The Museum of Modern Art's revelatory, expansive and exhilarating new exhibition, "Inventing Abstraction, 1910-1925," makes a persuasive argument that, while we may believe that by now abstraction in art is kind of a no-brainer—something so familiar we can take it for granted—a review session is in order. Familiar artists such as Paul Klee and Georgia O'Keeffe show up here in a context that demands our considering them anew, alongside a number of artists, like David Bomberg and Duncan Grant of Britain, or Giacomo Balla and Gino Severini of Italy, too rarely on view.
But was abstract art really "invented," or was it "discovered"? We now organize so much of our vision around sensibilities of abstraction—as in our fascination with Cycladic and African sculpture, or in the way our eyes automatically organize formal composition in Old Master paintings—that it's difficult to work ourselves back to some kind of mental tabula rasa that conceives of abstraction as a radical idea. Leah Dickerman, a curator in MoMA's Department of Painting and Sculpture, who organized this stimulating exhibition, contends that, whereas the work of earlier artists appears abstract—the late watercolors of J.M.W. Turner or James McNeill Whistler's "Nocturnes," for example—they nonetheless "described things in a real or imagined world," as she writes in the catalog. On the other hand, this exhibition is developed around the concept that the artists included here wrought something completely new: "Shunning the depiction of objects in the world, they displayed works with no discernible subject matter. Indeed they abandoned the premise of making a picture of something."
The Museum of Modern Art
Through April 15
This is an intense, often emotional, journey through more than 350 works that tracks us through a decade and a half of 20th-century art history and its fertile interactions with music, dance and film. From the dizzying opening works by František Kupka that plunge us into vertiginous spaces, to the space-denying geometry of Piet Mondrian, we are led through galleries of paintings, drawings, photographs and prints that tend to overwhelm the other media, although strategically placed sculptures and videos accentuate the depth of this subject. Arnold Schoenberg and Edgar Varèse in music, along with Mary Wigman and Rudolf von Laban in dance, suggest the complexities and scope of the subject. The show is especially rich in works by Jean (Hans) Arp, Fernand Léger, Vasily Kandinsky, Mondrian and Kazimir Malevich. There are also lots of discoveries (for this viewer): overlaid photographic images by the Italian Anton Giulio Bragaglia, drawings of "constructions" by the Latvian Gustav Klutsis that call into question the exhibition's premise of abstraction not referring to images of anything, and Wacław Szpakowski's drawings that look as if the Polish artist had just designed them on his computer.
That deliberate flight from imagery turns out to have involved a significant struggle, which is evident almost everywhere in this exhibition. While "observers spoke of the exhilaration and terror of leaping into unknown territory, where comparison with the past was impossible," that plunge was manifestly difficult for many of these artists.
Léger and Marsden Hartley—two artists of very different temperaments—present their strongly articulated forms as indecipherable objects swimming in not-quite-readable space. Léger conveys this by somewhat traditionally centering his compositions, clearly asserting the periphery as less important. Hartley manages to fill the field of his canvases evenly, yet they seem tied to a kind of depiction of crosses, checkerboards and even actual numbers. Francis Picabia's "La Source (The Spring)" of 1912—several versions are shown in the catalog—epitomizes the effort involved in illustrating imagined forms while not actually representing anything specific at all. "Going abstract" isn't really all that easy, and the excitement and success of this exhibition comes from its ability to help us participate in the difficulties faced by many of these artists.
It's also energized by the extraordinary mélange of works that engage us in what was arguably a momentous revolution in the history of the arts. Unlike so many exhibitions that have dealt with individual (and famous) pioneers of abstraction, this exhibition is generally organized around groups of artists in different countries—an approach that appears to suggest identifiable, differentiated and perhaps even national aesthetic principles. But insofar as there is any stylistic unity that bonds the various clusters of works, it has little to do with geographic boundaries.
Sure, there are monikers, often country-based, for some of these movements: Blue Rider, Vorticism, Neo-Plasticism, De Stijl, Futurism, Synchromism; and let's not forget Cubism, since Picasso provides a familiar and elegant entrée into the exhibition. There's also the revelation that comes from standing in one place and being able to see, for example, Kupka, Robert Delaunay, Léger, Picabia and Morgan Russell creating visual harmonies that now feel considerably less radical than the atonal pre-1910 Arnold Schoenberg scores and sounds that are among the early works we encounter. Moving across borders physically and conceptually is a reflection of the age in which this transformation was taking place, and the changes in travel and communication that were among its enablers.
That's asserted on an introductory wall, where the curatorial team's own original abstract diagram demonstrates the complexity of artistic and geographic relationships better than any text can. It's a staggering aesthetic and intellectual cat's-cradle of lines that connect the various actors in this artistic drama across a span that moves from Russia across various European capitals to the U.S., while also describing the intensity of their networks. Among artists who had more than 20 connections within these networks are Alfred Stieglitz, Tristan Tzara, Filippo Tommaso Marinetti and Natalia Goncharova—whose origins were American, Romanian, Italian and Russian, respectively, yet who moved about freely, with bases often in Paris, but also in New York, Zurich and Munich.
A "sound room" attempts to give us the flavor of the era's musical issues, just as large videos of dance demonstrate the introduction of abstract visual approaches to the performing arts. That's a tough challenge for an art museum to master, as was evident at the recent Whitney Biennial, which introduced performances, inevitably time-limited, trying to demonstrate the importance of an artist not being limited to a specific medium. MoMA's various Atrium projects have themselves emphasized the differences between art that exists primarily in space and that which also exists in time. This exhibition tends to give short shrift to many of the players in music and dance (the audio and video segments are engaging but appear somewhat incidental), while barely suggesting how the so-called invention of abstraction worked its way into other aspects of the performing arts (theater, film), as well as into literature.
That's not so much a flaw of this exhibition as a confirmation of the limitations of a museum-gallery format to demonstrate fully the vast reach of these movements over this relatively brief period of time. Viewers have an opportunity to engage visually in the adventure that accompanies the struggle of so many of these artists as they work at what appear to be self-set tasks.
These guys (they are mostly men) want to redefine how we encounter space and perspective—Paul Cézanne's challenge!—and it's fun to watch László Moholy-Nagy and Gerrit Rietveld working to find new articulations of spatial concepts. Mondrian works his way from pictorial space to rhythmic color pattern; Kandinsky—in what are probably his most gorgeous works—tries to bring music and poetry to paint and canvas; Léopold Survage seeks the liberation of color and rhythm, yet is forced to give it structure; the Russians, Ivan Kliun and Malevich, may succeed best at releasing—or is it revealing?—pure geometric form, yet they are stuck with art's traditional modes of expression: oil paint on canvas or board.
In these days of CAD (computer-aided design) the structures of Constantin Brancusi, Georges Vantongerloo, El Lissitsky and Vladimir Tatlin may feel quaint. Tatlin's 1920 "Monument to the Third International" is here in a massive 1979 reconstruction and belongs to an older tradition of visionary architecture as much as it does to the innovations of abstraction. Nevertheless, it's a tribute to this extraordinary exhibition that we feel the thrill of both discovery and invention throughout, in what may well be a broader sweep of this subject than has heretofore been attempted. In its own departure from tradition, the huge accompanying catalog explores different aspects of abstraction with 36 unusually terse and readable essays that admirably expand the exhibition's reach.
Mr. Freudenheim, a former art-museum director, served as the assistant secretary for museums at the Smithsonian.
A version of this article appeared January 15, 2013, on page D5 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: The Concrete Challenges of Abstraction.