Our Editor Theodora Clarke talks to Masha Chlenova about MoMA’s exhibition Inventing Abstraction: 1910-1925.
Masha Chlenova has been Curatorial Assistant in the Department of Painting and Sculpture at The Museum of Modern Art in New York since 2010, where she worked with Leah Dickerman on the exhibition Inventing Abstraction, 1910-1925. She previously worked as a research assistant at The Guggenheim Museum on Russia!, a major retrospective of Russian art in New York and Bilbao (2004-6). Chlenova received her first BA at Moscow Linguistic University in French and Linguistics and a second BA in art history at Columbia University, where she also received her PhD in 2010 with a dissertation entitled “On Display: Transformations of the Avant-Garde in Soviet Public Culture, 1928-33.”
Theodora Clarke: Why has MoMA decided now to do an exhibition focusing on abstract art?
Masha Chlenova: We conceived this exhibition as a celebration of a centenary since the birth of abstraction. 1912 is the year when a great number of abstract pictures began to be shown across Europe in public exhibitions. MoMA is a perfect place for this exhibition because it has the institutional history of being a place that has promoted abstraction from its founding as a museum of modern art in the 1930s. An important precedent for our show, and an exhibition that we have referred to throughout, is Alfred Barr’s Cubism and Abstract Art from 1936. Alfred Barr was the founding director and chief curator of the museum and he made that exhibition at a time when abstraction was under threat in Europe and Russia. He saw it first hand and in a way that exhibition, Cubism and Abstract Art, established MoMA as an institution that defends, promotes and explains this type of new art.
Abstraction is not a single movement by any means but it is a phenomenon; it was a new mode of artistic production in the early 20th century. What our exhibition does is acknowledge Alfred Barr, and his historic 1936 exhibition, but also it is a survey going back to the first fifteen years of abstraction’s establishment as a viable mode of artmaking in the West. The first abstract pictures were publicly exhibited about 1912 and throughout the nineteen-teens abstraction spread like wildfire across the media. By the early 1920s abstraction was established as the foundation of avant-garde practice; an international, radical and progressive language. What the show does is it maps this early history in conceptually varied clusters and in a historically specific and often visually stunning way.
TC: You have so many works in the show and such an extensive range of media, from paintings and drawings to books and stained glass. How difficult was it as a curator to bring together these many different artists and movements involved in abstraction?
MC: The exhibition has over 350 objects and they come from about 100 different museums, institutions and private collections across the world. There are over 80 artists exhibited. It’s an ambitious show! But all the effort that was put into it pays off now. It seems that the variety of our visitors, from the general public with no prior knowledge of abstraction to contemporary artists, are all engaged with the sheer radicality, the beauty and the boldness of these works that don’t seem dated. What we meant to do was to show the degree to which abstraction, from the beginning, comes from artists working across media and in collaboration. The exhibition is in part a story of these encounters.
TC: Tell me how you decided to organise the exhibition. Are the rooms arranged thematically or chronologically? What was your approach to hanging the show?
MC: The way that the exhibition was conceived was to map the first fifteen or so years of the history of abstraction. We conceived it through a series of small sections. These are not symmetrical; some of these are monographic. So Mondrian for instance has a room with a display of paintings showing his progression from Cubism to Neo-Plasticism. There are also thematic sections, for example ‘colour abstractions’, which shows very different modes of working from Matiushin’s colour dot paintings to Josef Albers Bauhaus grid made of glass. Those are united thematically through the subject. There are also sections of the show that explore specific events, such as the display of works by Kazimir Malevich at the famous 0,10. The Last Futurist Exhibition of Paintings held in Petrograd in 1915.
TC: Suprematism is a big component of the show. How important was this Russian movement in developing abstraction and what was Malevich’s role?
MC: Suprematism of course was a radical breakthrough. There had been abstract works around from 1911 and abstraction was already becoming a language (Kandinsky showed his first abstract picture in December 1911). But what Malevich did in 1915, with Suprematism and this stunning presentation of 39 works in one room, was to completely abandon reference to the outside world. What Suprematism did was to conceptually reject the need for painting, to imitate anything in the world outside the picture space. Malevich pinned a piece of paper onto the wall of the exhibition saying ‘supremacy of painting’. This is one way to translate and decipher Suprematism; as the supremacy of painting over the forms of nature. Painting suddenly is free, it doesn’t have to mimic anything visible, but it can create its own reality. This gives you a sense of the sheer scale, the sheer ambition of it. To Malevich the white background of the works was this infinite space of possibility, opened up once the horizon line was broken through. The hanging in our exhibition imitates 0,10 in the best possible way. It is a tribute to MoMA’s history of engagement with abstraction as an idea and an artistic practice, because many important collectors and museums have shared their treasures with us and given us their most cherished works. The wall of Malevichs that we have in the show is a unique phenomenon because we brought all of the extant ones documented in the well-known surviving installation photograph of the exhibition, with the exception of three works in Russia.
