POLLING MY READERS
I decided to wait until I’d had a chance to revisit it and spend more time with it before I reported my response to it, and in order to help me with my response, I invited the subscribers to the print edition of this column to share their response to the show with me. I did get a couple of such responses, and they were interesting. Both people indicated that they’d enjoyed the show, but the first observed that it hadn’t changed any of his opinions about specific artists: the great ones were still the greatest and the lesser ones, still lesser. The second began by commenting that the lone Picasso painting wasn’t nearly as good an example of his work as the other works from the same period by him downstairs in the museum’s permanent collection. In fact, as our conversation continued, I got a definite impression that she felt many of the best artists in the show weren’t represented by their best work.
GETTING THE BIG PICTURE
Finally, I went back, and progressed through the show at a more leisurely pace. It is certainly enormously ambitious, and covers its subject at what appears (at first glance anyway) to be a most comprehensive way. To be sure, nearly a third of it is somewhat familiar, in the sense that it is work from MoMA itself, as well as other New York museums (83 works from MoMA, plus another 16 from the Met, Guggenheim, and Whitney). Then again, MoMA in particular was a trail-blazer in acquiring avant-garde art from 1929 onward, Guggenheim was known as “the Museum of Non-Objective Art,” and there is plenty of work from France, Great Britain, Germany, Switzerland, Russia, and – you know, like that – not to mention private collections from all over.
This show has work by artists from countries, such as Latvia, Poland and Sweden, that I had never associated with abstraction. And some memorable objects defy categorization, like the grid of little multicolored stained-glass squares by Josef Albers, a large stained-glass window by Theo van Doesburg, and a towering model of Vladimir Tatlin’s “Monument to the Third Internationale.” All three must delight visitors who are unfamiliar with this period and/or may find it overly strenuous to look at so many abstract paintings and sculptures at once (though, as a longtime devotee of abstraction myself, I recall the Albers from the Bauhaus show at MoMA in 2009, the van Doesburg reminds me of earlier stained glass windows by Frank Lloyd Wright, and the Tatlin monument looks awfully familiar. I feel that I’ve seen one like it in at least one and maybe two other exhibitions—even if I can’t remember exactly where or when).
“Inventing Abstraction” features many, many works on paper. They range from purely visual drawings (sometimes very illuminating, sometimes not) to literary efforts or musical notations (both of great interest, I am sure, to critics in search of inter-media interaction, but not to me). There are also some important photographs, and some collages. However, the real heart of the exhibition—as far as I am concerned, and I also think as far as most if not all of the artists represented would have been concerned—are the paintings and sculpture, together numbering about 100. Here’s how they are displayed (plus my six cents worth of running commentary).
PICASSO, SURE -- BUT WHERE'S BRAQUE?
At the entry to the show is a 1910 Picasso “Woman with a Mandolin,” a particularly abstracted image from the artist’s most abstract period of Analytic Cubism, lent by a museum in Germany. The label insists that Picasso was never completely abstract, but concedes that works like this one said “abstract” to other artists. From a distance, it looks wonderful—hung on a pale gray wall that matches its tonalities and facing the entrance so as to set the tone for the whole show. Close up, though, its facture is mechanical, with nasty little horizontal ridges of paint that depersonalize the complex passages of little pats of paint which bind foreground with background in these paintings, flattening the picture plane and diminishing whatever perspective might remain. I suppose this painting was chosen because it would be fresh for New York audiences & might help them see the whole situation differently. Clearly it indicates the triangular, rectilinear and angular lines & shapes that are the hallmark of cubism (just as squirming and/or organic shapes would be the hallmark of the surrealism to follow), but my friend was right: “Woman with a Mandolin” is not top-quality Picasso.
