New York Pt.2: The MoMA vs. The Big Questions

And now for something completely different! Well, in some ways – not completely; the MoMA’s “Inventing Abstraction, 1910-1925” was a veritable force of Modern esprit. A good chunk of the art world’s biggest game-changers all packed together, 15-20 pieces (or more?) to a gallery in a whirlwind of color blocks and metaphysical soup.

I won’t lie, I was geeking out real hard when I arrived and saw the introductory text panel straddling a giant line-map of Modernism. That’s right, a who’s who showing the major players of abstraction (Kandinsky, Picasso, Mondrian, Malevich, etc.) and their respective connections to … everyone else in the Modern Art world…. It was way cool. I sidled up to a crowd four levels deep to read the map and found that, sadly, it was really quite difficult to read. Ultimately, the idea was unique, interesting, and educational but the execution left readers admiring it as another abstract artwork – the lines were so thin and smushed together, not to mention all the same color, that when you attempted to follow any of them, you’d end up in a tangled mess of red and white and have no idea where your line went.There is, however, a tremendously awesome interactive version of the map on MoMA’s website (linked in the picture below) and … let me tell you… it’s cool.

MOMA abstraction map copy

Is this Pictionary? I know! I know! Spaghetti! (For Real Warning: Do not click unless you have several hours to waste) [Source: Museum of Modern Art Website]

The exhibit itself was visually stunning (possibly overwhelming, but in a wonderful way!), but I couldn’t help but notice the lack of contextual information outside of the individual object labels. The exhibit was intended as a loosely chronological account of the search for abstraction, but made very little attempt to explain WHY and HOW abstraction came to be important and in what way each artist grappled with this concept. In other words: why was ‘going abstract’ even remotely important, let alone something that all of these people deeply cared about? This was particularly frustrating for me because abstract Modern art is one of the most conceptual and widely complained about (“My kid could do that!,” remember?) genres in the history of art. To put such a wholly complete, linear description of abstraction and it’s development and not give the reader easy access to the main driving forces behind the movement is rather unfortunate. Not to say there wasn’t information, but it was largely hidden among the many, many labels which most visitors scanned if they glanced at them at all.

Beyond that, this is one of the relatively rare artistic periods in which artist groups labeled themselves and actively told you their philosophies, likes, dislikes, and driving forces – use them! For the casual browser, they wouldn’t necessarily peg that Wyndham Lewis and the Vorticists were not exactly in sync with Giacomo Balla and the Futurists (and that the subtle differences are not only fascinating but would leave Lewis spinning in his grave to know that they were lumped together by anyone).  A few wall panels would do the trick, but there are endless opportunities for neat, ‘abstract’ education – like asking the visitors questions or giving them excerpts from important abstract art texts (Mondrian, “Neo-Plasticism in Pictorial Art’) and encouraging them to assess these concepts.


[Giacomo Balla, “Velocita Astratta + Rumore (Abstract Speed + Sound),” 1913-14. Source: MoMA “Inventing Abstraction” website]

Workshop circa 1914-5 by Wyndham Lewis 1882-1957

[Wyndham Lewis, “Workshop”, 1914. Source: Tate website]

You’re Right… They may as well be the same painting.

[cue sobs of frustration from every Modernist scholar and enthusiast in the world]

Keep your eyes peeled for the last instalment of the NYC series!

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