by Mark Gould
On this week’s Modern Art Notes podcast Tyler Green interviews Museum of Modern Art curator Leah Dickerman about the new MOMA exhibition “Inventing Abstraction 1910-1925: How a Radical Idea Changed Modern Art.” If you’re a fan of Green you know he’s quite the art scholar and on Modern Art Notes he always does a great interview and Ms. Dickerman gives us some fascinating insight into the opening years of the last century when so many artists embraced the lack of figuration and representation of objects in their work, or what we know as abstract art.
The opening of the exhibition presents a picture by Picasso that bestows a certain attribution to the painter who most certainly would claim title to the lineage of cubism and, says Ms. Dickerman by all appearances is an abstractionist painter but could never philosophically embrace it. The exhibition will show that distinction will go to Vasily Kandinsky, not only a painter but a theorist who held teaching posts in the Soviet Union and later at the Bauhaus. In 1911 Kandinsky attended a musical concert and was so moved his artwork was forever changed. He authored a philosophical treatise, “On The Spiritual In Art” and founded an artist exhibition society. After the concert Kandinsky began making sketches of the performances and later he and many other abstract artists would make large contributions in the areas of how sound, word and color interact on subconscious, non-verbal level. In composing words and letters on a page the early abstract artists would be the protagonists for artwork done later by the Dadaists at Cabaret Voltaire, and much later some would say, perhaps the entire field of graphic design.
“Must we not then renounce the object altogether, throw it to the winds and instead lay bare the purely abstract?”
—Vasily Kandinsky, 1911
(from the Museum exhibition catalog)
The abstract artists said that that among the other reasons, taking representation out of their work made their vision and their craft more pure; a scene or an object would only clutter the viewer’s mind or restrict the experience in some way. This was a more distilled and a purely transcended experience. (I know I feel that way about my own work much of the time. I really didn’t find my center with abstract art until about ten years ago, and then like with so many things, it was like someone turned the water spigot and the water came running out!)
Another factor according to Dickerman there was a new culture of connectivity around the world; with cars, trains, boats and planes the world was moving and interacting in new and faster ways. With mass media and the proliferation of editors she says, art was disseminated rapidly, to more people and editors, like Alfred Stieglitz, played pivotal roles as transcontinental conduits for avant-garde ideas. There was an urgency to create a new, modern language.
Tyler Green’s interview with Leah Dickerman is worth listening to. As Green says “the show excavates the origins of abstraction — both in Europe and in America — and tells the story of how networks between artists and a new age of communication and inter-disciplinary practice and awareness helped fuel experimentation.”
“In Dickerman’s exhibition cubism is the key jumping-off point for the new abstractionists, which is certainly part of the story. However, early abstraction was richly colorful — and immediately, not gradually — suggesting that there’s more to the story than just artists distilling cubism into abstraction. Dickerman and I discussed both cubism and color.”
It was a tremendous time involving a lot of artists and of course there isn’t time to mention them all here. Marcel Duchamp, František Kupka, Paul Klee, Josef Albers, Sophie Taeuber-Arp, and so many great artists are part of the exhibition. MOMA does a great service to everyone by putting the companion website online with artwork, audio tracks, video and interactive diagrams. I can’t tell at first glance what technology is being used but the good news for iOS phone and tablet folks is that it isn’t Flash. Probably HTML5. If you aren’t going to NYC a visit to the website is a good second choice.
(Editors Note: ALL images republished here 2012 MOMA Museum of Modern Art © copyright information here)