In one series of drawings we can watch a cow transform -- almost cinematically -- from recognizable bovine into a purely abstract construction of lines and rectangular planes. Distilled into the essential forms and dynamics of its architecture, the animal completely disappears.
The series was created by Dutch artist Theo van Doesburg, and comes midway through the Museum of Modern Art’s mammoth exhibition “Inventing Abstraction, 1910-1925,” which opens to the public on Dec. 23.
Also on view: Robert Delaunay’s beautiful, transformative paintings of “Windows” (1912), in which the French artist, looking toward the Eiffel Tower, dispensed altogether with perspectival illusionism. Dividing his rectangle into a flat, translucent grid of vibrant, layered movements and counter- movements, he dissolved Renaissance-old notions of near and far, here and there, three-dimensional space and linear time.
Alongside Robert’s paintings is a rare, lavish grouping of Sonia Delaunay’s revolutionary advances in abstract painting and graphic design. These include the first abstract book covers and the original oil and watercolor studies for “Prose of the Trans-Siberian and of Little Joan of France” by Blaise Cendrars.
Nearby is Kandinsky’s landscape “Impression III” (1911), the Russian painter’s visual response to Arnold Schoenberg’s music, piped into MoMA’s galleries. Kandinsky’s landscape is awash in encroaching flat fields of yellow and black. Pure sensations are expressed by pure colors.
In the same gallery is Kandinsky’s large masterpiece “Composition V,” a landscape-based abstraction in which whiplashing line and untethered color are set free from recognizable objects.
These pioneering works are the focus of MoMA’s global exhibition celebrating the centennial of abstraction’s birth. The show comprises more than 350 works, including paintings, drawings, prints, books, sculptures, films, photographs, recordings, musical scores and dance pieces.
The show is crowded and muddled, notable for its problematic inclusions and glaring omissions. Whole sections are devoted to Cubist artists such as Fernand Leger and Cubist movements such as Futurism, as well as to the Dadaist Duchamp and to the blown-up, semi-abstract sexualized flowers of Georgia O’Keeffe.
The Kandinskys are diluted by the mediocre work of Czech painter Frantisek Kupka, who, it turns out, was neck-and-neck with Kandinsky, Malevich and the Delaunays in the race toward abstract art.
Unthinkably, Paul Klee, the most profound, influential, poetically rigorous and mercurial abstractionist of the period, is left out completely. This is like mounting a comprehensive show about the Italian Renaissance and leaving out Leonardo.
There are high points here, such as a wall of paintings by Malevich, a collection of works by Jean Arp and Sophie Taeuber- Arp, the jewel box Delaunay installation and the reconstruction of Vladimir Tatlin’s large, rotating model for “Monument to the Third International.”
“Inventing Abstraction” has plenty of variety and scope to keep viewers engaged during repeat visits. But this is also its Achilles’ heel.
The interdisciplinary exhibition seems more concerned with demonstrating abstraction’s diversity and cross-pollination than establishing the lasting genius of its founders.
It operates more in the margins than at the heart of its subject.
(Lance Esplund is U.S. art critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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