CAA Interlude 1: MoMA Abstraction

There are SO MANY amazing shows in New York right now; it was stressful trying to fit in the conference, my family and friends, and just the tip of the iceberg of the amazing art on view, but I managed to squeeze in my top priorities. Since it was a block from the conference hotel, I started at MoMA, with the show Inventing Abstraction, 1910-1925.

Going into a much-discussed, much-reviewed show, one generally has an impression going in, a consensus that has been established: the one I’d heard about this show was quite simply that there are many beautiful things to see. That was true, but of course there was more to it than that.

It began with a giant chart, a reworking of the famous flow chart made by the first MoMA director Alfred H. Barr, Jr., for the cover of a book on Cubism and Abstract Art, diagramming the relationships and influences between various avant-grade movements. The revised chart did away with the ossification of clearly defined movements, focusing instead on the myriad connections woven throughout an international network of artists, as well as writers and composers.

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The exhibition then uses these regionalisms as an organizing principle (though the transnational dialogue is never lost), divvying the artwork into niches by country, showing the distinctive styles in each and demonstrating that abstraction emerged simultaneously in multiple locations, like synchronous scientific discoveries. This international approach gives weight to players who have been previously marginalized by the canon, particularly those in Eastern Europe and Britain.

In addition to these intellectual revelations were a great many visual ones. Perhaps the most dramatic moment was when I glanced behind me, only to see in the next gallery a model of Vladimir Tatlin’s famous Monument to the Third International (complete with moving parts!), heretofore only known to me (and most others) through historic photographs.

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I’m a huge fan of the work of Piet Mondrian; the series of works used to represent his progression into abstraction and his mature style were not so inspiring, but a model of a stage set that he created for a friend’s never-produced play actually got my heart racing.

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One of the most visually stunning paintings was by Giacometti, known mostly for his sculpture. It was made up of clusters of thick flowery globs of paint and gold, the colors of a spring dress.

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There were a great many other visual surprises I noted, but I won’t go on listing them here. Included were other arts similarly engaged in an increasing interest in “abstraction,” whatever that meant for their discipline: dance, music (though I wish this had been more audible), film.

The only thing that confused me was where/when the exhibition ended, and why. When is abstraction “done” being “invented”? This show may only be about abstraction’s advent, but the story goes on, through Jackson Pollock’s drips right up to minimalism’s cubes and beyond into conceptualism. Of course the show most focus in, but at a certain point the visitor is just deposited out of the exhibition, without a sense of a conclusion. What’s special about the year 1925? We don’t find out.

Next up, the post-war Japanese movement Gutai, at the Guggenheim…