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 Inventing Abstraction: 1910-1925

The Museum of Modern Art, New York

December 23-April 15, 2013


An entire wall was devoted to powerful, minimalist works of art by Kasimir Malevich at "Inventing Abstraction: 1910-1925," The Museum of Modern Art
. Photo copyright Michele Leight, 2013. Top Row: Left to right: "Zhivopisnyi realizm futbolista - drasochnye massy v 4-m izmerenii (Painterly realism of a football player color masses in the fourth dimension," 1915, Oil on canvas; The Art Institute of Chicago. Through prior gifts of Charles h. and Mary F.S. Wrocester Collection; Mrs. Albert D. Lasker in memory of her husband, Albert D. Lasker, and Mr. and Mrs. Lewis Larned Coburn Memorial Collection; ""Zhivopisnye massy v dvizhenii (Painterly masses in motion)," 1915, Oil on canvas, Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam; "Elongated Plane," 1915, Oil on canvas, Private collection; "Avtoportret v dvukh izmerenilakh (Self-Portrait in two dimensions), 1915, Oil on canvas, Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam; Bottom row: Left to right: "Chernye Krestoobraznye Ploskosti (black cruciform planes), 1915, Oil on canvas, Musee nationald'art moderne/Centre de creation industrielle, Centre Pompidou, Paris. Gift of the Scaler Foundation and the Beaubourg Foundation, Musee national d'art moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris; "Suprematicheskaia kompozitsilia (Suprematist composition)," 1915, Oil on canvas, Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam; "Zhivopisnye massy v dvizhenii (Painterly masses in motion)," 1915, Oil on canvas, Museum Ludwig, Cologne; "Painterly Realism of a Boy with a Knapsack - Color Masses in the Fourth Dimension," 1915, Oil on canvas, 1935 Acquisition confirmed in 1999 by agreement with the Estate of Kizimir Malevich and made possible with funds from the Mrs. John Hay Whitney Bequest (by exchange); "Suprematist Composition: Airplane Flying," 1915 (dated on reverse 1914), Oil on canvas; 1935 Acquisition confirmed in 1999 by agreement with the Estate of Kazimir Malevich and made possible with funds from the Mrs. John Hay Whitney Bequest (by exchange)

Photos and review copyright Michele Leight, 2013

By Michele Leight

It is impossible to imagine art without abstract art, but it is a relatively recent phenomenon. Images that have become imprinted on our consciousness whether or not we are into art are illustrated in this review, and stem from an explosion of innovation in the arts in the two and a half decades cited in the title of The Museum of Modern Art's show "Inventing Abstraction: 1910 to 1925." Not surprisingly, Pablo Picasso was an instigator of this revolution, without subscribing to its aspirations. He had no patience for what we now call "abstract art," even though some think of him as a willing subscriber to the movement - when it became one. After viewing the exhibition - several times - it became clear that Vasily Kandinsky was a major impetus for this sea-change, and he, like many of the artists whose work is featured in this review,  was heavily influenced by music, notably the work of Arnold Schoenberg. A buffered "Sound Chamber" with a program entitled "Reinventing Music, 1910-1925" was an integral part of this show, curated by Q2 Music, and included a playlist of works by   Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Debussy, Edgard Varese, Charles Ives and Anton Webern that sounds radical even today. Their music was also piped into the galleries, together with readings of experimental poetry by Blaise Cendrars, Guillaume Apollinaire, Aleksei Kruchenykh, Jean (Hans) Arp and Tristan Tzara. Four of the texts shown in the exhibition - via touchscreen displays with page-turning software - were by Kandinsky, Appolinaire, Kruchenykh and Tzara in collaboration with Arp. The "overlapping" of artistic practice beomes clear from the outset, where scores by Schoenberg were displayed near Kandinsky's earliest tranisitional paintings.,

The birth of "abstraction" is a complex subject, and for those without a lot of time on hand, Kandinsky's work is a good place to start.  Many associate him with the Blau Reiter group of German Expressionists -  they were magnificent - but Kandinsky was in search of the next frontier, and it is his achievement, both as a catalyst for others and on his own, that is perhaps most fascinating because it highlights the cross-cultural and inter-disciplinary nature of the abstract art revolution that has given us images as iconic - and diverse - as Kasimir Malevitch's early Neo-Plastic paintings (illustrated at the top of this review); Piet Mondrian's sumptuous, Cubist-influenced earlyTrees, and subsequent Neo-Plastic compositions in primary colors; Georgia O'Keefe's sinuous distillations of nature and the body, and many, many more. How these different artists, writers and poets "shared" with each other is a revelation. Among the many women whose work features in this show - not as side-cars to famous husbands, brothers or partners, but in their own right - are Sonia Delaunay-Terk, who was a catalyst extrordinaire, demonstrated by a large chart at the opening of the show with vectors (red lines) connecting individuals   that were acquainted with each other. Like Kandinsky, Sonia Delaunay-Terk was deluged in vectors, indicative of her influence.

The exhibition featured 350 works of art in a broad range of mediums -  paintings, drawings, prints, books, sculptures, films, photographs, recordings, poems and dance pieces - including many that have never been seen in the United States that come from major international public and private collections. The exhibition was curated by Leah Dickerman, Curator, with Marsha Chlenova, Curatorial assistant, Department of Painting and Sculpture, The Museum of Modern Art.

This exhibition was made possible by Hanjin Shipping.

Mandolin by Picasso

"Femme a la mandoline (Woman with mandolin)," 1910, by Pablo Picasso, 1881-1973, Museum Ludwig, Cologne

In the catalogue accompanying the exhibition "Inventing Abstraction: 1910-1925: How a Radical Idea Changed Modern Art,"  Leah  Dickerman writes: "Roughly one hundred years ago, a series of precipitous shifts took place in the cultural sphere that in the end amounted to as great  a rewriting of the rules of artistic production as had been seen since the Renaissance. That transformation would fundamentally shape artistic practice in the century that followed. Beginning in late 1911 and across the course of 1912, in several European and American cities, a handful of artists - Vasily Kandinsky, Frantisek Kupka, Francis Picabia, Robert Delaunay, Arthur Dove - presented paintings that differed from almost all of those that had preceded them in the long history of the medium in the Western tradition: shunning the depiction of objects in the world, they displayed works with no discernible subject matter. Indeed they abandoned the premise of making a picture of something:  'Young painters of the extreme schools,' the poet and critic Guillaume Apollinaire wrote in February 1912, 'want to make pure painting, an entirely new art form, it is only at its beginning, and not yet as it wants to be.'"


"Komposition V (Composition V)," by Vasily Kandinsky, circa 1911, oil on canvas, private collection

With an international perspective, the exhibition explores abstractions role as a cross-media practice through productive relationships between artists, composers, dancers and poets that succeeded in establishing a new language for the arts. The exhibition shows how "abstraction" was invented not just once, but by different artists in different locations, aided by key "connectors" who played an important role in the dissemination of ideas. These included Kandinsky, Marinetti, Guillaume Apollinaire, Tristan Tzara and Alfred Stieglitz, who were editors of literary and art reviews, and who built important networks in their correspondence, commissioning manuscripts, requesting reproductions and soliciting support. They helped get information out to artists, and to the general public about this new phenomenon that not only took objects and people out of their compositions but also took art-making off the walls and into the viewer's space with interactive pieces like Marcel Duchamp's "Rotary Demisphere (Precision Optics)), circa 1925, Vladimir Tatlin's "Model for Pamiatnik III Internatsionala (Monument to the Third International)," circa 1920, and Arp's enigmatic 3D wood "paintings," among others.

Paul Strand

Paul Strand, both circa 1916: Left: "Porch Shadows," Silver platinum print, The Art Institute of Chicago; Right: "Porch Railings, Twin Lakes, Connecticut," Silver platinum print, Thomas Walther Collection. Purchase.

Photography blossomed, and there were stunning abstract photos by Alvin Langdon Coburn (American, 1882-1996), Paul Strand (two are illustrated above), Man Ray and Alfred Stieglitz. Several films  included a hypnotic abstract by Marcel Duchamp, and another with documentary footage of the influential modern dancer Mary Wigman, accompanied by  choreographic sketches by her. Several geometric works on paper by the famous dancer Vaslaw Nijinsky - "Untitled (Arcs and Segments: Lines) - appear to follow a dancers movements on paper, as they would on stage. A beautiful model of a stage set in primary colors by Piet Mondrian was an unexpected treasure of this show, illustrated later in this review.

From the outset, it is clear that music's influence on the invention of abstract art was huge . Kandinsky thought about abstraction long before he approached it: the catalyst was a concert in Munich in 1911 when he heard works by Arnold Schoenberg, after which he decided to make the gigantic - terrifying - leap into abstraction.


Left: Localisations de mobiles graphiques I (Localization of graphic motifs I), circa 1912-13, Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid; Right: "Localisation des mobiles graphiques II (Localization of graphic motifs II), circa 1912-13, National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C., Alisa Mellon Bruce Fund and Gift of Jan and Meda Mladek; both paintings by Frantisek Kupka, 1881-1957

The five trailblazers credited with jump-starting the invention of abstraction had a tough time of it. The catalogue cites one critic as saying that Picabia "had set the year's record for fantasy " with ugly works  "that evoke encrusted linoleum." Fortunately these great artists were impervious to criticism, and bulldozed onwards.  It is interesting to see Arthur Dove's inclusion in the vanguard line-up, which is also noted in the catalogue:

"On a different shore, in February 1912, Arthur Dove, who had been living and working in Westport, Connecticut, showed works so distilled from natural motifs as to approach abstraction in a one-man show in the gallery at 291 Broadway, New York, established by the photographer and aesthetic impressario Alfred Stieglitz. Dove was no stranger to European modernism: he had spent fifteen months in France in 1908-9, and on his return had been struck by the first American exhibition of work by Picasso, which Stieglitz had hung in 291 in 1911."

Arthur Dove is said to have had a defining influence on first generation Abstract Expressionists, including Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollock and he has long been a favourite of this reviewer. The only disappointment in this wonderful show was that there were only three pieces by this giant.  The consolation is they are prime examples of his work.  Like Kandinsky, and many other artists whose work is featured here, music was an important part of Dove's oevre - as it later was for Pollock, who "drip" painted to Jazz.

Pagan by Dove    Dove 

Arthur Dove: Left: "Movement No.1," before February 1912, Pastel on canvas mounted on board, Columbus Museum of Art, Ohio; Gift of Ferdinand Howald; Right: "Pagan Philosophy," 1913, Pastel on board, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Alfred Stieglitz Collection

Pablo Picasso's (1881-1973) "Femme a la mandoline (Woman with mandolin)" circa 1910, established a departure point for this seminal chapter in the history of art, and paved the way for what was soon to follow. Clinging to the tenets of Cubism and flirting with abstraction, this painting helped the viewer understand just how radical the work illustrated here must have seemed in 1913 or 1914. Ultimately, however, Picasso, who led the artistic avant-garde to the brink of abstraction, could not make a clean break, and retreated from it. But by then he had helped fuel a revolution from which there was no turning back.
When a momentous shift like this takes place it is only natural to wonder what circumstances might have influenced it. What inspired these artists to change lanes so dramatically? It is a tall order to even try and marshal the work of this posse of geniuses into one show, or review, but moving from gallery to gallery actually did give the viewer a very good idea of how it all fused together in the end to "invent abstraction," and the catalogue provided excellent back-up. 