TC: Is this the first time since 1915 that they’ve actually been brought together in the same exhibition?
MC: There have been big retrospectives of Malevich’s works but I don’t know of specific recreations of this sort.
TC: In your essay in the exhibition catalogue you mention the icon corner and how Malevich’s Black Square was positioned in the original exhibition. Could you tell us a bit more about this?
MC: It is a historically well-known and very important fact that Malevich puts the Black Square, which he originally called Quadrilateral, across the corner of the Suprematist room. Originally when we conceived the exhibition we were dreaming of putting the works within a corner with the Black Square across it but the painting is at the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow and Russian government imposed an embargo on bringing artworks from their collections to the United States. In the end what we did was to put the paintings on a flat wall. It works successfully in the sense that it speaks to other sections of the exhibition, so you see the resonance, the relationship between this mode of abstraction and other abstract languages that were taking place at the same time in different countries.
TC: You also describe the rivalry between Malevich and Tatlin and how they were very secretive about their ideas and innovations. Can you tell us a bit more about the relationship between those two artists and their respective movements in Russia?
MC: I think this relationship goes to the core of Russian avant-garde and particularly how it is taught here in the West. Malevich and Tatlin are charismatic leaders and are often seen as founders of two movements that grow in different directions (Suprematism and Constructivism) because they were such rivals and consciously tried to oppose each other in what they were doing artistically. But what we have shown with the works in the exhibition is that these two figures were in dialogue; Tatlin also had a whole room of works at the 1915 exhibition. These were his ‘counter reliefs’, which we couldn’t bring from Russia because of the ban. We did bring an early work by Tatlin from Berlin, another assemblage of materials, and we also brought from the Pompidou a fantastic reconstruction of his famous Monument to the Third International.In the next room you turn a corner and it’s a tribute to abstraction’s unprecedented role in Russian society after the Revolution. It literally became the language of the new society in a way that has not happened before or since. We can see how Klucis, Popova, Lissitzky and Rodchenko, whose works are included in the show, respond to the models of abstraction proposed by Tatlin and Malevich. A lot of abstraction that happens in Russia in the late nineteen-tens and early nineteen-twenties is a product of both of these ways of making abstract art. This room is also a tribute to abstraction as public monument. For the first time Tatlin makes a monument that speaks in abstract language. Lissitzky makes proto-architectural paintings and Klucis makes these cosmological constructions. Abstraction takes a role it never had before.
TC: For the exhibition you have brought in a reconstruction of the Tatlin tower and placed it under a skylight. Is that deliberate?
MC: Well it was a soaring ambition and aspiration that one hadn’t seen before. You get a real sense that people respond to this at the exhibition. It shows the degree to which abstraction carried this sense of freedom. The great thing I find very revelatory about this moment in Russian history is summed up in a famous statement made by Tatlin. He said: ‘what we did in 1915 in the arts is what the Revolution accomplished in 1917 in society’. These artists really felt that the breakthrough they made in art in the early nineteen-teens, when Russian society was already brewing very strongly politically, captured that moment. Abstraction carried that sense of political and social freedom and possibility. It’s a fantastic thing that these artists could implement this in society; Tatlin could be the head of the Plan for Monumental Propaganda that Lenin instituted and Lissitzky could have the influence that he had. In Vitebsk Malevich made his ‘architectons’ and architectural drawings in which you can really see how abstraction became this kind of language for a mode of existence, which then brings it very much into three dimensions and real life.
TC: You have a number of works by Kandinsky placed alongside musical scores and recordings by Schoenberg. Could you explain the importance of music to his painting and talk about the role he played in the history of abstraction?
