Two critics are tied over MoMA’s latest blockbuster, Inventing Abstraction: 1910-1925. Peter Schjeldahl, The New Yorker’s own lover of High Modernism, and Jerry Saltz, New York Magazine’s one-man office for the common man, disagree on the show’s merits. Is it a “splendid historical survey” (Schjeldahl) or “history written by the winners” (Saltz)? We’re not surprised these critics disagree, but they do end up pursuing a similar, and important question: what’s so radical about abstraction when it’s become such standard fare in contemporary art?
Like a whole lot of art, which seemed controversial when it first came out, eventually we get used to it as “art,” and it becomes part and parcel of culture over time. Saltz admits:
Indeed, even we insiders sometimes don’t get why certain abstraction isn’t just fancy wallpaper or pretty arrangements of shape, line, and color.
It takes some courage for a critic, who’s spent decades looking at art, to flat out admit that art’s still confusing. But that’s art taken on it’s own, without catalog essays or wall labels. Just looking at blobs of color, even the 350 plus works on view in this show, isn’t enough to more than hint at abstraction’s former radical power. It appears there’s certain things that mute paintings just can’t do.
Saltz frets that the show’s traditional storyline results in a paucity of works devoted to American artists and non-whites. There’s no “Scott Joplin! No Dixieland, Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, or Jelly Roll Morton,” he writes. “All are as original and as “abstract” as these Europeans.” Also annoying is MoMA’s implicit claim that abstraction was invented in this century. Always the king of common sense, Saltz reminds us:
Only an institution this besotted with its own bellybutton would title a show Inventing Abstraction, 1910–1925. Abstraction wasn’t invented in the West in those years. Abstraction has been with us since the beginning. Westerners discovered it, or rediscovered it. In many cases, it soon became insular and overpurified. Consciously, conceptually, purposefully, fervently. Abstraction is there in the caves. It’s been practiced ever since, all over the world. All two-dimensional art is abstract, in that it’s a representation of something in the world rather than the thing itself.
Schjeldahl, too, wonders about the reasons MoMA gives for the surge in abstract work in the 20th century. But unlike Saltz, he doesn’t rally much furor over the type of works featured in the exhibition. MoMA “raises the question ‘Why?’ at every turn”, but it doesn’t give much in the way of answers, other than alluding to the answers cooked up by the artists in the show:
Many of the artists had answers—or, at least, they cooked them up. The trailblazing Wassily Kandinsky and the bulletproof masters of abstraction, Piet Mondrian and Kazimir Malevich, doubled, tortuously, as theorists. They initiated what would become a common feature of determinedly innovative art culture to this day: the simpler the art, the more elaborate the rationale.
Of all the artists in the show, Schjeldahl prefers an artist having very little to do with MoMA’s academic tenor. It’s just one small work, “Sophie Taeuber-Arp’s humble, radiant tapestry, which obliterates all skepticism.” He adds, “Little else in the show makes such humanly grounded sense.” Ha. Taeuber-Arp’s work doesn’t need an elaborate, academic package to appreciate it. Schjeldahl likes what he likes, regardless of the story MoMA’s trying to tell. It’s still a “splendid historical survey”; he just didn’t like most of what they included.
Saltz liked work in the show, too, but for him, there are matters of far greater importance than whether some nice-looking paintings make you feel good. He ends his review with a booming, doomsday message:
If it doesn’t open up this storyline soon, MoMA will be doomed to examine the imagined logic of its beautiful bellybutton, alone and forever.
Saltz cares about history, and that’s admirable. We’re not really sure what type of survey show about abstraction MoMA could put on that would appease Saltz, though we do know it would need to include Jazz pianist Jelly Roll Morton. That could be a fantastic show, if not unwieldy, but art museums don’t always warm up to such far reaching exhibitions. So, we’re not going to wait with our fingers crossed for that one, but it’d probably be better than yet another “splendid historical survey”.