Sharing a World of Ideas
It was at a Munich New Year's Eve party, ringing in 1911, that Russian-born painter Vasily Kandinsky met the German Expressionist Franz Marc, fourteen years his junior. The two struck an instant friendship, and by June 1911, they organized a split from the prevailing modern art group in Munich to form the Blaue Reiter (Blue Rider), an association of international avant-garde artists dedicated to exhibiting and publishing a more "spiritual" art. In December of that year, the group held their inaugural exhibition in Munich, where Kandinsky exhibited his Komposition V, a radical, subject-less painting. Later that month, he publishes a treatise on modern life and painting, Concerning the Spiritual in Art. The text is short, but Kandinsky had been working on it for years, unable to truly conceive of a "pure" work of art -- one that doesn't reference reality in any way. It's only after collaborating with Marc in organizing the Blaue Reiter exhibition and editing Der Blaue Reiter Almanac (first published in May 1912) that Kandinsky's exuberantly colored and actively lyrical paintings, which increasingly look less and less like things, fully embrace the plasticity of color, form, line, and perspective on their own terms. Kandinsky and Marc struggled to find a term for this new style of painting, but, eventually, it's known throughout the world as abstraction.
"For we know that our world of ideas is not a house of cards to be played in, but that it contains elements of a movement whose vibrations can be felt today throughout the world," writes Marc in his essay "Spiritual Treasures," published in the Almanac.
The "vibrations" of the Blaue Reiter artists, and Kandinsky in particular, were indeed felt throughout all of Europe, eventually reaching Russia and the United States with forceful velocity. In the wake of Komposition V and Picasso's Cubism, which didn't quite dispense with subject matter, avant-garde artist such as Robert Delaunay and Sophia Delaunay-Terk, Francis Picabia, František Kupka, Arthur Dove, and Vanessa Bell made paintings that played with color, line, and form as much as perspective, illusion, media, and mobility. Together, these artists formed groups such as Zero-Ten in Russia, the Bloomsbury Group in London, and the Stieglitz Circle in New York that, much like the Blaue Reiter, wrote and published substantial volumes of writing -- poetry, criticism, articles, zealously stanch treatises -- that elucidated their ideas on this new kind of art. These publications attempted and succeeded at crossing borders between cultures, nations, genres, and, seemingly, time, to spread the idea of abstraction. Journals like Der Blaue Reiter would prove instrumental in revolutionizing every mode of Western expression (dance, literature, music as well as visual art) as only the Renaissance had done before.
However, despite its infinite influence on art and culture throughout the twentieth century, art historians have largely misunderstood abstraction's spontaneous generation and global pollination. Usually understood through myths that celebrate the individual (think a lonely artist-genius painstakingly experimenting with paint in a cold, dimly-light studio), abstraction as an idea was pushed into the avant-garde limelight as soon as it appeared on the global stage in late 1911. In her latest curatorial project, the exhibition Inventing Abstraction, 1910-1925 Leah Dickerman, of the Department of Painting and Sculpture at The Museum of Modern Art, probes the origins of abstraction as an idea to suggest that the movement was produced under the aegis of artist and writers intensely networked via the proliferation of small presses.
"Indeed, there is something else misleading about speaking of the invention of abstraction through stories of solitary protagonists... abstraction was incubated, with a momentum that builds up and accelerates, through a relay of ideas and acts among a nexus of players, those who make these artistic gestures and those who recognize and proclaim their significance to a broader audience," writes Dickerman in the catalogue that accompanies Inventing Abstraction. Dickerman's essay, which is buoyed by thirty-six in-depth studies on topics that she raises, is a gratifyingly comprehensive intellectual history that considers science, technology, psychology, and phenomenology as much as it does traditional art history. Inventing Abstraction is an erudite page-turner of a whodunit, tracing the inventor of abstraction not to a single hero, but to a cast of characters united in their search for an art that portrayed the ineffable.
In first conceiving of their project, Dickerman and MoMA curatorial assistant Masha Chlenova charted the connections between the artists and writers instrumental in nurturing and celebrating abstraction in its infancy. The resulting diagram is included in the catalogue's front endpapers and, with linking vectors to people who knew and collaborated together, it demonstrates the hyper-connectivity of small press editors, writers, and artists. No individual was more connected than critic Guillaume Apollinaire, who Dickerman describes as playing the Malcolm Gladwell "connector" role of the abstract movement. Apollinaire published his first pieces of art criticism in 1910 and established his own review, Les Soirées de Paris, in 1912. A poet, Apollinaire was the first to name abstraction, cumbersomely terming it "Orphism," after the Greek god Orpheus. Other terms sprung up where abstraction was embraced, and in her essay, Dickerman explains the origins of the term "abstraction" in modern thought and art. All the strains of abstract painting, such as Rayonism and Suprematism from Russia, Vorticism in England, De Stijl or Neo-Plasticism in Germany, are explored in the many succinct essays that complement Dickerman's. These studies investigate the challenges of abstraction unique to place or populace, and cumulatively mimic how abstraction was explored on the pages of particular small journals by progenitors working in divergent, but associated, conceits and motifs. "Abstract pictures rarely if ever existed in isolation; rather, many words circulated within their orbit -- titles, manifestos, statements of principle, performative declamations, discursive catalogues, explanatory lectures, and critical writing by allies," explains Dickerman. "The makers of abstract pictures and their allies did not let them stand alone, but sent them out into the world accompanied by a torrent of words."
Thus, suggests Inventing Abstraction, the most radical shift in Western art-making since the Renaissance was not only not the work of inward, world-weary artists who happened to all simultaneously regress into their psyches for subject matter at the start of the twentieth century. Abstraction is the work of many singular artists who had the savvy to employ modern communication to greatest capacity -- individuals who knew when to work together, and when to share their ideas with the world. Inventing Abstraction is my favorite kind of art history, as it encyclopedically draws from all strands of thought to understand artistic practice. Dickerman and the catalogue's contributors leave no aspect of early modern life and painting untouched in Inventing Abstraction, and it's delightfully punctuated by plates of archival material and paintings that illustrate abstraction's progression from 1911 onward. It's also fascinating to read in light of Susan Cain's Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking, which describes the emergence of extroversion as the dominant desirable personality trait, beginning in the early twentieth century. Kandinsky and Apollinaire may have been highly connected through their outgoing quest for writers, pictures and ideas for their journals, but they were also able to work in solitude, and strove to make their pictures and periodicals accessible to the public. With refreshing antidotes to varieties of contemporary abstract painting that are indulgently self-reflexive and inwardly-focused, Inventing Abstraction ultimately tells the story of human awareness and connection, the story of friends supporting and critiquing each other's ideas, as Kandinsky and Marc did for each other one hundred years ago.