THE BLOG

Inventing Abstraction at MOMA

04/01/2013 07:15 pm ET | Updated Jun 01, 2013

"Abandon all hope, ye who enter here," are the lines that adorn Dante's entrance to Hell. At the entrance to Inventing Abstraction, 1910-1925 at MOMA are the following lines written by Kandinsky in 1911, "Must we not then renounce the object altogether, throw it to the winds and instead lay bare the purely abstract?" The curators leave Picasso to answer the question in their commentary accompanying his "Woman with Mandolin," an exercise in analytic cubism from 1911, "There is no abstract art. You always have to begin with something."

Move on in the exhibit to Kandinsky's "Impression III." The work is offered up as an example of how the great painter, noted for his famous work on abstraction, Concerning the Spiritual in Art, has forsworn the object.

However, without being juridical, where would the painting be formally or in terms of so-called "content" without the Schoenberg concert on which it was based? (By the way, according to the exhibit, abstraction was not invented by a person, but a network and it begins with a family tree emphasizing connectivity.) At the top is Alvin Langdon Coburn and Duncan Grant and at the bottom the futurist Marinetti. In between those who are connected to at least 24 others --Picasso, Kandinsky, Stieglitz, Leger -- are highlighted in red. It looks a little like a weather map, but has the net effect of defeating the the larger concept being espoused. If everything is interrelated, then every subject has an object on which he or she has gazed. So what, you might ask, is the object of Malevich's "Suprematist Composition: White on White" (1918)? You might also ask "What is reality?" Perhaps it's not the nature of the object that was changing but the definition of what an object was a la quantum mechanics and relativity theory.

Consider that the so-called invention of abstraction was coeval with Einstein's The Theory of General Relativity, which was published in 1916. "Duchamp seemed to intuit immediately that the emergence of abstraction spelled the demise of painting as a craft and its rebirth as an idea," is another of the questionable bit of curatorial commentary that appears during the course of the show.

Even accepting the notion that abstraction harbingered the death of the object, this is clearly not the case, unless one accepts the view that action painting was merely an ideology. And who says abstraction was invented in the first place? It's a dubious art historical premise. History and particularly primitive art is rife with it. Still, Inventing Abstraction is only on view until April 15, and even if an objectionable premise has been the occasion to bring these seminal works together, they are well worth seeing.

This was originally posted to The Screaming Pope, Francis Levy's blog of rants and reactions to contemporary politics, art and culture.