New York

Focus: “Abstraction in the Twentieth Century: Total Risk, Freedom, Discipline”

Why is it that one comes out of “Abstraction in the Twentieth Century: Total Risk, Freedom, Discipline” with the somewhat depressed feeling of having nothing to say, nothing in particular? Perhaps the answer lies in the program of the show, that is, in the meager hint of such a program offered by Mark Rosenthal, its curator, in the introduction to the lengthy accompanying catalogue: “My aim is to present the kind of overview of this century of abstraction that an art historian living a hundred years from now might write—that is, to imagine having the increased perspective and objectivity that time is alleged to impart to the retrospective observer.” True, Rosenthal immediately qualifies this goal (“it is impossible to pretend that complete impartiality is possible”), yet he still holds to it as the position that has, however imperfectly, governed his approach. It is thus not by chance that, despite having seen some great works of art, one comes out of the show oddly detached and slightly bored, as if having just read an encyclopedia entry on the topic of abstract art (or rather, since the future has been invoked, as if having distractedly played with such an entry on the Web). This show is a perfect example of what Barnett Newman has stigmatized in his famous appeal “For Impassionate Criticism”: it is (and aims at being) “neutral, dispassionate, ‘scientific!’” It’s hard to become sanguine about it—except to criticize the absence not only of sanguinity but also of rigor: the exhibition lacks an edge and is amorphous, neither good nor atrocious, just bland. Contrary to the title (borrowed from Eva Hesse, not always great with words), it takes no risks, frees itself from none of the clichés regarding its topic, and surprisingly lacks “discipline.”

“Abstraction in the Twentieth Century” is not strictly historical, which would have been fine by me had some other kind of structuring principles been at work. But given the show’s “survey” approach, one wonders why the benefits of chronology (its appearance of neutrality) were discarded at the outset.

It begins with three works by Richard Serra. Why not? Though they are a bit lost in the ground-floor space of the “rotunda,” it’s not a bad idea to start with works that were intended as critiques of what Serra has called “institutional abstract art,” and to question the very consistency of a generic term like “abstraction”—for these works are nothing but concrete, laying bare the very process of their formation as the site of their meaning (the precarious equilibrium of One Ton Prop [House of Cards], 1969, for example, highlights the very condition of gravity that Modernist sculpture had, on the whole, repressed). Then follows a large room with a group of Kandinskys and a reconstruction of Vladimir Tatlin’s tower of 1920. Again, why not? The Kandinskys are not all first-rate (one would have wished for more 1912 examples) and the Tatlin reconstruction is plain hideous (not to speak of its puny size in this enormous room with a cathedral ceiling: a bibelot hardly bringing to mind what was conceived as a Monument to the Third International). But at least there seems to be some opposition at play: the romantic artist wanting to express his Gefühl, conceiving his work as a seismograph of his soul (to which he wants us to gain some access), and the father of Constructivism, for whom such a display of “bourgeois” individualism was preposterous, and who thought of his art as a semaphore for the new collective society (it was Tatlin’s heirs, after all, who ousted Kandinsky from the Soviet institutions and sent him back to the capitalist West).

At this point, one is at a crossroads: either carrying high expectations (it’s hard to imagine a curator grouping Kandinsky and Tatlin without a purpose) or beginning to shiver (the rhetoric of the wall text can lead to pessimism: “The nonreferentiality of abstract art requires the viewer to plumb new emotional reservoirs in order to absorb and to be touched by it”).

Kasimir Malevich comes next, an appropriate move. But with the absence of any of the noncompositional masterpieces from the inaugural “0.10” show of 1915 (no Black Square, no Red Square, no Black Cross), and the choice of the mediocre Black Cross on Red Oval of 1927, one begins to wonder whether a case is being made for entirely dissociating Malevich from the long tradition of “analytic painting” that came out of his work. Again, why not? Malevich is contradictory enough, and there is more than one way to read his production. But then again, why not dot one’s i’s about one’s interpretation?

