Inventing Abstraction, 1910-1925 is a must see show currently on view at MoMA. Organized by curator Leah Dickerman and Curatorial Assistant Masha Chlenova, this very smart and well-selected exhibition elegantly, yet exhaustively, surveys the beginnings of Abstraction. Focusing on a mere 15-year period, the density and the variety that is seen in the show is deft defying. So many artists, so many countries represented with such variety yet an aesthetic cohesion that it seems to enforce this art as a movement. Included are books, paintings, drawings, sculpture, sound, film, and a variety of collaborations, each shedding light to this time. What was most dominant was of course painting which dissolved the figurative and the referential in form. What was also very interesting to see was the impact of color and how it seemed to act like a character of poetics throughout the show and that it almost seems to compensate for the loss of the narrative with a more sonic element.
This visual, sonic relationship can be seen throughout the exhibition with fantastic samplings by František Kupka, whose large scale colorful paintings pulsed with vibrations decantering from the center, and also many works by Kandinksy, who is always noted for this but presented here were some stunners that are not as finicky as some of his later works. There are a slew of others to be included in this relationship, and when viewing the show, this background of groundbreaking music is always in the air but there is a slight referential breezing by that seems to occur. This is not to fault the exhibition organizers, as the visual is the focus here, but the small bracket room that includes various musical compositions of this time and its most influential composers such as Stravinsky and his game changing Rite of Spring, seems a detriment to those who may not be so keyed in on the way music and sound influenced all artists of this time.
Another fabulous piece about color was by Ivan Kliun, whose set of seven small paintings of single color forms specifically reflected his focus on the impact of color and the way that it can be the starting point for thought and seeing. These works’ restraint was masterful in contrast to some of the larger works which employed similar forms but whose impact of color became muted by the grandiosity of scale and effort.
The remarked inclusion of women in this show is another element which makes this exhibition as a whole complete and insightful. Some of the best works in the show are presented by women, most whose names are barely known outside of academia. Three such women are the wives of well-known artists, and only one has a name recognizable fully on her own. They are; Sonia Delaunay-Terk, wife of Robert Delaunay, Sophie Tauber-Arp, wife of Hans Arp, and Georgia O’Keefe, wife of Alfred Stieglitz. Delaunay-Terk’s paintings of circular patternings are as brilliant as any others in the show and Tauber-Arp should be given a standing ovation for her needlepoint abstractions and also her painted wooden sculptures that seem to have more whit and necessity then most art in general. Most surprising though was Georgia O’Keefe, who has been sadly tainted by all those dentist office reproduced posters but here, there are some very sexy paintings indeed and even more surprising is a small bronze lacquered sculpture that is just wow-y. Sometimes the inclusion of women in historical shows feels like a political gesture of correctness but in this case it was not an addendum to this movement but clearly a truth that till now, has been inexcusably cordoned off. Sometimes this re-evaluation of a time needs to be re-written because the first go around was obviously lopsided in the inclusion of the women within.
The timing of this show could not have been better or more synced with our current state. This time of 1910-1925 was a hundred years ago. 100 years! But yet, some works, still feel as fresh as anything being produced today. The time then was different of course. There was more –isms packed in the causes and philosophical curiosities of Abstraction then there are today and there were many more to follow soon there after. It seems startling how necessary and how complete this movement was and that we today do not have a similar revolution feels pale in light of it. Well, that’s not true entirely. There are many cultural changes underfoot today and there is a shifting of aesthetic form to be sure. Also a good clue to today’s possibility for a new visuality can be detected in the music being produced today. This is for sure changing, and very quickly, and some of the most creative cultural characters are springing from this. But still, it seems like our 20k teens are not gripped with this collective metamorphosis that possessed 19k teens. Maybe this is because the need is gone; the need to be so revolutionary as we are inheritors of this time and the times after when breaking ground and breaking down was par for the course. There is still so much that seems to be possible with abstraction as well. It seems to be a tool that we have yet to exhaust the potential of. Let’s not feel entirely inadequate as a time though. It’s only 2013. We are still gangly and pubescent. Maybe by 2025 we too will have blossomed into the next big thing.