Also, where is the Braque? Picasso didn’t develop Analytic Cubism by himself. He worked in close conjunction with Braque, a relationship which meant that, with his hallmark egotism, he referred to Braque as “ma femme,” but that Braque more aptly characterized by saying “We were like two mountain-climbers, roped together.” I know that cubism is out of style right now, and that Peter Schjeldahl in the New Yorker complained that even including the Picasso was too “conservative,” but really, without Analytic Cubism, there would have been no abstraction, and Analytic Cubism was created by two artists, not one. If MoMA wasn’t so fashion-conscious, it would have opened the show where the first half of “Pioneering Cubism,” that landmark show at MoMA in 1989, left off: with 2 superb examples of Analytic Cubism hung side by side (I can’t remember which two were so displayed, but I think it likely that they were the two which grace the cover of the catalogue to that show, MoMA’s own “Ma Jolie” by Picasso and the Guggenheim’s “Le Portugais” by Braque (both 1911-1912).
KANDINSKY & KUPKA
One side of this first little gallery and a portion of the next one (also small) offers a multi-media display devoted to Kandinsky, and built around two splendid & major paintings by him, “Impression III (Concert),” and “Composition V” (both1911). Both are well worth looking at. My problems continue with the way in which they are presented. According to the label accompanying “Concert,” as well as two chalk studies labeled “sketch for “Impression III,” it would appear that to the extent this painting has any subject, it depicts a concert piano (with its lid raised) and spectators standing in the orchestra pit.
The label further explains that Kandinsky made the painting more abstract after attending a concert of music by Arnold Schoenberg, and the whole is accompanied by music scores by Schoenberg, plus (somewhere, according to the checklist, though I didn’t actually hear it) a recording of Schoenberg’s music. All of this is standard issue in our era of “context” and interrelated media, to say nothing of the “relevance” of contemporary performance art, but I wonder whether it offers us anything more, in the way of purely visual satisfaction, than did Rose Carol Washton Long, back in the 70s and 80s.
Washton Long, you may (or may not) remember, was the scholar who had painstakingly picked out all the elders, knights on horseback, walled cities and other little images that she discerned in these paintings, and the grad school professor with whom I took a seminar in German Expressionism was very hipped on her approach (though Long’s book wasn’t published until the 80s, the Columbia library had a copy of her dissertation in typescript in the 70s.).
At the time, I was irked by this approach. It seemed to demote Kandinsky from the status of great abstract painter to second-rate representational painter, who was so poor at depicting his subjects that it took an art historian to decipher them. And I still find Washton Long’s approach lacking in the sense that it offers only uni-referential imagery, and that without it, it might be easier for scholars to establish the multireferential aspects of Kandinsky’s art (for like all abstract painters, he has them). I also know that many,maybe most abstract painters take a dim view of any attempts to find representation in Kandinsky’s art OR their own.
However, once you’ve read Washton Long’s research, there is no getting away from the fact that these little images are there in the paintings, and consistently enough so that they can’t be accidental—which leads us inevitably to the conclusion that when Kandinsky was talking and writing about “abstract” art, what he really meant was what we today would mean not only by “pure abstraction” but also by “the semi-abstract.” And here we get to the next big problem with “Inventing Abstraction” in my opinion. Despite the use of the word, “abstraction” in the show’s title, all that it really devotes itself to is “pure abstraction,” or what is more sometimes known as “the non-objective.”
That is to say, with almost no exceptions, it ignores paintings with any apparent connection to the external world, and – even more seriously --when such a connection is definitely there, every effort is made to obscure or ignore it. All this misrepresents the real nature of abstraction in its early days, when it was just emerging (by way of cubism) from the representational, and more than one artist teetered back and forth between the two. It may be great showmanship, but it is poor history.
Also in this area are five paintings by Frantisek Kupka (1871-1957), a Czech who was working in Paris at the time (these paintings are dated between 1910 & 1913). Three are medium-sized canvases, each composed of a thicket of short, parallel, vertical & varied strips of color—the first, incorporating the face of Mme. Kupka in the center, as a token of its original intention. The fourth & fifth paintings are far larger and more decorative, with swooping, swirling rather Art Nouveau designs, circling their centers.
All five are exceedingly interesting, and, considering their early date, truly daring, but none really adds up to much more than decoration. They all have what to me is a sort of unsubstantial quality. This is particularly true of the vertically striped ones, but even in the Art Nouveau ones, there’s little evidence that Kupka had any definite idea about what he intended to compose. Instead, I got the feeling that he became enamored of a pattern & just kept right on with it until he’d reached the edge of his canvases.
