The Flowchart and the Network: Changing Perspectives on the Birth of Abstraction

Elizabeth Berkowitz
Mar 20, 2013 1:33PM

In 1936, Alfred H. Barr, Jr., the first director of the Museum of Modern Art, crafted an exhibition that has shaped our understanding of European Modernism. With the threat of fascism rising across the Atlantic, Barr designed the exhibition, “Cubism and Abstract Art,” as one means of countering the persecution European avant-garde artists faced in their home countries. Barr had heard stories of German galleries and museums pillaged and shamed for supporting what, in 1937, became known as “Degenerate Art” in Hitler’s widely attended travelling exhibition. With Barr’s showcase of Picasso’s fragmented Cubist forms, Surrealism, Constructivism, and other experimental artists and movements, Barr’s 1936 exhibition testified to the freedoms of a democratic and cultured America, a country where such progressive artists, far from being persecuted, received accolades. Yet, “Cubism and Abstract” art did far more than act as a self-congratulatory display of American propaganda. Much less subtle, and much more poignant for the historiography of art history, is the way in which Barr conceived of abstraction, encapsulated by the seemingly innocuous flow chart on the front of the “Cubism and Abstract Art” catalogue. Far from merely clarifying the relationships among the exhibited artists and movements, the chart established the narrative which today defines not only modern art history textbooks, but also the organization of the Museum of Modern Art’s permanent collection. Barr’s chart catalogued an easy progression of “influence.” Beginning with French Post-Impressionism, Barr outlined artists’ swift absorption of formal lessons and progressive compositional fracturing from Cubism to Dadaism to Neoplasticism to Surrealism, Constructivism, modern architecture and the Bauhaus, with several steps in-between. Follow the trail of arrows among movements, and, on occasion, a few names, such as Picasso and Van Gogh, and one is led on a journey through the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-centuries’ gradual liberation of paint and line from the demands of mimesis, neatly arriving at a clear and logical destination with what Barr defined as abstraction’s two directions: “Geometrical” and “Non-Geometrical” abstraction.

Barr’s chart is a complicated interweaving of the political demands of a country close to involvement in another World War, the stakes of an American art institution taking charge of and ownership over a Euro-centric catalogue of modernist innovation, and Barr’s own inspiration in the formalist trajectories of art history created by British art critics Roger Fry and Clive Bell. But this chart does, of course, have limitations: art “movements” such as Orphism, for example, were inventions of critics or writers, collectivizations of artists such as Delaunay and Kupka based on visual affinity, rather than on each individual’s artistic motivations. Constructivism and Neoplasticism mark movements which endowed their sparse geometric forms with spiritual or political resonance: utopian movements which may have derived formal inspiration from European predecessors, but in their genesis endowed each painting with a goal of its own. And it also goes without saying that the neat supremacy of French art does little to scratch the surface of the complex international interrelationships defining early twentieth-century modernism.

In 2012, the Museum of Modern Art exhibition “Inventing Abstraction” presented a counterargument to Barr’s chart within the walls of the institution Barr helmed and shaped. Using the same color coding and graphic style as Barr’s 1936 design, “Inventing Abstraction” created a new chart, though instead of a flow chart of direct and easily categorized “influence,” MoMA curators crafted a chart of networks, linking not movements, but individuals across creative media to one another. Loosely grouped by geography, MoMA’s 2012 chart emphasized the early twentieth-century proponents of abstract or abstracted forms as individuals in a web of cross-discipline, cross-country collaboration and communication.

In today’s art historical landscape, scholarship which evaluates the network of individuals rather than the easy progression of “movements” is, and has been for some time, the operative conceptual model. However, Barr’s chart, while obsolete in many respects and highly problematic, must be taken in tandem with the current revision: while the actual relationships among the artists, musicians, writers, poets, and critics prior to World War II are better illustrated in a 2012 diagram of networks, the pull of art history’s history remains. The linear narrative of Barr’s organizational flow chart, while flawed, in some respects makes order out of the “chaos,” or at least “complication,” that actually was. Both charts have their uses in conceptualizing the twentieth-century avant-garde, and both must co-operate to tell the story of the competing motivations, social and political circumstances, and individual ambitions shaping what we now consider representatives of a monolithic title “abstraction.”

Elizabeth Berkowitz