Geometric Abstract Art at MOMA


Nassau Weekly Article (10/10/85)

By Randy Schoenberg

New York’s Museum of Modern Art, in response to a tremendous gift from the Riklis Collection of the McCrory Corporation, has opened an ambitious exhibit entitled, Contrasts of Form: Geometric Abstract Art 1910-1980. The exhibit may be the most comprehensive showing ever of this most important artistic development of the twentieth century and is a must for any person even remotely interested in artistic expression.

The Riklis Collection was assembled by Celia Ascher with the support of Meshulam Riklis, chairman of the Rapid-America Corporation (parent company of the McCrory Corporation). The 249 art works, including paintings, drawings, sculptures, and collages, contain important works by well-known masters, as well as unexpected treasures by many artists who have not yet received public attention. The museum has also included numerous works from its own collection to complement the already exhaustive list of works donated by the McCrory Corporation.

The exhibit is separated into five chronological divisions:

Origins of the Nonobjective—Cubism, Futurism, Cubo-Futurism: 1910-1914.

This section would be more accurately described as Origins of Geometric Art. The Cubist works of Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, and Fernand Leger, as well as the early cubist and collage attempts of Kasimir Malevich, are objective works, depicting in fragmented angular planes a guitar, clarinet, ballet dancer, and collage materials. The Italian Futurist works of Giacomo Balla, the color abstractions of Robert Delauney, and a few works by Russian artists in the Rayonist style are more clearly abstract and nonobjective. The latter works reveal the diversity of expression that emerged with the emancipation of abstraction and “art for art’s sake,” while the former exemplify objective perception pushed to its furthest limits. Together they lead to the art form that is the focus of this exhibit. I was disappointed not to find a painting by Vasily Kandinsky in this section, as he is considered the founding father of abstraction. However, the studies by Malevich of cubist paintings were fascinating and extremely informative. If you’ve ever looked at a Picasso and wondered where the figure went, these illustrated examples by Malevich will help immeasurably. Also in this section is an early work by Piet Mondrian, a peek at the developments to come.

From Surface to Space—Suprematism, de Stijl, Russian Constructivism: 1915-1921.

            Malevich took off from where the cubists left off, and founded suprematism, which he believed was an expression of “absolute” art. Flat, two dimensional paintings consisting of purely geometric figures in solid colors, these works sought to free art from the constraints of cubism and futurism. The foremost example of the new style is Malevich’s Suprematist Composition: White on White; this masterpiece contains only a skewed off-white square on a pure white background.

Malevich and his Russian contemporaries continued in this vein until the revolution, when the urgency of the political and social upheaval necessitated a more socially conscious idiom. They developed a three-dimensional adaptation of Suprematism and called it “Constructivism.” The founder of this school was Vladimir Tatlin whose charcoal drawing, Counter-Relief, is made up of conic sections, rectangles and intersecting planes.

At the same time in Holland, Mondrian and Theo van Doesburg formed “de Stijl”, also intended to be an expression of “pure” art. Their works consist of rectangles and squares arranged without overlapping, and tend to be more grid-like and patterned than their Russian counterparts, reflecting an emphasis on architectural design. Here, as in the entire exhibit, works by lesser-known artists display the breadth of invention that accompanied the new forms of expression.

International Constructivism: 1922-1929.

            In the post-war years, de Stijl and Constructivism spread through Europe, sparking individual artists to direct their abstract works in a more geometric style. This section of the exhibit contains significant works by van Doesburg, Kandinsky, Paul Klee, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, Kurt Schwitters, El Lissitzky, Georges Vantangerloo, and Friedrich Vordemberge-Gildewart.

Kandinsky, Klee and Moholy-Nagy were members of the Bauhaus in Weimar, an artistic school founded by the architect Walter Gropius in 1919. The objective paintings of Oskar Schlemmer, also a member of the Bauhaus, is included in the exhibit in order to show the architectural influence of the new school.

Most interesting in this section is the reemergence of the early revolutionaries in the constructivist style. The futurist Balla and the cubist Leger both contributed to the development of the genre in this decade; Kandinsky and Klee had founded in 1911 the Munich-based Blue Rider group; and Schwitters and Mohaly-Nagy were involved in the Dali movement before attempting Constructivism.

The Paris-New York Connection: 1930-1959.

            The exhibit catalogue describes this period as one of synthesis rather than invention. “It is not a period of innovation or creation, of new philosophies, but rather a period of relaxation that blended earlier disciplines such as classic Cubism, de Stijl, Constructivism, the Bauhaus, the art of Mondrian and that of Kandinsky, as well as the biomorphic forms of Surrealism and the decorative aspects of Synthetic Cubism.”