DELAUNAY & PUTEAUX
Next, we get a long, narrow gallery devoted largely (though not exclusively) to those artists based in the Parisian suburbs of Puteaux and Courbevoie, and known in my youth as the Puteaux Cubists. I gather it’s now obligatory to call them the “Puteaux Group,” and to downplay the fact that their styles initially developed out of the original cubism, as created in Montmartre by Picasso and Braque (though it’s also true that the leading members of the Puteaux Group then further developed in independent directions).
At the near end of this large Puteaux gallery are works by Robert Delaunay, his wife Sonia Delaunay-Terk, and Franz Marc, the German expressionist. Marc seems to be here because his abstraction visually resembles Delaunay’s enchantingly luminous tondo, “Simultaneous Contrasts: Sun and Moon” (1913), and the two examples of Delaunay’s almost equally luminous “Windows” series on view (the narrow mirror frame in the “Window” painting from the Philadelphia Museum of Art, made by the artist, sets it off to perfection).
Still, we have only two-thirds of Delaunay’s most important achievements here. The “windows” are fine, & the disques solaires finer, but both were heralded by Delaunay’s “Eiffel Tower” series, made between 1909 and 1912, and in some ways more experimental for their time. Still, the Eiffel Towers are more representational than the later work, and more clearly indebted to cubism--all explaining why they’re left out here—it seems we must needs censor out this essential link in Delaunay’s evolution.
The same may be said of Marc, who progressed from representational paintings of animals to rather cubist, brightly colored animals and only later (and very rarely) to the type of abstract painting included here. God forbid that all this earlier work, with its roots in the external world more clearly evident, should be included in a show that – although claiming to be about abstract art—is really only devoted to the “non-objective.”
The next sight in this gallery is one of those impressive groupings only possible in major loan exhibitions, with six pictures from widely dispersed museums and private collections ranged together, all dated between 1911 and 1913, and all devoted to the early “tubism” of Fernand Léger. Tubism (or, to use a term that the artist would have preferred, “simultaneous contrasts of forms,”) is for me an interesting idiom, though matter-of-fact as opposed to magical.
At the far end of this Puteaux gallery is a huge 1912 Francis Picabia (1879-1953), in his characteristically organic shapes & acid oranges and browns (this was before he entered into his dada phrase, and helps to explain it). On a side wall are two much smaller examples of the Russian variety of cubism, known as “Rayonism” and represented here by Mikhail Larionov (1881-1964) and Natalia Goncharova (1881-1962). Modestly-scaled paintings with muted colors, they are said to have been attempts to render images based on X-rays, and do have a lot of spiky shapes; the Goncharova, “Cats” (1913), is the better of the two.
SYNCHROMY & OTHER (EARLY) AMERICANS
The next gallery, a fair-sized square one, is given over to younger Americans who carried on with Delaunay’s color and, to a considerable extent, to abstract versions of cubist shapes. Among those represented are Patrick Henry Bruce (1881-1936) and Joseph Stella (1877-1946), but the most conspicuous work is “Synchromy in Orange: To Form” (1913), a huge (11’ x 10’) canvas by Morgan Russell (1886-1953); it is complemented by “Conception Synchromy” (1914), a medium-sized canvas by Stanton Macdonald-Wright (1890-1973). Russell & Macdonald staged exhibitions in Munich and Paris in 1915 under the banner of “Synchromism,” a movement which, they claimed, was different from anything which had gone before.
This whole group of artists is familiar to me because in grad school, I made a report on them for a seminar given at CUNY graduate school in 1976 by Milton Brown, author of the first book on American painting from the Armory show to the Depression. I won’t bore you with why I could take this course, but while preparing my report, I read “Synchromism and Color Principles in American Painting, 1910-1930, “a 1965 Knoedler’s catalogue by a young scholar named William Agee. I also conferred with Gail Levin, an even younger scholar who in 1976 was organizing a similar (though larger) show for the Whitney. She loaned me a slide of a Russell Synchromy (if I recall correctly, his “Synchromie en Bleu-Violacé” (1913, and, according to Agee the first truly abstract Synchromy).
