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The Museum of Modern Art explores development of one of Modernism's greatest inventions: Abstraction
Vasily Kandinsky. Farbstudie — Quadrate mit konzentrischen Ringen (Color study — squares with concentric rings). 1913. Watercolor, gouache, and crayon on paper, 9 3⁄8 × 12 3⁄8″ (23.9 × 31.5 cm). Stadtische Galerie im Lenbachhaus, Munich. © 2012 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris. Courtesy Städtische Galerie im Lenbachhaus, Munich.

NEW YORK, NY.- Inventing Abstraction, 1910–1925, on view at MoMA from December 23, 2012, to April 15, 2013, explores the advent of abstraction as both a historical idea and an emergent artistic practice. Commemorating the centennial of the moment at which a series of artists invented abstraction, the exhibition is a sweeping survey of more than 350 artworks in a broad range of mediums—including paintings, drawings, prints, books, sculptures, films, photographs, recordings, and dance pieces—that represent a radical moment when the rules of art making were fundamentally transformed. Half of the works in the exhibition, many of which have rarely been seen in the United States, come from major international public and private collectors. The exhibition is organized by Leah Dickerman, Curator, with Masha Chlenova, Curatorial Assistant, Department of Painting and Sculpture, The Museum of Modern Art.

A key premise of the exhibition is abstraction’s role as a cross-media practice from the start. This notion is illustrated through an exploration of the productive relationships between artists, composers, dancers, and poets in establishing a new modern language for the arts. Inventing Abstraction brings together works from a wide range of artistic mediums to draw a rich portrait of the watershed moment in which traditional art was wholly reinvented.

Roughly one hundred years ago, a series of rapid shifts took place in the cultural sphere that in the end amounted to the greatest rewriting of the rules of artistic production since the Renaissance. Invented not just once, but by different artists in different locales with different philosophical foundations, abstraction was quickly embraced by a post-Cubist generation of artists as the language of the modern.

One of the first pictures in the exhibition, Woman with a Mandolin, made by Pablo Picasso (Spanish, 1881–1973) in 1910, shows how he approached the brink of abstraction before turning away. Beginning in December 1911 and across the course of 1912, a handful of artists, including Vasily Kandinsky (Russian, 1886–1944), Robert Delaunay (French, 1885–1941), and Frantisek Kupka (Czech, 1871–1957), presented the first abstract works in public exhibition. Inventing Abstraction surveys the early history of abstraction from this pioneering moment through the mid-1920s, when it was broadly embraced by the avant-garde.

The exhibition takes an international perspective, and includes work by artists from across Eastern and Western Europe and the United States, such as Hans Arp (German/French, 1886–1966), Fernand Léger (French, 1881–1955), El Lissitzky (Russian, 1890–1941), Kazimir Malevich (Russian, 1879–1935), Piet Mondrian (Dutch, 1872–1944), and many others.

From the start, abstraction was an international phenomenon, with ideas, images, and people traveling across borders through a new modern media and exhibition culture. Its pioneers were far more closely linked than is generally known. Highlights in Inventing Abstraction include Kandinsky’s Composition V, his most ambitious early abstract work; an important sequence of Mondrian paintings that traces the development of his work from his famous Tree pictures of 1912 to a group of superb early Neo-Plastic paintings; works by Malevich documented in his display at the landmark “0.10” exhibition held in Petrograd in 1915; a group of early rare works by avant-garde artists Katarzyna Kobro (Polish, 1898–1951) and Władysław Strzemiński (Polish, 1893–1952), calligramme poems by Guillaume Apollinaire (French, 1880–1918), dance notations by Rudolf von Laban (Hungarian, 1879–1958) and musical scores by Arnold Schoenberg (Austrian, 1874–1951).

Directional speakers in the galleries play sound recordings of musical compositions by Arnold Schoenberg and Luigi Russolo, and readings of experimental poetry by Blaise Cendrars, Guillaume Apollinaire, Aleksei Kruchenykh, Jean (Hans) Arp, and Tristan Tzara. Four of the landmark artists' books shown in the exhibition—by Vasily Kandinsky, Apollinaire, Kruchenykh, and Tzara in collaboration with Arp—can be further explored in touchscreen displays with pageturning software.

A chart mapping the dense web of relationships among the artists represented in Inventing Abstraction appear at large scale on the title wall. Vectors connect individuals whose acquaintance in the period between 1910 and 1925 could be documented. The names of those with the most number of connections within this group appear in red. These key “connectors”—charismatic, socially adept figures with contacts in many social pools—played a particularly important role in the dissemination of ideas. Many in this group—including Vasily Kandinsky, Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, Guillaume Apollinaire, Tristan Tzara, and Alfred Stieglitz—were editors of literary and art reviews who built impressive networks in their correspondence, commissioning manuscripts, requesting reproductions, and soliciting support. The chart was produced as a collaboration between the exhibition’s curatorial and design team and Paul Ingram, Kravis Professor of Business, and Mitali Banerjee, graduate student, Columbia Business School, and other students.

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