"Impression III (Konzert) Impression III (Concert)," by Vasily Kandinsky, 1911, Oil on canvas, Stadische Galerie im Lenbachhaus, Munich

Prior to the work we see here, the canvases of these artists were no different to their peers:, representational, "objects-people-landscapes," most often pleasing to the eye.  After Kandinsky, Picabia, Robert Delaunay, Kupka and Arthur Dove presented art that challenged the status quo in public exhibitions, some artists broke free and began experimenting on their own versions of abstraction. They were Hans Arp, Sophie Tauber-Arp, Vanessa Bell, Sonia Delaunay-Terk, Natalia Goncharova, Marsden Hartley, Paul Klee, Mikhail Larionov, Fernand Leger, Kazimir Malevitch, Franz Marc, Piet Mondrian, Hans Richter and Wyndham Lewis, among others:

 "By the eve of World War I, artists producing abstract works could be counted in the dozens. This shift in the frontier of possibility moved so suddenly as to shake the foundations of art as it had been practiced. Observers spoke of the exhilaration and terror of leaping into unknown territory, where comparison with the past was impossible..." (

No artist works in a vaccum. Some of the artists cited (in the catalogue) as influences on the vanguard were J.M.W. Turner's seascapes - those wonderful, amorphous swirls of vapour saturated in color and light - James McNeil Whistler's Nocturnes, Edgar Degas's landscape monoprints, Gustave Moreau's ink drawings and water-color sketches, and Hermann Obrist's theatre sets. These artists created works of art that in themselves do not break away from the subjects they portray, but which have "been held up as important forms of proto-abstraction."  "(Landscape above all, wrote the art historian Henri Zerner, 'was a laboratory for abstract art') This exhibition and book, however, do not, as several previous studies of abstraction have done, attempt to inventory such precedents for abstraction avant la lettre, though of course they have bearing on the story beind told," (ex. cat)

Some might find it far fetched that a painting like Kandinsky's "Impression III (Konzert) Impression III (Concert)" might have been influenced by Turner or Whistler, but it is possible.  Another magnificent painting by Kandinsky that made waves was "Komposition V (Composition V)," circa 1911, and it was only after this masterpiece was exhibited "that abstract pictures began to be distributed as art, and their philosophical justification developed in treateses and criticism. It was only then, one could say, that the idea of an abstract artwork began to make sense" ... "Writing to Marc in October 1911, Kandinsky described Picasso's pictures, which he had seen in photographs sent to him by Kahnweiler, as 'split(ting) the subject up and scatter(ing) bits of it all over the picture,' an effect that was 'frankly false' but nonetheless an auspicious 'sign of the enormous struggle toward the immaterial.'" (ex. cat)

Arguably, few have "abstracted" as powerfully - and memorably - as Kandinsky did.

Three Kupkas

Frantisek Kupka, all oil on canvas: Left: "Mme Kupka among Verticals," (1910-11), Hillman Periodicals Fund; Center: "Nocturnal," (1910-11), Murmok, Museum Moderner Kunst Stiftung Ludwig Wein, Vienna; Right, "Ordonnance sur verticales en jaune (Arrangement of verticals in yellow), 1913, Musee national d'art moderne/Centre de creation industrielle, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, Purchase

Kupka's paintings were extraordinary, riveting, gorgeous. The trio of paintings by Kupka illustrated above were painted between 1910-1913. On the left is "Mme Kupka among Verticals," (1910-11), and in the center is "Nocturnal," (1910-11), whose title suggests the transition to the deep blues and blue-grays of that time of day. The later painting, circa 1913, is on the right, "Ordonnance sur verticales en jaune (Arrangement of verticals in yellow)."

Color and an organic geometry play a major role in these works of art, all painted in oil on canvas. The two stunning, larger scale paintings by Frantisek Kupka illustrated earlier in this review are ( left) "Localisations de mobiles graphiques I (Localization of graphic motifs I), circa 1912-13, from  Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid, and (right), "Localisation des mobiles graphiques II (Localization of graphic motifs II), circa 1912-13, from the National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C., Alisa Mellon Bruce Fund and Gift of Jan and Meda Mladek.

Kupka's "Amorpha, fugue a deux couleurs (Amorpha, fugue in two colors)," 1912, measuring seven feet square, is considered to be the first abstract painting to be exhibited in public in Paris at the Salon d'Automne (not illustrated here). In a chapter in the catalogue entitled "Mr. Kupka Among Verticals," Lanka Tattersall writes:

 "Kupka's radical and early move toward abstraction was the result of his distinctive approach to a constellation of aesthetic questions shaped by the ways in which technology increasingly defined ideas of vision, space, and communication. In 1913, the New York Times published an article hailing Kupka as the leader of 'Orpheism' [sic] 'Latest of Painting Cults' and quoting him at length; his remarks shed light on his approach: 'I have come to believe that it is not really the object of art to reproduce a subject created Doric columns and that architecture has continually created forms and their modifications which are well proportioned, and have every reason for existence...Man created the articulation of thoughts by words, he created writings, he created the aeroplane and and the locomotive, therefore, why may he not create in painting and sculpture independently of the forms and colors of the world about him? I take care of the morphologic units of the relations between different forms.'" Tattersal continues: "Kupka sought to construct paintings in a way that he thought analogous to architecture, machines, and language, building them from elementary morphological units. The idea may seem surprisingly concrete from an artist whom historians have characteristically discussed through the prism of his early engagements with theosopy and spiritualism..."


"Prismes electriques (Electric prisms)," by Sonia Delaunay-Terk, 1913, Oil on canvas, Davis Museum and Cultural Center, Wellesley College, Wellesley, Mass. Gift of Mr. Theodore Racoosin

The contribution to abstraction of the husband and wife team of Robert Delaunay and Sonia Delaunay-Terk is astonishing. Like the other five trailblazers, they were closely intertwined with Kandinsky - or rather Sonia was - who did not at first seem to embrace the rebellion that his innovations inspired:

1911, however, the assault was launched. That December in Munich, Kandinsky exhibited Komposition V, a mounumental manifesto that maintained only the most inscrutable traces of figural references. That same month, he published On The Spiritual In Art, his loquacious paean to the ineffable. Three Kandinsky works - none quite so ambitious or so determined in their evacuation of referential content as Komposition V - were shown a few months later in Paris, at the Salon des Independants, in March-May of 1912. Delaunay, who had been corresponding with Kandinsky since late 1911, and had studied French translations of On the Spiritual in Art made by Sonia Delaunay-Terk and Elizabeth Epstein, understood these works to herald the birth of abstraction. 'This inquiry into pure painting is the current problem,' wrote Delaunay to Kandinsky. 'I do not know any painters in Paris who are truly seeking this ideal world.' Soon afterward the French artist made his own near-abstract works, his Fenetres (Windows) series (plates 31-33), and showed them in July 1912 in the Ausstellung des Modernen Bundes, in the Kunsthaus Zurich, at the invitation of Bund co-founder Arp (who had in turn obtained his address from Kandisnky). These works similarly announced a new form of picture-making to key viewers in German-speaking realms. The Swiss artist Klee, who saw the Zurich show, proclaimed in a review that Delaunay has 'created the type of autonomous picture, which leads, without motifs from nature, to a  completely abstract life form, a structure of plastic life, nota bene, almost as far removed as a Bach fugue is from a carpet...'" (Leah Dickerman, ex. cat)

Delaunay notebooks

La Prose du Transsiberian at del la petite Jehanne de France (Prose of all the Trans-Siberian and of Little Joan of France) by Blaise Cendrars, with illustrations by Sonia Dalaunay Terk, 1913, Bibliotheque nationale de France

In an essay entiled "Abstraction Chez Delaunay," Gordon Hughes writes:

"In 1912, Robert  Delaunay committed an act of artistic heresy: he embraced color. 'I made paintings that seemed like prisms compared to the cubism my fellow artists were producing,' he wrote of this period. 'I was the heretic of Cubism.' The paintings Delaunay refers to - 'the paintings that seemed like prisms' next to the achromatic, earth-toned Cubism of his peers - are his 1912-13 Fenetres (Windows) series (plates 31-33), an astonishing group of twenty-two paintings whose vibrant colors set the stage for his move into abstraction. This turn away from the whites, browns, and grays of Cubism into a new abstraction (or 'pure painting') of color was quickly trumpeted by the poet and critic Guillaume Apollinaire: 'Delaunay for this part, has been quietly inventing an art of pure color,' he wrote in October 1912, 'it will be pure painting.' Indeed, Delaunay's break with Cubism centers precisely on the relation between abstraction and color. Or more precisely, it centers on the ways in which these two terms relate to the larger question of vision" ..."Abstraction was a thorny issue for Cubism and its critics. As early as 1910, Roger Fry described Picasso's paintings as 'possessed by the stranger passion for geometric abstraction,' and he concluded two years later that 'the logical extreme of such a method would undoubtedly be...a purely abstract language. The French critic Roger Allard spoke similarly of Cubism's 'abstract forms', while Arsene Alexandre complained of young painters 'seduced in good faith by the abstract ideal of Cubism.'  If such statements point to the edge of abstraction on which Cubism teetered, it is generally agreed - and rightly - that Cubism doggedly refused to fall off. ' Cubism did not accept the logical consequences of its discoveries,' Mondrian would later argue, 'it was not developing abstraction to its logical goal.' Yet in almost the same breath the Dutch painter offhandedly referred to the Cubists as 'abstractionists.' How do we account for this apparent contradiction, and what does it tell us about Delaunay's particular brand of  'pure painting?'"

Two superb paintings by Charles Delaunay in the show were "Windows (Fenetres)," - cited above - an encaustic on canvas,  and "2me representation fenetre simultaneite ville 1 partie 3 motifs (2nd represeatation window simultaneity city 1st part 3 motifs), an oil on canvas in the artist's original mirrored frame - both circa 1912, not illustrated here, sadly. They were reminiscent of Paul Klee - magnified, backlit - as if viewed through a light box, they were so incandescent and - yes - beautiful. Sadly they are not illustrated here, but there are beautiful reproductions in the catalogue. 