While preparing my report, it became clear to me that most, if not all, of Macdonald-Wright’s “Synchromies” were still lifes and figure studies portrayed with cubist accents and colors similar to those of Delaunay-- just as Agee had suggested. Russell had based many of his compositions on Michelangelo’s “Dying Slave.” I couldn’t see this myself, but when I projected Levin’s slide during my seminar report, Brown got up, walked to the screen, and showed us all exactly where the “Slave” figure was in it.
In the current show at MoMA, every effort has been made to find the most abstract paintings that Russell and Macdonald-Wright ever painted, nor does any information in the gallery indicate that they, too, were just emerging from the chrysalis of the representational. Granted, the catalogue essay for this gallery, by Rachel Z. Delue, has a photograph of the Slave and refers to Russell’s use of Michelangelo’s “S-curve,” but this is a far cry from pointing out the even more exact parallels, as Brown did.
When I was in graduate school, I didn’t trouble myself with trying to assess the quality of any of these paintings, but, seeing “Synchromy in Orange” here, I must admit that it’s a trifle wooden—a worthy experiment, but not altogether satisfactory. Bruce’s “Composition II” (ca. 1916) is smaller but better.
HERE COME THE ITALIANS
Next comes a gallery primarily devoted to the Italian Futurists. The big attraction here is Boccioni’s well-known “Dynamism of a Soccer Player” (1913). It is a very exciting painting, but also almost the only one of note in this space. Most of the rest of the gallery seems to be given over to small works on paper, as well as small oils by Severini and Giacomo Balla -- both of whom seem to have been more at home in semi-abstract compositions, to judge from their representation (or rather, lack of it) here. Most of the works on paper, to a larger or lesser degree, feature writing or diagrams rather than imagery: Filippo Tomasso Marinetti (1876-1944), the chief ideologue of Futurism, was a poet, not a painter, and evidently lent his sanction to works composed more of words than pictures (he himself is represented by three books & one drawing of letterings).
Also in this gallery is a wall covered by 20 small designs on black construction paper, arranged in a grid. They are by Léopold Survage (1879-1968), a Russian artist working in Paris. As experiments, I suppose they are radical, but there was no attempt to make real pictures out of any of them, so they remain experiments rather than pictures.
AND, IN L'ANGLETERRE...
Next comes a smallish gallery presenting art in England, including representatives of Bloomsbury (Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell) and the Vorticists (Wyndham Lewis, Helen Saunders, Lawrence Atkinson, & Henri Gaudier-Brzeska) plus the occasional maverick (David Bomberg). I did like the small sculptures by Gaudier-Brzeska (1891-1915), a Frenchman who settled in England, then fought for his homeland and was killed in World War I. I especially liked his limestone “Birds Erect” (1914), though his totem-like wood “Portrait of Ezra Pound” (1914) is also nice (both incidentally bear some slight resemblance to the external world, though Gaudier-Brzeska seems to have warned Pound that his “portrait” wouldn’t look anything like its subject).
I also liked the photographs of Alvin Langdon Coburn (1882-1966), an American who settled in England and created some suitably baffling black &white prints, made with a kaleidoscope. As for paintings and other two-dimensional works by the native Brits, alas. Never let it be said that I don’t adore Constable, Turner & Caro, but between 1910 & 1925, color in the UK avant-garde seem to have been either absent or murkier than the Thames at dockside, with shapes both haphazard & overly mechanical: experiments not paintings.
HARTLEY & OTHER (LATER) AMERICANS
Moving on, we come to a pair of partitions, facing each other, and separated by a relatively small Brancusi “Endless Column” (evidently the rest of Brancusi’s brilliant oeuvre was too representational to include in this show). Both partitions are hung with more of those remarkable combinations of paintings loaned by different owners. The partition to the right is hung with three glowing and richly detailed paintings from the Berlin period of Marsden Hartley (1914-1915), when he was living in wartime Germany and dedicating his work to the memory of a young Prussian officer whom he’d loved and who had died in battle.
