Lyubov Popova. Zhivopisnaia Arkhitektonika (Painterly Architectonic). 1917. Oil on canvas, 31 1/2 x 38 5/8″ (80 x 98 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Philip Johnson Fund.

Vasily Kandinsky. Spring (plate, folio 51) from Klänge (Sounds). 1911, published 1913. Woodcut from an illustrated book with 56 woodcuts, page: (28.1 x 27.7 cm). Publisher: R. Piper & Co., Munich. Edition: 300. The Museum of Modern Art. The Louis E. Stern Collection.

How Abstraction Came into Being at the Outset of the 20th Century

Morgan Russell. Synchromy in Orange: To Form. 1913-1914. Oil on canvas, 342.9 x 308.6 cm. Collection Albright-Knox Art Gallery Buffalo, New York, Gift of Seymour H. Knox, Jr., 1958.

László Moholy-Nagy. Photogram. 1923. Gelatin silver print, 6 15/16 x 9 5/16″ (17.7 x 23.7 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Given anonymously.

László Moholy-Nagy. Nickelplastik (Nickel Construction). 1921. Nickel plated iron, welded, 35.9 x 17.5 x 23.8 cm. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of Mrs. Sibyl Moholy-Nagy.


Museum of Modern Art
21 West 53 Street
New York
The Joan and Preston Robert Tisch Exhibition Gallery, sixth floor
Inventing Abstraction, 1910-1925
December 23, 2012-April 15, 2013

Inventing Abstraction, 1910-1925, explores the advent of abstraction as both a historical idea and an emergent artistic practice. Commemorating the centennial of the moment at which a series of artists “invented” abstraction, the exhibition is a sweeping survey of more than 400 artworks in a broad range of mediums — including paintings, drawings, prints, books, sculptures, films, photographs, recordings, and dance pieces — that represent a radical moment when the rules of art making were fundamentally transformed. Half of the works in the exhibition, many of which have rarely been seen in the United States, come from major international public and private collectors. The exhibition is organized by Leah Dickerman, Curator, Department of Painting and Sculpture, The Museum of Modern Art.

A key premise of the exhibition is abstraction’s role as a cross-media practice from the start. This notion is illustrated through an exploration of the productive relationships between artists, composers, dancers, and poets in establishing a new modern language for the arts. Inventing Abstraction brings together works from a wide range of artistic mediums to draw a rich portrait of the watershed moment in which traditional art was wholly reinvented.

Roughly 100 years ago, a series of rapid shifts took place in the cultural sphere that in the end amounted to the greatest rewriting of the rules of artistic production since the Renaissance. Invented not just once, but by different artists in different locales with different philosophical foundations, abstraction was quickly embraced by a post-Cubist generation of artists as the language of the modern.

One of the first pictures in the exhibition, Woman with a Mandolin, made by Pablo Picasso (Spanish, 1881-1973) in 1910, shows how he approached the brink of abstraction before turning away. Beginning in December 1911 and across the course of 1912, a handful of artists, including Vasily Kandinsky (Russian, 1886-1944), Robert Delaunay (French, 1885-1941), and Frantisek Kupka (Czech, 1871-1957), presented the first abstract works in public exhibition. Inventing Abstraction surveys the early history of abstraction from this pioneering moment through the mid-1920s, when it was broadly embraced by the avant-garde.

The exhibition takes a transnational perspective, and includes work by artists from across Eastern and Western Europe and the United States, such as Hans Arp (German/French, 1886-1966), Fernand Léger (French, 1881-1955), El Lissitzky (Russian, 1890-1941), Kazimir Malevich (Russian, 1879-1935), Piet Mondrian (Dutch, 1872-1944), and many others.

From the start, abstraction was an international phenomenon, with ideas, images, and people traveling across borders through a new modern media and exhibition culture. Its pioneers were far more closely linked than is generally known. Highlights in Inventing Abstraction include Kandinsky’s Composition V, his most ambitious early abstract work; an important sequence of Mondrian paintings that traces the development of his work from his famous Tree pictures of 1912 to a group of superb early Neo-Plastic paintings; works by Malevich documented in his display at the landmark 0.10 exhibition in Petrograd in 1915; a group of early rare works by avant-garde artists Katarzina Kobro (Polish, 1898-1951) and W?adys?aw Strzeminski (Polish, 1893-1952), calligramme poems by Guillaume Apollinaire (French, 1880-1918), dance notations by Rudolf von Laban (Hungarian, 1879–1958) and musical scores by Arnold Schoenberg (Austrian, 1874-1951).

Georges Vantongerloo. Construction des rapports de volume émanant du carré inscrit et le carré circonscrit d’un cercle (Construction of Volumetric Interrelationships Derived from the Inscribed Square and the Square Circumscribed by a Circle). 1924. Cast cement with paint. 30 x 25.5 x 25 cm. Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Venice.

Kazimir Malevich. Zhivopisnyi realizm mal’chika s rantsem-krasochnye massy v 4-m izmerenii. (Painterly Realism of a Boy with a Knapsack Color Masses in the Fourth Dimension). 1915. Oil on canvas, 71.1 x 44.5 cm. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. 1935 Acquisition confirmed in 1999 by agreement with the Estate of Kazimir Malevich and made possible with funds from the Mrs. John Hay Whitney Bequest (by exchange).

Giacomo Balla. Velocità astratta + rumore (Abstract Speed + Sound). 1913 1914. Oil on board, 20 1/16 x 28 5/8” (50.5 x 72.8 cm); including the artist’s original painted frame: 21 1/2 x 30 1/8″ (54.5 x 76.5 cm). Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Venice.

Vaslaw Nijinsky. Untitled. (Arcs and Segments: Planes), 1918-19. 28 x 37 cm, Crayon and pencil on paper. Stiftung John Neumeier.


Gino Severini. Danseuse (Dancer). 1913-1914. India ink, pastel, watercolor, and tempera on cardboard, (62 x 47.5 cm. Private Collection.