Established artists such as Moholy-Nagy, Mondrian, Schwitters and Vantongerloo, are presented alongside other notables, Josef Albers, Hans Arp, Sophi Taeuber-Arp, Naum Gabo, Ben Nicholson, and some relative newcomers, including Charmion von Wiegand, Charles Biederman, Ilya Bolotowsky, Burgoyne Diller, and Jean Gorin. The effect is an overwhelming feeling that Constructivism, or Abstract Geometric Art, was the mode of expression of the times. In my opinion, this leads to a much better understanding of the works, and it certainly provides for enjoyable viewing.

As evidenced in the title, this period marks the entrance of American artists into the domain of modern Western art. The exhibit does not include any of the museum’s numerous works by the abstract expressionists who were also making their mark on the art world at this time. Instead, it maintains the focus on geometric abstract art, an area which was heretofore underrepresented in the museum collection.

Recent Nonfigurative Tendencies: 1960-1980.

This final section follows the genre through the last two decades, introducing major figures of the art world today. Josef Alber’s Homage to the Square: Silent Hall is perhaps the most significant piece, reminiscent of Malevich’s ground-breaking White on White. I think Al Held’s C-B-1 completed in 1978, stands out among the new works. Alfred Jensen, subject of the current exhibit at the Guggenheim Museum, is also represented here, as is Princeton’s own Frank Stella. (Incidentally, the current exhibit at the McCormick Art Museum of Stella’s paintings based on El Lissitzky’s Had Gadya would make an excellent introduction to the New York exhibit, for those unsure of what to expect.)

Minimalism is the most recent development in abstract geometric art and the exhibit is not without representatives of this style. These pieces don’t do anything for me. The concepts behind the works of Malevich and Albers are lost in the 36 square foot, all-white canvas of Robert Ryman. Agnes Martin and Ad Reinhart are equally unimpressive. However, Ad Dekkers’ From Square to Circle, with a white circle just barely too large to be inscribed in the white square underneath it, is inspired, as are Robert Mangold’s Distorted Circle within a Polygon I, and Ellsworth Kelly’s Two Panels: Yellow-Orange.

The patterned illusionistic pieces of artists like Richard Paul Lohse and Victor Vasarely show the abundance of new forms which the abstract geometric style allows, and move in a more productive direction than their minimalist counterparts. Sculptors such as Donald Judd, Sol LeWitt and Kenneth Martin each have works in the exhibition. Judging from them, it may be that sculpture provides the most opportunity for varied artistic expression in this style. Other pieces, such as Ludwig Sander’s yellow composition Tioga II, are reminiscent of the earlier works of Mondrian. It is clear from all of these works, that geometric abstract art is far from dead and will continue to be an important form of artistic expression.

This exhibit is extremely significant in terms of the scope and quality of the works presented. From Cubism to Minimalism, Geometric Abstract art is portrayed in amazing detail through the masterpieces of the artists so crucial to its development. As a complement to the Museum of Modern Art’s already incredible collection of modern masterpieces, the Riklis Collection is an extraordinary addition. The exhibit will be showing for three months, from October 7 to January 7. For goodness sake, take advantage of our proximity to New York and see this once-in-a-lifetime exhibit!


Letter to Editor by Amy Weisser in Response to Original Article.


To the Editor:

I applaud the decision by Nassau to review an art exhibition in New York. (Contrasts of Form: Geometric Abstract Art 1910-1980 at the Museum of Modern Art.) However, I question the reviewer’s appraisal of the show as “a must for any person even remotely interested in artistic expression” and a “once-in-a-lifetime exhibit!”

The review correctly states that the Riklis/McCrory donation includes a comprehensive range of artists; it is not true, however, that most of these artists are represented by important works. The majority of the exhibition’s “masterpieces” were from the Museum’s own collection, chosen by the curators to bolster the quality of the exhibition. The Riklis/McCrory collection will undoubtedly be more valuable within the Museum’s study collection that in future exhibitions. In addition, Constructivist art is not easily appreciated, and without prior knowledge, the exhibition could be more confusing than enlightening.

In short, I agree with the review’s suggestion that we should all “take advantage of our proximity to New York” and visit the MOMA, but I suggest that, for most of us, the time would be better spent viewing the Museum’s permanent Painting and Sculpture Collection, which is installed in chronological order and encourages comparisons of artists and trends, or the current exhibition of sketches of Loony Tune cartoons, just for the fun of them.

Bowen’s Policy of ‘No Policies’

Bowen’s Policy of ‘No Policies’

Nassau Weekly (10/3/85)

By Randy Schoenberg

In his speech at Opening Exercises, President Bowen discussed a state of mind that has become all too prevalent at this University and in the United States in general.  He believes that institutions should refrain from political actions and moral statements in order to facilitate a more “open” environment for discussion and research.  I question the ability of any institution to completely sever itself from the political and moral world and the desirability of doing so.

Who really benefits from such a system?  How can one change policies whose existence an administration denies?  And do “openness” and “freedom of discussion” merely cloak the hidden conservatism of a policy which maintains the status quo?  Bowen’s speech did not address these questions.