MC: Something I haven’t mentioned yet, is one of the key theses of the exhibition which is that abstraction can be articulated and can spread like wild fire because of the network; the connections and meetings between artists. Ideas, artists and pictures all travelled a lot more and faster than we usually realize, and this exchange played an essential role in enabling such a radical transformation in the mode of artistic production as abstraction was. Kandinsky’s book Concerning the Spiritual in Art is probably one of the most influential treatises that theorises abstraction. This is something we are very keen on articulating. Kandinsky could theorise abstraction but he couldn’t paint a picture yet and his encounter with Schoenberg in early 1911 and their close exchange of ideas and inspiration is one of the many connection stories that are also the bedrock of the show. These stories of how artists met, how they talked about abstraction and how they supported each other – the Schoenberg/Kandinsky encounter is one of these very important moments. Kandinsky meets Franz Marc in the wake of New Year’s and on January 2, 1911 they go to a Schoenberg concert together and are absolutely mesmerised. Kandinsky, an uptight Russian lawyer who studied art in Germany writes almost a love letter to this Austrian composer and says ‘I’m sorry, I don’t know you but I can’t help writing to you, as I am extremely impressed by what you’re doing in music by abandoning functional harmony. What you’re doing in music is exactly what I’m trying to do in the visual arts’. They have an intense correspondence in early 1911 and this exchange becomes a very strong boost for each of their activity in music and in painting respectively.What we also show with Kandinsky is his invention of abstraction across media. He wrote poems, which he illustrated in the famous book Klӓnge, he made theatre productions about colour and edited an almanach. He also translated Schoenberg’s musical theory into Russian in 1911. Kandinsky was instrumental in inviting Schoenberg to come to Russia and there is a famous photo of the composer in St Petersburg in a fur coat in 1912. This is one example of exchanges of ideas between people and Kandinsky was absolutely essential. Marcel Duchamp, as it turns out, was in Munich in 1912 and he would have read Kandinsky’s treatise. Even though he wasn’t into the spiritual aspects of Kandinsky’s theories, he still took his realisation of abstraction seriously. So Kandinsky was a key figure in the history of abstraction.
We have made a network diagram that maps these connections and meetings between artists that took place. This diagram is a tip of the hat to Alfred Barr’s famous diagram from 1936. We used the same colours and fonts to say ‘here’s MoMA with a different kind of diagram’ and it looks a lot like Facebook. Kandinsky is one of the key connecting figures because he met the most number of people and had been to the most places. To make the diagram we collaborated with business analysts from Columbia University Business School who analyse social networks. It is a growing field now, to analyze how the number of people one knows affects one’s level of success and influence.
TC: All of these figures seem to be so interconnected. They all know each other whether they are based in Munich, Paris, New York or Moscow. In this exhibition you have a huge number of nationalities and artists but how important would you say was the Russian contribution to abstraction?
MC: It was absolutely important, there is no question. There are roughly two modes that Russian abstraction has existed in. One is the early nineteen-teens; this mode of exchange when Russian artists would go to Paris and do their own thing in Russia. We have Larionov and Goncharova’s Rayist paintings, which are an early mode of abstraction that is a tribute to contemporary technology such as x-rays and radiology. They were very aware of this and very up to date with the latest developments of the age. We are showing a painting by Larionov that was his gift to Apollinaire; here we have part of this process of abstraction in Europe. Then the next moment is the 0,10 exhibition. We have this strong room, which shows the unique and extremely inspiring mode of abstraction that existed in the Soviet Union in the first years after the Revolution. There is no other place where something like the Tatlin monument could be made. The effect you get by putting these works side by side is to see how they stand up against the best abstract works made during the same years in Europe and the United States.
TC: What is your favourite work in the exhibition?
MC: There are all these hidden little things in the show that are not so easy to see right away but only when you are as immersed in the material as I have been over the last couple of years. There are some objects that have this amazing aura. One of these is a catalogue of Robert Delaunay’s paintings. He had an exhibition of his window paintings at the Der Sturm Gallery in Berlin in early 1913 and it’s one of the earliest catalogues to have colour reproductions. Here Apollinaire published a poem, Windows, written about Robert Delaunay’s paintings, and prefaced it with a beautiful dedication to the artist. This dedication is a tribute to Light as the source of human existence and sensory experience of the world. Delaunay famously claimed in 1912 that Light was the primary subject of his painting. In the copy of the catalogue that we borrowed from a collector in Switzerland, Delaunay reciprocated with a hand-written dedication to Apollinaire; a tribute to his poetry. He talks about the way that Apollinaire’s poetic language captures our psyche and suffuses us with the vibration of modernity. This little object shows how deeply in sync were these two figures who played a fundamental role in the invention of abstraction in the West, and that their shared sensibility carried a very important weight and entirely bypassed the distinction between the respective medium each was working in. The other object is Apollinaire’s volume called Case d’Armons, which means a little cubby or compartment inside an artillery carriage where soldiers would put their personal belongings. This volume he published when he was a soldier in the war in 1915 and he published 25 copies manually using this artillery duplicating machine. Fewer than 25 exist and we brought one of the copies to the show. Apollinaire made them from the trenches and he sent them to his closest people. The copy we have is the one he sent to his fiancée with a dedication to her. We’ve digitised the book as it’s very fragile. These are little things that you notice when you spend more time looking at the exhibition.