Sonia Diary

Front (there is also a back) cover of Dieudonne Tete (Head given by God by Pierre Jaudon), by Sonia Delaunay-Terk, 1913, Paper collage on book binding, Musee national d'art moderne/Centre creation industrielle, Centre Pompidou, Paris. Gift of Sonia Delaunay and Charles Delaunay

We are so accustomed to the Delaunays dazzling geometrics it is hard to understand how radical they were in their day. Many dismissed such imagery as decorative, at best, when these paintings were in fact sophisticated, scientific - color is a science - early manifestations of color field painting . Gordon Hughes continues:

"Seeking to overturn this Cubist hierarchy, Delaunay turned to a technique of chromatic mixing known as 'simultaneous contrast.' First described in 1839 by the French scientist Michel Eugene Chevreul, simultaneous contrast occurs when two or more contiguous colors of sufficient size and saturation mutually influence the viewer's perception of their chromatic intensity and value. The placement of a patch of red next to a patch of blue, for example, will alter how we see both colors. Also taken up by Delaunay's wife and artistic partner Sonia Delaunay-Terk in her paintings, book bindings, clothing designs and collaborative artist's book with the poet Blaise Cendrars. In  La Prose du Transsierien et de la petite Jeanne de France (Prose of the Trans-Siberian and of little Joan of France, 1913), simultaneous contrast is of central importance to understanding the couple's engagement with early abstraction...With simultaneous contrast, the physiological effects of refracted light on embodied perception are distinctive enough that, as Delaunay put it, 'color no longer plays a secondary role, like an exterior accessory...placed on top (of form), like an ornament but not as an essential element.' Further, in utilizing a chromatic theory born of modern optical science, the couple aligned their work with the key concept that separates modern from premodern theories of vision: that the perception of Euclidean form and space is not present in the vision of neonates and young infants - is not, in other words, 'primary,' - but is acquired gradually, through learned experience, and develops out of a formless array of colors. As Walter Benjamin described this primacy of color for young children, 'Their eyes are not concerned with three-dimensionality...for the person who sees with a child's eyes...[color] is not something superimposed on matter, as it is for adults.' From its once-secondary position, 'color,' Apollinaire writes, 'is no longer used for just coloring...color is now itself the form...Color no longer depends on the three dimensions, for it is color that creates them.'"

This sounds like the more recent work of abstract expressionists Mark Rothko, or  Barnet Newman, among others.The beautiful paper collage on bookbinding illustrated above (
front, there is also a back cover) is the cover of Dieudonne Tete (Head given by God by Pierre Jaudon), by Sonia Delaunay-Terk, circa 1913, now in the collection of  Musee national d'art moderne/Centre creation industrielle, Centre Pompidou, Paris. It was a gift of Sonia Delaunay and Charles Delaunay.

Vanessa Bell

"Abstract Painting," by Vanessa Bell, 1914, Gouache and oil on canvas; Tate Purchase

Duncan Grant

"Interior at Gordon Square," by Duncan Grant, circa 1914-15, Collage on board, Private Collection

The superb gouache illustrated above by Vanessa Bell, entitled "Abstract Painting," circa 1914, really makes a break from everything that went before it, evoking Gottlieb, Rothko and other heavyweights of first generation Abstract Expressionism that were to emerge in the decades ahead. The painters Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant were members of the influential British Bloomsbury Group, which included Virgina and Leonard Woolf (a writer and publisher), the critic Roger Fry and writer Clive Bell. Vanessa was Virginia Woolf's sister - to give some idea of the intellectual genius these artists also rubbed shoulders with.

In an essay in the exhibition catalogue entitled "Decoration and Abstraction in Bloomsbury,"  Matthew Affron writes: "In 1914-1915, Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant of England's Bloomsbury Group made a precocious engagement with abstraction. This move coincided with the construction of the theory of formalism by the Bloomsbury writers Roger Fry and Clive Bell (Vanessa's husband), both of whom posited a strict separation between ordinary visual experience and the contemplative manner of apprehension associated with art. Clive Bell dismissed representation as irrelevant; what counted for him was form, color, and three-dimensional space. Fry too subordinated the artwork's representational dimension to internal pictorial relationships. Though he did not see the total rejection of natural form as inevitable, he thought that a radical break with figuration was implicit in Pablo Picasso's Cubist work of 1912, which he lauded for its adventurousness."

Later in the essay Affron writes about the accusations of "decorativeness" the Bloomsbury Group often had to fend off, as well as the sexual preferences of some members of the group, who were - in those treacherous times when it was illegal to be - openly gay: "The strong connection between abstraction, decoration, and collage put the art of Bell and Grant in contested terrain. Art history linked the higher creative mind with a virile, masculine essence. Modernist ideals of pictorial form, also strongly gendered, insisted on purity and specificity of medium and downgraded practices associated foremost with feminine creation; both collage and the decorative posed challenges to these ideas, and this dynamic strongly marked the reception of both Bell and Grant's work. In a well known comment of 1915, Wyndham Lewis, the painter, writer and cofounder of the Vorticist movement, and editor of Blast, its magazine, attacked both continental European modern art, including the recent work of Picasso, and Bloomsbury. 'The placid empty planes of Picasso's later natures-mortes, the bric-a-brac of of bits of wallpaper, pieces of cloth, etc., tastefully arranged, wonderfully tastefully arranged, is a dead and unfruitful tendency,' he declared, adding that the most dismal minifestation of this aesthetic inertness could be found at the Omega Workshops. Lewis denigrated Bloomsbury to promote Vorticism, with it stark forms, mechanical and impersonal handling, and aggressive ethos. Bloomsbury, meanwhile, aligned its ethos of aesthetic openness with toleration on questions of gender and sexuality; this was certainly crucial for both Bell and Grant, who had established a romantic and working partnership (Vanessa's marriage to Clive Bell having come to an end) that allowed space for Grant's homosexuality."

Affron writes that Bloomsbury abstraction did not receive its due: "...In 1916, Bell and Grant left London for the Sussex countryside. The continued for a time to design for Omega, but in 1919 Fry was forced to shut down the workshop that had provided a crucial matrix for their experiments. By that time Fry - who had also made and exhibited abstract compositions in oil and in collage in 1914 and 1915 - had fallen out of sympathy with flat and formal composition. A 1919 letter from Fry to Bell expresses great admiration for her work - with one single exception: a large abstract painting (now lost) in his posession that, Fry exclaims, 'doesn't mean anything to me now.' And indeed, once Bell and Grant left London, they had also moved on from abstraction and toward more representational pictorial idioms, for good."

Pity. It would have been interesting to see what Grant and Bell might have explored next.

 Illustrated below is a Vorticist composition by Wyndham Lewis entitled "Workshop,"  which is both forcefull and aggressive. On the right is a sophisticated Vorticist painting by Lawrence Atkinson. Both were exectued circa 1914-15.

Wyndam Lewis      Lawrence Atkinson

Left: "Workshop," by Wyndham Lewis, circa 1914-15, oil on canvas. Tate. Purchase; Right:"Vorticist Composition," by Lawrence Atkinson, 1914-1915, oil on canvas, The Sherwin Collection, Leeds, U.K.

Writers played an enormous role in the invention of abstraction, as art shifted from objects and people depicted on canvas to the depiction of ideas, emotions, mysticism and spirituality. This shift took place in many different mediums, from film, photography and embroidery to three-dimensional wood collages, free standing and moving sculptures, and performance - the forerunners of what we might expect to see in museums and art galleries today. Kandinsky's "On the Spiritual in Art" embraces the difficulty of crossing that bridge into the unknown. He was both an artist and a writer, so the transition for him was more like leaving his family behind - the "family of artists" that had painted and written about art as objects, human beings and landscapes since the beginning of time:

 "The sheer difficulty of thinking such a radically new idea - thinking within a new paradigm - is evident in the publication history of Kandinsky's hugely influential tract 'On the Spiritual in Art.' The manuscript existed in draft form as early as 1909. In the first two published editions, which appeared in December 1911 and May 1912 respectively, Kandinsky sets abstraction as a goal, clearly and effectively advocating a practice that would advance 'deeper...into this territory.' He nonetheless balks in embracing in the present day as an art that breaks 'the tie that binds us to nature.' 'Today,' he writes, 'the artist cannot manage exclusively with purely abstract forms. Indeed, in his paintings of that date, referential form is almost but not quite effaced. But his opinion changed in the next two years (as did his paintings), and by 1914, in a manuscript for a planned fourth edition of 'On the Spiritual in Art' that was forestalled by World War I, he edited this paragraph to allow for the possibility of a fully abstract art.  'Today,' the new phrasing read, 'only a few artists can manage with purely abstract forms.' In a lecture written, (but never delivered), some years later, the artist commented on the difficulty of this intellectual passage: 'As yet objects did not want to - and were not to - disappear altogether from my pictures. First, it is impossible to conjure up maturity artificially at any particular time...I myself was not sufficiently mature to  be able to experience purely abstract form without bridging the gap by means of objects.'" (ex. cat) 

Duchamp room

A gallery filled with works by Marcel Duchamp show his evolution between 1912 to 1925, and his inclusion of film as a art form: Back wall, top: "Anemic Cinema," 1926, 35 mm film, black and white, silent, 7 min; Film in the permanent collection of The Museum of Modern Art, New York; Center: "To Be Looked at (from the Other Side of the Glass) with One Eye, Close to, for Almost an Hour," Buenos Aires, 1918; Oil, silver leaf, lead wire, and mafnifying lens on glass frame, on painted wood base; Katherine S. Drier Bequest, The Museum of Modern Art, New York; Left: "Network of Stoppages," Paris 1914, Oil and pencil on canvas; abby Aldrich Rockefeller and gift of Mrs. William Sisler, The Museum of Modern Art, New York

Marcel Duchamp was one of the most original thinkers and practictioners of abstract art, one who has had a profound effect on the generation that followed him, and beyond, to our contemporary world. He was brilliant, analytical, and he had a sense of humor, which is rare in the art world, where humor may be tolerated in the artist, but not so easily in a work of art. This is changing today, however. The gallery displaying Duchamp's work stood out from the rest because it encompassed film, free-standing sculpture, conceptual works and a mouth-wateringly gorgeous painting, circa 1912, "The Passage From Virgin to Bride," illustrated below. Its title was provocative, another aspect of Duchamp's "oevre" that was intended to encourage interaction between viewer and the artwork. He did not want static or adoring responses to his creations, he wanted to engage the viewer in the adventure. It is remarkable that one man created such a variety of provocative works! "Network of Stoppages" (circa 1914) is illustrated on the left, above, and it is on view in MoMA's permanent collection. 

Dutch gallery

"The Passage from Virgin to Bride," by Marcel Duchamp, 1912, Oil on canvas; Museum of Modern Art, Purchase

The Duchamp gallery was devoid of the gorgeous colors to be found in the other galleries. There was clearly no desire on the part of this revolutionary artist to endear himself to the public or art lover; he did not see it as the artists role to smite them down with glorious painterly effects as so many great artists had done before him. His urinals and bicycle wheels caused a furor in their day, while today they have inspired similarly provocative - and hugely appreciated - copies and spin-offs. He was - as might be expected - a superb painter, but his focus - like Kandisnky - was breaking through to the next frontier of art, not wallowing in his comfort zone. Painted in 1912, "The Passage from Virgin to Bride" - illustrated above - is still heavily influenced by Cubism.

Another free-standing glass installation, illustrated above, has Duchamp making fun of everyone. Awinsome and original work of art entitled "To Be Looked at (from the Other Side of the Glass) with One, Close to, for Almost an Hour,"  was created in Buenos Aires in 1918.

