When Did Abstract Art Start, Really?

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A major show recently closed at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, “Inventing Abstraction: 1910 – 1925.” It was an admirable show, and comprehensive, covering the work of over 90 artists, including Josef Albers and Hans Arp to Tristan Tzara and Mary Wigman.

The show catalog opens with the declaration: “Roughly 100 years ago, a series of precipitous shifts took place in the cultural sphere that in the end amounted to as great a rewriting of the rules of artistic production as had been seen since the Renaissance. That transformation would fundamentally shape the artistic practice in the century that followed. Beginning in 1911 and across the course of 1912, in several European and American cities, a handful of artists — Vasily Kandinsky, Frantisek Kupka, Francis Picabia, Robert Delaunay, Arthur Dove — presented paintings that differed from almost all those that preceded them in the long tradition of the medium in the Western tradition: shunning the depiction of objects in the world, they displayed works with no discernible subject matter.”

“Abstraction might may be modernism’s greatest innovation,” wrote Glenn Lowry, director of MoMA, in his foreword to the catalog. “It is now so central to our conception of artistic practice that the time before the idea of an abstract artwork made sense has become hard to imagine, yet when these works first appeared — quite suddenly, around 100 years ago — they took many observers by surprise.”

“What possessed a generation of young European artists, and a few Americans, to suddenly suppress recognizable imagery in pictures and sculptures?” asked Peter Schjeldahl, in a The New Yorker review of the show. “Unthinkable one moment, the strategy became practically compulsory in the next.”

Leah Dickerman, curator of the show, cites “cars, photography relativity, and the death of god” as possible causes for the break from reality.

While his early cubist studies are credited by many artists as being the impetus to their explorations of abstraction, Picasso famously loathed abstract art. “There is no abstract art,” he claimed. “You must always start with something. Afterwards you can remove all appearances of reality…[but] the idea of the object left an indelible mark.”

“Cubism did not accept the logical consequences of its own discoveries,” countered Piet Mondrian. And writing on cubism, the critic Roger Fry concluded, “The logical extreme of such a method would undoubtedly be…a purely abstract language.”

In the end, Ms. Dickerman rejects the idea of a single source of inspiration, opting instead for “the crucial role that network thinking plays in innovation.”

Probably the correct premise — in all things creative — but did the title of the show, “1910 – 1925,” and MoMA’s bias toward modern art limit its application?

Late last summer a show was mounted at the Tate Britain, curated by the American artist Vija Celmins, showing sketches and studies by J.M.W. Turner from the early 1800s (one is shown above). Dismissed by Ms. Dickerman as a “proto-abstractionist,” the work at the Tate is unarguably abstract. Even in his major works, Turner’s adherence to reality — to identifiable subject matter — is negligible. In the painting “Sun Setting over a Lake,” done in 1840, only the title identifies the tiny, yellow splotch, while 99% of the canvas is covered with a diaphanous, shimmering film of color that is neither lake nor sky ever glimpsed in the real world.

In “J.M.W. Turner: The Making of a Modern Artist,” Sam Smiles wrote, “Turner’s late, sometimes unfinished, work, with its looseness of handling, saturated color and obscured thematics…seems to transcend time and place to inform later modernist movements, such as French Impressionism and American Abstract Impressionism.”

In 1966, an earlier MoMA show entitled, “Turner: Imagination and Reality,” displaying works from his later period, when, as The Guardian wrote, “lines become blurred and there are fewer enclosed shapes,” a new image of Turner emerged. Jack Lindsay wrote, “In his work modern art was fully and definitely born.” Lawrence Gowing, writing in the catalog of the show, said, “Now we find that a kind of painting, which is of vital concern to us, was anticipated by Turner.” Turner was hailed as a prophet of modernism and abstraction. An image that has remained largely intact — except, apparently, at the MoMA.

Opinions may change, but the closer artists look at the past, the clearer they will see the future.

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