TC: You mentioned Robert Delaunay. One of my favourite works is his wife Sonia Delaunay’s Prose of the Trans-Siberian. I think that work is extraordinary in how it presents simultaneously words and images. Can you tell us about a bit about Sonia Delaunay and her contribution to abstraction?
MC: This is one of my favourite sections of the exhibition. We built a section around this poem and in a way we really built out the poem. We brought together a printed copy of the poem (the one that used to belong to Apollinaire) and a painting that Sonia made when she was designing her half of the book. This painting she kept in her bedroom until very late in her life. We are also showing the working maquette that she and the poet Blaise Cendrars used and that has handwritten inscriptions to the printer directing the stencil and colour; you really see the poem in development. We also have a little speaker where you can hear a recording of the poem made in 1949. It is recorded in poetmontage – a montage of poetry and jazz. This recording plays above the poem. It’s the only recording that Cendrars heard and approved of. You hear the poem, you see the book and you see the final production. There are a number of women artists in the show and Sonia is one of the very inspiring figures and one of the key connectors. I would recommend taking a look at our Tumblr. We created a blog for the exhibition where we’re putting up daily posts with nuggets of information, anecdotes and stories behind and about the objects. The exhibition website also has jazz/poem recording. We’ve tried to make it available to people round the world.
TC: Finally, how influential was Alfred Barr in the story of Russian art in America?
MC: Alfred Barr was in Russia in 1928 and he wrote diaries of the time he spent there. He went looking for abstract painting which was no longer around by the time he got there. Of course he met Tretyakov, he saw theatre and other modes of production but he didn’t find any abstract painting. In the early 1930s, when he was preparing Cubism and Abstract Art, Barr conceived the exhibition across the media which was a model way of thinking. He was working with a close colleague, Jay Leyda, who was in Russia at the time studying with Eisenstein and asked Rodchenko and Tatlin for their abstract works. It’s a very interesting history and Alfred Barr acquired many of the works of the Russian avant-garde in conjunction with this exhibition. MoMA was one of the first institutions in the US to collect Russian abstract art. Of course there was also the Guggenheim and Catherine Dreier, but Alfred Barr and the people he attracted had this very strong penchant for the Russian avant-garde. MoMA has this history and an amazing collection of Russian avant-garde works in a variety of media. Our exhibition offers a perfect historical and conceptual context for bringing some of the strongest works of early Russian abstraction into focus. Looking at Malevich, Lissitzky and Kruchenykh alongside Delaunay, Mondrian and Apollinaire makes it amply clear that their works from this period truly stand on a par with the best achievements of early 20th century modernism.
Inventing Abstraction, 1910–1925
December 23, 2012–April 15, 2013
In 1912, in several European cities, a handful of artists—Vasily Kandinsky, Frantisek Kupka, Francis Picabia, and Robert Delaunay—presented the first abstract pictures to the public. Inventing Abstraction, 1910–1925 celebrates the centennial of this bold new type of artwork, tracing the development of abstraction as it moved through a network of modern artists, from Marsden Hartley and Marcel Duchamp to Piet Mondrian and Kazimir Malevich, sweeping across nations and across media. The exhibition brings together many of the most influential works in abstraction’s early history and covers a wide range of artistic production, including paintings, drawings, books, sculptures, films, photographs, sound poems, atonal music, and non-narrative dance, to draw a cross-media portrait of these watershed years.
Please note that during Member Early Viewing Hours, this exhibition is not open to the general public until 10:30 a.m.
Organized by Leah Dickerman, Curator, with Masha Chlenova, Curatorial Assistant, Department of Painting and Sculpture.