Modern Art, Defined

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Byline: Blake Gopnik

An exhibition looks at abstraction--the movement that defines a[umlaut]modern art.

A century ago, in October 1912, a silent newsreel flew out from Paris bearing one of history's hottest cultural updates. The footage is lost, but we can imagine its title cards: "Artist makes pictures without any subject--New 'abstraction' shakes up French avant-garde--Art of the future, or dead-end experiment?"--Even Picasso objects: 'There is no abstract art, you always have to begin with something.'a" Not since the Italians invented fully realist painting, 500 years earlier, had visual art made such a huge leap. Up until that landmark fall of 1912, fine artists had always assumed their work would link up to the world, one way or another. And then, almost overnight, a bunch of them saw that severing that link would open up new options in art.

"It was the biggest rewriting of the codes of cultural production since the Renaissance ... It's the moment when the modern becomes modern," says Leah Dickerman, a curator at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, one of the 20th century's great bastions of abstraction. We're eating lunch in MoMA's fifth-floor cafe, not far from a vast suite of galleries being readied for Inventing Abstraction, 1910-1925, the first full survey of how representation got dumped. It opens Dec. 23. Dickerman's show will feature the most famous pioneers in nonfiguration: Vasily Kandinsky, Kazimir Malevich, Piet Mondrian. But it will also point to figures who have been neglected, from countries often sidelined. Czech painter FrantiA ek Kupka was the subject of that newsreel, as the first artist to publicly display pictures without subject matter. Leopold Survage, a little-known Russian, made a stab at abstract films. And various dancers and poets and musicians, from Hungary and Italy and Austria, will be shown following the path to abstraction in their own media.

Abstraction was such a terrifying leap in the dark, Dickerman argues, that taking it became almost a group exercise, one artist giving cover and courage to another as they abandoned all ties to subject matter. (Interestingly, Renaissance realism also started out as a communal endeavor, with a number of artists present at its birth.) Dickerman says that she remains amazed at "how impossible abstraction was in 1910"--when some theorists broached and then abandoned the option--"and two years later, it's everywhere." The period texts, Dickerman says, make clear just how much collective valor it took to disregard most of what fine art had always been. The exhibition's works should make clear that once abstraction stopped being simply impossible, it became hugely fertile instead: Kandinsky painted swirls meant to link vision to sound; Malevich used the simplest geometrical forms to reach out to the immanent and ineffable; Mondrian went for the pared-down essences of visual fact--horizontals and verticals and fields of primary color. For decades thereafter abstract art seemed an endless resource for artists to mine, out on the most obvious cutting edge. …