I went to the MOMA show Inventing Abstraction a little hesitant. How can you “invent” abstraction? Was it a bit like “discovering” the new world, in that people were already living there for thousands of years before Columbus got there? And the discovery really only counts if a bunch of Europeans follow you there, sorry Eric the Red. Indeed abstraction was not a new thing in 1910, it was only a new thing in European Fine Art Painting (very proper noun). Try asking an Islamic Craftsman of the 10th century what he thinks about the invention of abstraction, or a celtic manuscript illuminator, or a native american weaver, and the list goes on and on. It is only because abstraction was simply not done in European painting that it could be reinvented as art, elevated from the ghettos of design, or craft, or non-western art. Which, don’t be silly, don’t count. The only reason we can pinpoint 1910 as the year abstraction was “invented” was that it sparked a movement of abstraction throughout art in multiple countries. It was the invention of abstraction because of what followed, just as the discovery of America is all about the aftermath. I guess the exhibition title the Popularization of Abstraction in European Painting simply didn’t have the same ring to it.
The show pays surprisingly little attention to the processes and slow approaching dance that artists played with pure abstraction. They were nervous about abandoning form and slowly inched to the precipice. From this exhibit you might think Kandinsky saw an almost abstract Picasso and then single handily invented abstract art. But the incredibly awesome chart of artist’s communication makes clear that this was a group effort, artists like little nerve cells brought abstraction into the mainstream collectively, not in the solitary genius model. The show is mostly a very beautiful demonstration of the flowering that followed once the flood gates of abstraction were open, and how abstract art meant different things to different people. Was it the science of sight or the spirituality of form?
The shows biggest success is tying visual art to dance, music, and literature. It shows the radical changes that all three were undergoing, the connections between these creatives, and how each pushed the other further.
Another problem I have with the invention of abstraction, and I promise this is the last one, is that the show and people in general don’t hold to the strict definition of abstraction that is required to fabricate its invention. So for example, something can’t merely be abstracted, that is it wasn’t the invention of abstraction if the painting was based on a real object, and then reduced to an abstraction. This is necessary because otherwise we wouldn’t get as good of an ah-ha moment. But the moment that abstraction is invented this requirement is tossed right out the window. The show itself includes many Futurist images that aren’t even as abstract as the Picasso that starts the show. Or Georgia O’Keefe’s flowers, which are certainly depictions of something, though maybe not flowers. Or there are many other examples, Marsden Hartley, the Rayonists, and Robert Delanauy, I mean for god’s sake he painted pictures of the Eiffel Tower! So the definition of Abstract art required to create it’s invention is so limited that the show couldn’t stand without breaking it. But of course we’re not willing to limit ourselves to the very purest abstraction, which even Kandinsky never really reaches, we can’t just have an exhibit of Malevich’s squares.