerns of the last hundred years seem prefigured in these early works, the pronouncements of many of the leading figures now seem hopelessly distant. Take Kupka’s thoughts on straight lines, ‘a taut cord, energetic beyond nature. Solemn, the vertical is the backbone of life in space’, ‘the horizontal is Gaia, the grandmother’, or Kandinsky’s general spiritual waffle.

František Kupka. Localisation des mobiles graphiques II (Localization of graphic motifs II). 1912-13. Oil on canvas, 6’ 6 ¾” x 6’ 4 3/8″ (200 x 194 cm). National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C, Ailsa Mellon Bruce Fund and Gift of Jan and Meda Mladek. © 2012 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris. Photo courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.

František Kupka. Localisation des mobiles graphiques II (Localization of graphic motifs II). 1912-13. Oil on canvas, 6’ 6 ¾” x 6’ 4 3/8″ (200 x 194 cm). National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C, Ailsa Mellon Bruce Fund and Gift of Jan and Meda Mladek. © 2012 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris. Photo courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.

Whilst the current catalogue’s writers (and many art historians before) have attempted to push Kandinsky and Kupka into a contemporary framework by casting their spiritualism as a matter of secondary importance, it seems clear that these spiritual interests provided an essential context for several of the artists who pushed towards abstraction. Kandinsky, Kupka and Mondrian all referred repeatedly and explicitly to the influence of Theosophy on their adoption of abstraction. That these three, coming from different countries and different backgrounds – and not directly connected by the network chart – should all find inspiration in a hybrid form of Eastern mysticism which cast the material world as an illusory fiction seems to offer a more concrete and illuminating path of enquiry into the genesis of abstraction than a million unexplained lines on a diagram. Yet it has been consistently ignored and sidelined.

Vasily Kandinsky. Impression III (Konzert) [Impression III (Concert)]. 1911. Oil on canvas, 30 7/8 x 39 9/16″ (77.5 x 100.5 cm). Städtische Galerie im Lenbachhaus, Munich. © 2012 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris. Photo courtesy of: the Städtische Galerie im Lenbachhaus, München

Vasily Kandinsky. Impression III (Konzert) [Impression III (Concert)]. 1911. Oil on canvas, 30 7/8 x 39 9/16″ (77.5 x 100.5 cm). Städtische Galerie im Lenbachhaus, Munich. © 2012 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris. Photo courtesy of: the Städtische Galerie im Lenbachhaus, München

In presenting the case for abstraction as a ‘radical’ product of the network without acknowledging the heterogeneity of wider interests surrounding the network, the curators belittle the truly radical aspects of abstraction and the exchanges upon which it was built. For whilst Theosophy does not, of course, offer a comprehensive handle by which to approach all of the artists grouped in this exhibition, the shattering of the long-dominant modes of Western thought, which Theosophy’s popularity across Western Europe points towards, surely does. It seems self-evident that, ‘the most dramatic rewriting of the rules of artistic production since the Renaissance’ did not spring magically from the internal logic of the network, but from an equally dramatic shift in social conditions. Ironically, in their obsession with the social scientist’s network theory the curators have, in fact, veiled the influence of a much wider social exchange in which non-Western concepts of spirituality and an increasing familiarity of non-Western modes of art had a transformative role in the evolution of European art.

Writing in his introduction to the third edition of his landmark 1906 study Abstraction and Empathy Wilhelm Worringer described ‘the one-sidedness and European-Classical prejudice of our customary historical conception and valuation of art’ which his study attempted to redress. It is a contribution which has made his study a key text of the period – paralleling as it does a similar shattering of historical conceptions across the arts. Be it through Picasso’s study of African sculpture, Leger’s enthrallment with urban experience or the Russians’ pursuit of a ‘non-objective’ painting, time and time again we witness the artists of the period pulling away from the model of representational aesthetics which had become predominant over the preceding half a millennium. It is a withdrawal which is at once distinct from and bound up in abstraction, a wider centrifugal movement in which abstraction formed a vector. In their vague attempts to present abstraction as the transformative Invention and Idea of the age, however, the curators have lost sight of this context, disembodying abstraction from its wider historical sources and producing a hollowed structure in which diverse experiments are reduced to a series of amorphous and clipped exemplars of abstraction’s networked rise.

The most jarring and perhaps explanatory example of the dismembering of abstraction from the wider contexts of modernity comes at the end of Dickerman’s catalogue introduction. Here she presents Duchamp as the rightful heir of abstraction, the figure who more than anyone else has ‘played out the implications of abstraction in his practice’. She continues: ‘In its inscription of artwork as idea, its expansiveness across media, and its divided structure in which work and text are integrally linked but held apart, and the artist is a producer of both images and words, its implications are vast. In all of these senses, abstraction is a form of ur-modernism: it serves as a foundation for what follows. Today, when we see an obdurate object, an encompassing media installation… text presented as image, or a conceptual script, we see the legacy of the invention of abstraction’.

