Abstract Slant

NEARLY 40 YEARS AGO, 21 MODERN artists--including Willem de Kooning and Franz Kline--signed an open letter protesting the Guggenheim Museum's plans for a new building by Frank Lloyd Wright. They contended that a "curvilinear slope . . . indicates a callous disregard for the fundamental rectilinear frame of reference." Wright telegraphed back: there is no such frame of reference, "except one raised by callous disregard of nature, all too common in your art." Back then, it seemed like the great white beehive on Fifth Avenue would never be the site of an exhibition called "Abstraction in the Twentieth Century: Total Risk, Freedom, Discipline." Now, through May 12, it is.

To view this paean to modern art's greatest achievement, you start at the bottom of the ramp (unusual at the Guggenheim) and trek upward: past cerebral Maleviches and emotional Kandinskys from the 1910s, past Mondrian's poetically austere rectangles, then past abstract expressionists Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko, some 1960s minimal art and, finally, under the spectacular skylight, contemporary artists Gerhard Richter and Martin Puryear. Along the way, you duck into off-ramp galleries for huge paintings by Clyfford Still and Barnett Newman, and a couple of wall drawings (in mud) by sculptor Richard Long.

The show is an optical feast. And it's an uncommon exhibition these days that doesn't squander its wall space on politics. But "Abstraction" turns out to be, if not the Cliffs Notes, the Reader's Digest version of how modern art jettisoned representation. A mere 136 works by 49 artists can't do justice to a movement the Guggenheim was founded--as the Museum of Non-Objective Painting in 1939-- to celebrate. And brevity exacts a price.

The omissions! No Robert Mother-well, no Richard Diebenkorn and no Joan Mitchell. One lonely Kline. And no Hans Hofmann--the one artist to practice impressionism and cubism in Europe and transform them, in America, into full-color abstraction on a heroic scale. There's no sculpture by Anthony Caro or Louise Nevelson, either. In their stead are four bays of Frank Stella (including a hideous installation of churning metal that curator Mark Rosenthal admits "isn't his best work") and three of Richter, who also works in photorealism. He's about as committed to abstraction as Congress is to the NEA. Worst, the show contains few masterpieces. Abstraction is treated as a kind of off-the-bolt style; any three yards of an artist's canvas is apparently as serviceable as any other.

If the show in the end slights its subject, Wright's building--so wonderful in itself--does actual damage. You notice that the way Frantisek Kupka's 1913 painting, "Localization of Graphic Mobiles," is hung jibes with the ramp's slant, but not with your own inner ear.Stella's late-1950s black paintings are backlit like a window shade in a cheap hotel.

What else could the Guggenheim have done? Well, it audaciously opened a big SoHo branch in a rectilinear building in 1992. Why not a two-site exhibition: smaller, earlier works uptown, and the gargantuan later stuff downtown? As it is, Wright once again gets the better of abstraction.