There is no doubt that the current exhibition Inventing Abstraction: 1910-1925 at MOMA will attract many visitors and dozens of reviews. Its biggest achievement is its bringing together of the main narratives of early twentieth-century Modernism while also casting light onto lesser known artists and works. By doing so, the show emphasizes the creation of art works as a result of intersecting ideas, inventions, practices and individual biographies. These artists worked to understand what possibilities abstraction in art could open. The thesis that emerges is that abstraction was neither a goal nor a uniform phenomenon.
A good example in this context is one aphorism in Friedrich Nietzsche’s 1878 Menschliches, Allzumenschliches (Human, All Too Human): “Artists have a vested interest in our believing in the flash of revelation, the so-called inspiration… [shining] down from heavens as a ray of grace. In reality, the imagination of the good artist or thinker produces continuously good, mediocre and bad things, but his judgement, trained and sharpened to a fine point, rejects, selects, connects… All great artists and thinkers [are] great workers, indefatigable not only in inventing, but also in rejecting, sifting, transforming, ordering.” Following Nietzsche’s understanding of artists and their craft, one could also call MOMA’s exhibition Great Workers of Abstraction. And there are many great workers in this show who reveal an admirable hunger for experimentation. There is the Swede Viking Eggeling with his reductive and carefully rendered Symphony drawings, Sonia Delaunay-Terk with her collaged book cover bindings (recalling a trope that has become popular among painters in recent years), John Covert’s beautifully restrained painting Ex Act, Vanessa Bell’s bold configuration Abstract Painting from 1914, Ivan Kliun’s minimal Studies in Color, and Frantisek Kupka’s mark-making piece Nocturne from 1910. Most of these works I had never seen and most of the Eastern European artists I had never heard of.
Frantisek Kupka, Nocturne, 1910
Critics such as Peter Schjeldahl, Jerry Saltz and Tyler Green, have reviewed the exhibition, raising questions about abstraction and early twentieth-century artists in general. Some artists like Matisse - as pointed out by Tyler Green - are absent. Another issue - as identified by Saltz - is the show’s claim to pinpoint the birth of abstraction.
Vaslaw Nijinski, Untitled (Arcs and Segments: Lines), 1918-19
I understand Green’s reasoning and his question as to why Matisse is not included in Inventing Abstraction. But why not include Cezanne then? Even though Matisse was formative to a younger generation of artists in the first decade of the twentieth century, his work often carries over elements from the visible world: interiors, still lifes, figures. The ghosts of the nineteenth century are still very present in Matisse, while the work on display in Inventing Abstraction is reaching for a purified art form. That is not to say that none of the artists in the exhibition look to our visible world. Of course they do. In a way there is nothing else but visible and experienced reality at the beginning of the artistic process. It might be transformed or pushed out throughout the process, but it forms the foundation of any art. And if you are tempted to ask “What is reality anyway and when do we know it is real?” - don’t do it. It won’t get you anywhere. Pinch yourself in the ear if you have to. The occuring pain will remind you of what is real and what isn’t.
What struck me about the works on display is how often their titles would use Composition or Abstraction as their only reference. I am not aware of what the first painting with the title Abstraction was, but when Vanessa Bell titled her painting Abstract Painting in 1914, abstraction had finally made its transition from a technique to a subject. This is no longer a fruit basket or a reclining figure that has been broken down, simplified and flattened out. Abstraction is not what you do to an object. Abstraction is to abandon the object.
László Moholy-Nagy, K VII, 1922
Most of the paintings in Inventing Abstraction share an airy and thin surface quality. The material of the painter - the earthy, slippery and wet substance - is rarely shiny or varnished. It is generally applied in a couple of layers, ideally in one, and Cezanne’s intention to paint the air between the trees has found a new purpose here. It is as if the paint itself is too evocative of the stuff objects are made of. To abandon the object requires to deny painting any tactile quality.
Mikhail Larionov, Sunny Day, 1913-14
One remarkable exception is Mikhail Larionov’s Sunny Day. His painting is a playground of avant-garde ideas. Letters and incisive lines are scattered over the canvas. Glue and paper mache form colorful lumps not unlike mud while adding to the chaotic nature of what is half painting and half mess. Inventing Abstraction is not about arriving at a final state or drawing a conclusion. Abstraction was never meant to be finished or concluded. Abstraction (hopefully) resonates with a part of us that welcomes all suspension of ideologies and beliefs. Abstraction is a long-term project, acutely relevant and still nourishing today’s paintings - whether they are made of air or soil.
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