Reviewed by Michael Webb
In this sumptuous catalog to a landmark exhibition, MoMA curator Leah Dickerman likens the shift to abstraction that began a century ago to the rewriting of the rules of art in the Renaissance. She quotes the poet and critic Guillaume Apollinaire: “Young painters of the extreme schools want to make pure painting, an entirely new art form,” he wrote in 1912. “It is only at its beginning, and not yet as abstract as it wants to be.” The shift occurred at dizzying speed. Within a few years, Picasso, Kandinsky, Malevich, Mondrian, Leger and many other artists had pushed abstraction to its limits and begun to chart its vast potential. Modernists challenged the establishment in Moscow and St Petersburg, Paris and Munich, Vienna and Zurich, even in such philistine cities as New York and London.
MoMA was founded in 1929 and hosted its first major exhibition of abstraction in 1936. By then, avant garde artists in Germany and the Soviet Union had been crushed or exiled, and director Alfred Barr was able to build a unique collection of their work. In recent years, the museum has been criticized for celebrating the history of modernism at the expense of contemporary art. Inventing Abstraction is a thrilling rejoinder to that slur. The best works shown here are timeless and a reproach to the ephemeral talents that dominate today’s art market. Let the galleries show every new sensation and leave museums to choose among the very few survivors of this frantic contest for fame.
Every art lover will want to see the originals before the MoMA exhibition closes on April 15th, but (for those who can and the many who cannot) this book provides an essential commentary (by 23 experts) and a handsome portfolio of images. There’s a glut of books on every aspect of artistic creation; this one is indispensable.