'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
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
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
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,
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. …