Modern Art, Defined

Morgan Russell. Synchromy in Orange: To Form.
Morgan Russell. Synchromy in Orange: To Form. 1913-1914. Gift of Seymour H. Knox, Jr. (c) 2012 Peyton Wright Gallery. Photo courtesy of Albright-Knox Art Gallery / Art Resource, NY.

A century ago, in October 1912, a silent newsreel flew out from Paris bearing one of history's hottest cultural updates. The footage is lost, but we can imagine its title cards: "Artist makes pictures without any subject—New 'abstraction' shakes up French avant-garde—Art of the future, or dead-end experiment?"—Even Picasso objects: 'There is no abstract art, you always have to begin with something.' " Not since the Italians invented fully realist painting, 500 years earlier, had visual art made such a huge leap. Up until that landmark fall of 1912, fine artists had always assumed their work would link up to the world, one way or another. And then, almost overnight, a bunch of them saw that severing that link would open up new options in art.

"It was the biggest rewriting of the codes of cultural production since the Renaissance ... It's the moment when the modern becomes modern," says Leah Dickerman, a curator at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, one of the 20th century's great bastions of abstraction. We're eating lunch in MoMA's fifth-floor café, not far from a vast suite of galleries being readied for Inventing Abstraction, 1910–1925, the first full survey of how representation got dumped. It opens Dec. 23. Dickerman's show will feature the most famous pioneers in nonfiguration: Vasily Kandinsky, Kazimir Malevich, Piet Mondrian. But it will also point to figures who have been neglected, from countries often sidelined. Czech painter František Kupka was the subject of that newsreel, as the first artist to publicly display pictures without subject matter. Léopold Survage, a little-known Russian, made a stab at abstract films. And various dancers and poets and musicians, from Hungary and Italy and Austria, will be shown following the path to abstraction in their own media.

Abstraction was such a terrifying leap in the dark, Dickerman argues, that taking it became almost a group exercise, one artist giving cover and courage to another as they abandoned all ties to subject matter. (Interestingly, Renaissance realism also started out as a communal endeavor, with a number of artists present at its birth.) Dickerman says that she remains amazed at "how impossible abstraction was in 1910"—when some theorists broached and then abandoned the option—"and two years later, it's everywhere." The period texts, Dickerman says, make clear just how much collective valor it took to disregard most of what fine art had always been. The exhibition's works should make clear that once abstraction stopped being simply impossible, it became hugely fertile instead: Kandinsky painted swirls meant to link vision to sound; Malevich used the simplest geometrical forms to reach out to the immanent and ineffable; Mondrian went for the pared-down essences of visual fact—horizontals and verticals and fields of primary color. For decades thereafter abstract art seemed an endless resource for artists to mine, out on the most obvious cutting edge.

And then suddenly, maybe somewhere around 1975, it didn't anymore.

It's not that there hasn't been any 
abstraction since the mid-'70s. At this moment we are officially in the middle of yet another abstract-art revival, according to dealers and certain writers. But the urgency that once came with abstraction has clearly disappeared. The nonfiguration that's attempted today inevitably seems like a rehashing of the abstraction of old, or a footnote to it and ironic poke at it, or some kind of retro revisitation, akin to the Mad Men suits on today's businessmen. It's almost impossible to see today's abstraction as mattering much for tomorrow's art. Which means that the second-greatest discovery in Western art bore fruit for about 60 years—or slightly more than one 10th the time that Renaissance perspective kept paying dividends. (And real­ism, far more than abstraction, still feels like it belongs in an artmaker's toolbox.)

But it could be that to note the passing of abstraction as a form of current art is to misunderstand what mattered most about the abstract revolution in the first place: it may have been less about the "abstract" than about "revolution." Its impact didn't depend so much on the gorgeous works of art it led to as on the fact of leaving so much behind. Abstraction was the model, the test case, for art as innovation, so that almost all the radical art that came later had its roots in that moment in 1912. Readymades and monochromes, text-based art and performance, happenings and purely conceptual gestures, all depend on abstraction's pioneering rejections of business-as-usual art. "Abstraction unsettles more than just the fact of depiction," says Dickerman—it establishes the act of unsettling as the sign of modern thought.

Dickerman explains to me that her work on abstraction came out of her great 2005 show about the radical Dada movement, which flourished around the time of World War I in the hands of figures such as Jean Arp, Francis Picabia, and Marcel Duchamp. "When I was working on Dada, I thought of it as being responsible for everything that was important in modern art," Dickerman says—until the moment she realized that Dada's absurdist innovations had their start in an embrace of the apparent absurdity of abstract art, where many Dada artists began their careers.

Vasily Kandinsky. Impression III, Concert
Vasily Kandinsky. Impression III (Konzert) [Impression III (Concert)]. 1911. Stadtische Galerie im Lenbachhaus, Munich. Photo (c) Stadtische Galerie im Lenbachhaus, Manchen. (c) 2012 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris.

So we shouldn't value abstraction only for its successes—for the great pictures it produced, fascinating as those may be. We should value it for the failure that it courted, at least in those first years—for even broaching the idea that something that so clearly was not art could turn out to be so. Abstract art's brief lifespan may prove that its failure was on the books from the very beginning. That makes its invention more daring and important than facile success would have done.

Abstraction doesn't only ask how a picture can be made without subject matter. According to Dickerman, abstract art's crucial question is, "How can you think something that's new?"