NYC Immersion Roundup : "Inventing Abstraction" at the MoMA

Review: The recent exhibition "Inventing Abstraction" at the Museum of Modern Art foreshadows the tumult of World War II.

Inventing Abstraction 1910-1925,” currently at the Museum of Modern Art, leaves discussion on abstract art incomplete by ending its exhibition eight years before the demise of the Weimar Republic. It addresses the genre’s ascension and zenith without understanding the collapse of the 20th century’s would-be new social order.

The exhibit commences with a ceiling-high wall showing a social network diagram for over sixty abstract artists. Pablo Picasso’s paintings appear first in a large but winding corridor behind the wall. Although MoMA arranges the works chronologically, the immediacy of his art in the exhibit feels inevitable given the artist’s significance and MoMA’s need to accommodate its broad range of visitors. Well-known artists such as Vasily Kandinsky and Robert Delaunay appear to have more prominent placement in their temporally assigned physical space than their less prolific colleagues. 

This visual art exhibit. which includes paintings, sculpture, physical models and video projections of recorded choreography, meaningfully puts artists in conversation with their contemporaries despite the museum’s need to acclimate visitors. The juxtaposition between artists is most powerful at two opposing walls displaying paintings by the Russian Kazimir Malevich and Marsden Hartley, an American who lived in Germany. 

Both artists incorporate the German Iron Cross, in Malevich’s “Black Cruciform Planes” and Hartley’s “Berlin Abstraction.”  Hartley’s work is colorful and a celebration of life in Germany whereas Malevich strips his geometric works of any recognizable forms. 

Malevich’s suprematism – expression based on shape and color rather than content – anticipates the politicization of those forms in totalitarian regimes. Red banners and black swastikas signified superiority over pink triangles and yellow stars in Nazi Germany during the 1930s and 1940s. This section of the walkthrough foreshadows the subsequent decades and distorts the remaining works by provoking imagery of an ill-fated continent. 

MoMA may have chosen to focus on the beginnings of an artistic movement, but it’s distracting to omit what came next.

The exhibition is on display until April 15. For more information, visit or call (212) 708-9400.

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