Abstraction was about relationships. In a sense, that’s the theme of the major exhibition coming this winter to the Museum of Modern Art, “Inventing Abstraction, 1910-1925.” It chronicles a moment when figures across the United States and Eastern and Western Europe—not only visual artists but poets, musicians, dancers, filmmakers, and more—participated, collectively, in the “greatest rewriting of rules of artistic production since the Renaissance,” producing a radical new modern language.
Just how to visualize this collective creativity provided a challenge for curator Leah Dickerman, who organized the show with curatorial assistant Masha Chlenova. Dickerman found the answer in a cross-disciplinary collaboration of her own. At the Center for Curatorial Leadership, a program that teaches art historians skills in management and administration, Dickerman met Paul Ingram, a Columbia Business School professor who specializes in network analysis. Dickerman’s team worked with Ingram’s student Mitali Banerjee to plot the name of each artist in the show on an Excel spreadsheet. Then they started mapping the connections. “We were asking ourselves, does so-and-so know so-and-so,” Dickerman says.
As they added lines linking friends and collaborators, their map became a cross-section of what their social network would have looked like—as if Facebook or LinkedIn had existed a century ago. The map, which will be reproduced on the endpapers of the exhibition catalogue, will appear on a special website with links illuminating how the artists knew each other.
Ingram has started using the diagram when teaching networks to MBAs and executives. He explains that the quality of “between-ness” in the network—being on multiple paths between others—is associated with creativity. According to this measure, he says, Kandinsky is the most central figure in MoMA’s history of abstraction.
The idea of charting the history of modernism is almost as old as modernism itself. In 1919 Francis Picabia envisioned the Dada movement as a kind of mechanical alarm clock, depicting interconnections among the protagonists as electromagnetic waves. Miguel Covarrubias told the story in a Tree of Modern Art he created for Vanity Fair in 1933. Nathaniel Pousette-Dart followed in 1938 with his “A Tree Chart of Contemporary American Art”; later came Ad Reinhardt’s snarky “How to Look at Modern Art in America,” made in 1946 and updated in our pages in 1961. Then there’s George Maciunas’s delirious diagram of Fluxus.
But the most influential of these is the chart conceived by Alfred H. Barr Jr., founding director of MoMA, in the mid ’30s. The museum owns six permutations of the chart, which appeared on the dust jacket of the catalogue for the landmark 1936 exhibition “Cubism and Abstract Art.” In a concluding, reductive flourish, the chart ends with only two categories: non-geometrical abstract art and geometrical abstract art.
The Writing on the Wall
At 77 years old, Barr’s chart continues to be not only a model, but also a template and a challenge. So when New York-based writer and curator Daniel Feral was co-organizing a history of street art and graffiti for Pantheon Projects last year, he decided to make a new flowchart adapting Barr’s original medium to his own message.
Beginning in 1940, right after Barr left off, Feral pushes classic avant-garde movements to the side. At center are Pop art, graffiti, and street art, surrounded by close relatives like punk, hip hop, and Colab. New art demands new terminology, and as time marches forward Feral adds new genres to the lexicon. These terms (coined by Feral and his colleagues) include Outsider-Graff (more idiosyncratic and unschooled than classic graffiti), cyber-graff, and, finally, Tackers (a mix of tagger, attacker, and hacker who use “aesthetic-based tactics to break down the system”).
Just as Barr did, Feral keeps tinkering with his chart. His most recent one, released last week, adds more permutations of urban-art styles, principally Graffuturism, a descendant of Wildstyle in which artists dispense with letter forms to create hybrid styles derived from graffiti, street art and fine art.
Chart as Art
Ward Shelley renders cultural movements not so much as family trees but as elaborate living organisms. At his exhibition earlier this year at Pierogi gallery, the Brooklyn-based artist chronicled the genesis of science fiction, the concept of the teenager, and the 4,000-year history of the Jewish people, among other themes, in intricate, convoluted diagrams that that owe as much to strategies of contemporary data visualization as they do to illuminated manuscripts.
The evolution of art itself is one of Shelley’s main obsessions. He has made paintings that explore the history of the Fluxus movement, of the work of feminist pioneer Carolee Schneemann, and of the avant-garde itself. Shelley has updated Barr’s chart repeatedly. Here’s a version from 2009:
Below: a detail from the center of the chart, around the time covered in the upcoming MoMA show.
Below: a detail from the far right, as the chart approaches the present moment. The bubble in the upper right corner says, “Pluralism.”
Below: A detail from Shelley’s Who Invented the Avant Garde (2009).
Below: Feminist pioneer Carolee Schneemann materializes on her own chart, looking like a constellation in one of those old maps of the night sky.