‘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
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.
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 a
re 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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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’.
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