‘Inventing Abstraction – 1910-1925,’ at MoMA

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Painters, sculptors, poets, composers, photographers, filmmakers and choreographers alike ventured into this new territory, struggling to sever Western art’s age-old link with legible images, narrative logic, harmonic structure and rhyme. It was a thrilling, terrifying process, and in terms of the history of art, it is one of the greatest stories ever told.
“Inventing Abstraction: 1910-1925,” a dizzying, magisterial cornucopia opening on Sunday at the Museum of Modern Art, captures something of that original thrill and terror, in a lineup of works that show artists embracing worldliness and, in some cases, withdrawing into mystical purity. The show brings new breadth and detail and a new sense of collectivity to a familiar tale that is, for the Modern, also hallowed ground.
The 350-plus works on view include numerous paintings — most of the major ones from outside the museum’s collection — as well as stained glass, needlepoint, film, sculpture and illustrated books. Arranged loosely by nationality, they represent a herculean feat of orchestration on the part of Leah Dickerman, a curator in the Modern’s department of painting and sculpture, and Masha Chlenova, a curatorial assistant.
This is the kind of sweeping historical survey of a big chunk of modernism for which the Modern is justly celebrated, and in many ways it is a sequel to one of the first and most famous of the type, the pioneering “Cubism and Abstract Art” show mounted by Alfred H. Barr Jr., the museum’s founding director, in 1936. Barr’s effort sprawled over 50 years, from Cézanne to Surrealism. Ms. Dickerman has tightened the stylistic brackets and the time frame considerably and, perhaps in keeping with the Modern’s current performance-centeredness, deftly insinuated early dance films and recordings of poetry and music into the galleries.
She has also added American artists to the mix, and increased the numbers of British and Italian artists and women. As a result, it is at once more focused and more inclusive.
Ms. Dickerman places new emphasis on abstraction as a great collective endeavor that emerged simultaneously across several mutually influencing art forms, from the hands of players who often knew one another. She gets specific, adorning a wall outside the exhibition with an immense chart dotted with the names of the show’s 84 artists, all connected by radiating lines that represent relationships between correspondents, friends, spouses and collaborators. (The most connected, catalytic creators, highlighted in red, include Sonia Delaunay-Terk, Francis Picabia, Wassily Kandinsky and Alfred Stieglitz.) No artist is an island, the chart seems to say.
The first artist we encounter in the show itself is Picasso, represented by a stark Cubist painting from 1910 that — free of his characteristic legible details — flirts with total abstraction. It was a rarity for him, and is the only Picasso here; he left it to others to carry Cubism to its logical conclusion.
Next comes a key moment of cross-fertilization: The Munich concert of Arnold Schoenberg’s music, in January 1911, that inspired Kandinsky to broach abstraction, after pondering it for years. Two comical sketches of the event, with figures and instruments clearly visible, are here (along with its music, in both written and piped-in form), and so is the semi-abstract and rather Thurber-esque painting that resulted, “Impression III (Concert).”
From there the show has an urgent pace, its rhythms set by constant shifts and pivots in scale, medium, locale and style, as well as by different notions of form, space and even speed. Startlingly large canvases by Frantisek Kupka, Picabia, Morgan Russell and David Bomberg punctuate the proceedings, proving that the Abstract Expressionists were not the first to scale up abstract painting — it was born that way.
Equally stunning are clusters of small works, foremost a small gallery where 11 paintings by Piet Mondrian show him progressively flattening and magnifying the Cubist grid to reach pure abstraction, and a wall of nine Suprematist paintings by the Russian master Kazimir Malevich. In one of the show’s more astute juxtapositions, Malevich’s drifting, implicitly spiritual geometries confront three relatively crowded, boisterous German Officer paintings by the American Marsden Hartley, a canonical arriviste; their face-off is refereed by the earthy severity of an early, nearly seven-foot-tall version of Constantin Brancusi’s “Endless Column.”
The show has flaws and omissions. Paul Klee is absent because of a reneged loan; also missing is Joan Miró (too Surreal?), who might have brought a breath of whimsy to its sometimes earnest tone.

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