You can argue endlessly over abstract art -- over why it came about, whether it was a good or a bad development in the history of art, whether it's soulless or reflects man's highest aspirations and ideals, whether it's a dead end, whether it's dead. What you can't do is deny its status as the most central and potent movement in 20th century art.
Similarly, you can argue with a lot of things about "Abstraction in the Twentieth Century," the museum-filling show that just opened at the Guggenheim in New York. You can complain, with justification, that it leaves out the origins; that it shows abstraction in a vacuum as if it were totally divorced from everything else going on in the art of this century; that it over-includes some artists and leaves out others who ought to be included (five paintings by Yves Klein and none by Hans Hofmann or Morris Louis?); that it has nothing new to say on the subject.
But you can't deny that it's a stunning show that hits the highlights and in the process gives us much beauty, from the cool perfection of Mondrian's geometries to the anguished grandeur of Rothko's pulsing colors to the whispered subtleties of Robert Ryman's exquisite whites.
Nor can you argue with where it's shown: For all its difficulties as a place for showing art (especially big art), Frank Lloyd Wright's Guggenheim is itself a symphony of abstract forms, with its circular floor motifs, its continuous spiral ramp and its lozenge-like columns. And this museum, previously named the Museum of Non-Objective Art, was championing abstract art as early as the 1930s.
The person behind this show is Mark Rosenthal, formerly of the Philadelphia Museum and the Guggenheim, and now curator of 20th century art at Washington's National Gallery. In his introduction to the show's catalog, he freely acknowledges that no single project on such a vast subject could be exhaustive and states that he has settled for "a selective history, with an effort at delineating the basic terrain of this still-developing subject."
And that's just what we get. If Rosenthal doesn't in the process rewrite the history of abstraction from a new point of view, he does present it in a basically chronological way that's easy to follow -- one that will give viewers a handle on the subject.
If this show does nothing more than make abstraction attractive to a larger audience, it will have been more than worthwhile. It's a subject that scares many off who think one must know a lot of theoretical background in order to be able to enjoy the art. The same people have no trouble enjoying impressionism with little or no knowledge of the theory underpinning it. Abstraction, too, can be accessible, and this show offers enough information to make it so.
At the Guggenheim one is plunged directly into early abstraction with a selection of paintings by Kandinsky, but in the more expansive catalog Rosenthal does discuss its origins.
He goes back to the impressionists and post-impressionists, who began to break down the idea that things should be shown as they are and to substitute more subjective perceptions of reality. Gauguin went so far as to write, "Art is an abstraction" as early as 1888. "Derive this abstraction from nature while dreaming before it."
With cubism, Picasso and Braque took a long step toward abstraction by breaking down the object and depicting it from more than one point of view. But they never took the final step.
That was for a trio of artists working in the early 1910s -- the Russian Vasily Kandinsky in Germany, Kasimir Malevich in Russia and the Dutch painter Piet Mondrian in Paris. At almost the same historical moment, 1911-1915, Rosenthal's three "pioneers" reached the point of non-representational painting.
It would be easy to call the occurrence of abstract art in the early 20th century a purely art historical phenomenon, merely one more logical step in a progression that had been going on for half a century. But art -- even abstract art -- is seldom so divorced from the world around it. It may be that increasing industrialism made the modern world an uglier, less attractive subject. It may be that increasing interest in psychological states made it necessary to express the aphysical as well as the physical realms of human existence. It may be that in a world growing more secular, artists were reaching for a way to express beliefs that could no longer be visualized in traditional ways.
It is certainly true that Rosenthal's pioneers, and many abstract artists who followed them, felt they were reaching for an ideal -- a higher truth, a greater harmony, even a social good.
The Russian constructivists, such as Vladimir Tatlin, believed, in the wake of the Russian Revolution, that art should serve social purposes, and took to making their works from industrial materials in order to champion the triumph of a new order. Stalinist-imposed socialist realism became the official art of the Soviet Union, but constructivism has been highly influential in the history of abstract art.
In Western Europe, abstraction took a different and somewhat opposite direction as the surrealists, such as Joan Miro, explored inner states of the human mind in works populated with organic shapes.
So far, the story of abstraction has been entirely European. But with the rise of Nazism and the outbreak of World War II many artists fled to America, bringing their ideas with them. Building on the ideas of the surrealists and others, a younger generation of American artists created a grand new style of abstraction, heroic in scale and intention, and in the process made America the center of the art world.
Loosely joined under the banner of abstract expressionism were such diverse artists as the gestural painters Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning and much cooler artists such as Barnett Newman and Ad Reinhardt, with the great sensual canvases of Mark Rothko somewhere in between.
It would be simplistic to say that abstract art reached a high point with these artists, but that is exactly the impression the show, probably unintentionally, leaves. Perhaps because the Guggenheim building came into being in the 1950s, at precisely the height of abstract expressionism, it fits their works better than those of any other artists in the show.
After this point, Rosenthal largely eschews one possible direction and embraces another. He includes one of the stained canvases of Helen Frankenthaler, which greatly influenced later painters such as Morris Louis and Kenneth Noland; but Rosenthal does not take us down that road. Rather, he opts for the direction of Frank Stella and the minimalists such as Donald Judd and Carl Andre, and ends with what he terms the post-minimalist generation, including Eva Hesse and Martin Puryear. The creamy, light-filled canvases of Gerhard Richter provide another high point near the culmination of this exhibit.
The physical layout of the Guggenheim, with a series of rectangular galleries at intervals off the main spiral, results in some chronological hiccups and interesting if unusual juxtapositions. We encounter Judd before the rest of the minimalists and Clyfford Still after his fellow abstract expressionists. Aggressively gestural de Koonings share a room with quietly obsessive Agnes Martins.
But despite such detours, there is nothing confusing about this show, which is presented with admirable clarity and just enough in the way of wall texts and similar didactics. And aside from being carried along in the flow of the main story line, viewers will encounter interesting sidelights from time to time.
It is well-known that Alexander Calder, creator of the mobile, was inspired by Mondrian. Here, three of his mobiles are hung with the surrealists and constructivists, where they look right at home and reveal the complexity of the influences at work on these delightful, seemingly simple works. And those who think Ad Reinhardt invented the all-one-color painting at the time of the abstract expressionists will be interested to see Malevich's "White on White" of 1918.
One could ask for more, but on the whole the show is well-chosen and well-put-together. Its fault is that, for those who know something of the subject, it's not exciting. One has less of a sense of discovery than of re-traveling familiar and even friendly territory. But friends are comfortable. This is a show to be enjoyed.
What: "Abstraction in the Twentieth Century: Total Risk, Freedom, Discipline"
Where: The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, 1071 Fifth Ave. at 88th Street, New York
When: 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sundays through Wednesdays, 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, through May 12
Admission: $8 adults, $5 seniors and students, free for children under 12
Call: (212) 423-3500