Inventing Abstraction, 1910–1925. The Museum of Modern Art, Imaging and Visual Resources Department, photo Jonathan Muzikar

Inventing Abstraction, 1910–1925. The Museum of Modern Art, Imaging and Visual Resources Department, photo Jonathan Muzikar

Here Dickerman reveals the underlying motives of a context stripped focus on abstraction as an ill-defined Idea. In merging abstraction with the wider pull away from ‘historical conceptions of art’ of which it was a part, she attempts to brand abstraction as the progenitor of the conceptual movement. To do so overlooks the fact that Duchamp’s ‘anti-retinal’ work is, at best, only tangentially aligned with the wider logic of abstraction. For whilst Duchamp was undoubtedly a product of the same historical movement away from tradition, his assaults upon visuality (often launched through playful modes of representation) were by no means intrinsic or central to the wider moves towards abstraction. In merging abstraction with Duchamp’s legacy, whilst stripping it of its wider relations to society, Dickerman disinherits much of the greatest artwork of the previous century, condemning its visuality and social relevance as anachronisms.

Inventing Abstraction: 1910-1925 is on at the Museum of Modern Art until the 15th of April. You can download Meyer Shapiro’s Nature of Abstract Art here

  1. Patrick Jones said…

    I would wholeheartedly agree with Alan that this essay is excellent and timely.A pity the curators are not forced to read it and respond.I did see the show,but at a pace as my daughter saw Tatlins tower and began screaming,forcing a rapid exit.I can only say somewhere during this walk through MOMA,I saw Mondrians Broadway Boogie Woogie and it shimmered and shined,to such an extent, it put Kupka in the shade and made the older Abstractionists look very dull.I still feel SEEING Art in the flesh and re/examining our new responses is essential to any reappraisal.

  2. Robin Greenwood said…

    I suspect, though it goes rather against the grain to say so, that much of this early abstraction takes “the idea” as paramount, and that rather does relate it to Duchamp. I’d have to say that in my mind the conceptualisations of Malevich (and even Mondrian) are closer to Duchamp than they are to Monet and Matisse. It strikes me that this early abstraction requires a large degree of restricted historical contextualisation to be taken so seriously. It is for the most part crude stuff. In comparison with much from either the history of figurative Western painting (none of this would hold a candle to a decent Manet), or indeed the very long history of abstract art and decoration (see the G. Roger Denson article on Huff Post) from around the world and down the ages, it’s mostly poor. There are stacks of textiles, for example, from many countries and periods, that would knock these paintings into a cocked hat. Much abstract art relies upon “the idea” to attempt to escape from that unfortunate comparison and sell itself as something more meaningful. For a while, it seemed like abstract expressionism would free up abstract painting from such over-conceptualisation and return it to the real, but that didn’t last long before the likes of Newman and Rothko got their big metaphysical mitts all over it.

    • John Bunker said…

      Just as modern art stands as an Island of revolt in the narrow stream of western aesthetics, the primitive art traditions stand apart as authentic aesthetic accomplishments that flourished without benefit of European history…….
      Barnett Newman 1946.

      There is an answer to all those who assume that modern abstract art is the esoteric exercise of a snobbish elite, for among the [supposedly] simple people’s, abstract art was the normal, well-understood dominant tradition. Shall we say that modern man has lost the ability to think on so high a level?
      Barnett Newman 1946.

      I agree on the whole Robin but I think Newman in particular is a much more complex player in the contrary currents that formed what we call now Abstract Expressionism.

    • Robert Linsley said…

      I used to feel the way you do about early abstraction (Kupka, Delaunay etc.) but now I’m not so sure. One can acquire an affection for bad art, no? And realize it’s not so bad. In some cases the “idea” is lost, or there wasn’t much of an idea to begin with – all the better. What matters is the potential for future work that might be there.

      Mondrian is idea laden – Malevich again not so sure. Boris Groys once told me that Malevich’s writing has never been adequately translated because it is so difficult. It’s not only full of avant-garde language games but you have to understand Ukrainian idioms and be able to hear the ironies and jokes between the lines.

  3. Peter Stott said…

    huffingtonpost.com/g-roger-denson/colonizing-abstraction-mo_b_2683159.html …

    I hope Abstract Critical don’t mind me posting this link, but there’s a very interesting article on this show, that echos Kaufmann’s critique, regarding the roots of abstraction in Western culture. G. Roger Denson argues that the show should have been called ‘Re-inventing Abstraction’, after all, abstraction has been around for 35,000 years and is evidenced in practically all indigenous cultures, since. I think Sam picks up on the idea that the major shift is putting ‘abstract’ data on a flat canvas, surely emphasizing illusionistic representation of form; the up-until-then pictorial function of paint on canvas. However, having done this, the shift seems to be away from representation to notions of signification, when the one fact of a 2D painted canvas is that it is form representative, no matter what attempts to deny it.

