Inventing Abstraction, 1910 - 1925
The Museum of Modern Art, New York
Dec 23, 2012 – Apr 15, 2013

Wilson here. Mr. Struggan, the avid art lover that he is, was very excited to hear the news when MoMA announced their newest exhibition, Inventing Abstraction, 1910 - 1925. This period of art history is fascinating to Mr. Struggan, and so he asked that I post a review of the show for our loyal readers. 

This exhibition declares its ambitions before the viewer even enters the galleries with its introductory text and an accompanying diagram (a section of which is posted above). This diagram maps abstraction’s early practitioners and their relationships to each other. The text prepares us for a “cross-media imperative” encompassing painting, drawings, printed matter, books, sculpture, film, photography, sound, music, and dance, and promises a “rich portrait of a watershed moment in which art was wholly reinvented.”

Curator Leah Dickerman delivers on her promise with an engaging and dynamic exhibition. Her treatment of the exhibition as a non-linear narrative serves its content and the viewer’s experience well by contextualizing the pieces in the show by showing how the artists are related to each other.

The work on view begins sparsely with pieces by Picasso, Kandinsky, and Kupka, illustrating the “humble beginnings” of these earliest abstractionists. From there, in imitation of the movement’s own history, the exhibition explodes into a wide, varied, and impressive selection of some extraordinary work, organized into groupings by country, a format almost reminiscent of national pavilions at a World’s Fair. The art is also grouped by individual artist or thematically by historical narrative, such as groupings which demonstrate cross-media relationships between visual art, music and sound installations, books, and other forms. In these middle galleries, the Italian Futurists stand out as a strong point; their command of delicate color and form is evident and amplified in juxtaposition with other trends of the abstract movement. An installation of works on black paper by Leopold Survage shines in context, as do pieces by Francis Picabia, Augusto Giacometti, Kazmir Malevich, and Piet Mondrian. A grouping of works by British artists, such as Duncan Grant, Helen Saunders, and Lawrence Atkinson, though contextually relevant, were unexciting. 

Into the final few sections of the exhibition, the energy begins to disperse into an even wider, and unfortunately less coherent selection. A lack of cohesion is understandable within the historical narrative of the exhibition, as abstraction grew and took on a wider variety of forms as a movement. Nevertheless, illustrating this dispersal did not have to result in a loss of the vibrant energy emitted by other parts of the exhibition, and a more tightly curated selection of pieces to end the show could have explicated the narrative more clearly, and ended the show on a higher note. 

Mr. Struggan sends his High Regards.