Duchamp's famous "Rotary Demisphere (Precision Optics)," created in Paris in 1925, really pushes the envelope.  A film by him, "Anemic Cinema," leaves the viewer hypnotized, bemused - slightly head-achy, especially when viewed above the hypnotic "Rotary Demisphere - but enthralled by his temerity and playfullness. Made in 1926, the 35 mm film is 7 minutes long and is now in the permanent collection of The Museum of Modern Art, New York. The evolution of Duchamp's art practice can be seen in the series of photographs from the show illustrated here. There was no containing this genius once he stepped outside the box:

"As Thierry de Duve has suggested, no one played out the implications of abstraction in his practice more than a figure not conventionally understood as an abstract artist: Duchamp. He seems to have intuited the stakes almost immediately. In 1912, Duchamp spent almost four months away from Paris: he passed July and August in Munich, where he acquired a copy of Kandisnky's On the Spiritual in Art, annotating it with minute notes in the margins; then in October he took off on what seems by all accounts to have been a revelatory trip to the Jura with Apollinaire, Picabia and Buffet. Upon his return, Duchamp began working with a new sense of the project he would pursue for the rest of his career: a critique of art's visual sensuality, of what he called 'retinal art', manifested in the production of readymades, disgrammatic images of fantastic machines, and the compilation of cryptic notes, themselves presented as artwork. Picabia's presence during the preceding months seems to have buoyed Duchamp's capacity for such a paradigm shift: 'The rest were either for or against Cezanne, they had no thought of anything beyond the physical side of painting...Duchamp's claim that a readymade - a selected object signed by the artist - might serve as a work of art, an idea that he began testing in 1913 and announced two years later, depended on the reordering initiated by abstraction: it involved a break with picturing, an understanding of art not as illusiton but as idea. In defining the readymade, he also stressed the importance of the inscription to the object he chose: 'that sentence instead of describing the object like a title was meant to carry the mind of the spectator towards othere regions more verbal,' he would later write. The readymade was thing plus text..." (Leah Dickerman, "Inventing Abstraction," ex. cat)

Duchamp eye

"To Be Looked at (from the Other Side of the Glass) with One Eye, Close to, for Almost an Hour," by Marcel Duchamp, 1918; Katherine S. Drier Bequest, The Museum of Modern Art

Duchamp rotary

"Rotary Demisphere (Precision Optics)," by Marcel Duchamp,1925, painted papier-mache demisphere fitted on velvet-covered disk, copper collar with plexiglass dome, motor, pulley, and metal stand; Gift of Mrs. William Sisler and Edward James Fund

A stunning collection of drawings by Fernand Leger - from a series called Contrast de Formes (Contrasts of forms) - circa 1912 to 1913, featured no discernible subject matter.

 "In Contrastes de formes, Leger turns the means of illlusion into the mechanics of abstraction" writes Matthew Affron in his essay in the catalogue, "Fernand Leger: Metallic Sensations:"  "To speak of drawing as the beginning stage in the process of artistic production is a commonplace, but if some of Leger's drawings can be considered simple studies for paintings, others can be described as finished, even as they maintain their sketchlike style. Moreover, the shift from paper to canvas was no simple development for Leger; while from 1912 to 1914 all of his drawings are achromatic or lacking in hue, the paintings of the same period employ a palette of brilliant white, black, and the three pigment primaries of red, yellow and blue, with additional saturated oranges, greens, and purples. In his pioneering 1915 study Der Weg zum Kubismus (The Rise of Cubism), Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, the dealer who had championed Leger's work during the Contrastes de formes period, stressed the artist's dissonant handling of color as a key formal innovation: 'He colors the forms in his paintings arbitrarily, in accordance with their function in the work.' Leger chose colors that could model forms locally but at the same time tend to separate into an abstract compositional pattern" (Matthew Affron,

Leger gave lectures and talks, and some were published, together with reproductions of Contrastes de formes. In one lecture Leger demonstrated how successive generations of artists overthrew conventional art practice: "The hero of the story is Paul Cezanne, whose painterly touch and highly structured handling of form and color provided ground rules for the art of the present. 'Pictorial contrasts used in their purest sense (complementary colors, lines, and forms),' states Leger, 'are henceforth the structural basis of modern pictures.'" (Matthew Afron,

Illustrated below is a drawing masked as a painting, a formidable composition entitled - nor surprisingly - "Contraste de formes (Contrast of formes),' circa 1913.  World War I interrupted Leger's work when he served for three years of active duty as a soldier in the engineer corps. This "intensified his belief in the equation between technology and modernity, but only after the armistice was he fully able to develop the implications of what he had announced in the second Wassilieff lecture. After the war, writes Afron, "Leger's new work also showed a shift in style. He had introduced color into his drawings; he had also abandoned his former impetuousness of touch for greater formal refinement and tonal subtlety, in drawings executed in various combinations of graphite, ink, gouache, and watercolor. His paintings likewise tightened up, with smoother brushwork and a much more finished treatment of the pictorial surface. Ideologically, however, Leger remained committed to overturning classical unities in art. In an interview conducted in the spring of 1918, he linked his new style of precision to the exactitude of modern mechanization. He developed this theme into a well-known letter to Rosenberg, written the following year: 'I model in pure color and large volumes, with no concessions. I mean to outshine tasteful arrangements, grey, shadows, and dead backgrounds. I go for maximum pictorial output through the contrast of all available plastic resources...I like the forms that modern industry imposes, and I make use of them: steel, with its thousands of colorful reflections, is subtler and steadier than so-called classical subjects'" (


Contraste de formes (Contrast of forms), 1913, by Fernand Leger, 1881-1955, oil on burlap, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, Solomon R. Guggenheim Founding Collection, By Gift

Already, we have encountered artists as different at Leger and Kupka - focused on their version of abstraction, with very different results. The reinvention of traditional art practice was achieved through innovative relationships between artists, composers, dancers and poets. "Abstraction" was invented not just once, but by various artists in different locations with different philosophical foundations.

 The show takes an international sweep across several nations, including works by artists from across Eastern and Western Europe and the United States, including Hans Arp (German/French, 1886-1966), Fernand Leger (French, 1881-1955), El Lissitzky (Russian, 1890-1941), Kasimir Malevich (Russian, 1879-1935), Piet Mondrian (1872-1944), and others.

Synchrony in Orange by Russell

"Synchrony in Orange," by Morgan Russell, 1913-14, Oil on canvas, Hirschhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Insititution, Washington D.C., Gift of Joseph H. Hirschhorn


Lower left: "Figure (Geometric Patterns)," by Morton Livingston Schamberg, 1913, oil on canvas, Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Fort Worth, Texas; Center: "Composition II," Patrick Henry Bruce, 1916, Oil on canvas, Yale University Art Gallery, gift of Societe Anonyme; Lower ight: "Conception Synchromy" by Stanton Macdonald-Wright, 1914, Oil on canvas, Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, Washington D.C., Gift of Hoseph H. Hirshhorn; Top right: "Poster for the Synchronust exhibition at Der Neue Kunstsalon, Munich, 1913," by Morgan Russell and Stanton Macdonald-Wright," Munich 1913, relief print, gouache, oil, and pencil on paper, Montclair Art Museum, New Jersey, Gift of Mr. & Mrs. Henry Reed; Top left: "Futurist Composition," by Joseph Stella, 1914, pastel over pencil on paper, Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Fort Worth, Texas. Purchase with funds provided by the Council of the Amon Carter Museum of American Art

The stunning line-up illustrated above are by artists that embraced Synchromism, an art "in which color alone produced pictorial form and space, through its optical properties and what many artists at the time deemed its musical character..." writes Rachael Z. Delue in an essay entitled "With Color,"  that begins with a sweeping, and headily egotistical passage by two of the best know practitioners of Synchromism: "In an essay that accompanied the debut exhibition of Synchromism at Der Neue Kunstsalon, Munich, in 1913, the movements founders, Stanton Macdonald-Wright and Morgan Russell, characterized Impressionism as mediocre, Cubism as deficient, Futurism as naive, and Paul Cezanne as having painted in vain. By contrast, Synchromism had 'finally solved the great problem of form and color,' a triumph underscored in the essay's final sentence, in which Macdonald-Wright and Russel compared themselves to Leonardo da Vinci. A few months later the Synchromism exhibition traveled to Paris, to the Bernheim-Jeune gallery, and in a revised catalogue essay the pair reiterated their contempt for recent art. Less than a year after that, on the occasion of the first Synchromist exhibition in the United States, at the Carroll Galleries, New york, in 1914, the vitriol was ratcheted up through a foreword contributed to the catalogue by Macdonald-Wright's brother, William Huntington Wright, which declared that movements such as Cubism and Futurism had 'added nothing to the development of painting.'"

While dismissing these comments as somewhat narcissistic or delusional, Delue continues to say "they point to essential aspects of Macdonald-Wright's and Russell's formulation of an abstract formal vocabulary in 1913, one that responded to and drew on other emergent experiments with color-based abstraction on the part of artists like Vasily Kandinsky, Francis Picabia, and Robert Delaunay." Both had studied and lived in Paris, and Russell had studied sculpture with Henri Matisse and "became an intimate of the Paris-based collectors Leo and Gertrude Stein, and both he and Macdonald-Wright associated with a number of the avant-garde's heavy hitters. Furthermore, had it not been for Russell and Macdonald-Wright's encounter with other experimental art in Europe in 1912 and 1913, Synchromism would have been unthinkable as either a concept or a style. Picabia's Cubist-inspired paintings, which Russell saw for the first time in Paris in 1912 and Delaunay's seminal Fenetres (Windows) series, both attempts to articulate form and movement through interacting and contrasting sections of color, would have signaled to them the potential of color as a fundamental medium of expression and as a promising vehicle for generating a pictorial alternative to illusionism, one of Synchromism's oft-stated aims. This makes the Synchromist's insistence that their art had no worthy precedent all the more interesting, because what they had to say was so clearly unsupportable - in the eyes of the audiences then as now, and even from their own point of view, for both also made clear the debt they owed to artists such as Cezanne, Matisse, Pablo Picasso, Pierre- Auguste Renoir, and Auguste Rodin...But Macdonald-Wright's and Russell's disavowal of their predecessors had everything to do with their ambitions for abstraction. Their Munich statement identified the chief failing of the Impressionists and Cezanne as those artists' preoccupation with light, which made their work pleasant and pretty but effortless, lacking in qualities of endurance, vitality, and inner strength...Macdonald-Wright and Russell ascribed these same faults to Cubism and Futurism, calling such painting superficial and without formal or emotional weight. In the Paris pamphlet, Delaunay's Orphism fared no better: overly technical in orientation and slavishly bound to the object, the Symchromists claimed, such work employed color arbitrarily to describe optical effects and was equal in mere decorativeness to Impressionism..." (

Amidst the avalanche of criticism of some of the greatest artists of all time - and their peers - Russell offers insight into why they called their brand of abstraction "Synchromism: "when searching for a title for one of his paintings, he explained, he first considered 'Symphonie,' for its musical analogy, but then another word 'immediately flashed on his mind: 'chrome.' Pairing the 'syn' loosely borrowed from 'symphonie' with 'chrome,' he generated the name 'Synchromism.' the phrase means 'with color,' and raises another question, perhaps the question: with color, what?'"

Once again, music is referenced.   Whatever one might feel about Russell's comments about their work being comparable with Leonardo  da Vinci - huh? - these are totally sumptuous paintings. 


