Throughout the run of Inventing Abstraction, 1910–1925 (December 23, 2012–April 15, 2013) we invited contemporary artists to pick a work and say briefly what they find most compelling about it. In these interviews I was struck by how passionately the artists expressed their strong affinities with specific works from 100 years ago, sometimes tied to deeply personal histories, sometimes discovered suddenly in a public space. These conversations reveal just how formative early abstract practices have been for artists working in a broad range of media today.
Wolfgang Laib, who had just finished installing his luminous Pollen from Hazelnut in MoMA’s Marron Atrium, shared the story of his first encounter with Malevich’s Suprematist canvases: as a boy in Germany in the 1950s, he saw them in the house of the architect Hugo Haering (to whom Malevich entrusted them in 1927) who pulled the rolled up canvases from under his bed.
Amy Sillman spoke about her discovery of Aleksei Kruchenykh’s 1916 book of transrational poems and collages entitled Universal War at a museum exhibition in Cologne. With acute insight, Sillman picked up the most significant and influential aspects of Kruchenykh’s artistic and poetic practice and articulated them with a vertiginous forcefulness: “He took language as a picture, picture as a language, word as a symbol, symbol as an idea, an idea as a form, form as a shape, shape as a joke, and joke as a picture.”
Other artists were excited about the application of paint, use of color, and brushwork in the works of their choice—Gabriel Orozco on Augusto Giacometti’s Chromatic Fantasy of 1914 and Frank Stella on Kazimir Malevich’s Suprematist Composition: White on White of 1918—revealing a fascination with how things were made that curators and historians often forget.
For some of our guests, the social and political ambitions of these early abstract artists was what mattered the most—for Josiah McElheny Tatlin’s model for a Monument to the Third International offered an “alternative present,” and for R.H. Quaytman, Katarzina Kobro’s sculptural practice aimed to transform the social fabric of life.
Having practicing artists single out particular aspects of artistic projects from 100 years ago added new meanings to the experience of the exhibition. Their responses showed again and again in how many ways these early abstract works remain vibrant and relevant.
You can enjoy these interviews on the exhibition’s website and tumblr. The latter also contains a wealth of information about individual works in the exhibition, stories of connections between the artists, and a genealogy of art historical charts leading up to the network diagram we created for Inventing Abstraction. On April 15 we concluded a series of daily posts on the tumblr, which has reached over 25,000 followers. Along with the catalogue and the website, the tumblr will remain a resource for the exhibition.