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Wild Things: What Was Abstract Art? | The Nation

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Wild Things: What Was Abstract Art?

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Sometime around 1912, painting changed. Artists from Moscow to Westport, by way of Munich and Paris, began making abstract works. “Observers spoke of the exhilaration and terror of leaping into unknown territory,” Leah Dickerman writes in the catalog for “Inventing Abstraction, 1910–1925: How a Radical Idea Changed Modern Art,” the monumental exhibition she has curated at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, on view through April 15. This saut dans le vide, she notes, was “accompanied by a shower of celebratory manifestos, lectures, and criticism, a flood of words flung forth perhaps in compensation for their makers’ worry about how the meaning of these pictures might be established.” It also brought a deluge of labels: “pure painting,” “nonobjective painting” and many more, with “abstraction” being merely the stickiest. In the century since then, the squalls of talk haven’t stopped, with art historians and cultural critics joining artists, their promoters and detractors in worrying at the meaning of abstraction. That so much has been said about abstraction has itself become a topic of discussion. In his 1975 book The Painted Word, Tom Wolfe dismissed contemporary art as mere illustrations of art theory—which some of it has been. What’s more striking to me, though, is that after 100 years of abstraction, no one has been able to state conclusively just what it is.

About the Author

Barry Schwabsky
Barry Schwabsky is the art critic of The Nation. Schwabsky has been writing about art for the magazine since 2005, and...

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Sometimes I think that indefinability is the defining feature of abstraction: if you can identify what a painting depicts, then it’s not abstract. The problem is that this notion excludes a good deal of the art normally categorized as abstract. I can say that a Josef Albers painting depicts some squares or a Gene Davis painting shows some stripes, and this ought to disqualify them from being called abstract—just as much as my being able to identify a Philip Pearlstein painting as showing some nude models or one by Rackstraw Downes as depicting an industrial landscape would rule out those works.

At other times, I think the opposite. Although abstraction may have been a thrilling venture into the unknown, it could not remain so. Falling in love leads to marriage; there are no permanent revolutions. In the long run, far from being ineffable, abstraction is an artistic genre like any other, like still life or history painting. If a definition is hard to come by, the general parameters are not: abstraction means paintings of things like squares and stripes, brushstrokes and drips, the basic elements of pictorial form and painterly activity.

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I don’t much care for this second definition, but it’s hard to avoid. The virtue of ”Inventing Abstraction” is that it seductively reminds us of the time when abstraction was still a leap, when it affected certain people like love or revolution. And more like revolution than love, for it was a group effort instigated by a determined, committed few, a pivotal fact that “Inventing Abstraction” gets wrong. “Abstraction was not the inspiration of a solitary genius but the product of network thinking,” announces the opening text panel. This seems to promise a new outlook on what is, after all, a pretty familiar history, of which MoMA has been the central proponent for many years. The problem lies in trying to realize it through the evocation of “network thinking,” a trendy concept that tends to downplay the importance of agency—and not only of individuals, whether or not they are “solitary geniuses,” but also of organized groups, movements, coteries. Many of the key nodes of Dickerman’s proposed network are, as she says, “editors of little reviews,” thanks to their ability to connect far-flung artists and writers. Boosters of networking seem to assume that it is always advantageous to accumulate more and more “weak ties,” as they are called—but the classic avant-gardes who contributed to the invention of abstraction valued intense connections and decisive action. As Renato Poggioli pointed out long ago, “the avant-garde periodical functions as an independent and isolated military unit, completely and sharply detached from the public, quick to act, not only to explore but also to battle.”

For all the trendy lingo, MoMA is repeating the story about abstraction it has always told, only with a few of the details filled in differently, and with a concerted effort to point out connections to parallel developments in music, poetry and dance rather than cordoning off the visual arts as a self-contained realm. Dickerman’s appeals to “network thinking,” and her borrowing of terminology from the likes of Malcolm Gladwell—Guillaume Apollinaire as “connector”—are more decorative than transformative. And despite abjuring “solitary genius,” Dickerman begins the story with Picasso, Mr. Genius himself, where MoMA’s tales of modern art so often begin. Picasso, as is well-known, periodically flirted with something like abstraction but consistently pushed it away, even denying its existence: “There is no abstract art,” he once said. “You must always start with something. Afterwards you can remove all appearance of reality; there is no longer any danger, because the idea of the object left an indelible mark.”