Chromatische Phantasie (Chromatic fantasy)," by Augusto Giacometti, 1914, Oil on canvas, kunsthaus Zurich. Gift of Erwin Poeschel


"Kompozitsiia (Composition)," by Ksenilia Ender, 1918, Oil on board, Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection

The moving image becomes a subject in its own right in this chapter of the history art. A riveting line-up of "pictures" is called "Leopold Survage's Paper Cinema" In the chapter of the same title in the catalogue, Jodi Hauptman writes:

 "With watercolor and ink, paper and brush as his tools, Leopold Survage set out in 1912 to make a 'dynamic art' of 'colored visual form.' He called this multisheet effort Rhythme colore  (Colored rhythm; plates 56-73). 'I will give it movement,' he writes, 'I will introduce rhythm into the concrete action of my abstract instrument will be the cinematographic film, this true symbol of accumulated movement.' For an artist who had come to Paris to establish his reputation as a painter, and who primarily saw his destiny with Cubism, this effort may seem an idiosyncratic interruption in his career. His burgeoning success had already been proven by his inclusion in the 1911 Salon d'Automne. From the mid-1910s into the 20s, however, artists trained as painters and sculptors found the cinema increasingly appealing as a 'model for new art' - a prototype for those seeking not just to depict movement and dynamism but to put art into motion. The ambition of Survage to throw off the 'shackle' of still art's immobility and rectify 'the thousand-year-old error that sees the static as the only element of art' was triggered, at least in part,  by a changing and experiential landscape: a constellation of new techlologies that depended on movement and speed, including the automobile, train, and airplane, along with an ever-increasing spectacularizaiton of metropolitan space due to electric illumination, advertising and the billboard. Colored Rhythm made Survage a key figure in reimagining the role of artist as moviemaker."

When watercolor and ink are spun in the imagination - and brushes - of genius, the result is a devastatingly simple yet powerful work of art such as 62-73, "Rhythme Colore (Colored rhythm), circa 1913, 18 of over 100 drawings on black paper, illustrated below.

Leopold Survage

62-73, "Rhythme Colore (Colored rhythm), by Leopold Survage, circa 1913, 18 of over 100 drawings, Watercolor and ink on black paper, The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Purchase.

David Bomberg

"In the Hold," by David Bomberg, (c.1913-14), Oil on canvas, Presented by the Friends of the Tate Gallery

In the catalogue accompanying the exhibition, Leah Dickerman writes: "As abstraction emerged from cross-medium exchange, it put pressure on traditional medium categories, particularly painting. In playing out the terms of painting, the makers of abstract works inventoried and interrogated its properties - color, composition, surface, support, frame, relationship to the wall - in such a way that each was fundamentally transformed. In doing so, these artists challenged a series of premises long associated with painting and the way it was judged...In the western tradition of art, painting had been tied to the perspectival codes formulated during the Renaissance, and to their implicit metaphor that a picture should function like a view through a window onto an illusory world. Equally important were the metaphysical implications of Renaissance perspective, which assumes a discarnate gaze on a scene external to the beholder. Certain premises were embedded in perspective's long dominion: the sublimation of the physical materials of painting in an image whose surface, though opaque, appeared to be transparent; the primacy of the visual; the illusion of a coherent recessional space; the separation between the work and its beholder; the immobility of the image; the bounded frame of the picture were among the key assumptions. These postulates became focal points for abstraction's pioneers, who investigated and tested them to generate new propositions about the nature of painting, The propositions were many, and at times contradicted each other, but in their aggregate they marked the demise of painting in its traditional form and its opening to the practices of the century to come..."

David Bomberg's "In the Hold," circa 1913-14 - illustrated above - extinguishes any attachment to perspective - as radical a shift in his time as perspective and fore-shortening were during the Renaissance. The photographs (gelatin silver prints) - out of view on the right - are by Alvin Langdon Coburn, circa 1916-17, a stunningly innovative and abstract foursome that upend perspective in a different way - by blurring the image, as if the photographer was jolted as the shutter snapped. All bear the same title - "Votograph." 

Hartleys, Brancusi and O'Keeffes

Left and center, by Marsden Hartley: "Abstraction" 1914, oil on board, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Gift of Mr, and Mrs, Ralph O'Connor in honor of Mr. and Mrs. George R. Brown and "Painting, Number 5," 1914-15, oil on canvas, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, Gift of an anonymous donor;  Front: "Endless Column," by Constantin Brancusi, version 1, oak, Gift of Mary Sisler. On the far wall are paintings by O'Keeffe. Some are illustrated in detail below.

Marsden Hartley was championed by Alfred Stieglitz - together with Georgia O'Keefe - and his painterly abstractions have become familiar and iconic examples of what once were regarded as provocative paintings. The central painting in the line-up illustrated above is perhaps his most famous, "Painting, Number 5," created in 1914-15, in the collection of the Whitney Museum of American Art. In front is "Endless Column," carved in oak by Constantin Brancusi, whose geometric outline is the perfect foil for Georgia O'Keefe's sinuous undulations of landscape and the human form, in the background.


Several 3-dimensional works of art in wood by Hans Arp, circa 1916-17

Sophie Arp

"Untitled (Triptych)," by Sophie Tauber Arp, 1918, oil on canvas on board, three panels, Kunsthaus Zurich, Gift of Jean Arp

Hans Arp and Sophie Taeuber-Arp are another power-house couple who worked closely together, producing avant-garde pieces that seem incredibly fresh and current today. Their work is leaner, more contemporary, which is not surprising because they were Dadaists. In an essay entitled "Sense and Non-Sense" in the exhibition catalogue, Hal Foster writes: "'Dada is for the senseless,'" Hans Arp wrote in 1927, 'which doesn't mean non-sense.' This is a key distinction for Dadaist abstraction as practiced by Arp and Sophie Taeuber during the previous decade. While other Dadaists, such as Tristan Tzara and Francis Picabia, claimed that Dada intended nothing (except perhaps nothingness), Arp suggested that it could mean almost anything. 'Dada is as senseless as nature,' he continued; 'Dada is for infinite sense and and definite means,' That is, it is as full of meaning, as infinite in sense, as nature is - or indeed as empty. Yet how can Dada be at once replete and null, infinite and definite? I want to take up this question with respect to Arp and Taeuber, for their Dadist abstractions often do appear both full and empty of sense."

Hans Arp fled his native Alsace during World War I and met Sophie Taeuber in Zurich, where she taught textile design: "More exactly, they met in November 1915 at the Galerie Tanner, where, along with two Dutch friends (Otto and Adya van Rees), Arp had a show of early tapestries and collages along the lines of Untitled (Abstract Composition) (1915, plate 323). 'These works are constructed with lines, surfaces, shapes, and colors,' Arp wrote at the time, as if to underscore that they were simply abstract, not concerned with the play of signification, as entertained in Cubist collages (which he knew from his stay in Paris prior to Zurich), or with 'the truth to materials' proposed in early Constructivist experiments (which he did not yet know). His abstractions had another aim: 'They try to transcend the human and attain the infinite and eternal, They are a denial of human egotism.' This anti-individualism became a central principle for both Arp and Taeuber: first and last, they pledged their abstraction against the 'egotism' that had caused the war." (Hal Foster, ex. cat)

If their works sometimes seem "authorless," that was their intention. Extinguishing the ego resulted in their experiments with quasi-automatist procedures, and "neutrality: "This neutral structure frustrates our usual model of meaning based on binaries, and points to another logic of sense that is at once 'neither-nor' and 'both-and.' Seen in this way, then, the 'art of silence' of Arp and Taeuber is indeed against meaning and interpretation, but in a way that aims to open up both. 'Once you are neither this nor that, then you are all things,' the medieval German theologian Meister Eckhart once wrote. This thought was dear to Arp, and it might be taken as the motto of these abstractions in toto...Such a suspension of opposites is also at work in the Arp woodcuts of 1916-20 and the Taeuber objects of 1916-18. As in the embroideries, the shapes in the woodcuts are often repeated, and they, too, hesitate between the representational and the abstract: some recall patterns in ornament based on vases and flowers, while others evoke figures with crowns or collars such as kings or clergymen. On the one hand, then, these forms are entirely conventional, in fact so banal as to appear devoid of significance, whereas on the other they evoke emblems of political or relgious authority. Here the null-full tension in the Arp and Taeuber abstractions is most extreme: empty shapes also connote auratic signs of power (e.g., crests, scepters), bathetic patterns also suggest, as Arp says, 'meditations, mandalas, signposts.'" (Hal Foster, ex. cat)

The "objects" by Sophie Taeuber-Arp that Hal Foster refers to are vase-like objects that look as though they are useful - utilitarian - but were in fact not intended for use. They are made from solid wood, not hollowed out as a conventional vase would be - to be filled with water, and then flowers. They are useless except for whatever meaning we infuse them with. These "objects" were compelling, strangely moving.


"Gray Line with Lavender and Yellow," by Georgia O'Keeffe, circa 1923, oil on canvas, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Alfred Stieglitz Collection; Bequest of Georgia O'Keeffe


"Music - Pink and Blue No.2," by Georgia O'Keeffe, 1918, oil on canvas, Whitney Museum of American art, New York. Gift of Emily Fisher Landau, in honor of Tom Armstrong

Georgia O'Keefe and Alfred Stieglitz were another "power-couple" in this seminal chapter in art history. They were extremely supportive of each other, and the exposure she received both in his gallery, and out and about among an impressive cadre of talent and intellectual genius that were their friends was important to her art practice. Arguably, O'Keefe's imagery has attained the highest visibility across the world today among the females represented in this show - and greater visibility than many of the male artists - not that this is a contest. I say this only because we are so accustomed to O' Keefe's imagery - because it has been so widely reproduced by popular demand - it would be easy to be dismissive of it in the context of this review.

But how can one be? This extraordinary artist reeks of American independence and individualism. She lived with Stieglitz, he immortalized her in gorgeous photographs, she moved to the sand dunes and big skies of New Mexico because she found the dense green foliage of Upstate New York claustrophobic. She stepped right out of the box and produced art that was - and still is - utterly unique. While the imagery of many of the artists here seem connected to each other, O'Keefe's sinuous, sexy, sumptuous manipulations of form and color stand alone in their unapologetic "American-ness." 


"Danseuse (Dancer)," by Gino Severini, 1913-1914, India ink, pastel, watercolor, and tempera on cardboard. Private collection.


"Velocita astratta + rumore (Abstract speed + sound), by Jacomo Balla, 1913-14, oil on board, The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, Peggy Gugenheim Collection, Venice

"Since the sky is no longer the vague blue that you see in the background of paintings invented by traditionalists, but a vault that captures and envelops us, then objective painting is over with. What we are pursuing is the representation, the projection, of an idea on canvas, colored algebra and geometry," said Giacomo Balla, a member of the Italian Futurists in 1919.