Two of the three paintings reflect this poignant relationship --- although their titles are noncommital, and their combinations of forms add up to abstraction, incorporated are various martial designs that suggest flags, uniforms and cross-shaped medals—but God forbid such a reference to subject matter should be included in this exhibition! Instead, the wall text deals with how Hartley must have been influenced by Kandinsky and Delaunay—doubtless true, but not nearly as evident as the show’s organizers would like to suggest .These are among the most genuinely creative riffs in the entire exhibition.
In back of them is a gallery that offers more Americans: two pastels by Arthur Dove, photographs by Alfred Stieglitz and Paul Strand, and several Georgia O’Keeffe paintings, mostly from the 1920s, that suggest plant forms and/or female anatomy (she hated this last analogy but let’s face it, it’s there). NO John Marin, even though his work is far superior to that of O’Keeffe and even Dove. I suppose because he was still too much a cubist and a semi-abstract artist, he didn’t fit the profile here.
On the other hand, we do have five uniformly ugly works by Saint Marcel, ranging in date from 1912 to 1925, and including two paintings (“The Passage from Virgin to Bride” and “Network of Stoppages”), two assemblages (“3 Standard Stoppages” and “To Be Looked at (from the Other Side of the Glass) with One Eye, Close to, for Almost an Hour” ), one of his mechanical “Roto-Reliefs,” and a 7-minute film clip (“Anemic Cinema”) which, when I glanced at it, was monotonously repeating geometric designs. Considering that Duchamp devoted most of his career to doing what he could to destroy what he called “retinal painting,” it’s really ironic that he should be included – and at such length, too!—in a show ostensibly devoted to “retinal painting.” Then again, MoMA appears incapable of mounting any show without some reference to dada or its latter-day derivatives.
A DISCOVERY AMONG THE RUSSIANS
The partition facing Hartley’s paintings is an even more dramatic display of the curator’s art. On it are arrayed nine (that’s right, 9) paintings by Kasimir Malevich, all done in 1915 and all included in a landmark exhibition in December of that year, the “Last Futurist Exhibition of Paintings 0.10 (zero-ten)” held in Petrograd (now St. Petersburg). This 1915 exhibition was the formal unveiling of Malevich’s new style, Suprematism, and the paintings on view come from museums in Chicago, Paris, Amsterdam (3), Cologne and New York (2), plus an otherwise unidentified private collection.
This is the first time I’d ever seen such a collection of Malevich, and the first time that I became aware that his Suprematist paintings are not all identical, though all of the paintings in this display are composed of hard-edged, opaque rectangles, squares, trapezoids, diamonds and other quadrilaterals, mostly black but some colored with one or another of the three primaries, and all on white fields. In size, they are similar though again not identical, ranging from about 40 x 28 inches to about 22 x 19.
Seeing them all together also enabled me to see that not all are of the same quality, either. A few are real paintings; the rest are experiments, the latter being more wooden & less flexible than the former. Two of these paintings by Malevich are very simple: just a single broad horizontal black band, and a broad, simple cross, but the rest have smaller forms, sometimes numerous & sometimes not. I went for the “not” one, which is neither too bland nor too busy. In its upper left center is a medium-sized black square, while below it & slightly to the right is a smaller red square, placed diagonally. That’s all it needs. But the title is a real jaw-breaker: “Painterly Realism of a Boy with a Knapsack – Color Masses in the Fourth Dimension.”
That is not all of the Malevich display. On the wall at right angles to the end of this partition with the 9 paintings is his most famous single picture: “Suprematist Composition: White on White” (1918). It’s worth noting that he seems to have done this 3 years after he had introduced the style, which just goes to show that the first fine careless rapture may not be the definitive statement. If I’d ever seen this painting before, it hadn’t sunk in, but this time I noted the canny placement of the square within the square, plus the fact that “white on white” isn’t quite accurate: the outside square is a very pale cream, while the inside square is more in the very pale gray family, and it’s circumscribed by what looks like a slightly darker pencil or pen line. Also the whole is larger than it looks in reproduction (31 inches square), and the very way that the paint is laid on is more accomplished. In other words, it’s a real picture, not an experiment—worth looking at for its own sake, not just for its novelty value.