Let’s climb the Guggenheim ramp further. The pessimistic view begins to overwhelm; confidence drops at a fast pace. Before reaching the second large room, filled with pieces by Barnett Newman and Donald Judd, one stumbles upon a ridiculous Wyndham Lewis (among all the possibilities, giving room to this footnote of a footnote in the history of abstract art!), and an extremely tiny piece of embroidery by Sophie Taeuber-Arp and Jean Arp, a work that risks introducing the very confusion between decoration and abstraction that most abstract artists so dreaded (how easy it would have been to display instead one of Arp’s and Taeuber-Arp’s Duo-Collages, among the first modular grids in 20th-century art). The Newmans and Judds are well chosen (although a bit crammed together), and are curiously pitted against a late Franz Kline (another version of the Tatlin/Kandinsky pairing, perhaps?), but what is most striking in the room is the inclusion of Robert Rauschenberg’s 1951 White Painting. Were we supposed to understand that the Rauschenberg diptych represents a kind of middle ground between Newman’s zips and Judd’s serial ordering? Does it not matter that Rauschenberg’s early work was an attack against Abstract Expressionism? And can the association between Newman and Judd be made just like that, without qualifications? Does this total lack of attention given to the context in which these works arose, and the sheer formal comparison that seems to be proposed in its place, not amount to what Erwin Panofsky called “pseudomorphism” ? (The wall text, entitled “Looking at Abstract Art,” tends to indicate as much, since one can read, in a paragraph threading the tired comparison between abstract art and music, “We have no need to worry then about the meaning of an abstract work of art.”)

Sol LeWitt (who is not represented in the show) once said: “Comparisons have been made between Manzoni and Ryman because they both made white paintings; between Beuys and Morris because they both use felt . . . , and many others. Those that make such comparisons do not know the work of these artists and operate at the level of petty gossips. . . . It is a pathetically outgrown romantic notion that ‘real’ artists emerge fully formed, having no traceable antecedents.” If Rosenthal’s enterprise cannot be said to be at the level of “petty gossip,” I am afraid the exhibition gives the idea that he agrees with the notion LeWitt criticized.

I could go on and on. Some works are well chosen (it’s great to see Robert Delaunay’s Disc of 1913, even though it was a fluke), others seem to be included for no reason whatsoever (I commend Rosenthal for his inclusion of a late Jackson Pollock, but why his 1953 Ocean Greyness?), and still others were sore spots entirely (three dull mid-’70s Willem de Koonings next to three great earlier ones). Some work is well displayed, while other pieces are ridiculously punished (the gorgeous Eva Hesses are relegated to a tiny cubicle, while Richard Long’s pretentious wall paintings of blades of grass hold the lion’s share in the same room). Some artists are well represented (excellent samplings of Robert Ryman and Ellsworth Kelly, including a personal favorite, Painting for a White Wall of 1952), others less so, and others totally overrepresented (one Helen Frankenthaler—between Pollock and Mark Rothko, mind you!—is one too many, as far as I’m concerned). But that’s not the issue: the issue is that if one does not know the topic by heart in advance, one cannot make heads or tails of this “overview”—precisely because it is an overview. For, as Newman (again) would have said, a curator who wants to produce a survey is unable to “understand that each work of art produced its own unique sensation and requires a unique response.”

Granted, the problem is not easy. How does one convey to the public that, say, Rauschenberg’s White Painting, Kelly’s White Square of 1953, and Ryman’s Windsor 34 of 1966 are fundamentally different despite their striking similarity? The first task is to remove the obstacle and highlight their similarity (they are all “white” monochromes, they all emerged from a desire for noncompositionality); second, to stage the difference between the three (Rauschenberg’s work is a meditation on chance and emptiness, in Cagean terms; Kelly’s piece engages indexicality, his white square framed with a black border being the stencil of the pane of glass on the terrace of a Paris café; Ryman’s textured paintings offer a demonstration of their very process); finally, to provide a clue about what these works could mean. How does one do that? Why not through contextual comparisons? Show Rauschenberg’s work next to a Cage partition, for example, or Kelly’s by his Window, Museum of Modern Art, Paris, 1949, where the indexical mode of production is much more obvious, or Ryman’s next to a highly processual work by Serra (e.g., Casting, 1969).

Of course, this approach would mean that one ceases to consider “abstraction” as a mere style and accepts the fact that one must delve deeply into its highly diversified and complex universe of discourse. It would mean identifying the problem that has faced abstract artists right from the beginning (how to justify what one is doing once the representational task is removed, how to show that it makes sense and is not entirely arbitrary), and then determining the way in which the historical context qualified the different answers—which might in fact not be infinite. It would mean, in short, organizing the field of abstract art. This task is not impossible, I maintain.

This exhibition is a missed opportunity: not much to fret about, except that the subject may have been killed for quite a while in the public’s eye.