Balla study

Study for Compenetrazione iridescente (dai Taccuini de Dusseldorf), (iridescent interpenetration [from the Dusseldorf notebooks]), 1912, pencil and watercolor on paper, GAM - Galleria Civica d'Arte Moderna e Contemporanea, Turin

There are few art movements born in the dramatic way described by Jodi Hauptman in her essay "Parole In Liberta" in the exhibition catalogue: "There are many accounts of Futurism's origin, most of them issued by the movement's founder, Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, and one more excessive that the next. In the 'Founding and Manifesto of Futurism,' published by Le Figaro on February 20, 1909, Marinetti famously described the car crash that sparked a new mode of perception: 'I spun my car around with the frenzy of a dog trying to bite its tail, and...I stopped short and to my disgust rolled over into a ditch with my wheels in the air...Oh Maternal ditch, almost full of muddy water!...I gulped down your nourishing sludge...When I came up - torn, filthy and stinking - from under the capsized car, I felt the white-hot iron of joy deliciously pass through my heart!' Though dirty and injured, 'faces smeared with good factory muck' and 'arms in slings,' Marinetti and his comrades were nonetheless able to declare the debut of Futurism. In subsequent texts Marinetti offered other sources for the movements founding and precepts, from the 'whirling propeller,' with its call for a new language for a new world; to a battleship's speed, heat and mechanics, which illuminated 'Futurist surprise and geometric splendor', to the darkness of a military trench, which in allowing only a sightless experience of space - 'I keep hitting bayonets, mess tins, and the heads of sleeping soldiers' - proved the importance of 'tactile sensations' for Futurist art; to a revelation out of chaos (a classic origin-myth trope): 'Out of an atmosphere of confused and chaotic ideas, a word burning with fires suddenly flashed to dispel the storm: 'FUTURISM.'"

While a crashing car is not necessarily an inspiring catalyst for an abstract art movement, the jolt it provided moved the poet - Marinetti was also a poet - to hunker down with words, a medium he knew well. Hauptman continues: "No other artistic movement can boast as many manifestos, explanatory texts, and rule books, Marinetti wrote many of them, from the 'Founding Manifesto,' with its violent farewell to tradition ('We will destroy the museums, libraries, academies of every kind'), to subsequent documents offering step-by-step how-tos for Futurist writing, dancing, filmmaking and composing. Others were published by Marinetti's compatriots in the visual and performing arts, including Umberto Boccioni's 'Technical Manifesto of Futurist Sculpture,' Carol Carra's 'Painting of Sounds, Noises and Smells," and Luigi Russolo's 'Art of Noises.' The language of these manifestos is both political and pietic; they present, Marjorie Perloff writes, 'a new literary genre, a genre that might meet the needs of a mass audience even as paradoxically, it insisted on the avant-garde, the esoteric, the antibourgeois.' 'This new genre,' Marinetti insists, 'must be violent, precise, and insulting.'"

For all Futurism's insistence on sticking it to the bourgeoisie, the paintings and drawings of Balla, Marinetti, Severini, Boccioni - some illustrated here - are extraordinarily beautiful, and pleasing to the eye.


Emilio Pettoruti, Argentine: Left:  "Light In the Landscape," 1915, charcoal on paper, Purchased with funds provided by Nelly Arrieta de Blaquier and by the Latin American and Caribbbean Fund in honor of Edward Sullivan; Right: "Espansione dinamica (Dynamic expansion), 1914, charcoal on paper, Private collection. Both works of art by Emilio Pettoruti, Argentine, 1892-1971

Tatlin Tower

"Model for Pamiatnik III Internatsionala (Monument to the Third International)," by Vladimir Tatlin, 1920; reconstruction 1979; Wood and metal; Musee national d'art moderne/Centre de creation industrielle, Centre Pompidou, Paris. Commission

The Russian avant-garde made an enormous impact, arguably straying as far from anything that had gone before than any other group or movement described and portrayed in the exhibition. The illustration at the top of this review, of an uncompormising wall of iconic abstract works by Kazimir Malevich. Severe and magnificent abstract works, they have not only stood the test of time, but grow in fascination,  almost a century after they were created.

In her introductory essay, "Inventing Abstraction," Leah Dickerman writes: "Faced with the fear that abstract work might be seen as simply arbitrary, its proponents compensated with words. Abstract pictures rarely if ever existed in isolation; rather, many words circulated within their orbit - titles, manifestos, statements of principle, performative declamations, discursive catalogues, explanatory lectures, and critical writing by allies. With almost each work came a proliferation of text, a parallel papery world, In the landmark 0.10 exhibition in Petrograd (today's St. Petersburg) in 1915, a famous first moment in which reference to the external world was fully abandoned, Malevich tacked the handwritten slogan 'Suprematizm zhivopisi' (the Suprematism of painting), a list of titles, and numbers indexing those titles to the wall - the installation as three-dimensional catalogue. He also both distributed a free handbill and sold a brochure, Ot kubizma k suprematizmu: novyi zhivopisnyi realizm (From Cubism to Suprematism: new painterly realism). A less-known photograph of Tatlin's famous display of two counter-reliefs in an adjacent gallery in the same exhibition shows that next to one of these works he pinned to the wall two copies - one recto, one verso - of a booklet published by the magazine Novyi zburnal dlia vsekh; the booklet featured reproductions of his recent three-dimensional constructions and a statement in which he denied any group affiliation (in counterpoint to Malevich's self-positioning as the founder of a new 'ism') and listed the assertively non-art materials of his works. These examples suggest how abstraction exists in relation to the proliferation of archival material inherent in modernism: the makers of abstract pictures and their allies did not let them stand alone, but sent them out into the world accompanied by a torrent of words."


"Proun 2C," by El Lissitzky, 1920, oil, paper, and metal foil on plywood; The Philadelphia Museum of Art. A.E. Gallatin Collection

Irrespective of where they originated, the influence of these publications - and their torrent of words -  cannot be overstated. Even elusive Mondrian presented many of his texts to De Stijl, the first journal dedicated to abstract art. Lissitsky produced the Proun Portfolio in 1920, in which he presented 11 lithographs in addition to text: "The graphic presence of these manifesto sheets within the framework of the portfolio, a container for artwork, suggests how short a step it was from here to the presentation of text as image...This structure - of images and words existing in parallel spheres, the two held at a distance - suggests a division in modernism itself. With narratives and the descriptive connection to the external world evacuated from the picture, image-making and writing emerge as simultaneous and interrelated practices with a displaced relationship to one another. Long-held ideas of abstraction as the assertion of paintings autonomy are at the very least made more complex."  (Leah Dickerman,

The gorgeous painting illustrated above is "Proun 2C," by El Lissitzky, a sophisticated composition in muted colours, with a touch of foil, in the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Shown below is Alexander Rodchenko's famous "Non-Objective Painting no. 80 (Black on Black)," circa 1918, in the collection of The Museum of Modern Art.


"Non-Objective Painting no.80 (Black on black), by Alexander Rodchenko, 1918, oil on canvas. The Museum of Modern Art, Gift of the artist, through Jay Leyda

The Russian avant garde took root in 1911, in a basement in St. Petersburg. The cabaret was called the "Stray Dog," founded by by Evreinov, the artist and military doctor Nikolai Kul'bin, and the experimental composer Artur Lurie: "On New Year's Eve of 1915, this establishment would serve as a crucial site of cross-media fermentation and experimentation, a place where poets mingled with artists, actors, and musicians, bohemians came face to face with the wealthy, and a carnivalesque atmosphere coexisted with the serious presentation of ideas by honored visitors. Here Mayakovsky and Khlemnikov read poetry, Vsevolod Meyerold experimented with the merging of performers and audience, the young linguist Roman Jakobson served as a translator as Filippo Tommaso Marinetti debated Mikhail Larionov over the tenets of Futurism, and Viktor Shklovskii gave a lecture, 'the Place of Futurism in the History of Language,"  that formed the basis of his essay "Resurrection of the Word,' laying the foundation of Russian Formalism." (Masha Chlenova, essay "Early Russian Abstraction, As Such,'

Among those that frequented this establishment was Kasimir Malevich, who collaborated on a Futurist opera "Pobeda nad solntsem (Victory over the Sun), that was performed at the Luna Park Theater, St. Petersburg in December, 1913. The press were horrified, but each of the opera's creators described it as a catalyst for their respective art practices. They included the poets Khlebnikov and Kruchenykh, the musician Mikhail Matiushin - and Malevich:

"It was in the year of the opera's production, 1913, that Khlebnikov and Kruchenykh formulated their poetic practice in two key manifestos, 'Slovo kak takovoe' (The word as such) and 'Bukva kak takovaia' (The letter as such), which celebrated the generative potential of autonomous linguistic forms, freed from fixed rerenentiality. Where the Italian Futurists used innovative artistic form to express particular content - the dynamism, simultaneity, and cocophony of the modern age - the Russians left content open, seeing it as secondary to form. For them, zauminyi ('transrational' or 'beyonsense') - a term coined by Kruchenykh and Khlebnikov in 1913, referring primarily to poetry but also to visual art - meant not nonsense of irrationality but the freedom of open-ended meanings and the generative potential of new forms. The poets wrote, 'The Futurian painters love to use parts of the body, its cross-sections, and the Futurian wordwrights used chopped-up words, half-words, and their odd artful combinations (transrational language), thus distinguishes the swift language of modernity, which has annihilated the previous frozen language'" (Marsha Chlenova,

The incredible line-up of paintings by Kasimir Malevich at the top of this review were first shown at The Last Futurist Exhibition of Paintings 0.10 (Zero-Ten) - December 19, 1915-January 17, 1916 at Khudozhestvennoe buro, a gallery in St. Petersburg. It became a famous "face-off" not only between Malevich and Vladmir Tatlin, but also a powerful presentation of the two new models of abstraction. Malevich held up Suprematism as the new pictorial language of geometric shapes against white backgrounds in which the artist was liberated from the world of objects, creating instead new forms from the basic components of color, line and brushwork. Tatlin went one step further and eliminated the pictorial support: "Shunning the categories of painting and sculpture, his works derived their meaning from their material constituents - such as wood, metal, glass, and wire - which he purposefully joined in three-dimensional space. Despite apparent differences, the models of abstraction that Malevich and Tatlin presented at the 0.10 exhibition shared fundamental concerns that distinguished them from their aesthetic counterparts in Western Europe: a resolute and programmatic rejection of the referent (rather than the gradually more pronounced abstraction from natural motifs prevalent elsewhere), and an affirmation of an autonomous artistic language that was both armed with a semiotic understanding of the creation of meaning and deeply grounded in its own materiality...The exhibition's title was a polemical manifesto in itself. The word "last" announced the end of Russian Cubo-Futurism, a style that had synthesized Cubist fragmentation and Futurist dynamism, while the numeric subtitle "0.10 (zero-ten) pointed to a new direction for Russian art." (Masha Chlenova, in her essay 0.10,

In an exhuberant display of freedom from the constraints of the past, "Malevich carefully orchestrated this first public unveiling of Suprematism through an innovative display and a set of textual commentaries, intended to clarify and reinforce the message of the paintings. He hung thirty-nine canvases, all but one of them unframed, in a collagelike, multilevel arrangement, crowned by the painting he titled Chetyreugol'nik (Quadrilateral, 1915).  This work he placed high up and across a corner, the place traditionally reserved for a Christian icon in the houses of Russian peasants. Malevich articulated the sense of freedom offered by his new mode of painting in a leaflet distributed free at the exhibition: 'I transformed myself in the zero of form....I destroyed the ring of the horizon and escaped from the circle of things, from the horizon-ring that confines the artist and forms of nature.' On each gallery wall underneath the paintings the artist affixed a sheet of paper with the handwritten caption 'Suprematizm Zhivopiso' (Supremacy of Painting), and with his signature pasted on a separate sheet underneath. He explained the meaning of this inscription in the same leaflet: 'Things have disappeared like approaches creation as an end in itself and domination over the forms of nature.' Malevich's second name for his new style, 'New Painterly Realism,' reflected his view that paintings supremacy over the forms of nature gave it better access to reality than mimetic representation could ever achieve." (Marsha Chlenova, 0.10.