In sum, this exhibition has taught me to like Malevich a lot better than I did before. This is also true of Delaunay, though I don’t feel quite as emphatic about him. But I couldn’t find much to praise in the work of El Lissitzky, Rodchenko or any of the other lesser Russians in the gallery behind the wall with the 9 Suprematist compositions. All their work looked very familiar, perhaps because even the bad black-and-white slides of them that I saw in grad school do give a pretty good idea of how the work actually appears.
While I am sure all these artists enjoyed the heady excitement of going where no artist had gone before, they didn’t impress me as having painted or sculpted more than trial creations. I don’t say that the artists concerned were any worse than most of the Americans I’ve discussed in this show—just that they weren’t any better.
AT LONG LAST, MONDRIAN
The penultimate gallery in this show has the lion's share of the best paintings in it— primarily (though not exclusively) a whole marvelous alcove of 11 pictures from different museums in the US and The Netherlands, all done by Mondrian. This alcove is to the right as one enters the part of the show dealing with Dutch/Belgian abstraction, andwith De Stijl group especially. To the left are works by other members of De Stijl. In addition to his stained-glass window (in the center of the space), van Doesburg (1883-1931 ) is represented by two paintings and a series of 7 progressively more abstracted pencil drawings of cows (all dated c. 1917). The series antedates Picasso’s very similar suite of lithographs of a bull by nearly 30 years—and the whole idea is so similar that one can’t help wondering whether the Spaniard, always adept at borrowing ideas, might not have been aware of van Doesberg’s cows. Although van Doesberg’s cows are only drawings, there is a breath of life to them missing in so many of the works on paper in this show—not least, I think, because there a dynamic to them, a progression from one end of the series to the other. Georges Vantongerloo (1886-1965) is also seen to good advantage in some charming small, blocky sculptures, but the undisputed monarch of De Stijl is (as it always was) Mondrian.
To the fact that his works shine with genuine esthetic and emotional appeal may be added that for once, the organizers of this show document the evolution of a creator of pure abstractions from a nearly completely representational painter. This evolution begins at "Inventing Abstraction" with a suggestive (if not literal) rendition of “The Trees” (1912) and ends with the pure rectilinear abstraction called “Tableau I, with Red, Black, Blue and Yellow” (1921). Its pale blue fields indicate that the artist had not yet arrived at his best-known mature compositions (which use fields of white, not blue) but was only steps away from them.
According to the color reproductions in the Mondrian catalogue raisonné, Mondrian was not to arrive at this mature stage before 1927—beyond the 1925 closing date of this exhibition. However, as its opening date is 1910, it could (if its organizers so desired) have included one of Mondrian’s out-and-out representational works, since he was still painting them in 1910 and 1911. This, however is a minor cavil, since the evolution—as presented---not only heightens the viewer’s ability to respond to the abstractions, but lends a dynamic to the whole display sadly lacking elsewhere. (To top it off, the one bench in the entire exhibition is located in this alcove. The organizers must realize that this is the one display that truly rewards prolonged contemplation.)
All of these Mondrians are so beautiful that I find it hard to single out one more than another, but perhaps most piquant is “Pier and Ocean 5 (Sea and Starry Sky).” It was made in 1915, when Mondrian had left Paris to visit his native country, The Netherlands, and was (to his chagrin) forced to remain there by the outbreak of World War I (for a change, the label at MoMA lets one into such human details). The “pier and ocean” pictures were inspired by the piers reaching out into the ocean in Zeeland, a large island in The Netherlands below sea level, mostly farmland protected by dikes but with a town, Domburg, that was also a popular summer resort area and artists’ colony.
I have been to visit it. It’s a lovely place, but one has to climb to the top of the dike to see the sea and the piers. The image that Mondrian presents is of a large circle that suggests the sea fading off into the distance, although the circle is marked and filled in by lots of little black charcoal crosses and dabs of white watercolor upon paper that is now—and maybe also was then – light brown. Only in the foreground are three small vertical lines, suggesting the pier— almost lost amid the vastness of sea & sky. Somehow this image has a special resonance (one that has also inspired Charles Hewlings, the British sculptor, in some of his work).
FROM THE SUBLIME....
