Abstraction be damned: how art loses its shock value
But what happened about a century ago really was something new. The Newgrange spirals may be abstract, but they still refer to something real, probably the sun. Equally, the 19th-century landscapes are still responses to visual or emotional sensations experienced by the artist in the natural world. The new abstraction didn’t just cut this link but denied it altogether. Its radical gesture was to say, “This is it, folks: there’s nothing beyond what you see.”
This notion is so disturbing that the greatest painter of the era, Pablo Picasso, had already discovered it – and discarded it. The year before Kandinsky painted Impression III, Picasso made a series of small, strange, almost diagrammatic images that are undoubtedly abstract in the new sense.
But he shied away from them. To later abstract paintings he deliberately added a figurative element: a body part, a musical instrument, a fragment of a newspaper headline. “There is no abstract art,” he declared in 1935. “You must always start with something.”
And yet, once it had been declared, abstraction took over extraordinarily fast. In a matter of months, it was established in Germany (through Kandinsky’s Blue Rider group), France (Marcel Duchamp, Fernand Leger and Francis Picabia), the US (through Joseph Stella, the Armory exhibition in New York in 1913 and Georgia O’Keeffe), Italy (Filippo Tommaso Marinetti’s Futurists) and Russia (the great Vladimir Tatlin, whose astonishing model for a Monument to the Third International is one of the stars of the MoMA show). Perhaps no radical cultural idea has ever been assimilated and spread so quickly.
Just as remarkably, abstraction appealed both to the radical right (Marinetti and the British painter Wyndham Lewis) and to the radical left (Tatlin, Kazimir Malevich and Alexander Rodchenko).
Here, though, may be the irony of abstraction. It was too successful to retain its power to disturb and, in many cases, to delight. A slight air of disappointment hangs over the MoMA show: for all its wonders, too many of the once-astounding works can now be damned with that most terrible term of approbation: interesting. In the end, even the most abstract work does need what Picasso called “something” – some reference to a real or imagined, physical or spiritual world beyond itself.