Suprematist relief, UNOVIS

"Suprematist Relief," UNOVIS, Vitebsk, 1921, Steel, wood, cardboard and paint; Kroller-Muller Museum, Otterlo

Malevich's next step - or leap - was the famous "Suprematist composition: white on white" of 1918, now in the collection of The Museum of Modern Art - one of a series of paintings - in which he took his "objectless" pictorial system of Suprematism to its limit.  It is quite a statement to declare the end of painting with paintings, which is exactly what Malevich did at the Tenth State Exhibition of Non-objective Creation and Suprematism in Moscow in April 1919. In her essay in the catalogue entitled "The Language of Revolution," Maria Gough writes: "But it was Malevich's move in November 1919 to SVOMAS (Free State Art Studios), the state art school in Vitebsk, about 300 miles west of Moscow, that proved crucial to his ascent (or descent, depending on how you look at it) to the logosphere. For it was at this school, established a year earlier by Marc Chagall under the aegis of the new, Bolshevik administration, that the electrifying presence of Malevich inspired the formation of a collective of young teachers and students - UNOVIS (Utverditeli novogo iskusstva, the affirmers of the new art) - united in their dedication to Suprematist abstraction, and to its dissmination throughout th fledgling socialist state and abroad as the visual language of the Russian Revolution, even the sine qua non of its success in aesthetics and politics alike. The artist's position at SVOMAS also guaranteed him unprecedented access to an essential mechanism for that dissemination, namely the school's print workshop....The workshop was run by the polymath Lazar (soon to be 'El') Lissitzky, an illustrator, graphic designer, and trained architect who was committed to a fundamental redefinition of the architecture of the book to accord with the pulse and direction of contemporary life. It was Lissitzky, Aleksandra Shatskikh tells us, who lured Malevich to Vitebsk with the promise fo both publicationa and a modicum of material comfort - at least in comparison with the privations and shortages of the capital - for the artist and his then-pregnant wife, Sofia Rafalovich."

Their first collaboration was a book printed in an edition of one thousand copies, a large number for that time. The front bore the Suprematist slogan "Let the overthrow of the old world of art be traced on your palms," which then became the motto of UNOVIS. Not surprisingly, Malevich wanted his art to service the Revolution, and together with members of the collectives, he and Lissitzky worked in the streets of Vitebsk and Smolensk painting the city centers in Suprematist imagery, with billboards, agitational posters, parade banners, stage sets, bruchures for government agencies and trad unions, as well as signs for state stores, ration cards and murals for building facades, including the state agency called the Committee for the Struggle against Unempolyment, depicted in an atmospheric photograph in the catalogue decorated with Suprematist panels designed by Lissitzky and Malevich. There is also a superb photograph of Lissitzky in his studio at SVOMAS, (Free State Art Studios), circa 1920, with a few of his extraordinary Proun compositions, including "Proun 1C," illustrated in this review:

"....Lissitzky found in the proun a way to move abstract painting beyond it apparent finitude in the here and now of a revolutionary present, notwithstanding Malevich's declaration in Suprematizm: 34 risunka (Suprematism: 34 drawings, 1920) that 'there can be no quesiton of a place for painting in Suprematism. Painting has long since been overcome, and the painter himself is no more than a prejudice of the past.' That Lissitzky was able to arrive at such an extraordinary reconceptualization of non-objectivity, contra even Malevich himself, had everything to do with his mercurial capacity to work simultaneously in and across a variety of media. It was precisely his contribution to the diffusion of Suprematism into the book, the building facade, and the street, in other words, that enabled his production at the easel to take place." (Maria Gough, "The Language of Revolution," ex. cat)

Man Ray sculpture

"Nickel Construction," by Lazlo Moholy-Nagy, 1921, Nickel plated iron, welded, Gift of Mrs. Sibyl Moholy-Nagy

Ideally, all of the paintings on view at the exhibition by Piet Mondrian should be illustrated here, because they show his evolution towards the primary colors + black and white compositions that are so iconic today. Mondrian's "Trees" - viewed in a group - and the pantheon of Neo-Plastic canvases, were as memorable as the wall of Malevich's, illustrated at the top of this review.  In his essay "Piet Mondrian: Toward the Abolition of Form," Yve-Alain Bois writes:

""Piet Mondrian was an evolutionist and a utopianist. He was not the only one such among the pioneers of abstract art (Kazimir Malevich also comes to mind), but he was the most consistent. His career as a modernist painter started with two successive splashes: around 1908 he discovered Impressionism, Post-Impressionism, and Fauvism, absorbed them pell-mell, and within a few months became Holland's most advanced painter; and in 1911-12 his encounter with Cubism was the spark plug of his path to abstraction, at which he would arrive by increments. After that, any radical leap in his oeuvre would always and inexorably follow many telltale signs, He conceived of his art and of everything else (society, man, the world at large) as in perpetual evolution toward a future universality, a utopian golden age when art would dissolve into life. Each of his paintings, or series of paintings, had in his view to be an improvement on the previous one in a long journey toward this ever unreachable goal - and his trajectory as such, in hindsight, seems impeccably logical." (ex. cat)

Like many of the artists whose work features in this exhibition, Mondrian spent time in Paris, but returned to his native Holland where he remained for the duration of World War I.  The seaside resort of Domburg became a laboratory for his vertical/horizontal experimentation, and one of his paintings - Composition 10 in zwart wit - was greatly admired by a young Theo Van Doesburg when he saw it at a group show at the stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam in 1915:

"In a review that would launch his friendship with Mondrian, he noted that the painter's 'methodical construction embodies becoming rather than being.' Though Van Doesburg could not have been aware of this, the phrase 'becoming rather than being' captures an important mutation in Mondrian's thought, due to his sudden exposure (via a Dutch vulgarizer) to the dialectical philosophy of Hegel. Far removed from the static world of purified essences he had been searching for, Hegel's dialectics helped him understand that what he called the 'fundamental opposition' (vertical/horizontal) should be understood as a system of contradictory forces whose equilibrium is no longer achieved by mutual neutralization but by reciprocal tension. The enduring motto he coined at that time - 'Each element is determined by its contrary' - stems directly from Hegel. The goal is no longer to encode the spectacle of the real world in a geometric pattern, but to enact on canvas the laws of dialectics that govern his world. And even though Compositie 10 in zwart wit and Compositie were still based on the distillation of a natural motif (or rather on drawings that are based on the distillation of a natural motif), all traces of that motif have vanished from them. It is no longer the spectacle of the world that is encoded, but the elements of the art of painting itself - line, color, plane, each reduced to basic ciphers whose interaction constitutes a 'new reality.' With his next major canvas, dating from 1916/17 - Compositie in Lijn (Composition in line; plate 250) - Mondrian would entirely forego any reliance on a natural morif, even as a starting point. As he himself would later say, he had left what he called 'abstraction from' for the 'purely abstract.'" (Yve-Alain Bois,

Trees by Mondrian

"The Trees," by Piet Mondrian, 1912, Oil on canvas, The Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh, Patrons Art Fund


"Tableau no.4/Composition No.VIII/Compositie 3," by Piet Mondrian, 1913, Oil on canvas; Gemeentemuseum Den Haaf, The Hague, copyright 2012 Mondrian/Holtzman Trust, c/o HCR International

By 1918, Mondrian had formulated the modular grid, together with Vilmer Huszar, Sophie Tauber-Arp and Hans Arp (outside Holland), and other younger members of the de Stijl group of which he was a member and mentor: "Arriving in Paris shortly after finishing his so-called 'Checkerboard' compositions, Mondrian found Cubism as he knew it dead and buried, and the French avant-garde, with his hero Picasso at the helm, fully engaged in a figurative, in his retrogrde return to order. Needless to say that in such an atmosphere, the 'ideal' solution to the modular grid, which he had planned to share with his peers as his most advanced contribution to the 'inevitable evolution' of art, did not stand a chance. It was at this juncture that the evolutionist side of his theory came to the rescue of the utopian one: the modular grid failed to be appreciated for its worth because it was ahead of its times, like a biological mutation that had suddenly skipped over several evolutionary steps. Furthermore, Mondrian realized that the grid disobeyed his ban of repetition (which he saw as a 'natural' phenomenon and thus as something that should have no place in a 'purely abstract' art). " (Yve-Alain Bois,

Mondrian's "Composition with Yellow, Red, Black, Blue, and Gray, circa 1920, finally demonstrates his now famous mature style, Neo Plasticism:

"If one had to sum up Mondrian's invention of Neo-Plasticism by using one of his favourite mottos, one would choose 'the abolition of form' - by which he meant the abolition not only of shape as such but of any fixed entity, 'I think that the destructive element is too much neglected in art,' he would write at the end of his life. But right from the very beginning of Neo-Plasticism we see this destructive impulse at work." (ex. cat).


By Piet Mondrian: Left: "Tableau 1, with Red, Black, Blue, and Yellow," 1921, Oil on canvas, Gemeentemuseum Den Haag, The Hague, copyright 2012 Mondrian/Holtzman Trust, c/o HCR International; Center: "Lozenge Composition with Yellow, Black, Blue, Red and Gray," 1921, Oil on canvas, The Art Institute of Chicago. Gift of Edgar Kaufmann, Jr. Copyright 2012 Mondrian/Holtzman Trust, c/o HCR International; "Composition with Red, Blue, Black, Yellow and Gray," 1921, Oil on canvas, Gemeentemuseum Den Haag, The Hague. Copyright 2012 Mondrian/Holtzman Trust, c/o HCR International

Once he had found his groove, Mondrian concentrated on finding ways of downplaying any center, hierarchy or identity in his art, and to achieve this he focused on a limited vocabulary of "non-colors" - black, white and gray; black lines; and primary colors. In 1933 he added colored lines and in several canvases in the last two years of his life:

"With this restricted panoply, he launched his battle against what he deemed 'the culture of form,' demonstrating over and over in his extremely diverse compositions that no element ever exists by itself except as an illusion, or, as he would say himself countless times, that, 'in true reality,' there is nothing but relationships."

One of the highlights of the show was a model of a stage set by Piet Mondrian - illustrated below with two superb renderings (illustrated below) by Theo Van Doesburg and Cornelis van Eesteren and Van Doesburg. This mini-model was for Michael Seuphor's "L'Ephemere est eternel (The Ephemeral is Eternal).

