February 23, 2013
Hal Foster in At MOMA in the London Review of Books reviews early 20th century modernist abstraction in the For Inventing Abstraction, 1910-25 exhibition curated by Leah Dickerman.
Though the exhibition is strictly European (including Russia and Britain) it does includes sculpture, photography and film, even though it runs heavy on painting. Foster adds that is okay since the modernist project of ‘purity’ – of an art freed from both resemblance to the world and function within it – privileged painting.
Foster says that Dickerman revises Alfred Barr dramatically, but not when it comes to the affirmation of abstraction, understood in the traditional sense of marking the demise of painting in its traditional form and its opening to the practices of the century to come.
Dickerman insists on its fundamental break with the old model of the perspectival picture, with its metaphor of a window onto a world, its sublimation of the materiality of the painting, its assertion of ‘the primacy of the visual’, its assumption of ‘a discarnate gaze’ and so on. This is true enough: for some artists, such as Aleksandr Rodchenko, abstraction did put paid to the project of representation.
However, abstraction might be understood in large part as the sublation of representation, that is, as its simultaneous negation and preservation. Thus, even as abstractionists like Kandinsky, Malevich and Mondrian cancelled any resemblance to reality, they also affirmed an ontology of the real; even as they rejected painting as a picture of the epiphenomenal world, they insisted on painting as an analogue of a noumenal world: appearance was sacrificed at the altar of transcendence. So the demise of painting in its traditional form was not total.
Foster adds that we often think of abstraction as a withdrawal from the modern world, almost a safehouse for art, but the converse is just as true: the modern world of the mass-produced commodity became too abstract to represent in the old ways.