Yet beginning with Picasso does make sense, and especially with one of his early Cubist paintings from which the “appearance of reality” has been so successfully effaced that, if not for its title, Femme à la mandoline (Woman With Mandolin; 1910), we could not make out its subject—or is it just that we imagine we can discern it? In any case, our effort to reconstruct the image helps us see the painting as a whole. Such paintings, as well as slightly later ones like “Ma Jolie” (1911–12), which Picasso endowed with a few more visual cues about the possible subject, are still amazing: solidly constructed and entirely evanescent. As Yve-Alain Bois explains in the exhibition catalog, “Each facet, each plane, whether included in the grid or contravening it, is lit and shaded independently, to the effect that no solid is depicted in the round yet at the same time a sense of depth”—and, I would add, a sense of concreteness—“is conveyed.” The wonder of these paintings is not just that the real-world referent has been nearly expunged, but that the painting itself has been endowed with such a distinct sense of presence.

For painters across Europe, Picasso proved that a different kind of painting was possible, one that would no longer have to “start with something” other than the gestures and materials of painting. Even Arthur Dove, in relative isolation in Westport, had seen in New York City a Picasso drawing that Edward Steichen described at the time as “certainly ‘abstract’ nothing but angles and lines that has got [to be] the wildest thing you ever saw.” Yet these painters continued to look to real things as inspiration for paintings that would no longer depict real things. Consider a painting from 1911 by Vasily Kandinsky, who knew Picasso’s work from photographs; he thought that something about the Spaniard’s paintings was “frankly false,” but also constituted a “sign of the enormous struggle toward the immaterial.” Kandinsky’s Impression III (Konzert) (Impression III [Concert]) announces its subject in its subtitle, yet that clue proves insufficient. It takes a comparison with a sketch Kandinsky made that year at a performance of Schöenberg’s music to see how literal a transcription the work really is: the large black shape that rises toward the upper right is nothing other than a piano lid; the oval blobs and fingerlike forms below it are members of the audience. Unlike Picasso’s painting, Kandinsky’s gains little from being sourced; on the contrary, it seems stronger if seen entirely as an implacable assertion of the force of color and texture. Kandinsky needed an abstraction that would no longer have to “start with something,” and having gone this far, he would reach that goal soon enough, for instance in his Komposition V (Composition V), also from 1911. Note not only the lack of subtitle, but also that the musical reference (this is not a depiction of a concert) is conveyed not visually but structurally. Just as, in the nineteenth century, Whistler had given his paintings titles incorporating words like “symphony” and “nocturne” to suggest that his real subject was not the depicted scene but pure form, Kandinsky invokes a musical analogy to tell the viewer not to look for a depicted subject, but rather the relations between the various “notes” of color.

The pairing of Picasso and Kandinsky presents in a nutshell all the dilemmas of abstraction. Whether starting from something already seen was better than starting with the materials of painting was a new problem for painters, but it didn’t spare them the old ones, such as the age-old conflict between the primacy of drawing (as seen in Picasso’s early cubism) or of color (as with Kandinsky). And that’s only the start. Does abstraction, by eschewing pre-established conventions, offer an expression and celebration of “those things that make us individually different and separate from each other,” as MoMA’s former chief curator Kirk Varnedoe once claimed? Picasso might have been pleased to father an art of this sort, just as he would probably have smiled on hearing Vanessa Bell describe a visit to him, in 1914, as one in which “the whole studio seemed to be bristling with Picasso”—where each thing, however unfinished, presented its maker back to himself. But abstraction can also be the herald of whatever is common and universal, as Kandinsky must have believed when he later threw in his lot with the Bauhaus. On this view, the point of abstraction was not just to level the old academies but to supplant them with a new one propagating the new shared values.

In an all-too-contemporary fashion, the metaphor of the “network” allows Dickerman to finesse such disagreements. A network is not an individual, but it’s not a collective either. It is a function neither of inner will or insight nor of shared decision-making. And it lacks discrimination, tending to accept far more than it rejects. But by the same token, Dickerman’s LinkedIn approach makes the exhibition—as Willem de Kooning once said of art itself—seem “like a big bowl of soup,” because “everything is in there already, and you stick your hand in and you find something for you.” At the same time, through its density and the way so many unexpected differences and similarities are provoked, the exhibition communicates something of the giddiness that artists must have felt upon realizing that the rule book was being torn up and would possibly be pieced back together differently. The galleries hum with the feverish mood of a gold rush.

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