Van Doesburgs

Left: "Contra-Construction Project" Theo Van Doesburg and Cornelis van Eesteren, 1923; Gouache on lithograph, Gift of Edgar Kaufmann, Jr.; Center: "Contra-construction," by Theo Van Doesburg, 1923, Pencil, gouache and crayon on transparent paper; The Netherlands Technical Institute; Right: "Stage Set Model for Michael Seuphor's "LeEphemere est eternel" (The Ephemeral is Eternal), by Piet Mondrian, 1926; re-construction 1963; Painted wood; Stedelijk van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven

Van Doesburgs

By Theo Van Doesburg: Left: 3 sketches of a cow entitled "Composition (The Cow)" circa 1917, pencil on paper, Purchase, The Museum of Modern Art, New York; Top: "Composition (The Cow)," circa 1917, Gouache, oil and charcoal on paper; Purchase, The Museum of Modern Art, New York; Right: "Composition VIII (The Cow)," circa 1918, Oil on canvas; Purchase, The Museum of Modern Art, New York

Mary Wigman

Left: "Hexentanz (Witch Dance) Version 2," 1926, Dance choreographed and performed by Mary Wigman from the film "Mary Tanzt," 1930, Collection of the Bundesarchiv-Filmarchiv, Berlin;  Right: "Glas-in-loodcomposite lV (Stained glass composition Iv), designed for the De Lange House, Alkmaar," by Theo Van Doesburg, 1917, Stained glass window in three parts; Kroller-Muller Museum, Otterlo, Transferred by the Rijksgebouwendienst. In tha background are paintings by Mondrian

Theo Van Doesburg published De Stijl in 1917, a journal created to serve abstract art. It was the first of its kind and its goal was to convince the general public to let go of old, individualistic aesthetic principles in favour of more universal ones, in the spirit of modern times. In his essay "3 De Stijl Models," Yve-Alain Bois writes about the first issue of this landmark journal: "...since art critics had proven incompetent at that, its redactors would be professionals themselves (vakliedn: tradesmen). They would demonstrate that the new aesthetic of abstraction was not arbitrary but stemmed from the logical evolution of art itself and that, at a fundemental level, all arts shared the same (abstract) principles. Curiously, given that one of the best-known aspects of De Stijl, both as a journal and as a movement or group, is the emphasis it placed on the symbiosis of art and architecture, the editorial said nothing of the latter. But the table of contents of this first issue reveals that the relationship between painting and architecture was as much on the mind of every De Stijl member as abstraction was."

It is not possible to get into the various factions that battled over which models of abstraction were valid - mostly opposed to Mondrian's principles, and vice versa - except for Theo Van Doesburg himself, whose stained glass windows, famous "cow," and renderings are illustrated here. The "cow" is first sketched as its conventional self, then in "Study for Composition (The Cow)," circa 1917, broken down into groupings of squares, rectangles and triangles in black and green, and - finally - in "Composition VIII (The Cow)," circa 1918, minus the triangles, the cow is obliterated. Yves-Alain Bois writes: "Whatever their fundamental differences, the three models of abstraction proposed by the de Stijl painters were all dependent on a modernist view according to which individual arts must eliminate everything extraneous to them in order to fulfill their own essence. This creed was forcefully articulated by Mondrian in the introductory essay mantioned above: 'Although the content of all art is one, the possibilities of plastic expression are different for each art. These possibilities must be discovered by each art within its own domain and remain limited by its bounds...Therefore the potentialities of one art cannot be judged according to the potentialities of another, but must be considered independently and only with regard to the art concerned'" (ex. cat)

On the screen, behing Van Doesburg's beautiful stained glass window, is a film depicting Mary Wigman performing "Hexentanz (Witch Dance) Version 2," circa 1926, a riveting performance. Behind them is a wall of paintings showing Mondrian's evolution from representational and Cubist-inspired works, to his iconic Neo-plastic masterpieces.

Kandinsky diamonds

"Farbstudie mit Rauten (Color Study with lozenges), by Vasily Kandinsky, 1913; Watercolor and pencil on paper; Stadtische Galerie im Lenbachhaus, Munich

Throughout this review there have been references to journals and publications that were essential in the dissemination of ideas about the different kinds of "abstraction" that aspired to overturn the status quo at the turn of the last century.  In the introductory essay, "Inventing Abstraction," Leah Dickerman writes:

 "Within the art world specifically, the idea of a transnational avant-garde was fostered by the rampant proliferaion of journals. Art historian David Cottington estimates that there were approximately 200 'little reviews' of art and culture in Paris alone in the decade preceding World War I. Certain forums were particularly significant, one such being the Blau Reiter almanac, founded by Kandinksy and Marc and first published in Munich in May 1912, then again in a widely distributed second edition in 1914. Marc wrote in the prospectus for the publication that it would 'show the latest movements in French, German and Russian painting. Subtle connections are revealed between modern and Gothic and primitive art, connections with Africa and the vast Orient, with the highly expressive, spontaneous folk and children's art, and especially with the most recent musical developments in Europe and the new ideas for theater of our time. In its very conception, then, the almanac aimed at a dissolution of boundaries - between national schools, temporal realms, and media, Kandinsky declared it his goal to 'show that something was happening everywhere.'  An emergent modern exhibition culture - for this was the dawn of international loan shows - played a parallel function: pictures moved across borders to new audiences; images were distributed through print media; people took off in trains and cars. Kandinsky and Marc conceived the Blaue Reiter this way, with almanac and exhibition society as complements to each other. By September, 1911, Kandinsky was corresponding with artists throughout Europe, soliciting both pictures for exhibitions and essays and images for publication."


"Farbige Karos (Colored Squares)," by Auguste Macke (1887-1914), Westfalisches Landesmuseum fur Kunst and Kulturgeschichte, Munster

The final gallery of the show included small but powerful studies in watercolor, gouache, and stained glass that hinted at the Abstract Expressionist movement yet to come. In his book, "On the Spiritual In Art," Kandisnky wrote: "Color cannot extend without limits...One can only imagine an infinite red, can only see it in one's mind's eye. Illustrated above is "Fabrige Karos (Colored Squares), by Auguste Macke, a tiny tour de force that is anything by decorative, because these artists were well-grounded in the science of color theory.

 In "The Color Grid," Lanka Tatterstall writes: "...'Colored Squares' is organized as a chromatic scale running from warm hues to cool, emphasizing an analytical (as opposed to a subjective) chromatic structure, the methodical arrangement of color in Macke's painting suggests that for him Kandisnky's mysticism may have been a generative counter-model against which to push, aided by the seemingly rational organization of scientific diagrams...The strong influence of scientific studies of color on the development of abstraction in Germany is in part due to the enduring inflluence of the Bauhaus School. All students took a preliminary course, implemented by Johannes Itten in 1919 and later taught by Kandinsky and Klee, in which the experiential study of color and form was a core component. Itten's pedagogy - which eschewed the academic concentration of copying from models, in favor of analysis of the elements of color and form - was deeply influenced by his teacher, the painter Adolf Holzel, with whom he had studied in Stuttgart from 1913 to 1916. Itten would later acknowledge the fundamental importance of Holzels's teachings on his own, writing that as Holzel's pupil he studied 'above all, the fundamentals of color...Holzel's whole effort consisted of exploring and teaching the means of design'...Itten distilled Holzel's cumbersome yet path-breaking theories into a system that students could grasp and put to use. This included Itten's pioneering solutions to the design of chromatic diagrams, In Furbenkugel in 7 Lichtstufen und 12 Tonen (Color sphere in 7 light values and 12 tones), he used the German Romantic painter Philipp Otto Runge's color-sphere diagram of 1810, in which all gradations of hues and tones are presented as combinations of the primary colors, plus black and white, and arranged as a three-dimensional sphere. Itten flattened out the sphere into a two dimensional twelve-point star that comprehensively organizes hues and tones of colors in their various relations to each other (such as complementary and triadic). Farbenjugel in 7 Lichtstufen und 12 Tonen was published as a lithograph tipped into the publication 'Utopia: Documents of a Reality (1921). In a 1916 notebook, Itten claimed, 'In the future I want to make no more artwork, Only thought-concentrations, to represent these...Painting means to concentrate oneself on color-form. In its concision, the print is Itten's most successful graphic visual representation of the spectrum of color."


"Gitterbild (Lattice Picture, also known as Grid Mounted)," by Josef Albers, circa 1921; Glass, iron latticework, and copper wire; The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation, Bethany, Conn.

Like all the other groups and factions of abstraction that collectively "invented" abstract art, there was discord at the Bauhaus as well. Itten's time there was marred by friction between the expressionist impulses of Itten and his followers, and the funcional principles of the school - which had made it so famous.

 In "The Color Grid" Lanka Tatterstall dissects Josef Albers "Grid Mounted, illustrated above: " Working on the piece as a student in the glass workshop at Bauhaus, Albers cut and arranged squares of manufacturers' samples of glass within a regular metal lattice. On the one hand, his straightforward grid composition forgrounds the materiality and variety of industrially produced glass, divested of the conventional esoteric connotations of colored glass panes, for example in church windows. (Albers had created a stained-glass window for a church four years earlier, and he would have been thoroughly familiar with the mystical connotations of stained glass.) And yet, as light passes through Alber's grid, Kandinsky's immaterial fantasy of unbounded color returns, finding a subtle expression through the chromatic emanation of light."

The last chapter in the catalogue, "Abstraction In 1936: Cubism and Abstract Art at the Museum of Modern Art," Leah Dickerman references the landmark exhibition "Cubism and Art" at The Museum of Modern Art,   that featured several of the now famous paintings on view in this show. It was - famously - organized by Alfred H. Bar. Leah Dickerman writesr: "The way the story of abstraction has been told - even our belief that that story lies at the heart of modernism - is closely tied to the history of The Museum of Modern Art. In 1936, seven years after the Museum opened, its founding director, Alfred H, Barr. Jr., took on the subject in his first major thematic show: Cubism and Abstract Art. This was a critical moment in the reception of abstraction, its entry into the canon of the museum - the moment, one might say, when the Modern went modern. Although MoMA would never be as relentless in its promotion of abstraction over other forms of art as some have suggested - Barr would continue to organize figurative projects as well as abstract ones - the 1936 show marked a distinct shift from the eclecticism of the Museum's earliest years to the preeminence of Cubism and geometric abstraction within its influential narratives..."

In the foreward of the catalogue, Glenn Lowry, Director, The Museum of Modern Art, writes: " Abstraction is a vital subject in The Museum of Modern Art's own history. An important touchstone for this project has been Cubism and Abstract Art, a landmark exhibition organized by the Museum's founding director, Alfred H. Barr, Jr., in 1936. The show surveyed the early history of abstraction at the moment when modernist artists were under real threat from totalitarianism in Europe. It had a lasting impact on MoMA's collection: many works were acquired directly from it, and others within the historical framework it shaped. As the Museum's first major exhibition on the early development of abstraction in seventy-five years, Inventing abstraction offers a chance to reflect on the legacy of MoMA's own practice."

And what a legacy it is. "Inventing Abstraction" was a powerful and memorable show. The scope of this exhibition was enormous, and far too detailed to describe in a single review. Too many wonderful paintings have been left out, sadly. The catalogue accompanying the exhibition is as comprehensive as it gets, filled with beautiful illustrations, for those that would like to explore this subject further. This is only the tip of the iceberg.

All citations included in this review are from the catalogue accompanying the exhibition "Inventing Abstraction 1910-1925," by Leah Dickerman, with contributions by Matthew Affron, Yves-Alain Bois, Masha Chelenova, Ester Coen, Christopher Cox, Hubert Damisch, Rachael Z. Delue, Hal Foster, Mark Franko, Matthew Gale, Peter Galison, Maria Gough, Jodi Hauptman, Gordon Hughes, David Joselit, Anton Kaeo David Lang, Susan Laxton, Glenn D. Lowry, Philippe-Alain Michaud, Jaroslaw Suchan, Lanka Tattersall and Michael R. Taylor.

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