The 20th Century's Abstract Art: An Expression of the Inner Life in the Ultimate Art-History Text, Which Artists Will Have Major Chapters and Which Will Only Be Footnotes?

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'THE modern painter cannot express this age - the airplane, the atom bomb, the radio - in the old forms of the Renaissance," said painter Jackson Pollock.

Yet a major exhibition at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum demonstrates that modern forms use the same old elements of art: line, color, shape, and surface. So what's the difference? In the 20th century, inner life replaces still life, and red represents not an apple but an idea.

"Abstraction in the Twentieth Century: Total Risk, Freedom, Discipline" claims the distinction of being the first exhibition to examine abstract art in its entirety. It's a welcome opportunity to survey nearly a century's worth of art, to assess who deserves major chapters and who a footnote in the ultimate art-history text.

The show starts with mini-shows of the Big Three pioneers: Kandinsky, Malevich, and Mondrian. Russian painter Vasily Kandinsky made the essential breakthrough around 1911. When he saw one of his paintings turned sideways, he discovered that, divorced from depicting recognizable objects, a painting "entirely composed of bright color patches" could convey, he said, "incandescent loveliness."

Next, Russian painter Kazimir Malevich invented, around 1915, geometric abstraction and, in 1918, the first monochrome painting. His famous "Suprematist Composition: White on White" is a tilted white square on a bare ivory background that evokes, he wrote, "a state of feeling" to lift the viewer beyond the gravity of realism.

The third horseman of early abstraction was Dutch painter Piet Mondrian, whose intersecting vertical and horizontal lines express the concept of equilibrium without reference to the world of appearances.

The Guggenheim devotes one room to its own earliest incarnation. When it first opened as the Museum of Non-Objective Painting in 1939, its director, Hilla Rebay, aimed for a meditative atmosphere. A re-creation of the original ambiance, with classical music and gray velour walls and carpeting, is intended to transport viewers to a higher metaphysical state. Actually, with the hushed environment and ubiquitous gray plush, it's like being swallowed by an oyster. The pearl is a great Kandinsky painting, "Several Circles" (1926), in which bubbles of color float and overlap on a black background.

Another branch of Russian abstract art was Constructivism, in which post-Bolshevik-Revolution artist-engineers used industrial materials to fabricate a utopian society. A model for Vladimir Tatlin's "Monument to the Third International Communist Conference" (designed 1919-20) looks right at home in Frank Lloyd Wright's spiral-ramped building itself. Revolving cylinders and a pyramid surrounded by a slanted metal helix create a futuristic, leaning-Tower-of-Pisa-meets-Star-Trek look.

The Abstract Expressionists make a strong showing. Russian-born American painter Mark Rothko's hovering, blurred rectangles look especially convincing. "Blue Over Orange" (1956) emits vibrations directly from canvas to psyche. Its message is elusive, however, like a smudged window hampering sight. American Jackson Pollock's "Number 1, 1950 (Lavender Mist)" is a tangled profusion of line and color, not overdone by so much as a single drip.

Off the spiral ramp is a gallery containing the most effective pairing of artists. Back to back are painters disparate in technique: Dutch-born American artist Willem de Kooning and Canadian-born Agnes Martin. …