Stunning abstractions Art Review: Show at New York's Guggenheim hits the highlights of the most potent movement in 20th-century art.

February 18, 1996|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,SUN ART CRITIC

You can argue endlessly over abstract art -- over why it came about, whether it was a good or a bad development in the history of art, whether it's soulless or reflects man's highest aspirations and ideals, whether it's a dead end, whether it's dead. What you can't do is deny its status as the most central and potent movement in 20th century art.

Similarly, you can argue with a lot of things about "Abstraction in the Twentieth Century," the museum-filling show that just opened at the Guggenheim in New York. You can complain, with justification, that it leaves out the origins; that it shows abstraction in a vacuum as if it were totally divorced from everything else going on in the art of this century; that it over-includes some artists and leaves out others who ought to be included (five paintings by Yves Klein and none by Hans Hofmann or Morris Louis?); that it has nothing new to say on the subject.

But you can't deny that it's a stunning show that hits the highlights and in the process gives us much beauty, from the cool perfection of Mondrian's geometries to the anguished grandeur of Rothko's pulsing colors to the whispered subtleties of Robert Ryman's exquisite whites.

Nor can you argue with where it's shown: For all its difficulties as a place for showing art (especially big art), Frank Lloyd Wright's Guggenheim is itself a symphony of abstract forms, with its circular floor motifs, its continuous spiral ramp and its lozenge-like columns. And this museum, previously named the Museum of Non-Objective Art, was championing abstract art as early as the 1930s.

The person behind this show is Mark Rosenthal, formerly of the Philadelphia Museum and the Guggenheim, and now curator of 20th century art at Washington's National Gallery. In his introduction to the show's catalog, he freely acknowledges that no single project on such a vast subject could be exhaustive and states that he has settled for "a selective history, with an effort at delineating the basic terrain of this still-developing subject."

And that's just what we get. If Rosenthal doesn't in the process rewrite the history of abstraction from a new point of view, he does present it in a basically chronological way that's easy to follow -- one that will give viewers a handle on the subject.

If this show does nothing more than make abstraction attractive to a larger audience, it will have been more than worthwhile. It's a subject that scares many off who think one must know a lot of theoretical background in order to be able to enjoy the art. The same people have no trouble enjoying impressionism with little or no knowledge of the theory underpinning it. Abstraction, too, can be accessible, and this show offers enough information to make it so.

Impressionist origins

At the Guggenheim one is plunged directly into early abstraction with a selection of paintings by Kandinsky, but in the more expansive catalog Rosenthal does discuss its origins.

He goes back to the impressionists and post-impressionists, who began to break down the idea that things should be shown as they are and to substitute more subjective perceptions of reality. Gauguin went so far as to write, "Art is an abstraction" as early as 1888. "Derive this abstraction from nature while dreaming before it."

With cubism, Picasso and Braque took a long step toward abstraction by breaking down the object and depicting it from more than one point of view. But they never took the final step.

That was for a trio of artists working in the early 1910s -- the Russian Vasily Kandinsky in Germany, Kasimir Malevich in Russia and the Dutch painter Piet Mondrian in Paris. At almost the same historical moment, 1911-1915, Rosenthal's three "pioneers" reached the point of non-representational painting.

It would be easy to call the occurrence of abstract art in the early 20th century a purely art historical phenomenon, merely one more logical step in a progression that had been going on for half a century. But art -- even abstract art -- is seldom so divorced from the world around it. It may be that increasing industrialism made the modern world an uglier, less attractive subject. It may be that increasing interest in psychological states made it necessary to express the aphysical as well as the physical realms of human existence. It may be that in a world growing more secular, artists were reaching for a way to express beliefs that could no longer be visualized in traditional ways.

It is certainly true that Rosenthal's pioneers, and many abstract artists who followed them, felt they were reaching for an ideal -- a higher truth, a greater harmony, even a social good.

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