Bowen feels that an institution which maintains no official positions better facilitates open discussion and free argumentation.  “This reluctance [of universities to take institutional stands on issues],” he says, “has been viewed as a positive thing:  a direct demonstration of the institutions’ openness to all points of view.”  On the contrary, such non-involvement has the effect of stifling discussion.

Instead of being open to all ideas, the University as an institution is open to none, save those which already form University policy.  Few people will argue or speak out for their beliefs if they know that their speech has no hope of affecting University policy.  The consequence of Bowen’s program of institutional restraint is a lifeless and impotent ideological vacuum, void of new ideas.

Bowen also believes that “openness to conflicting viewpoints and free debate” necessitates an environment in which all ideas are respected equally.  But will an institution which is afraid to show a preference for one ideology over another, fearing that such an action will be seen as favoritism, ever resolve to change the status quo?

Bowen’s belief, that “given an opportunity, truth and right will eventually triumph over falsehood and wrong,” is naïve and, in conjunction with his opinion on restraint, self-defeating.  How can truth and right triumph if the University refuses to take a stand or reverse its existing policies?

In order to avoid these inevitable questions, Bowen attempts to justify inaction on the part of the University as an institution.  He refers to “the number of errors and even crimes that have been committed in the names of Truth and Conscience,” implying that acting on the belief in one’s understanding of Truth is dangerous.  This assertion does not address the potential harms of inaction, and instead relies upon blind faith in the “eventual triumph of truth.”

One cannot hope to counteract the wrongs and untruths of others without forthright action in accordance with one’s own beliefs.  On a societal or institutional level, this action is important, because conservatism will always maintain the status quo, no matter how unjust any given group of individuals believe it to be.  Any institution or society which chooses not to take a position one way or another commits a sin of omission as great as, if not greater than, the wrongful act itself.  Inaction makes future change more difficult.

Bowen’s policy is the ultimate form of conservatism.  If the University has no official policies, under the auspices of “openness” and “freedom of discussion,” it then removes the impetus for discussion—the opportunity to change or create University policies.

Is it possible for Princeton to have no “official” policies?  Evolution is taught by the Biology Department to the exclusion of Creation Theory; counseling on both birth control devices and abortions is offered at McCosh Health Center, and professors are encouraged to accept money for research related to the Strategic Defense Initiative.  Some would consider these “policies” more political than the University’s investment in companies which do business in South Africa.

The University cannot and should not shy away from such actions, nor should it fear that they may harm the integrity of the University as a free forum for discussion.  Institutional policies, and the uproar or approval they evoke, are an essential tool for social change and progress.

Bowen, in accordance with this role as the President of the corporation which is Princeton, states that “to be free, [an institution] must be solvent.”  Does this mean that the University will forget its commitment to institutional restraint, if and when money is at stake?  If so, this conflicts with Bowen’s claim that “[Princeton] is not for sale.”  At times, Princeton must act politically to protect its own monetary interests.  The University supports a large lobbying organization expressly for such purposes.

Will Princeton begin disinvestment from companies doing a large amount of business in South Africa?  The trustees and Bowen have said no.  But it seems likely that the violence in South Africa will cause stocks of those companies to fall.  If so, is it not fiscally wise to divest?  (Rutgers has cited economic instability as their foremost reason for divestment.)  Were Princeton to divest, it would be a purely monetary decision, having nothing to do with the political discussion going on within the University.

If, however, the University is willing to make essentially political decisions based on monetary considerations, is this truly an institution which can be said, under Bowen’s definition, to be “open to all points of view?”

Taking political stands may do more to encourage discussion than institutional restraint.  If the University were to act politically, there would be a reason to argue and discuss—the hope that such discussion would lead to a more consistent policy.  Bowen is reluctant to take an institutional position at all, or to acknowledge that such positions already exist.  What then, is the point of discussion?

It is not, as Bowen suggests, “the unrelenting, open-minded search for truth” which is “itself the highest value,” but the debate and discussion surrounding institutional action which leads to the ultimate truth and correctness of University policies.

Bowen’s image of Princeton, “at a slight angle to the world,” does not fit his speech.  In fact, he describes an amorphous, boundless enclosure, without an orientation with respect to the rest of the world.  An institution which stands at an angle to the world challenges the correctness of the standard orientation, attracts attention to itself, and perhaps signifies a defiance of accepted norms without completely rejecting them—this is the image which Princeton should project.

If Bowen’s speech suggests anything with its numerous allusions to past times when academic freedom was less prevalent, it is that we should be content with our present situation.  Conservatism is carefully hidden behind the façade of protecting academic freedom.  But if freedom of discussion is to have any value at all, it must be able to manifest itself in progressive actions which challenge existing inequities.  The University as an institution must be committed to education, to progress, and to the dissemination of new research and ideas which attempt to change society for the better.

One should not be so open-minded that one’s brains fall out.  If what we want is integrity, solvency, and academic freedom, we should support an institution which enables us to realize our hopes and dreams of a better society, not one which holds politically and morally progressive action in contempt.