Entering the Void

A placard over the entryway to The Museum of Modern Art’s arresting exhibit, Inventing Abstraction, 1910-1925, contains a statement from Wassily Kandinsky, one of the key figures in the art world to change the way we look at art. “Must we not then remove the object altogether, throw it to the void and instead lay bare the purely abstract?”

Few would question that the splintered prism of a world these individuals glimpsed at the turn of the 20th century demanded a lens to fit. After all, we’ve had over a century to get used to the idea, whether we like what we see or not. But that was not the case for Pablo Picasso, Marcel Duchamp, Georgia O’Keeffe, or hundreds of others that took that first leap into the void. MoMA’s current survey helps us to understand a little better how innovative and brave these first pioneers really were.

But be prepared. Like all sweeping surveys, there is a point where one’s perceptions blur, and the whole business threatens to run together like a child’s finger painting. I found it most satisfying when I located a particular artist to my liking who felt overrepresented, to focus on one or two works that captured my attention.

This was a movement reverberating across geographical and cultural boundaries, exploding like a stray meteorite on the planet, impacting the creative sensibilities of legions. Kandinsky, Fernand Léger, Robert Delaunay, František Kupka, Francis Picabia, Filippo Marinetti, the list goes on. Out of the chaos painters, sound poets, non-narrative dancers, and atonal composers created works that must have looked like the splatter of a madman or woman and sounded like unidentifiable static from another planet to their uninitiated contemporaries.

Half of the works on display have been carefully culled from major international public and private collectors. MoMA (and its public) can be thankful for the tireless efforts of curator Leah Dickerman, along with Masha Chlenova, curatorial assistant of the department of painting and sculpture.

Upon arrival, a huge connect-the-dots wall greets the viewer. It’s a kind of air traffic control grid for this cultural revolution, with red dots signifying the most influential members, whether by their sheer artistry alone, in the case of Picasso, or their persistent pronouncements and critical genius to recognize the uniqueness in others (i.e., Guillaume Apollinaire and Alfred Stieglitz for starters). Some, like Kandinsky, possessed the ability to be both creator and commentator. The handsome accompanying book to the exhibit uses this same map for its frontispiece. It’s worth a few minutes of contemplation to get the full impact of so many simultaneous happenings across continents, even if the long bench facing the diagram is full.

Somewhat surprisingly, it is a series of Picasso’s Study for a Construction ink drawings that are the first shapes to confront the eye. These forms that would seem to give birth to a nagging interest in cubism are bold and unapologetic. But Picasso’s lifelong childlike and insatiable curiosity would never hold to one schism of thought for long and his personal obsessions with his recognizable subject, however distorted and reinvented, would hold center stage for him.

The eye soon moves on to a richly colorful canvas by Czech artist František Kupka, with brash vertical brushstrokes seemingly improvised in the moment of creation, ending in a drip-like effect at the bottom. This painting, Madame Kupka among Verticals, is clearly a portrait. In the upper center, a beautiful face emerges, all the more evanescent and memorable for the predominance of the color bars that surround her. In studying this work, we can only be thankful that Kupka did not abandon representation in this portrait altogether. When total abstraction does dominate, as in Localization of Graphic Motifs II, the purple petal-shaped beauty of pure design transcends turbulence to become a thing of total beauty.

A special joy in such a vast exhibit as this one is to find oneself enamored by an artist largely unfamiliar to one’s experience. In my case, Kupka’s unmistakable genius remained with me long after the visit.

Serendipitous Encounters

Kandinsky’s Impressions III, Koncert, from 1911, is undoubtedly an abstraction but it teases the eye with its shapes that pour diagonally down from the upper left of the frame. Is this a throng of concert attendees, rushing toward their seats? Bold blacks and yellows predominate; nothing is concrete except our own impressions about the original event that inspired the artist. Kandinsky did a series of quick studies for this work, after attending a much discussed concert by Claude-Michel Schönberg which drastically altered his artistic oeuvre from that time forward. Obviously, Karl Jung’s “collective unconscious” had its say in this creation. (A seminal critical work of Kandinsky’s worth noting is his treatise, The Spiritual in Art, which was created during this time period.)

The work of Russian artist Sonia Delaunay-Terk is best represented here by the accordion-pleated book, Prose of the Trans-Siberian and of Little Jehanne of France, which she designed with her friend and collaborator, poet Blaise Cendrars. Discovering his rich stream of consciousness imagery (not unlike the way we think of a later Lawrence Ferlinghetti or Allen Ginsberg, for instance), she was quoted in David Seidner’s article in BOMB Magazine as saying, “he gave me a push, a shock.” She merged text and pattern almost effortlessly, the poem itself inspired by a rail journey the poet made across Russia. Theirs was a collaboration due in no small part to poet-critic Guillaume Apollinaire introducing Delaunay-Terk to Cendrars. Having emigrated to Paris in 1905, she fell in love with Robert Delaunay and together they called their cubistic experiments simultaneisme, an occurrence when one design, placed next to another, affects both. Robert Delaunay is amply represented here with his grand-scale interpretations, such as Simultaneous Contrasts: Sun and Moon. In MoMA’s exhibit publication, a quote from his manifesto declares that “art in nature is rhythmic and abhors constraint.” There is no lack of rhythm in this couple’s complementary output.

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