FEW EPISODES IN THE HISTORY OF ART attract so many origin myths as the history of abstraction. As a plotline, it's hard to beat--an intoxicating, utopian rhetoric of a revolutionary new beginning through art--and ever more entrenched now that it can be consigned to a distant past: After all, abstraction is more than one hundred years old. Marking that centenary, the ambitious exhibition "Inventing Abstraction, 1910-1925" provided no exception to that narrative, but offered a more nuanced and considered version that speaks very much to our own time and to current cultural anxieties (as origin myths always do). Curator Leah Dickerman traced a complex social network of originating "connectors" distributed across multiple metropolitan centers in Europe and the US. The show bore the same signature style as Dickerman's cocu rated earlier and highly successful Dada (2006) and Bauhaus (2009) exhibitions at the Museum of Modern Art--a crowded hang on dark walls--refusing the aura of the sacred that inevitably attaches to such canonical works. And while "Inventing Abstraction" assembled an impressive roster of international loans, a quarter of its checklist forms the heart of the museum's own collection.
Therein lies the rub. Almost as potent as the origin myths that stick so tenaciously to abstraction is the origin myth that clings to the role of MOMA itself in abstraction's history, epitomized by the now very famous "Cubism and Abstract Art" show curated in 1936 by the museum's first director, Alfred H. Barr Jr. The "inventing" in the title of this twenty-first-century show refers, then, not only to the first wave of innovative art practices of the 1910s and '20s but also to the invention of the category by the great synthesizer Barr (an exaggeration, but true enough). Given the demands of academic scholarship today, we would expect the institution to take account of its own historical role, a topic that is reflected in two essays bringing to the fore new archival material in an often rich, expansive catalogue. But there are moments when one must ask: Is this an exhibition about the formation of abstraction, or about the formation of the Museum of Modern Art? It is about both, of course, but this duality gets in the way of thinking afresh about abstraction as a larger theoretical problem and a continuing historical project.
For a start, while the idea of the network is geographically expansive and would at first appear to pull abstraction firmly into the present day, its overlapping vectors of parallel connection and critical analysis tend to put serious limits on the kinds of questions that get asked. It was hard not to see a revisionist set of responses to Barr's 1936 show in the early sections of "Inventing Abstraction," especially in the introductory wall-spanning diagram making visible documented associations between the artists in the exhibition, reworking Barr's famous flowchart. The first painting one encountered--a single Picasso--was not only a nod to Cubism as the beginning of it all but also triggered a powerful legitimating narrative running from Cubism to abstract art. Kandinsky followed next, as a key instigator of a new visual language. Although the synchronic networking of abstraction provided the exhibition with a powerful organizing matrix, then, the show struggled to contend with these competing pressures of symbolic origination and chronological firstness.
The next move was to Paris: A climactic point in this telling of abstraction's genesis found the Delaunays--Robert and Sonia--in revelatory mode, exploring the chromatic ecstasies of the modern city, alongside Fernand Leger and Francis Picabia, who were equally fascinated by its mechanistic spectacle. Apart from Sonia Delaunay-Terk, newly cast here in a key role, all these artists figured fairly prominently in Barr's original show. …