It’s too bad that “Inventing Cubism” couldn’t have gone out on this high note, but no, we must have one final gallery, with a movie screen dangling distractingly from the ceiling & playing a tedious film loop of “abstract” dance. In one corner of this final gallery we have a few small works by Polish artists, of which only the small 1924 wood, glass & metal sculpture by Katarzyna Kobro (1898-1951) is in any way worth the time & money involved in transporting it from Lodz. Another corner is un hommage to Jean (Hans) Arp—who, being a dada, must needs be given the crimson-carpet treatment. The muddy colors of his wood reliefs underline his similarities to Duchamp, but as reliefs, they’re not too bad, and, with their organic (not geometric) shapes they pave the way for the surrealist 20s and 30s.
Then there are several boring wooden sculptures that look like lamps, cups or bowls turned on a lathe (and are) by Sophie Taeuber-Arp (Mrs. Hans—when are we going to stop lowering the bar for women artists in exhibitions of this type, apparently in hopes of evening up the sexes? Work like this gives women artists a bad name). Finally, there is a feeble attempt to give us the Bauhaus all over again, with the glass grid of Albers, a few purely abstract (and rather inferior) examples of postwar Kandinsky, and quantities of paintings, sculpture & photographs by Laszlo Moholy-Nagy. The Moholy work, in particular, looks very, very familiar, though maybe it’s only because I’m a fellow Hungarian and must have looked at all of it very closely in that 2009 Bauhaus show.
AND, IN CONCLUSION---
So, there you have it – my magnum opus on a major exhibition that, for all its conceptual flaws, still offers much to see & enjoy. I can see many reasons why the show’s organizers rejected all the semi-abstract work that I miss, and why they included so many examples of experiments, however inadequate these experiments may have been purely as art. These organizers opted for breadth as opposed to depth, and included every last Swede, Pole and Latvian, instead of telling the more moving & illuminating story about how so many top-notch artists at the nerve centers in Western Europe evolved from the representational to the semi-abstract and then (sometimes but not always) to the purely abstract, creating fine art all along the way.
The current demand for multiculturalism calls for the inclusion of artists in outlying areas, even when they were merely following the trends, not starting them, while the blurring of boundaries between the fine and performing arts dictates ringing in dance & music & movies. On top of that, the academic demand for “context” and the popularity of conceptual art necessitates all the vitrines full of books and memorabilia, to say nothing of diagrammatic or written “drawings” on the walls. Put all this together and you can see how the show's organizers could have easily persuaded themselves that they just didn't have the space to present a more rounded and evolutionary portrait of their subject.
Finally, every curator putting together a historical show has to try and figure how it can plug into contemporary taste. I don’t mean the taste of the nation, for most Americans don’t spend much time in museums, let alone in galleries or at art fairs. I do mean prevailing taste within the art world, by which I mean the appetite for specific art works and/or specific artists as evidenced by the size of the crowds that their exhibitions attract, the number and tone of their reviews, and how well their work sells (given the type of work it is—nobody expects abstract painting to sell as well as figurative art, either representational or presentational).
I don’t say these kinds of contemporary art or its artists are our greatest, only that they are our most popular, and it seems to me that within those parameters, we are currently experiencing a persistent, though not very enlightened, appetite for abstract painting. By this I mean, some abstract artists are enjoying the delightful sensation of being – well, better known than lots of other artists, whether we are talking David Reed, Mary Heilman, Ross Bleckner or indeed any of the other artists included in “Conceptual Abstraction” last fall at Hunter College’s Times Square Gallery. What all these popular abstract artists seem to have in common is a cold, dry approach that insists upon being "non-objective," and resists any attempts to warm up for anybody’s benefit--amd this is precisely the approach that MoMA has employed with “Inventing Abstraction.”
Never mind that from a qualitative point of view, the show is wildly uneven. There’s so much else to take in that probably nine out of ten viewers, or ninety-nine out of a hundred, never notice the difference. As for me, the best thing about this show is that it has renewed my faith in progress. Abstraction has come a long, long way from those early, experimental beginnings--the best abstraction, that is (and my readers know whom I mean by that).