  4. M.K. Hajdin said…

    I’m surprised and a bit disappointed to see no reference to Clyfford Still, being the first of the abstract expressionists to go fully abstract.

    I wonder if the problem with coherent narratives in general stems from the increasing atomization of society.

    • Sam said…

      Still didn’t become an abstract artist until after the period in this exhibition (he was only 6 in 1910!). However by coincidence there is an article on Still coming up on Abstract Critical.

  5. Sam said…

    First the disclaimer that I haven’t seen this show, but I thought I would throw my two-pence in anyway. Though BWK’s analysis is sound, one way early abstraction could perhaps be seen to cut itself off from what went before, and to (in a sense) present itself as an Idea, is the distance it established (or at least a lot of early abstract artists established) from the structures, and, crucially the space creating possibilities of the western tradition. If not an Idea, than an image by, say, Malevich is a blue-print of a world rather than a representation of it, at least in the way a painting by Titian, Rubens, Manet or Matisse is a representation of a world.

    If we broadly accept this, then abstraction from round about the 40s onward – including but not limited to the Abstract Expressionists + their followers – could then be seen as an attempt to force the ‘Idea’ of 1910-25 back into the Western painting tradition, to make it more than an Idea, and so to more fully picture, with the ‘flexibility’ (I think I’m borrowing that word from an essay of Robin Greenwood’s) of great representational art the abstract, unworldly terrain the early abstract artists drew up plans of. Of course this forcing back – which is really an expansion outward – didn’t really, fully get going. Is it likely to?

    Patrick Heron wrote something along these lines in Space in Painting and Architecture 1953. ‘The very criterion of excellence for such painters as Nicholson or Mondrian was precisely that the representational function in painting should be so completely suppressed that a picture could only be contemplated as an end in itself, an object in its own right…. [this] denies however, the most basic function of pictorial art – which is its ability to represent objects other than itself: the illusionistic operation of any image recorded on a flat surface is painting’s inherent magic its unique power… A further very important distinction, therefore, between, say, Mondrian and Soulages is that the post-war painter acknowledges this spatial necessity in painting whereas the pre-war artist attempted to deny it’.

    • John Holland said…

      Sam-

      That’s a great quote from Heron, and it nails something that’s always bugged me about the absurd literal-mindedness of Greenberg’s teleology of painting’s journey to perfect self-definition through the rejection of illusion or modelling of any kind.
      Painting doesn’t impinge on the scultural model by using the illusion of three dimensions any more than it tries to be botany by representing a tree. The tension between materiality and illusion is as essential an element of painting as colour on a plane.

      • Sam said…

        I agree on the importance of a dynamic between materiality / illusion. But I’m pretty sure (quite a while since I read him) that Greenberg may have argued for the rejection of modelling but he didn’t argue for the rejection of illusion. His flatness was a particular kind of flatness. Certainly the ‘flatness’ of Olitski, Noland etc is one which contains illusion, however thin, or infinite-shallow that may be.

      • John Holland said…

        Yes- in some way, I suppose, it’s hard to imagine any colour on on a surface that is wholly without SOME level of illusion- that’s in the nature of the eye’s reception of colour.
        Mind you, I don’t really go along with Heron’s idea that Mondrian denied “spacial necessity”.

  6. Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe said…

    What a silly curatorial presentation and even sillier catalogue essay, by the sounds of it. Of course Picasso was not an abstract artist and never meant to be, and there are at least two reasons why one must reject the idea that Duchamp was the heir of what he negated, one being his remarks about the retinal and the other the readymade. One feels as if one is seeing shows curated and catalogues written only to reassure the faithful and symbolically assert that in which they have faith. The general public (should there still be one) must be bemused.
    If MoMA wasted this opportunity so thoroughly it’s a shame, I think it would have been possible to have a show that discussed abstractions very heterogenous origins and aspirations, the great majority of which didn’t really have all that much to do with abstraction as such…

    • Robert Linsley said…

      Jeremy, I’m sure you’re right about curating and criticism in general – repetition of received ideas.

      • Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe said…

        I think the problem is that the received ideas are never reexamined, and in this case it appears that they are being repeated in the absence of any real attempt to connect them to the work under discussion. I see it as persistent bullying by the establishment. Any evidence that might contradict the reading is simply ignored. The primacy of Duchamp (whose own interest in the hermetic also seems to be discounted, as usual) is simply asserted. This doesn’t sound like a show about the beginnings of abstraction so much as a rhetorical exercise in how to diminish it.

    • bern said…

      the catalogue explicitly states that Picasso was not an abstract artist simply a catalyst for other artists to take his analytic cubism further

  7. Alan Gouk said…

    Hurray __at last someone who can see what current curatorship is up to. Excellent article.