March 4, 2013  |  Learning and Engagement
Innovation and Collaboration in Inventing Abstraction and Beyond

Inventing Abstraction, 1910–1925, on view at MoMA through April 15, chronicles the early years of abstraction in Europe and the United States. At the core of the exhibition is the idea that abstraction was not the result of individual genius, but rather arose from and spread through an international network of artists hanging out, collaborating, and sharing ideas during the years before and after World War I. Inventing Abstraction greets visitors with an oversize chart tracing the known connections between the 84 artists represented in the exhibition. To map out these connections, MoMA curators paired up with Professor Paul Ingram and doctoral candidate Mitali Banerjee of the Columbia Business School. Ingram’s research focuses on the relationship between innovation and networks. Innovation is not the work of a single person, but rather a result of a diverse nexus of people working together to push boundaries.

One anecdote from Inventing Abstraction illustrates the collaborative spirit of the time. In July 1912, painter Francis Picabia took a road trip with the poet Guillaume Apollinaire and the composer Claude Debussy. After stopping at a tavern for a drink, the three friends continued on their journey, during which they “invented” abstraction, or so the story goes. While it may be impossible to pinpoint the birth of abstraction at this moment, Picabia’s tale demonstrates the importance of social networks in the story of abstraction

Collaboration and artist communities have played an essential role not just during the development of abstraction but throughout modern and contemporary art—a topic you can explore further on MoMA Learning. Emerging primarily in Europe during World War I, the Dada artists believed that working collaboratively was more important than creating a final product. Cabaret Voltaire, a small nightclub in Zurich, Switzerland, was a spot where many Dadaists met to socialize, experiment with new forms of performance, and discuss their work. Just a few years later (and with many overlapping members), the Surrealists enjoyed tapping into the subconscious by playing a game called the Exquisite Corpse. In this game, a participant jots images or words onto a sheet of paper, folds the paper to cover all but the end of their contribution, and passes it to the next player so that he or she may add something new. Interacting through games allowed the Surrealists to generate whimsical and thought-provoking creations. Abstract Expressionism, an art movement that emerged in the United States in the 1940s and 1950s, was also characterized by a close-knit group of artists. The community was centered in Lower Manhattan in New York City, where painters, sculptors, and writers held heated discussions at the Cedar Tavern and visited one another’s studios.

Developments in art, like any kind of innovation, never happen in isolation. By collaborating and engaging in discussion with their peers, artists continue to find new and inventive ways to share their ideas.